The Portrayal of Women on Television

Helen Ingham

Television is widely known to represent and reinforce the mainstream ideology of contemporary western culture: patriarchy. While television representations of women have changed greatly in the last twenty years alone, in order to accommodate the changing role of women in society, one is led to ask how much the ideology has changed behind the more modern representations of women. Television is regarded by many viewers to be the most 'real' form of media. If this is the case, then it is important for us to question how real the representations of women are on television and how this affects the attitudes of those who watch.

Some of the most watched, and perhaps influential genres of television viewing are advertisements and soap operas, and it is these two forms of television that I will be largely focusing on throughout this essay.

In a world where women are numbered greater than men, can television be said to reflect the world as it is, or dictate to it?

Sexism is the systematic oppression of women by men, and so the amount of sexism, if any, will be investigated as various representations of women are investigated.

As mentioned above, there is a higher number of women in the population than men, so if television is more realistic, this should be reflected. Yet women are typically seen less often than men on television and much less frequently in central dramatic roles. For example, figures show that in television drama women are outnumbered by men 3:1 or 4:1, in cartoons women are outnumbered 10:1 and in soaps women are outnumbered by as much as 7:3 which is quite surprising when one considers that this genre of television viewing has a very high proportion of female audience. Even children's television is dominated by males: 70% - 85%. Men also dominate the production side of television, so it is hardly surprising then, that the masculine or patriarchal ideology is presented as the norm, when women are so outnumbered by men on screen , and behind the scenes in television.

So we can see then, that television presents its audience with a very masculine perspective.

Gunter argues that televisions sex stereotyping occurs in relation to various roles in which men and women are portrayed and which have a connection with the personality attributes they typically display. He therefore divides stereotyping into sex role stereotyping and sex trait stereotyping.

Sex role stereotyping reflects the changes in beliefs about the value of family, child care, the role of the woman in marriage and the possibility of self-fulfilment through work. Generally, in the world of television, women tend to be confined to a life dominated by the family and personal relationships far more than men, outside the home, as well as in it. For example, according to a study by McNeil, about 75% of men are depicted as employed whereas less than 50% of women are (Gunter, 1986: 11).

Sex trait stereotyping, on the other hand, Gunter argues as reflecting more commonly held stereotypes about women's characteristics; for example, that women are more emotional than men. But the word 'emotional' isn't used in association with aggression or dominance, it is more often than not used in association in reference to the neuroticism commonly associated with women and femininity. Examples of these forms of stereotyping will become apparent as various genres of programming are investigated.

Advertising is probably one of the most important and influential products of television. Indeed, the average adult spends one and a half years of his or her life watching television adverts. For the amount of time we spend watching adverts, it stands to reason that it will have some kind of effect on those who watch.

Paul Trowler sites a study of women in advertisements, which found that women were seven times more likely to appear in personal hygiene product adverts than to not appear; 75% of all adverts using females were for products used in the bathroom or kitchen, 56% of women in adverts were shown as domestic housewives and only eighteen different occupations were shown for women, in comparison to forty three for men (Trowler,1988: 96). Behind these figures then, we can see how advertising is prescribing the role of a woman as being very much a family and home orientated one.

When a mother and wife goes out to work leaving her family to fend for themselves, she is often punished. For example, an OXO advert, where we see the mother just come in from work to find that her family has eaten all the dinner without leaving her any. She looks into the camera with a resigned smile, portraying that she knows that this is her punishment and she's accepting it. Even when women are shown in a position of power, it is still shown through a very patriarchal ideology. If we use the Kenko advert as an example; a woman is looking at the quality of coffee beans and says to the man (seller) that she'll take them all. Seeing her (male) assistant, he says; "I'd better o.k it with the boss." to her reply of; "You just did.".

Often when women are shown in a position of power, it is portrayed as being unnatural, because from the dominant ideology, it is the men who are the most powerful and so having a male working for a female is made an issue of because it goes against the grain. This is one of the reasons why so many women are shown in domestic situations.

