The Portrayal of Women on Television

Paul T Harper

Gender representation on television is one of the more contentious issues surrounding the medium, and is more closely scrutinised today than ever before. In the everyday world women slightly outnumber men. Yet throughout history, women have been continually forced into subservience by men, and it is only in the second half of this century that conditions for women have really made significant improvements. Coincidentally, this is also roughly the period of time in which the medium of television has become the most popular form of entertainment in our society. The question then is, how are women portrayed on the television, in a world where social change in attitudes is occurring? The modern image of the more liberated woman is, according to Gunter, "not the image of the contemporary woman on television" (Gunter 1986, 9). Perhaps more depressingly, referring to the characteristics of women on adult television, Gunter suggests that "it seems that sex-role stereotyping is more deeply woven into the fabric of television programming than the obvious numerical distinction between the sexes suggests" (Gunter 1986, 9).

This essay will try to look in more detail at how women are portrayed on television, particularly in advertising, but also on ‘soap-operas’ and other drama type programmes. Then it will look at how much these representations really affect our opinions of women – to what degree are we being controlled by the television, if we are at all, for perhaps we are not quite as passive as some would have us believe. Do the media, and in this instance television, reflect society or shape it?

As suggested in the introduction, the charge very often levelled against television is that it acts to reinforce and perhaps even worsen sex-role stereotypes of women (and men). Durkin describes sex roles as "the collection of behaviours or activities that…society deems more appropriate to members of one sex than…the other sex" (Durkin 1985, 9). Sex-role stereotypes then are the "generalised beliefs about what is appropriate to and typical of a particular sex" (Durkin 1985, 11). Durkin goes on to explain how "prejudice associated with sex-role stereotypes is known by the…coinage ‘sexism’" (Durkin 1985, 13).

Therefore, television could often be described as sexist, if it is true that it reinforces prejudice sex-role stereotypes. These would include the idea that women are supposed to look very pretty, be domestic, have children and then look after them while the man goes out to work, and these kinds of things. Another distinction that can be made is between sex-roles, quite literally the roles played, and sex-traits, which are personality attributes typically displayed by men or women (supposedly). This is a little like the difference between sex, which is biological, and gender, which can describe the traits a sex is supposed to have. Sex-trait stereotypes include the idea that women are more emotional than men, easily flustered, fearful and anxious and other such notions. These terms and stereotypes are what will be looked at here.

As suggested in an earlier quote, it would appear from most studies carried out that women are outnumbered by men on television, by varying amounts. This would seem a good place to begin looking at representations of women, because it highlights a fundamental problem from the very beginning – how can this be, when men and women are present in roughly equal numbers in society, and if anything there are slightly more women. And the statistics make it sound even worse – upto 85 percent of characters on children’s television are male, and in general drama men can outnumber women by three or four to one (Chandler 1998). In research from 1975, Miles found that in the United States, a mere fifteen percent of lead roles in action-adventure programmes were female (Gunter 1986, 7). Clearly there is a suggestion of sexism from these statistics, and if there are less women actually on television and taking lead roles, then already women are misrepresented, firstly by the suggestion that there are less women than men in the world, and second by the inference that it is only really men who are capable of taking a lead and being the ‘hero’. However, this numerical evidence goes further and shows how in certain genres and types of programme, the number of women changes. Referring back to the study by Miles, it showed that whilst the average percentage of characters in United States drama who were female was 39 percent, in action-adventure shows, that figure fell to just 15 percent, whilst in soap-operas, it was nearly and even split between male and female main characters (Durkin 1985, 11). Women were also present in higher numbers in situation-comedies. These figures demonstrate how the likes of ‘Cagney & Lacey’ are exceptions to the norm. They would also suggest that women are perhaps not very good at being involved in action and adventure – and when it is realised how many more women there are in soap-operas, maybe the inference is that women are far better suited to being emotional and domestic – the domestic setting being at the core of most soap-operas.

There have also been a number of studies that have tried to give a statistical analysis of the way women are portrayed on television. Again, they all point to certain stereotypes being reinforced. A study by Tedesco in 1974 showed that 51 percent of females against 31 percent of males were clearly shown to be married in television drama (Gunter 1986, 9). And McNeil (1975) found that 75 percent of men were gainfully employed, against less than half of women. He also found that when in employment, a female character is less likely to have a very important job and is more likely to work under close supervision (cited in Gunter 1986, 9). So again, women are seen as being better suited to being married and keeping a home, rather than going out into the high powered world. It has been noted that "a number of recurring characterisations of female portrayals have been identified", leading to "’propositions’ about the nature of a woman’s role in life" (Gunter 1986, 8). These recurring characteristics have been outlined by D.H. Meehan as The Imp, The Goodwife, The Harpy, The Bitch, The Victim, The Decoy, The Siren, The Courtesan, The Witch and The Matriarch (Chandler 1998). In all kinds of television drama these ten female character types can usually be found.

