Bechdel-positive movies or TV?
December 8, 2012 3:03 PM   Subscribe

Seen any good movies or TV lately, or ever? The hard part: must be Bechdel-positive.

I'm looking for some entertaining, Bechdel-positive movies and TV shows to watch on the internet (DVDs OK too; in the US).

I'm done with making excuses in my head for misogyny in entertainment. Right now I'm looking for entertainment that's pleasant, and misogyny makes me mad, which does not feel pleasant. Even many very good stories with strong women characters (like Prime Suspect) feature women who are fighting misogyny, so even when the point is to critique or overcome it, it still dominates the story. (And Prime Suspect never misses an opportunity to show the naked, mutilated corpse of a pretty young white woman. Enough.)

I know that I'm not looking for something impossible: I stumbled on a Canadian made-for-TV move on Netflix, Plague City: SARS in Toronto. It wasn't a great movie, but it was good enough for some engaging entertainment, and it was delightfully Bechdel-positive -- just a story with some women and some men working together and living their lives as if everyone was just people. There must be more movies or TV shows like this?

I'd be particularly delighted by shows from countries other than the US, but they need to have English subtitles or captions available if they're in another language. They don't need to be current -- oldies are fine. Documentaries could be good if they're engaging and story-like. It's OK if the movie features a man or men in central roles, as long as there are also women who are also recognized to be whole, multi-dimensional people.

Additional restrictions: no horror, no rape, no domestic violence, no prostitution, no torture. Im not a fan of science fiction or fantasy, but I'd be willing to give those a try if something looks really promising. I'm not interested in romance as the center of the plot, but if it's just a part of the story, that's OK.

I'm aware of this site, which is a helpful resource, but it doesn't cover TV or give recommendations for movies I haven't heard of. Any other good sources for reviews that would cover these concerns?

I tend to like realistic stories with complex characters: Nurse Jackie, Frozen River, even some episodes of The Sopranos. Blood or nudity are OK if the context is misogyny-free, which is rare. I expected to like Parks and Recreation, but I find it a little too fluffy. Inspector Lewis and Downton Abbey are generally (well, at least sometimes) good enough to pass my rough muster, which makes me suspect that there must be a few other British shows (and likely some from other countries, too) that I might like but don't know about. You? Please share!
posted by Corvid to Media & Arts (70 answers total) 81 users marked this as a favorite
How about stuff like Gilmore Girls or Buffy the Vampire Slayer?
posted by youcancallmeal at 3:19 PM on December 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

I like The Good Wife. Not sure about online availability. A lot of the plot at the start is about the main character being defined in relation to her prominent husband's affair (thus the title) but it is really about her as a strong professional woman on her own terms. Plenty of Bechdel passing.
posted by Drinky Die at 3:23 PM on December 8, 2012 [4 favorites]

No movie comes to mind but thanks for bringing the Bechdel test to my attention. I'm currently editing an ebook, I'll do whatever the characters will allow me to make it Bechdel positive.

You may find the british spy series Spooks to be Bechdel positive. I've not watched it lately but my memory sais it should be.
posted by Baud at 3:30 PM on December 8, 2012

You might like Veronica Mars.
posted by COBRA! at 3:30 PM on December 8, 2012 [5 favorites]

You might like Being Erica, a Canadian show. It has a unrealistic premise, but the character interactions are very real and primarily focused among the women in Erica's world. Wonderfalls is another show with great female characters but an unrealistic premise, but it may be too silly for you.
posted by kyla at 3:33 PM on December 8, 2012

I really loved Enlightened. There's only one season of it, but I believe it has been picked up for a second.
posted by kitty teeth at 3:37 PM on December 8, 2012

posted by unknowncommand at 3:38 PM on December 8, 2012 [5 favorites]

Im not a fan of science fiction or fantasy, but I'd be willing to give those a try if something looks really promising

I'm going to suggest three scifi shows; two are pretty fluffy (but entertainingly so, IMO) but decently written and have lots of good female characters who talk to each other about way more than men or lack thereof. And none of them have only the women in peril being saved by the men.

Eureka: Puts the fiction in Science! Fun.

Warehouse 13: Again with the fiction in the Science!

Fringe: This season is definitely getting pretty dark, but earlier seasons were a little more monster-of-the-week. Not as many female characters as the first two, but even so, Olivia and Astrid spend basically no time talking about guys. They don't have time: monsters and saving the world (and keeping Walter out of the psychopharmaceuticals) keep them busy.