Jean Kilbourne in "Beauty and the Beast of Advertising", recognises that a number of studies have reached the same conclusion in that a large number of advertisements portray women as housewives or sex objects. The housewife is married, usually with children, and is shown to be obsessed with cleanliness and alpine fresh scents. Indeed, the housewife's life is shown to revolve around products which will make her house dust-free, germ-free, and dirt-free. Knowing that cleanliness of the house is her job, she usually does it with a smile, providing that she has the latest product to give her a helping hand..

When men are shown in domestic situations, they are usually portrayed as being incompetent or are shown to be manipulative: smarter than the female. Examples of this would be in the Persil advert, where the young man has no clean shirts and has to wash one. First, he has problems discovering which of the kitchen appliances is the washing machine, then, while he's reading the instructions on the side of the Persil packet, the powder spills all over the floor, to which his reaction is "Mum!". Finally we see him walking along wearing a whiter than white shirt.

The second advert is for Flash multi-purpose cleaner. The husband offers to take over the scrubbing of the floor, much to the surprise of his wife who leaves him to it. The husband then uses Flash in order to show how 'effortless' cleaning can be. When his wife returns, he grabs the scrubbing brush again so that it appears that he's scrubbed the whole floor. In response, his wife congratulates him and starts rubbing his back.

In both of these adverts, men are portrayed as not often using a kitchen. The first demonstrates this as the young man makes a mess and even blames his mother for not being there to clean for him. The second represents this in the way we see the husband sitting on a chair, sweeping the mop across the floor, and the way in which his wife rewards him with affection for doing something which is more often than not seen as her task. The second even goes so far as to imply that women are gullible and not as intelligent as men through the way that the wife is scrubbing the floor and how in contrast, the husband uses a mop and Flash. It portrays that the wife is ignorant of modern products that can make the job easier, but the husband doesn't tell her , because he can use it to manipulate her into giving him affection for a task which she thinks he has worked as hard as her on.

The sex object, according to Kilbourne, is a "mannequin" whose only attribute is conventional beauty. She is tall and thin, with very long legs, perfect teeth and hair, and skin without a blemish in sight. Underneath the surface, there is nothing. The mannequin's beauty is merely superficial. She is used to advertise cosmetics, health products and anything that works to improve the appearance of the body.

Often, these mannequins are dismembered in adverts showing the parts of the body that are in need of change or improvement. An example of this is in the Neutralia shower gel advert where a young blonde woman is portrayed running along a deserted beach naked representing the 'naturalness' of the product, and then different parts of her body are shown at a time, being washed. The woman has an expression of pleasure on her face as if she knows that this product will bring out her natural beauty. She is made to look somewhat virginal, with little obvious make-up, blonde hair, blue eyes and in a state of nudity, but seemingly unaware of it , like Eve, before she took the apple. This advert emphasises the naturalness of the product and the woman, and implicitly reinforces the 'naturalness' of a woman being a virgin, which is very much a part of the dominant ideology, but does not apply to men.

In contradiction to this, women in adverts are also represented as sexual objects used for the sole purpose of giving men pleasure. If we look at the most recent Lion Bar advert, we see a young man in his early twenties get up and get dressed, noting that his jeans and T-shirt have large rips. He goes out to buy some Lion Bars, and as he returns, the camera pans around the room to reveal claw marks on the walls and furniture. It is then we see a beautiful young woman lying on the bed, and as the camera zooms in, she opens her eyes, revealing cat-like pointed irises. At the end of the advert, when she sees the Lion Bars, she roars (like a lion).

This advert, one might find particularly derogatory towards women in the way that it likens them to animals and possessions; and the way in which the woman is placed on the bed in the advert portrays women as being only objects used for sex; void of any personality or feelings. Both these adverts succeed in dehumanising women in that the first divides the woman up into parts of a body, implying that she is nothing more than say, a car, something which is only a number of parts put together. The second advert dehumanises the woman by showing her as an animal with little control over herself and led by sexual instinct. It also shows her as being a possession, as is a cat or dog, through the way the man has to feed her with Lion Bars, and as we see from their room, if she doesn't get her Lion Bars, She'll destroy it, just as an ill-trained dog might, if left un-fed.