It has been suggested that the soap-opera is a feminine form, for a variety of different reasons, including the serial form with no real beginning or end, the multiple characters, the concentration on domestic and personal issues such as relationships, and the domestic setting itself. Perhaps this suggestion in itself is a form of stereotyping – trying to pin genres down to a masculine of feminine. However, as has been shown, women are more numerically equally represented in soap-operas. However, they are still not really shown in a much more positive and equal light with men. Women are still found to be far more involved in worrying about their appearance and their personal relationships than are men, and are not usually aggressive or the like as this is a ‘masculine’ trait. Furthermore, when a female character is powerful and strong (and ‘unfeminine’), she will often ultimately fail or flounder, and either change to become more sensitive and caring, or be condemned to a life of misery and loneliness. An example of this from British soap-opera could be the late Cindy Beale, who died virtually alone in prison during childbirth – she refused to ever stop being manipulative and selfish, and so she ended up alone and dead. On a more positive note, Fiske suggests that in soap-opera, women can use their sexuality as a "positive source of pleasure…or as a means of her empowerment in a patriarchal world." However, he concludes that "the woman’s power to influence and control the male can never be achieved but it constantly in progress" (Fiske 1987, 187). Maybe some women would not mind this, but it does imply once again that a woman can never ultimately be fully in control.

Although it has been seen that women are generally portrayed in roles that show them to be subservient to men in television drama (and even children’s television and cartoons), it is in advertising that television is most backward in comparison with society’s attitudes, and also where the most cliched stereotypes exist. A damning comment from Jean Kilbourne probably sums up a lot of adverts; "Scientific studies and the most casual viewing yield the same conclusion: Women are shown almost exclusively as housewives or sex objects" (cited in Dines 1995, Ch. 16) We are, according to Kilbourne, subjected to "over 1500 ads a day, constituting perhaps the most powerful educational force in society" (ibid.). With this knowledge (although this is from the United States), it is even more worrying then that women are represented so badly in adverts. A 1972 New York Times Magazine survey found that in 1200 different adverts, one third showed women as domestic agents of, or needing, men, while one fifth showed them as sex objects without brains, and forty percent showed them as housewives. Other studies reveal similar results. And in most of these adverts the theme is selling artificiality – even pretty girls with a ‘natural’ look are using some kind of product to help them achieve it! In adverts for washing powders, women are almost always shown as the housewife who has to keep the family clean – because people will judge her on how clean they are. Even more recent adverts, which could be said to show women in a more powerful way, are still fundamentally putting women down. An example of this is one of the Nissan Micra adverts, where the man has borrowed the woman’s car, and she lures him into thinking she wants to be passionate with him, but tricks him and handcuffs him to the stair-rail for the night instead. Admittedly, she ends up in the dominant position and he in chains, but once more the advert shows a woman who can apparently only use her physical allure to take control – and it also seems like more of a male fantasy than something designed to show women positively. Even in children’s advertising there is stereotypical behaviour shown. Girls are usually playing housewife with dolls and toy items, while boys will be seen playing soldiers or some other action filled game.

There are a number of techniques used in advertising which bring about the accusation that it is sexist. Men are usually offering women advice, and it is usually a male voiceover if one is used. Men are often seen standing above a woman, to represent power, and women are seen as frivolous and stupid (as in the ‘Diet Coke Break’ advert, where once more it is the man who is making all the middle-age women go ‘weak at the knees’). A frequently used technique is dismemberment – showing the separate parts of a woman’s body – for example, her legs, on their own. This suggests that her body is totally separate to her mind, and if she has ‘good’ legs then that is all that matters.

Kilbourne suggests that "advertising creates a mythical, WASP-orientated world in which no-one is ever ugly, overweight, poor, struggling or disabled…" (ibid.). This is especially true of women – in dramas and even in roles like quiz show hostess – they are always aesthetically pleasing. Yet how much do all these things really affect the viewer? In 1985, Mellencamp traced a ‘gender base’ of television (news and sport for men, fashion and cookery for women, ‘kidvid’ for children) back to the nineteen fifties, suggesting that people do watch different kinds of television dependant on their gender (Fiske 1987, 187). And there is evidence that advertising images do take their toll – in a 1984 survey by Glamour magazine, half of those surveyed who were actually underweight reported feeling overweight and wanting to diet! Obviously it is very difficult to prove a link between this kind of mentality and advertising, but there is at least a strong suspicion that this could be the case. There is also evidence to suggest that children (and maybe adults) will take a male newsreader more seriously, and trust him as more authoritative than a female. However, any of these things are hard to prove. It is almost impossible to get a control group of children who have not been exposed to television to test any cultivation theories on. Also, it must be considered that many of the social stereotypes and sexism are learned outside of television. Women were suppressed long before television even existed, and according to Durkin (1984), young children often elaborate on scenes they are watching using knowledge they have brought in from somewhere else. This having been said, it remains true that "the media, along with other socialising agencies, are constantly constructing that apparently natural ‘reality’" (Alvarado 1987, 177).

So it has been seen that women are portrayed on television in a stereotypical, often sexist and usually impossible way (like the ‘superwoman’ we see so much now – good looking, popular, successful and good in the home as well). True, much of the research used here is slightly older, particularly the studies, but although things have moved forward, they haven’t fundamentally changed that much at all. With less taboos in the late nineteen nineties, adverts are often more and more sexual in nature and may show women being dominant, or may represent women as able to be the voyeur as well, but it is all still through the ‘male gaze’, from a man's point of view with men still superior. Adverts in particular reduce people to objects, according to Kilbourne, and reduce sexuality to a dirty joke, thus de-emphasising human contact and therefore posing a serious threat if we don’t recognise it. Women are still generally represented as inferior on television in general, and especially on adverts. And although the world would remain sexist even without television, the medium does open up a whole new door for people to gaze through, and believe what they see. Television allows people to see more things and so choose what they want to be – but unfortunately that choice for girls is often one full of impossible contradictions in what they are shown, meaning that television perhaps confuses further an issue which it could help to resolve with more equal and less stereotypical portrayals of women.


November 1998