Examining the Gender Role in TV

by Julia Hall

For decades, the roles of women in television has drawn criticism and been the subject of debate, studies and articles on the topic. In the 1960s an author by the name of Betty Friedan wrote an article called “The Feminine Mystique” in which she stated women in television were negatively portrayed as mindless, insecure, stupid, and dreaming of love. Twenty years later, in the 80s, another author by the name of Susan Faludi wrote that television shows were attempting to set back any progress that had been made in their portrayal of women. Despite the fact that there was some truth in both of these women's views, it is necessary to keep in mind that the people who are seen on television, whether male or female, tend to be based on unrealistic stereotypes. It is also important to realize that females watching these programs may not view the characters as they were intended, and that different people may look upon the characters differently.

An example of how women viewed characters differently was revealed in a study by Andrea Press, a television scholar. The purpose of this study and others like it was to better understand how viewers perceived female characters on television. Press' study was centered around Lucille Ball's character in the popular television program I Love Lucy. The results of the study found that working class women thought of the show as funny but viewed Lucille Ball's character, Lucy Ricardo, as being manipulative and unrealistic. Middle class women viewed the character differently and found her to be inspiring and "drew strength" from the character's interactions with her husband. Other research and studies, these by broadcasters themselves, were in terms of the viewer as consumers who traditionally played a major role in household purchases and decisions. These studies date back to the days when radio was the primary source of entertainment and it allowed broadcasters to target women with the types of programs and commercials that were played on-air. Programs were centered around products that women would then want to purchase and eventually led to the development of what became known as soap operas in the 30s.

As television took the place of radio, the popularity of soap operas increased. They played during the day, targeting housewives when husbands were at work, and played commercials specifically targeting this group of women. Since that time, little change has been made in the programming of daytime television in terms of how it targets the stay-at-home woman. Soap operas are still a standard, although elements of action and adventure and an increase presence of male casting have made them more current for today's audience. One rising change in daytime programming, however, can be seen in the ever-increasing presence of talk shows. The popularity of talk also began as a way of targeting women. One of the first popular shows was Donahue, a televised talk show that was aimed towards the stay-at-home woman who was considered sophisticated and intelligent. This was a demographic that was not typically catered to by televised programming and, as a result, talk shows became increasingly popular for women between the ages of 18 and 49. From Donahue came other talk show programs, most notably The Oprah Winfrey Show. The Oprah Winfrey Show has become one of the most popular and successful syndicated shows due to her ability to relate with other women when it comes to female oriented issues.

Primetime television is another area in which gender has had an effect on programming. Traditionally, television programs that played in the evening hours were considered by networks to be more serious in nature and often had themes based on law, violence and action. It was believed that this was because prime time television occurred at a time when men were more likely to watch TV shows. Programming that centered around a male hero was often a common theme, particularly from the 1950s into the early 70s. This type of programming differed from the more serialized daytime programming that targeted women. In some cases these programs borrowed from aspects from female-oriented programs in terms of community and character development. Unfortunately this did not reflect in casting, as certain programs did not feature regular female cast members, while other programs, such as Star Trek, often killed off female characters once they became involved with the leading male actors on the show. When female characters appeared in the more goal-driven, action type of masculine programs, they were often no more than criminals or distractions for the main characters.

The National Organization for Women (NOW) was a leading proponent for change due largely to statistics related to gender and television. These statistics showed that primetime television was predominately male, and that despite twenty years no positive changes in these numbers were visible. In fact, the numbers were getting worse. In 1952, results revealed that 68 percent of actors were male and in 1973 the percentage had increased to 74 percent. In the early 70s, this prompted NOW to create a task force to help facilitate positive change. This can be seen in the case of Cagney and Lacey, the first primetime television show to predominately feature women in leading roles. The show took eight years and rejections from all the major networks before it finally was placed on the primetime lineup in the early 80s. Not only did it portray two women, but it also aired episodes that touched on weighty subjects such as abortion. NOW played a pivotal role in keeping the show from being canceled by the network.

Around this time other shows starred women in positive roles and character development in general began to appear in other TV series, such as St. Elsewhere. Female characters started to hold strong leading roles in made-for-television movies that aired during primetime on a regular basis. By the mid-80s, television programs with female leads, such as China Beach and Heartbeat, were not uncommon. Despite these changes however, men still made up over 60 percent of characters on primetime television.

Despite the changes in more dramatic programs, comedies commonly held onto traditional roles for women. Often these types of programs portrayed women as mothers, nurturers and wives who, as in Leave it to Beaver, were content to allow their husband to have the authority in the family and in family decisions. Other women on television comedies routinely acted against their husbands with comedic results, such as in I Love Lucy. Other programs were more forward thinking and addressed gender stereotypes. One show that stands out as a first for modern women was The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which went on air in the same year as the NOW task force was put into effect. This show portrayed the female lead as a single, intelligent, working class woman. Other shows that followed depicted women in roles that featured them raising their children and even marrying more than once. These images were different from the comedies and roles that were common in the 50s and 60s. With the 80s and 90s however, many felt that any positive changes were being lost. Shows depicting single fathers were numerous, unlike those that portrayed single mothers, and other shows portrayed mothers either unrealistically or in ways that were considered too far removed from tradition.

Programming today has become more desirable in its representation of female characters. This is partly due to women's roles in society in general. This positive influence has even created networks that are more female focused, such as the Lifetime network. This cable network was created in 1984 during which it played primarily reruns from other networks. It later went on to create its own shows that were female-driven in terms of characters and direction. While primetime television has bridged the gap in gender roles, sports and news have not. Female journalists received less airtime than their male counterparts, particularly in the 70s and 80s. The presence of news magazines and around the clock news programs have increased the presence of women on-air personalities. In sports, female athletes are not given the same amount of coverage or respect as male athletes.

Despite a history of inequality when it comes to gender roles, television has arguably come a long way. The representation of women has slowly changed from the stereotypically images of 50s to professional and confident images of today. While unrealistic portrayals are still present to some degree, television shows are more likely to reflect women's current standing in society. As more women take on roles behind the scenes and serve as experts, this will further improve the presence of female characters and newscasters.

See the following links for more information on gender roles in TV.

  • : A PDF document that discusses how gender roles are portrayed in television commercials. It discusses the results of a study in which the effect that commercials have on the audience is reviewed by men and women.
  • : Discusses gender and the news in terms of men versus women during the prime-time news cast.
  • : A brief article on television and the portrayal of women on television.
  • : An article that examines the differences in gender roles and presence in commercials. Focuses on the difference between morning and afternoon programs.
  • : A PDF document that discusses women in media. The document discusses how often women are present in programming, how they are represented, and how viewing these portrayals affects children.


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