Not scifi, but fictional science: Bones: Has the usual "find the body in a gory way" opening scene, but has a wealth of female characters who talk to each other and to the male characters like people (well, scripted people, but still).
posted by rtha at 3:41 PM on December 8, 2012 [5 favorites]

Community? Not every episode passes the test and it has its share of love quadrangles, but they're not the central point of the story. It's an ensemble and the individual relationships between all 7 of the main cast (3 of whom are women) are explored.
posted by Gordafarin at 3:42 PM on December 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

From outside the U.S., there's the Dutch classic Antonia's Line, which fits everything you're asking for. It does mention (doesn't show) an incident of rape, but it's entirely female-focused with strong, multi-dimensional characters.

The German movie Nowhere in Africa is a really interesting true story of a woman who escaped Nazi prosecution by moving with her husband and young daughter to Kenya (it's based on a book by the daughter).

From the U.S., Lisa Cholodenko's three movies (High Art; Laurel Canyon; The Kids are All Right) are also very Bechdelly, mostly made of conversations between multi-dimensional women. They do all center around various romantic relationships, but in a context of a female protagonist's exploration/development (and in each case, f/f romances are focused on more than m/f romances).

And if you liked Frozen River, you'll like Winter's Bone.
posted by kalapierson at 3:46 PM on December 8, 2012

I second "The Good Wife", lots of Bechdel-test-passing scenes. Some of the court cases will get into murder & rape territory, but it's definitely not a serial-killer-of-the-week procedural.

What about Revenge? I think my love for the show was best summed up in this Hello, tailor blog: It's like a cross between Gossip Girl and Veronica Mars, with the protagonist -- Emily -- seeking REVEEEENNNGE (this in fact is the correct pronunciation of the title -- for best effect, drawl it with the confidence and malicious delight of the truly evil) on the super-rich beautiful people who got her father framed as a treasonous terrorist. There are endless dastardly takedowns and almost every scene involves terrifying society matriarchs smiling charmingly while secretly wishing each other a painful death, but it quite never tips over into the preposterousness of Gossip Girl because the protagonist is so wonderfully dead-eyed and machiavellian. So, might fail the misogyny test for you since many of the Bechdel-test scenes are about polite backstabbery, but, it's definitely entertaining.
posted by oh yeah! at 3:57 PM on December 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Okay, fantasy, but... Kiki's Delivery Service and Spirited Away are both wonderful, with a slice-of-life, working-stiffs feel in spite of the magic. Young girls coming of age surrounded by female role models, characters very subtle and layered. Most important they should help cheer you up! Definitely beyond pleasant, uplifting.

Princess Mononoke on the darker side, quite a bit of blood but no misogyny. Miyazaki makes wonderful films with women.
posted by Erasmouse at 3:58 PM on December 8, 2012 [8 favorites]

Yeah. "Winter's Bone" has some sexism going on with the way the characters interact, but I definitely wouldn't call it misogynistic. And it's really very good.
posted by rmd1023 at 3:58 PM on December 8, 2012

You should try Borgen. It's kind of like The West Wing, except that it's about a female prime minister of Denmark. Also, the approach to sex and relationships that's presented is so clearly not American that it's a pleasure to watch just for that.
posted by eemeli at 4:27 PM on December 8, 2012 [5 favorites]

Gilmore Girls
The Mentalist
Being Erica
The West Wing
The Good Wife
posted by saradarlin at 4:31 PM on December 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

Also, just to verify, the very first scence of Borgen's first episode passes the Bechdel test.
posted by eemeli at 4:34 PM on December 8, 2012

Everwood. The show revolves around a father-son relationship, but they're surrounded by strong three-dimensional female characters who get their own plotlines and interact with each other about things that aren't men.
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 4:55 PM on December 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Community passes muster, as does Damages (though it has some violence). I think Mad Men is right up your alley and am surprised it hasn't been mentioned yet. Absolutely do not watch Veronica Mars if "no rape, no domestic violence" is your iron-clad criterion.
posted by gerryblog at 4:57 PM on December 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

It's a bit corny, but look at Once Upon a Time. Not only does it try to subvert the fairy tale damsel in distress stereotype often found in fairy tales*, it has one of the strongest cast of female characters I've ever watched. Like, up there with Xena in terms of strong female characters.

*There was never a more kickass princess then Snow White in this show. You heard me. Snow White.
posted by royalsong at 5:09 PM on December 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

You might find Pretty Little Liars too fluffy, but at least give it a shot, because it basically writes the book on how to ace the Bechdel test in a high school drama format.

Other ideas:

Six Feet Under
Battlestar Galactica (which is actually set in a [for the most part] post-misogyny world) is sci-fi but not cheesily so.
posted by lunasol at 5:14 PM on December 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Corner Gas.

