TV shows don’t need to tell women what we are capable of – we already know.
If you haven’t been paying attention, then you might have missed that SyFy – yes, the same channel bringing us Sharknado 4 — has gone all-in on inventive scripted genre shows this year. I realized the other day that of the rookie shows I’ve watched this season that I’ve loved the most, three of them are SyFy series (one is obviously Wynonna Earp, hence this article; the other two are The Expanse and The Magicians). Who’d have guessed, right?
Of the three aforementioned shows, the latter two have already wrapped for the season but Wynonna Earp is currently airing, with four episodes left to go. If you’re not watching it, you need to remedy this and catch up – because it’s quietly been one of the best new shows of the season, if not one of the best shows out there, period. And it’s built itself upon something we’ve sorely needed on television for a while now: casual feminism.
At least, that’s what I call it. And this is my article, so I guess you’ll just have to roll with it. What is “casual feminism?” To understand what it is, you have to understand how norm-breaking women are viewed, both in fiction and in reality.
Kameron Hurley wrote an excellent article in Bitch Media this week, a defense of “unlikable” female characters, and Wynonna falls under that category if you consider damaged but well-rounded to be “unlikable” simply because she’s a female character. She makes no apologies for her rough edges, though she absolutely knows she’s a fuck-up. But she’s a fuck-up who is trying very, very hard not to be one, to get over the horrific trauma of her childhood and move past the fallout.
What’s notable, and something we haven’t really seen from a female character on television, is that it’s not Wynonna who is holding herself back. Instead, it’s the small-minded townspeople of Purgatory, who still view her through the lens of her wild teenage delinquent days and actively hold it against her. She’s done a lot of soul-searching in the time between leaving Purgatory and coming back and she’s a different person, a better one. But the townspeople have painted her into a box; they won’t let her be who she actually is, only who they believe her capable of being.
It parallels the reality of so many women: Forced to break through walls erected by society in order to achieve or embrace things not normally assigned to the female gender, especially when it comes to vices. God forbid you ever get labeled with the “bad girl” tag, because it will stick with you for the rest of your life, no matter how hard you scrub. Anyone who grew up in a small town, as I did, can tell you that “She’s not a nice girl” is passive-aggressive code for “She’s a slut/bitch/whore” – pick whatever backwoods, knuckle-dragging slander you’d like. It all amounts to the same thing: That girl is “acting out” in ways that the people don’t find appropriate – for a female, that is.
In Wynonna’s case, she casually kicks gender norms to the curb without a second thought: A woman isn’t supposed to revel in violence. A woman isn’t supposed to have casual sexual relationships. For that matter, a woman isn’t supposed to have sex with a man and then turn him down the next time he propositions her because she just doesn’t feel like it. A woman isn’t supposed to drink men under the table. A woman isn’t supposed to be foul-mouthed. A woman isn’t supposed to not give a fuck what people think of her. And a woman definitely isn’t supposed to refuse to conform to the role society has assigned her, especially a small town society.
Her sister, Waverly, just as easily slips into her role as LGBTQ avatar as she navigates her way through breaking up with her idiot boyfriend then realizing she’s developed feelings for another woman. But there are no lazy, wink-and-a-nod-jokes about being lesbians. No, “Hey, look, we’re doing LESBIAN things!” moments. Just simply the confusion of two people who are attracted to one another and tentatively feeling it out, because that’s what all humans do. Both Wynonna and Waverly are walking feminist role models without trying to be. They just are who they are, naturally.
It’s to the credit of the writers that Wynonna Earp isn’t heavy-handed with this, and that’s something that hasn’t always been accomplished on television. Jessica Jones was fantastically ground-breaking in this sense, but too many other shows stamped with a “feminist” label largely miss the mark. As delightful as much of Supergirl has been, for example, its overt “Girls can do this, too!” dialogue has sent the wrong message in devoting too much time to explaining why it’s so not weird, you guys that a girl is a hero. Too many shows do this, and in doing so, they make it seem as if it’s abnormal or aberrant for a woman to do traditionally “male” things, undermining themselves with their own message.
But Wynonna Earp isn’t concerned with telling us what women can do; it just gets down to the business of letting them do it, trusting that we understand it doesn’t need to be explained because it’s really not a big deal. That’s casual feminism. And that’s what we need more of. Television series don’t need to tell women what we can do because – here’s the thing – we already know we can. It’s a non-issue. Women don’t need to wait for permission to be who they are or to become who they want to be. And in making feminism and breaking gender norms a non-issue, Wynonna Earp is television’s new standard bearer for women everywhere.