We can see then from these two examples the contradictory messages that women are given. They are expected to be sexy and virginal, experienced and naive, seductive and chaste. They are made to feel that they have to achieve this ideal, by constantly being presented with these images and are made to feel guilty and ashamed if they fail. Rita Freedman found that:

"When Glamour magazine surveyed its readers in 1984, 75% felt too heavy and only 15% felt just right. Nearly half of those who were underweight reported feeling too fat and wanting to diet. Among a sample of college women, 40% felt overweight, while only 12% were actually too heavy" (Dines, Humez, 1995: 346).

It can thus be concluded that adverts create a climate in which sexual sell and dismemberment teamed with impossible body images is seen as acceptable.

In the world of soap operas, on may be inclined to feel that women are represented more fairly, as this is a genre of television watched mainly by women. With soaps, production is created cheaply because no other competition incorporates women's perspectives and is seen as accessible, costs as little, doesn't take women out of their homes, and could later be shared with friends.

The majority of soap operas are set in a domestic situation, because the home is a place where women's expertise is supposedly valued, and is also a place of comfort. Often, the central characters are female, and the ultimate achievement for these women in soaps is to get married and have children. So it could be argued that the myth of never ending maternalism actually conceals the subordination of women. In fact, the subliminal messages often tend to be male dominated. In one episode of Home and Away for example, there was a disagreement about Jack and Sam having to share a room. Sally says to Sam, who is about ten years old; "So what? Me and Shannon share a room all the time.", to which he replies; "Yeah, but you girls like sharing rooms, trying on each others clothes. Us men need our space.". This implies that women always need other people, compare themselves with others, and cannot cope on their own like 'men' can. Even though this line came across somewhat humorously, being delivered by a ten-year-old boy, it still portrays the patriarchal ideology that women have a need for companionship that men don't. Indeed, it is companionship and relationships which are emphasised in soaps, with relationships being portrayed between women as important, but not as important as the relationship between a woman and a man. This is often portrayed through the central female character being a wife and usually a mother, if not wanting to be one, for example, Pippa in Home and Away fills the role of the selfless mother and wife; the good wife who, according to Meehan; "is domestic, attractive, home centred and content. She does not wish to become involved with the world outside the home, leaving this to her husband" (Trowler,1988: 96).

It used to be the case that such women were presented as sexless, that once they have had a family, they lose all sexual desire and attraction. This is still the case in much of prime time television, but in recent years, has changed to accommodate the housewife's sexuality. A good example would be Cheryl from Neighbours. But while the subject is spoken about openly between herself and her husband, she comes across more as a bimbo owing to the way she seldom speaks of much else except for that and her baby. However, in domestic soaps, there are still women who are shown as being sexless because they have a family. If we take the example of Pippa again, this is shown through her appearance (she always looks as if she's wearing maternity dresses), and how infrequently the subject is raised between herself and her husband. It is very rare for these main characters in such soaps to mention sex, and the viewers often see little more than a rare hug and a peck on the cheek between them, yet with the young single women characters, we often see them initiate what we are led to believe will lead on to sex, and the subject is broached much more frequently.

The young, single woman characters tend to conform to the mannequin image, being tall, slim, conventionally beautiful, and usually they are portrayed as being the 'girl next door' type character, friendly, happy, not very intelligent, and seldom aiming high in a career. Examples would include; Annalise - Neighbours, Donna - Home and Away, Fiona - Coronation street and Samantha - Eastenders.

When these characters do try to further themselves in a career, they invariably seem to fail; for example, Samantha from Eastenders left her husband to pursue a career in modelling, but was unsuccessful. In this way, women are often punished for pursuing their careers at the expense of their men. There is, however, a lot of images of men and women working together to achieve things, usually a husband / wife, girlfriend / boyfriend relationship. In fact, men and women in soaps are probably more equal than in any other genre of television programming. By playing down male domination, soap operas make the family more palatable.