Also, I second Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And if you like that, you may also like Dollhouse (though that may qualify as "prostitution" but not entirely in the "sex in exchange for money" sense; however some of the dolls/actives are male and are used for sex at least once in the series)
posted by electriic at 5:24 PM on December 8, 2012

I was going to recommend Damages, too, but there is a lot of violence.

Six Feet Under, definitely.
Firefly passes the Bechdel test, but is science fiction
Freaks and Geeks would probably pass

I've just looked through my past year of Netflix picks, and there is a sad dearth of stuff that would pass Bechdel's test.

(Sorry, but Buffy is the antithesis of "no horror, no rape, no domestic violence, no prostitution, no torture.")
posted by looli at 5:32 PM on December 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, seconding Once Upon a Time, although I'm less enthusiastic about the second season (though not for gender politics reasons).

I dithered over recommending BSG. It's a remarkable piece of television, but it's got rape and it's got torture (not tons of either, but still). But you can watch the pilot miniseries without either of those turning up, and it's wicked good.

Yes, Buffy.
posted by rtha at 5:34 PM on December 8, 2012

I know you said "no horror," but I would feel remiss if I didn't mention The Descent. Yes, the main action is spurred by circumstances, ah, between a wife and husband, but after that, it's a number of very strong women trying to kick ass to stay alive. Is it harrowing? Uh huh. Is it fantastic? Uh huh.

(If you go for this, for God's sake, watch the original ending.)

(If this gets deleted for not strictly hewing to the OP's restrictions, I understand.)
posted by Skot at 5:39 PM on December 8, 2012

For comedy I like the British TV show Pulling and an old IFC show called The Minor Accomplishments of Jackie Woodman. The women are all single characters and there's a fair amount of talking about their hookups, but I don't think it ventures too far into SITC-core total Bechdel-fail territory.
posted by ziggly at 5:46 PM on December 8, 2012

Contagion had several strong, smart female characters, but I can't off the top of my head remember how many scenes had two of them together - their roles were mostly non-overlapping. Still, Bechdel neutral at worst, and one you would probably enjoy.
posted by Flannery Culp at 5:51 PM on December 8, 2012

I dithered over suggesting Mad Men (mentioned upthread) and then didn't. Some episodes do pass the Bechdel test, some don't. There is rampant misogyny in the show, but it is presented with a social-criticism angle—so if you want something that was not written from a misogynistic perspective, it's fine, but if you want something that presents a world free of misogyny, it definitely ain't.

Great show, though.
posted by adamrice at 5:55 PM on December 8, 2012

Even though I was aware of the Bechdel Test, I'm really finding as a man that I'm struggling with answering this because I'm not conscious of it.

For example, Firefly. It's got 9 characters and 4 of them are women. It must pass, right? But I can't think of any definite conversation between the women (someone must have gone to see Inara in her shuttle for advice, right?). Speaking of which, Inara is technically a prostitute but the paradigm is subverted to where she and the other Companions have the power and actually a position of status. And one episode takes place in a traditional brothel and the antagonist is a huge misogynist.

That being said...

“Q: So, why do you write these strong female characters?
A: Because you’re still asking me that question.” -Joss Whedon

so you might want to keep an open mind to his stuff even if it includes some unsavory elements.

I can think of some shows though.

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency
Dead Like Me
Joan of Arcadia
Sports Night
posted by cali59 at 6:09 PM on December 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

Firefly definitely passes, though maybe not every episode.
posted by gerryblog at 6:12 PM on December 8, 2012

Response by poster: Lots of good possibilities here -- thanks to everyone (and the more the better ...).

Borgen sounds especially interesting, but I haven't found any way to watch it in the US. Any one have any clues on that?
posted by Corvid at 7:16 PM on December 8, 2012

Response by poster: Oh, and Mad Men: "there's rampant misogyny in the show, but...." Thanks, but no thanks. I understand it's a very good show, but "rampant misogyny" means it doesn't fit my personal definition of "entertainment" right now. I wish I could enjoy it, but I can't. I lived through that sort of working environment, and the less I'm reminded of it in my leisure time, the less I want to spit. That's what makes this quest so challenging -- even the good stuff is often bad, and that doesn't leave much.
posted by Corvid at 7:27 PM on December 8, 2012

The L-Word, unsurprisingly, passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. Sometimes quite good, sometimes merely S&TC in LA w/o men.

This Life should pass too. ER will pass easily. Tales of the City is brilliant. For film, try The Big Chill.

