Three Women On Making Gen Z’s Favorite TV Shows Empowering

by Stephanie Ironson

Gen Z isn’t looking for feminist TV shows — they don’t have to. The entertainment landscape has come a long way since bloggers started using the Bechdel Test to determine whether a film was feminist or not. Graphic novelist Alison Bechdel first wrote about the test in the '80s, and all a project has to do to pass is feature at least two women in speaking roles who talk to each other about anything but men. The test took off as a blunt tool for criticism in the 2000s, when TV’s most woman-centric show, Sex and the City, was all about men and when showrunners Amy Sherman-Palladino and Shonda Rhimes were just coming up. Today, there are so many TV shows with strong female leads that there’s an entire Netflix category devoted to them.

But does having a woman showrunner or lead character alone make a series empowering? To find out, Elite Daily polled 2,000 Bustle Digital Group readers ages 15-22 about their favorite shows. While 88% of readers said they aren’t actively seeking out feminist shows, they had strong — and surprising — opinions about which of their favorites are feminist. The Bachelorette, Jane the Virgin, and Grey’s Anatomy emerged as clear standouts.

Asked what makes a TV show feminist, one reader says that the series must “promote equality and challenge oppressing societal norms.” The cast of The Bachelorette is 99% male; Jane the Virgin is structured as a telenovela, a genre in which female leads are traditionally submissive and, well, virginal; and while Grey’s Anatomy has a reputation for inclusion, today’s 15-year-olds were newborns when it premiered. So Elite Daily spoke to the women behind these series to get to the bottom of why a generation that is hesitant to identify as “feminist” finds them empowering.

The Bachelorette Doesn’t Need A Man

The Bachelor franchise, on its face, doesn’t seem to champion female empowerment. Women have given up legal and tech careers to be contestants on the show. They wear full faces of makeup and freshly curled hair to go on skydiving dates. Their exes call them out for having sex during so-called “fantasy suite” dates, and their love interests ask their fathers for permission to propose.

Yet 47% of readers think The Bachelorette is feminist (compared to just 6% who think The Bachelor is). To be sure, the one woman on the show is in a position of power. It’s satisfying to watch the Bachelorette send home 29 men with indistinguishable jawlines. But she does so in order to figure out which aspiring male model will put a Neil Lane sparkler on her finger, and there’s something disempowering about that — or at least there was, until the most recent Bachelorette, Hannah Brown.

Brown set a powerful tone starting from night one, when she learned a contestant reportedly had a girlfriend back home and sent him packing. She took a firm stand again when another contestant tried to shame her for having sex before marriage. Brown went on to break off her engagement to the “winner” of her season, who admitted to going on the show “for the wrong reasons,” and followed that up by publicly asking out the runner-up on live TV. “I wouldn’t allow [the producers] not to let my voice be heard,” she tells Elite Daily.

Brown’s “happily ever after” came in the form of embracing independence, rather than finding a husband. “Not that I did it perfectly, but I stood up for myself,” she says. “I know I’m still young, but I wish I would’ve had these aha moments or stood up for myself sooner.” She thinks her season made producers recognize that viewers want to see the lead follow her gut — even if that means walking away from the show’s traditional happy ending.

“I really do hope that [The Bachelorette] continues to change from being a show that sets women back … to being a show that could really resonate with women in a way that is positive and powerful.”

Jane The Virgin Isn’t Afraid To Be A "Very Feminist Show"

Women in traditional telenovelas define themselves in relation to the leading man: They’re either damsels in distress or hypersexual villains competing for his affection. Jane the Virgin set out to subvert such stereotypes, according to Jennie Snyder Urman, its executive producer, showrunner, and creator. “It was always intended to be a very feminist show,” Snyder Urman tells Elite Daily. The plot may ride on an accidental artificial insemination and the resulting love triangle between Jane Villanueva (Gina Rodriguez), her first love, and her son’s father, but Snyder says the show “was always pitched as a love story between three generations of women.”

To that end, Jane the Virgin, which ended its run in July 2019, focuses just as much on the ups and downs of Jane’s relationships with her mother, Xo, and grandmother, Alba, as it does on her love triangle. Urman adds that it was vital that “if Jane had a romantic storyline, she would also have a professional storyline.” Viewers watch Jane progress from bringing her crying newborn to classes for her master’s degree in creative writing, to writing a manuscript while figuring out which preschool is right for her son. She goes on to work a job at a publishing company and ultimately fulfills her dream of publishing a romance novel.

Still, viewers see Jane breaking up and making up with either Michael or Rafael more often than they see her crack open her laptop to write. This is brought to the forefront in an episode where Jane’s grad school adviser introduces her to the Bechdel Test, sending Jane scrambling to give the women in the story she’s drafting some dimension. “Nobody’s perfect, and watching [Jane] become aware of different forces that work in her writing was important, and also educating the audience a little bit about why it’s important to not have a female character only talking about a boy she likes,” Urman explains.

Urman says it was important for the show to pass the Bechdel Test, but it can’t have been a cakewalk to accomplish with a main character who’s so preoccupied with romantic love. The show’s writers wink at this via the telenovela-style narrator: “OK, Bechdel Test, take two. Jeez, this thing is tough.” Jane the Virgin’s feminism is deliberate without taking itself too seriously — no wonder it speaks to Gen Z.

Grey’s Anatomy Lifts Women Up, On And Off-Screen

Female empowerment on Grey’s Anatomy begins behind the camera. The long-running medical drama has boasted a staff of women producers, directors, writers, and researchers since 2005. Creator Shonda Rhimes also encouraged actors to step up to direct. So far, Chandra Wilson (Dr. Miranda Bailey) has directed 21 episodes; Debbie Allen (Dr. Catherine Fox) has directed 23; and the show’s star, Ellen Pompeo (Dr. Meredith Grey), has directed two. That culture of empowerment on set shines through the writing of the show, according to our readers.

Camilla Luddington, who’s played Dr. Jo Karev on the show since 2012, tells Elite Daily she had only worked with a woman director once before Grey’s Anatomy. “When you do start to look around, you start to see, 'Oh, there’s women in the sound department, there’s women behind the camera.' You step onto other sets and you don’t see it,” she says. “This should be normal, and that’s what great about Grey’s Anatomy as a workplace.” (Rhimes also took steps to ensure a harassment-free workplace years before the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements gained steam in Hollywood: In 2007, Isaiah Washington was reportedly fired from the show for using a anti-gay slur on set.)

It’s thanks to that workplace that Grey’s Anatomy “consistently shows women accepting each other, strengthening each other,” as one reader put it. The surgeons excel together in a cutthroat, male-dominated field, working their way up from lowly surgical interns to residents, fellows, and even chief of general surgery. On their way to the top of the hospital hierarchy, they have meaty storylines in which they sleep with colleagues and their interns; have abortions; marry, then divorce; have children, then call each other out for letting their surgical skills slip as they navigate motherhood. These characters are well-intentioned but imperfect, and they — and Gen Z — embrace each other as such.

Graphics by Victoria Warnken and Kelsey Cadenas