In the more glamorous American soap operas, women of all ages use their sexuality to gain power and the middle aged women are presented much more frequently as being desirable sexually in comparison to those in the more domestic soaps. We also see women in a position of power more regularly, although these characters tend to be invariably aggressive, and are often portrayed as the villainess; a woman who turns her traditional feminine characteristics into a source of strength. Often she will use pregnancy and / or insight to manipulate people. She uses her sexuality for herself, and not for the pleasure of men. An example of such a woman would be Alexis from Dynasty. She is a reversal of male and female roles. Indeed, Modleski argues that the final control the villainess strives for is control over passive femininity rather than control over men.

In soaps the more positive features that the villainess possesses are portrayed in a morally disapproving manner, and so ultimately, success is denied. The female viewer both loves and hates this character, sides with her, yet at the same time, desires her downfall. As John Fiske argues;

"The contradictions in the text and its reading position reflect the contradictions inherent in the attempt to assert feminine values within and against a patriarchal society." (Dines, Humez,1995: 346)

So the villainess is portrayed in both a positive and a negative light at the same time; positive because she does things for herself rather than men, and negative because she is shown to ultimately fail, which implicitly warns women not to follow this example of a woman.

Therefore, while soap operas do portray women in a more positive way than advertising and other forms of television, it still ultimately respects and conforms to the broader mainstream cultural demands, through the way in which it still tends to put women in a domestic setting, especially if she has a family. Soaps often show women as having jobs, but rarely pursing their careers, and if they do, more often than not, they are unsuccessful. Thus we can see how even a form of television programming aimed at a majority female audience contains subliminal messages reinforcing the dominant male ideology.

One point of interest would be how people respond to the representations of women embodied through television. I have interviewed four people concerning their personal opinions of how fair these representations are.

Person A is female and nineteen years old, person B is female and twenty-years old, person C is male and fifty years old, and person D is male and twenty-four years old.

When asked to think of five stereotypes for women, the one stereotype that all respondents gave was the bimbo, a conventionally beautiful young woman with little intelligence and who they considered would usually be found on soaps and quiz shows. All the stereotypes that the respondents gave were from soap operas, dramas and adverts. None of the respondents felt that women are represented in a wholly accurate manner.

But what is interesting, however, is the fact that C and D thought representations to be more true than A and B. A and B both rejected the majority of images they spoke about, and even said they felt angry at what television portrays as a woman. The messages that the men and women received were different, but still not constructive. A and B both said that they felt television telling them that their place is behind men and that there is a pressure to always look good. Respondent D said he felt that television dictates what type of woman he should be attracted to, but despite that, he felt that the representations of women are getting better all the time. C Thought that the numbers of women involved in television programmes are representative of the number of women in the population. On referring to the roles of men and women, he states that; "..generally, the men are the hunters and have to provide, and women are the carers." He also stated that he tends to associate shallowness with beautiful women (the mannequin), but denied that this view came as a response of the women portrayed on television.

One might argue from these interviews that men consider television representations of women to be more true than do the women. Even though everyone admitted that they are not wholly representative, these portrayals still have some effect on the views that the respondents hold about women.

Therefore we can see the different roles that women are shown to fill, and in some aspects they are representative; there are domestic women, career women, single mothers, beautiful women etc. While television can be said to reflect the changing roles of women, it seems to portray them in a light of approval or disapproval, positive or negative according to the roles that patriarchy favours: the housewife is favoured, whilst the woman in power is often shown to be the villain. More importantly, women are often represented as not being so intelligent as men, and having to rely on them. It is also shown that a woman is either intelligent or beautiful; but rarely both. It is important to note also, the effects that these portrayals have on people, and while these interviews are by no means representative of the population, it proves that they do affect peoples views of what women are really like.


November 1995