But what you're really looking for is possibly China Beach.
posted by K.P. at 7:31 PM on December 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

The Good Wife is good, but it's set in the real world. Buffy is good, with the caveat that there is a huge Nice Guy problem in the show. Veronica Mars season 1 is excellent, but like the Good Wife exists in a world with misogyny -- sure, she fights it, but it's there. Bones starts out fun and gets really annoying once it becomes popular, around season 4. Castle is fun and generally free from misogyny, but occasionally misses a Bechdel test in an episode. I hear good things about Lost Girl (Canadian), but can't say much about it from personal experience. Dead Like Me was great. I'll also note that Once Upon A Time does quite well on these things, featuring a heavily female cast who talk to each other all the time, usually about magic. I think season 2 is better than season 1.
posted by jeather at 7:36 PM on December 8, 2012

+ on anything Miyazaki for female characters -- and I'd add "Totoro" to the list as well, with the two glorious daughters, Satsuki and Mei. Don't count him out just because he makes "children's" movies -- they're rich, complex, and really reward thoughtful viewing!
posted by ariel_caliban at 7:44 PM on December 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

The Last Days of Disco is a quiet and beautiful movie centered on the relationship between two roommates, played by Chloe Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale. There are men in it too, and the feeling is very much "some women and some men working together and living their lives as if everyone was just people," as you ask for.
posted by escabeche at 7:59 PM on December 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Have you seen Slings and Arrows? Especially the second season, with the great story arc between the company's lead woman actor and the (female) Revenue Canada auditor, and the almost equally great arc-ette of the female office manager and the (mostly female) interns.

The Company of Strangers, while we're on the Canadian media thing, is a great movie about older women on a bus trip who get stranded unexpectedly.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:09 PM on December 8, 2012

Note that Fringe, Bones, and one episode of The West Wing (called Women Of Qumar) refer to torture and it is actually portrayed in Fringe so I'd specifically skip that. If references to things on your Do Not Want list without showing of is okay, I'd be very enthusiastic about The West Wing and also recommend Vera very highly. She's brilliant as a character but she's solving crime and some of the victims are women. I personally can recall no mortuary scenes.

If you're skipping The West Wing, I still suggest Sports Night and Studio 60. For films, maybe The Devil Wears Prada? It has a romance sub-plot but the characters are more than that.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:13 PM on December 8, 2012

Good TV shows: Covert Affairs (passes the test, but does play into some female stereotypes), Raising Hope (marginally passes), Battlestar Galactica (really passes -- some of the female roles were originally written for men, so it would kind of have to)

Good movies: Another Earth, Cabin in the Woods, Attack of the Block, True Grit -- all of these only just barely pass the test but still have great non-stereotypical female characters
posted by miyabo at 8:33 PM on December 8, 2012

For fun, silly stuff: Romy and Michelle's High School Reunion and Legally Blonde. Also, "Square Pegs" the all-too-brief TV show with a young Sarah Jessica Parker.

I haven't seen any of the television versions of M. C. Beaton's Agatha Raisin mysteries, but if they're at all faithful to the books they should do nicely. "The Vicar of Dibley" is fun, as are the various collaborations between Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders.

Oh, and if historicals work for you, Cranford is just amazing. Jam-packed with fine UK women actors. Speaking of jam, "Jam and Jerusalem" is quite good.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:11 PM on December 8, 2012

Scandal is a good tv show currently in its second season, about a high-powered female "fixer" in DC. There are romance side-stories, but everyone looks to her for advice on everything: foreign policy, legal matters, everything. She has two female and two male associates. There is also a female Vice President. And the First Lady is very strong as well.
posted by Night_owl at 10:13 PM on December 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have a teenage daughter and we prefer to watch movies and shows with characters we can relate to - which usually means women. While we enjoy romantic storylines, I think the following qualify as Bechdel-positive.
Real Women Have Curves
Babette's Feast
The Jane Austen Book Club
Lost in Austen
Anything based on the works of Jane Austen, including Clueless
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day
Whip It
The Girl who Leapt through Time (anime)
Enchanted April
You've got Mail
Bend it Like Beckham
Gilmore Girls
The Truth about Cats & Dogs (this one may be a little questionable - a lot of the talking is about guys, but I think it's more about self-esteem and trust)
The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants
Drop Dead Diva (it's a little embarassing to list this one, but it's the only thing on Lifetime that I'll watch - and it's streaming on Netflix)
posted by kbar1 at 11:12 PM on December 8, 2012 [4 favorites]

The British show Survivors might fit. It's a disease-wipes-out-most-everyone-now-what-happens premise, with a strong women lead looking for her son, and a variety of interesting characters who develop believably. Being British, there's very little violence.
posted by BigJen at 11:15 PM on December 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Plus, Sunshine Cleaning, Ghost World, A League of Their Own, Now & Then.

