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5 Feminist TV Characters — Old and New — You Should Be Watching

Daria Morgendorffer. Image via Gwendal Uguen on Flickr
Daria Morgendorffer. Image via Gwendal Uguen on Flickr

Feminist television characters have often been depicted as unreasonable and annoying. They’re used as the butt of the joke, perpetuating the tired “man-hating” and “feminists are funny” stereotypes. Still, there are a number of dynamic characters that embody feminist ideals. Below are five of our favorite characters, spanning the decades. Whether you remember some of these shows fondly or you were too young when they aired, they’re worth revisiting, streaming online, or tuning into today.

1. Clair Huxtable, The Cosby Show
Aired: 1984-1992
Where to watch: Hulu Plus, YouTube, DVD

Clair is a woman who “has it all:” five children, a beautiful home, a supportive husband and a successful career as a lawyer. And while the popular ’80s sitcom avoids confronting race and other relevant issues, gender equality is never off limits.

In the first season’s ninth episode, “How Ugly Is He?,” Clair confronts her daughter’s date when he asks why she doesn’t stay at home with her children. Her husband, Cliff, makes plenty of money to support the family, the boy explains. Without missing a beat, Clair responds, “That is a sexist statement, young man. Why didn’t you ask Dr. Huxtable the same question?”

Polite and poised Clair is always quick to put her daughters’ sexist boyfriends in their place. But she’s not unsympathetic; they simply don’t know any better. When Cliff disapproves of his daughter Sondra’s new boyfriend, Elvin, and says he prefers Daryl, who has more advanced views of women, Clair assures him: “There is a little bit of Daryl and Elvin in every man. See, you started out an Elvin and changed to a Daryl.”

2. Roseanne Conner, Roseanne
Aired: 1988-1997
Where to watch: YouTube, DVD

Roseanne doesn’t struggle to have it all, she just wants to have enough. The mother of three works a series of menial jobs while her husband bounces between construction contracts. The family isn’t perfect but they manage to have fun together, with Roseanne helping to hold everything together. And even when she’s constantly insulting her husband — in a playful, humorous way — it’s clear they respect and love each other and that their marriage is a partnership.

While Roseanne wants to make her husband happy, she’s not about “pleasing your man.” In season one’s first episode, she mocks the perfume saleswoman who asks, “You know what the fastest way to a man’s heart is?” Roseanne’s reply: “Yeah, through his chest.”

The sitcom gets somewhat dark at points and deals with issues such as birth control, PMS and infidelity. Roseanne’s strong presence seems to pull everything together: she’s independent, funny and opinionated — yet flawed.

It’s also worth noting that she wasn’t the typical tiny body type favored by most shows. She was the average American mom. The show was groundbreaking and refreshing in many ways.

3. Daria Morgendorffer, Daria 
Aired: 1997-2002
Where to watch: Hulu, Amazon Prime, DVD

While the rest of her classmates dramatically prioritize popularity and sex, Daria shrugs off her status as an outcast and Lawndale High’s biggest “brain.” “I don’t have low self-esteem,” she says. “I have low esteem for everyone else.” This brilliantly sarcastic, un-sexy cartoon character has little patience for shallowness and immaturity.

In the first season’s second episode, when approached with the cheesy pickup line, “Where have you girls been all our lives?,” Daria replies with her typical deadpan humor: “Waiting here for you. We were born in this room, we grew up in this room, and we thought we would die here … alone. But now you’ve arrived, and our lives can truly begin.”

Daria never openly identifies as feminist, but in an interview for Dazed Digital — titled “Why this generation needs a Daria” — creator Glenn Eichler says he would “absolutely” consider her to be one. “She thinks she’s as good as anyone else and should be treated as well as anyone else,” he explains. “And she doesn’t think she should be subservient to anyone.”

4. Leslie Knope, Parks and Recreation
Aired: 2000-Present
Where to watch: Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus

Leslie is the insanely hard working, optimistic and lovable deputy director of a parks and recreation department of a small town in Indiana. The show is full of wonderful scenes where Leslie proudly waves her feminist flag.

In season two’s fourth episode, as a judge for the Miss Pawnee Beauty Pageant, she makes her own scorecard that rates contestants on “knowledge of herstory” (women’s history) and “the Naomi Wolf Factor.” Her office walls are covered in photographs of female politicians. And in season four, when she discovers that the Pawnee Rangers scout group won’t let girls join, she makes her own group, the Pawnee Goddesses.

Feminism is clearly important to Leslie, but it’s not her character’s defining quality. More importantly, it’s never the butt of the joke. Her comedy stems from her overenthusiasm, whether it’s about spreadsheets, waffles or female friendships. Feminism is simply a part of who she is.

5. Tina Belcher: Bob’s Burgers
Aired: 2011-Present
Where to watch: Netflix, Hulu Plus

Tina Belcher is the awkward, nerdy 12-year-old and a popular favorite of the Fox cartoon Bob’s Burgers. She’s not the typical teenage girl: her interests include zombies and writing “erotic friend fiction.”

Most notable, she’s incredibly open about her sexuality. She’s painfully shy with boys but she doesn’t let that stop her from telling someone they have a cute butt. While she’s filled with anxiety, she navigates puberty without shame. In the second season’s first episode, she declares, “I’m a smart, strong sensual woman,” and decides she doesn’t need to act vulnerable to attract boys’ attention.

In a Reddit AMA (or “Ask Me Anything,” an online forum where celebrities can answer users’ questions), Tina’s voice actor, Dan Mintz, was asked how he felt when Daniel, a character from the show’s proof of concept, was rewritten as Tina. Mintz said once he realized they weren’t recasting him, “I was excited because I knew it would be such a more interesting character.”