Before Matt Groening’s new animated TV show, Disenchantment, premiered, Groening made the interview rounds, enticing viewers with his medieval fantasy story and its unique take.
“If there are any overt politics, it's that it's got a definite feminist point of view," Groening told Exclaim. "And having a woman at the center of the show is just, for me, a refreshing way to tell stories." (Can I just barf real quick at the fact that having a female protagonist is still refreshing to some people in this, the year of Our Lord and Queen Bey, 2018?!)
Groening credited actor Abbi Jacobson, of Broad City fame, with bringing feminism to the forefront of the show. "She ad-libbed some of the best lines, making the feminist bent to the show even more overt." While Jacobson’s performance is the true highlight of the animated series, Disenchantment itself rarely rises to the label “feminist.”
There is a lot that’s promising about Disenchantment. It’s more story-driven than either The Simpsons or Futurama, and the narrative spends significant time exploring themes like grief, loss, friendship, and death. The plot itself is even exciting.
Princess Tiabeanie, who would rather go by Bean, is an alcoholic teenager living with her father, the king of Dreamland, and his new wife and son. Her role in the family is to be married off for a political alliance, but her wedding day is thrown astray by the arrival of her personal demon, a one-eyed shadow figure named Luci, and a magical elf named Elfo.
The three become companions, Luci and Elfo serving as the literal manifestations of Bean’s darker and lighter compulsions. In the pilot, Luci even tells Bean that he’s the devil on her shoulder, whispering, “Do it.” As they navigate the world, drinking and gambling and failing, the characters begin to have similar outlooks, the bad becoming the morally ambiguous and the good doing likewise.
For all intents and purposes, Disenchantment should be feminist, and when it does balance social commentary with humor, it almost succeeds. While the Netflix show certainly gets kudos for giving us a female antihero who is as drunk and hapless as any male counterpart, Bean is truly the exception that proves the rule.
Outside of her, there are very few female characters in Disenchantment, and those that do exist are stereotypes or flat characters, seemingly lacking any goal of their own. Kissy the elf and an unnamed fairy are each hypersexual stereotypes. Kissy wants only physical affection, and anyone will do. The fairy is a sex worker, which is not problematic in itself, but the way she is discussed and acts is a caricature at best.
Bunty, Bean’s handmaid, is treated as awfully by Bean as she is by the creators. She’s meant to seem stupid, poor, and expendable, and that’s what she and her family’s poverty are used for in the show. Some may argue that her poverty and ignorance are meant as backdrops to highlight how wealthy, and yet ignorant, Bean is, but as someone who grew up poor, it doesn’t work. And this is just one example. At one point later in the season, Bean and her family are forced to run into the swamps of Dankmire. Who do they come into contact with? Classist stereotypes of poor folks living in the South, who else?
Another facet that is completely missing from the show is female friendship, a mainstay of feminist stories. Bean doesn’t have any female friends, except a giant named Tess who she sort of befriends, but Tess’s whole story is one feminist nightmare after another.
Basically, Elfo lies and says he has a girlfriend because he doesn’t want Bean to know he has a crush on her. Bean responds by sending her father’s knights to kidnap Tess and bring her to Dreamland so she can be with Elfo. She’s held in a cellar where Bean shoves Elfo in to have sex with her, but LOL, it’s no biggie because she’s so huge and he’s so tiny! Eyeroll. Can someone explain to Groening that that’s not how sexual assault and consent work?
Tess, who has had a horse stuck in her throat, has been unable to communicate until after being locked away with a stranger. When she does, she begs to be unchained and tries to tell people about Elfo’s lies, but before she can, he jumps in her mouth, literally silencing her. Elfo then manipulates her into pretending to be his girlfriend in exchange for a new eye, one he cannot actually give her.
If you’ve never had someone try to bribe, trick, or coerce you into a date you really didn’t want to go on, maybe Tess’s story doesn’t seem so bad. But, given that consent is a basic tenet of feminism, it’s hard to see Tess’s story as anything but a reminder of how little a woman’s life is worth.
Unfortunately, the list goes on. All of the female characters of note are white, except maybe Bean’s stepmother, who is a stereotype of the “foreigner,” eating weird food and being a gross lizard-person. When two queens exist for a short period, they almost immediately devolve into a catfight, and then the king discusses how he can kill one of the queens, because what else are you gonna do? Got two women? May as well kill one!
And, that’s not even accounting for the background jokes and one-liners that Groening’s work is famous for. From a “No fat chickens” sign to Bean putting Elfo near her feet and calling it “the friend zone,” there is a barrage of problematic and anti-feminist jokes throughout the 10 episodes of Season 1.
Some elements of Disenchantment do bear feminist ideals. Bean, as discussed above, is an incredibly independent character, and her flaws make her a relatable antihero. But she’s not the only highlight of the show.
Odval, prime minister of Dreamland and advisor to the king, and Sorcerio, a wizard, are two men who are shown onscreen to be a loving couple who also engage in group sex and sex magic rituals.
Toward the end of the first season, Bean and her friends meet a griffin who is half man, half lion, half bird (her words) and also a female, even though Bean and company misgender her at first. When they express disbelief at her gender, she says, “Gender is a spectrum.”
Even Luci seems to be gender-indistinct, though he uses he/him pronounces, which doesn’t mean he couldn’t be nonbinary, but does mean that if he is, it’s probably not an intentional choice.
If Disenchantment is feminist, it is only so in the worst possible ways, the ways many are now denoting as “White Feminism.” Bean is amazing. She’s unlike anyone else. But feminism isn’t about the single exceptional girl who is not like other girls. Feminism is about the equity, worthiness, and value of all women and nonbinary folks, with particular attention paid to women and nonbinary folks who experience multiple forms of oppression.
If the only thing that’s feminist about a TV show is one character or one actor, that show isn’t feminist—the creators are just trying to cash in on the wave of women and nonbinary folks raising their voices and demanding equity. If Groening really wanted Disenchantment to be feminist, he would have done his homework and done better.