Seconding The Kids are All Right and Whip It as awesome examples!
posted by BigJen at 11:40 PM on December 8, 2012

Someone recommended the L Word, and although it's a show with lots of strong female leads not talking about dudes, I do think it at times did include some misogyny. SPOILER ALERT: Remember that storyline with Mark, who seemed like a cool guy but then secretly was filming them for some documentary? Men are always presented as assholes on the L Word, the few times we actually see them. Also, I would say the L Word is kind of crappy show, unless you stick to seasons 1 and 5.

Most things for lesbians might be good though. The movie D.E.B.S. is uber cheesy, but not a single sniff of misogyny in sight.

One possible show is Once and Again - the lead was a woman and I didn't watch the show enough to know if it features any misogyny, but it seemed like a realistic family drama and I'd be surprised.

It sounds though like you want strong female leads and the show to revolve around women and not love triangles, etc. It's honestly a pretty difficult request. I find this thread very interesting though and am tempted to try some of these recommendations.
posted by AppleTurnover at 12:12 AM on December 9, 2012

Farscape. I'm sure there must be others, but the one Bechdel-positive scene I remember right now is Aeryn Sun's with Zhaan about the fact that Zhaan has fatally injured herself to let Aeryn live. Aeryn, by the way, is in general a fantastic kick-ass character who develops in many ways not driven by the plotting of her relationship with Crighton. If anything, the relationship is a device to track her development.

I've only seen one episode of Freaks and Geeks, but (1) it was fantastic and (2) it had a scene of Lindsay Weir talking to her mother not about boys.

Also, Firefly has a Bechdel-positive scene when Saffron tries to seduce Inara in "Our Mrs. Reynolds."
posted by d. z. wang at 12:35 AM on December 9, 2012

I strongly recommend The Middleman. It's SF, but I think every episode passes the Bechdel Test and it's generally just wonderful. I watch it when I need a pick-me-up.

NewsRadio may also pass the Bechdel Test. It's not totally feminist, but the women characters have plenty of agency and operate on pretty much the same level as the men characters. It's also a comedy, but a very smart one, I think.

How about Chinese dramas? Huanzhu Gege (aka Princess Pearl) is about the friendship between two women in Qing Dynasty China. I was expecting it to be cloying and cutesy, but it's actually really well written with some real surprises and deft characterization.
posted by jiawen at 1:26 AM on December 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

FYI-ing, The Cabin in the Woods, BSG and Fringe as mentioned above all have plenty of horror and violence. Fringe is especially fond of it's body horror. While Fringe has some of the best interactions between women on TV at present (at least in the kind of shows I like) I am personally having problems with the under-representation of women in the show outside of the lead characters. That said, I think you should consider at least Battlestar Galactica (BSG). Yes it's sci-fi, yes it's "gritty", some of your no-no's come up (I can tell you what eps to avoid if needed for those), but it's never gratuitous. Neither are the women saints or superheros only, BSG is best described as being painted in shades of grey, but the interactions between, especially, hotshot young pilot Starbuck and the women who are her superiors/mentors are fascinatingly handled. Not to mention her interactions with her rivals.
Anyhow, uh, big fan...

Another show not mentioned, that I don't particularly like but watch for the unrepentant lesbian "subtext" is Rizzoli and Isles. It's a police & medical examiner procedural, and as such is occasionally violent or addresses some of your no-go's, but it's generally pretty fluffy and getting more-so, the first season is slightly darker. Jane is the tough, smartmouth, Boston-italian cop, Maura is the fancy, overeducated, undersocialised medical examiner. Lorraine Bracco seems to have had some sort of scene-chewing booster-shot and hams it up as Janes mom. There are also two main male leads who are very sweet and expectation bending themselves. So, as I say, fluff, not great, but fun and pretty harmless.
posted by Iteki at 3:34 AM on December 9, 2012

Agree with Freaks and Geeks- it's like a breath of fresh air to see a teen comedy featuring a girl, and an utterly normal and relatable one at that.
Girl sports movies would also be good for this sort of thing: Bend it Like Beckham, Whip It, A League of Their Own.

For a foreign language suggestion, most of his movies are very much out there and feature characters on the edge of society ( cross-dressing prostitutes, etc), but Pedro Almodóvar's Volver is essentially an all-female cast and an excellent movie (note that an attempted rape is part of the plot).
posted by emd3737 at 4:42 AM on December 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

For non-English movies I recently enjoyed Dogtooth (Greek) and Tomboy (French) recently. The latter is of course about sexuality and gender, but portrayed in a very positive and sweet way, I think. Being Danish I have to give a mention to the original version of the TV series The Killing (Forbrydelsen). Brits love it, apparently.

For TV (mini-series), I loved Mildred Pierce with Kate Winslet and Evan Rachel Wood this year. Phenomenal acting.
posted by coraline at 7:12 AM on December 9, 2012

So I don't just say what not to, you want to check out Dae Jang Geum, a hugely successful Korean period drama, about the first female physician of the Joseon dynasty. At first I was slightly put off by the melodrama and low production values, but within about two eps I didn't even notice (or it improved). There's a bit of murdering and a bit of romance, but it's mainly about persevering, surviving court politics and food. The food!
posted by Iteki at 7:17 AM on December 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Did anyone say Call the Midwife yet? It's a current British series that could be just the thing for you. I think it airs on PBS here.
posted by pineappleheart at 7:39 AM on December 9, 2012

Ahem. It should be noted that I've only seen the first episode of Call the Midwife, but it looks as though the second episode is about prostitution, so you might want to skip just that one.
posted by pineappleheart at 7:43 AM on December 9, 2012

Best answer: Long-form essay ahoy!

For American movies, go back to the cinema of the 20's and 30's. Really. The primary moviegoing audience in those days was women of childbearing age, and the studios were forced to accommodate their tastes whether they liked it or not. Yep, you'll still see heroic women sacrificing all for husbands and children, or "bad" women getting their due, but you'll see less of that, and more complicated treatments of "women's issues", in the pre-Code era films (i.e. prior to 1934). Anything with Barbara Stanwyck, Marie Dressler, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Bette Davis, Marion Williams, Colleen Moore, Jean Harlow, or Kay Francis made prior to 1934 is really worth a look. Check out Marie Dressler's picture on the Web sometime: at the time of her death in 1934, she was THE box-office champion. That would never, ever be the case today.

I wouldn't call the worlds created by these films a feminist paradise, but they are often a lot of fun and may often surprise you, as they have me, with what appears to be a rather liberal attitude toward stuff that gets judged and snarked at today. Warning: prostitution may come up in some of these movies, since they were written and made during the Great Depression, but I think the issue is usually handled with more sensitivity than it would be today.

In 1934, the Hays Code went into effect, so no more flappers having too much fun without Paying The Price. However, the censors back then would not have allowed the type of misogynist physical violence that's a regular sight today. So you'll be spared a lot of that garbage until, well, the slasher films of the late '70's.

If you want movies made today, start checking out foreign films if you want decently-written female characters at the center of the plot. Last year's "Poetry" out of South Korea blew me away. The protagonist? A slightly ditzy grandmother taking a poetry class who is in the first stages of Alzheimer's. Sounds cutesy, but it will NOT be coming to a Hallmark or Lifetime channel near you, trust me, and not just because of the subtitles. I have feeds for MUBI's "Noteworthy" and "Forgotten" blogs in Google Reader; it's a good way to find out about new foreign and independent films.

TV? HBO's Treme has some good female characters with decent plotlines. I like "Breaking Bad" and "Mad Men" -- really, the women of "Mad Men" are some of the best-written female characters on TV I've seen in a while, particularly the Peggy Olsen character -- but I'll readily admit that some of the dialogue can make me sick to my stomach in the misogyny department anyway. Sometimes it seems like the writers have a little too much fun with the prevailing attitudes of the day. That being said, I'm glad I've kept up with the series.
posted by Currer Belfry at 7:54 AM on December 9, 2012 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Here's a database of Bechdel and Rotten Tomato intersection. It's not the easiest to use (you hover over the color to see the movie name), but it should offer up a lot of well rated movies which pass the test.
posted by Margalo Epps at 10:43 AM on December 9, 2012 [5 favorites]

Movie: "Shimotsuma Monogatari"/Kamikaze Girls, about a biker punk and a "gothic lolita" (nothing to do with Nabokov; it's a fashion subculture) who are thrown together. Since we almost never get female buddy movies here, it was so refreshing to me. It's pretty weird, but I liked it anyway. Actually, a surprising number of Japanese TV shows qualify, too.
posted by wintersweet at 3:25 PM on December 9, 2012

Doc Martin.
Charming British series about a brilliant male doctor who has no social skills and has developed a fear of blood. His aunt, his erstwhile girlfriend, his receptionist, all have conversations with other people (female and male) about a variety of things. There is no gore, no rape, it's a delightful, charming series.
posted by b33j at 5:46 PM on December 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

There are a lot of great suggestions in this thread already (nthing Slings & Arrows, The Middleman, Dead Like Me, and The Minor Accomplishments of Jackie Woodman), but here are a few more:

Bunheads. God, this show is great. It's about a woman who, basically on a whim, marries a guy and moves to his home town and helps his mom run a ballet school. (Do you like quippiness? It's very…quippy. But great!) Lots and lots of shows on ABC Family fit this bill, too: Make It Or Break It is the dumb kind of wonderful (teen gymnasts, tragically canceled). Switched at Birth is surprisingly engaging (teen girls, one deaf and one hearing, discover they were, yes, switched at birth). Pretty Little Liars is a fun murder-mystery show (though I'd argue it does involve psychological torture? But in the most PG sense? So maybe that would still work….)
Being Erica. It's Canadian magical realism about a 30-something woman who gets to revisit moments from her past, and it's one of the best shows I've ever seen. Warning: very emotional. It's not violent at all, but it will punch you right in the heartstrings. I can't recommend this show highly enough.
Call the Midwife. As stated above, one episode does involve a tertiary character who is a sex worker, but I'd still enthusiastically recommend it. It is very very much about the interior lives of women, and how women support and educate and understand each other. I feel like lots of the shows I watch are about women competing with or undermining each other, and this show is the exact opposite of that.
The Big C. It might not quite fit your "pleasant" requirement — it's about a woman with cancer — but it seems to pass the test otherwise. I'm a big Laura Linney fan, and she's fantastic on it. The first season is so-so, but the second season is really beautiful.
Smash. So... Smash is kind of terrible. But it's also kind of GREAT if you are at all into Broadway musicals. If you are not at all into Broadway musicals, uh, don't bother. (If you are, though, it's fun, and the music is unimpeachable.)
Bob's Burgers. I firmly believe that Tina Belcher is the direct descendant of Daria and Lisa Simpson. She might be my favorite TV feminist right now, even more than Leslie Knope; I know you found Parks a little fluffy, but Bob's tends to be more subversive. Especially Tina. Oy, do I love her.
Drop Dead Diva. This was also mentioned upthread, but I think people assume that it's a dumb crappy show, and I want to drive home that it is not. It is actually a terrific lawyer show, with bonus points for body positivity and general good vibes.

Finally, this question has forced me to confront how many shows I watch involve rape, torture, domestic violence, and coerced sex work. Holy moly, it's the vast majority of shows.
posted by Charity Garfein at 8:02 PM on December 9, 2012


Though I'd guess not all episodes pass the test, and I wouldn't say the relationships between women (usually Liz and Jenna) are "healthy".
posted by sarah_pdx at 9:50 PM on December 9, 2012

Seconding all the recommendations for Being Erica, Wonderfalls, and Freaks and Geeks. They all pass the Bechdel Test and none will insult your intelligence.

Have you watched My So-Called Life? It's old now, but from my recollection it seemed to be a realistic portrayal of a high school girl and her friends and family. Someone mentioned Once and Again in an earlier comment; it's from the same writers and is also very good.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:25 AM on December 10, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for every single suggestion -- this is a gold mine, and I have a lot of delightful homework to do. I had a feeling you'd be the right folks to ask.

I marked that Bechdel/Rotten Tomatoes database as a best answer to recommend it to anyone who might have similar interests. It's got a ton of great information and it deserves a lot more exposure.

And yes, the oldies before The Great Pornification hold up quite well.

[That lovely little oddity "Square Pegs" was a favorite of mine back in its day, and I've got the disc right here. Memory time -- ]
posted by Corvid at 12:56 PM on December 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

On a similar tip to NewsRadio (which I second) is the British show Drop The Dead Donkey - although there are some laddish characters, they are generally pathetic, whereas the women are strong. Cybill might work for you too - her daughter Zoe is a very strong young lady who has no qualms in finishing relationships that aren't working for her, or making unconventional decisions about her future, rather than the teen girl dramas I remember from my youth which were mostly about boyfriends.

Pulling is great - I liked it because many storylines were about rejecting men or nothing to do with men at all, such as meeting up with far more successful friends or quitting your job. There is one episode of torture for comic effect in season 2, though. You might also like Miranda if you're into British comedy - it's quite old-fashioned and people love or hate it, but it's worth giving a go.

Drop Dead Diva shouldn't be as enjoyable as it is. It's particularly notable for having a large woman as the main character, who - following a thin woman's soul being transported into her body (yes, really) - learns to accept and enjoy her new body.
posted by mippy at 3:55 PM on December 20, 2012

This is late, but it looks like nobody's recommended Sanctuary. From Wikipedia:
The show centers on 157-year-old Dr. Helen Magnus and her team of experts who run the Sanctuary, an organization that seeks out extraordinarily powerful creatures and people and tries to help and learn from them.
posted by mon-ma-tron at 11:49 AM on January 4, 2013

Check out Nikita (2010 remake). Here's a fun summation. The Bechdel relevant passage:

How Alex and Nikita came to work together is explained slowly over the course of the first season, but what really matters is that in part because of their partnership, every fucking episode of this show passes the Bechdel test with a minimal amount of effort. It’s seriously so much fun, to watch a show that’s just about two women fucking up some shit and not overly concerning themselves with romance.
posted by jyorraku at 7:56 PM on January 4, 2013

Nthing Gilmore Girls, Buffy, Parenthood.

New Waterford Girl is a good movie.

You might want to check out The Spitfire Grill movie. Definitely passes the Bechdel test but some of the stuff you mentioned you did not want has happened in the characters lives and is talked about. A really good movie though, and fits most of your requests.

Re: the rec for Winter's Bone. I may be thinking of a different movie by the same name but I seem to remember domestic abuse, misogyny and brutal violence bordering on torture. If you need details on it I would check out the parent's guide info on IMDB before watching.
posted by Lay Off The Books at 9:24 AM on January 5, 2013

One of the most female positive shows I've ever watched was Veronica Mars. By female positive, I don't mean one of those shows that alienates men. (My husband who's critical of vapid female-self-affirmative writing loved it.)

A friend of mine told me the premise several years ago and I all but scoffed in her face. Finally watched and was amazed.

Veronica is funny, strong, independent, very smart, and also has serious flaws. The father/daughter relationship, which is the show's cornerstone, is realistic and warm without ever being sitcom or treacly. It's great character writing. And fun. I'm 37 yo--so not exactly the intended demographic, but I found the character to be inspiring. I loved the way she forces herself to stay focus on her goal, even when she is extremely upset. Every once in a while I tell myself I need to be more like Veronica Mars.

I'm going to second Winter's Bone. Yes, there's a lot of violence, but it's not misogyny so much as people teaching other people unpleasant lessons (like "don't snitch" and "don't betray your kin"). Jennifer Lawrence as the main character is brilliant. She's not an action hero--frequently she's scared, but she forces herself to follow through with her actions regardless of how visibly disturbed she is. Great acting, great character, and chilling setting. The other women are fantastic, too. Not nice people, but wow...
posted by kittyno at 5:41 PM on January 7, 2013

June Bug is another fascinating movie about the interactions of strong women and their perceptions of one another. It's one of those movies that's haunting. When it starts you think it's going to be about the man and woman's marriage, but the plot dodges this and ends up being something much bigger and more interesting. All of the actresses are amazing (Embeth Davidtz, Amy Adams, and Celia Weston), but the one who was a real standout is Celia Weston. What a performance! She's absolutely fantastic.
posted by kittyno at 5:52 PM on January 7, 2013

In addition to the wonderful recs you've already received (Being Erica is my very favorite show ever; I also nth the recs for Drop Dead Diva, Call the Midwife, No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, and The Middleman), I highly recommend Switched at Birth, an ABC Family show now in its second year (but first season, somewhat inexplicably as there are 31 episodes so far) about two teenage girls who discover they were switched as infants in the hospital. Both girls and their parents and friends are all multidimensional characters, and the show has a lot to say about family, class differences, and disibility (one of the girls is deaf). Both girls talk with their mothers and each other on many different topics, and while usually dating is a subplot it never eclipses the main themes of identity and growing up. As a bonus, there are entire scenes in American Sign Language--often several in an episode, and they aren't always subtitled. Also, it is currently available on Netflix Streaming.
posted by cinco at 12:18 PM on January 8, 2013

Goofy mockumentary Drop Dead Gorgeous is surprisingly funny and totally passes the test.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 9:55 AM on January 16, 2013

Try anything by Nicole Holofcener, especially "Lovely and Amazing." One of my favorite movies, and I think Holofcener has a very interesting perspective on women's stories. It's not something I see everywhere else and it's very much about women relating to each other, not men.
posted by sweetkid at 2:10 PM on February 10, 2013

oh! you should check out the kingdom series by Lars von Trier (it's in Danish, you need subtitles). I don't remember feeling the unpleasantness at all during that series, and I'm sensitive to it too. of course it was a few years ago, so I'd be interested in anyone seconds this or protests it. Very fun, a little scary, mysterious and engaging. Good times.
posted by bizwool at 4:09 AM on March 11, 2013

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