Gender and Television

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Television has played an important role in the gender wars. Decades after its invention and popular uptake, television
continues to polemicise due to the presence of stereotypes perpetuating restricted and negative images of women.

Depiction of women

The representation of males and females on the television screen has been a subject of much discussion since the television became commercially available in the late 1930s. In 1964, the feminist Betty Friedan claimed that “television has represented the American Woman as a “stupid, unattractive, insecure little household drudge who spends her martyred mindless, boring days dreaming of love—and plotting nasty revenge against her husband.” In the 1960s the shows I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched insinuated that the only way that a woman could escape her duties was to use magic. Industry analysis Shari Anne Brill of Carat USA states, “For years, when men were behind the camera, women were really ditsy. Now you have female leads playing superheroes, or super business women”. The stereotypes of women as housewives or presented as sex symbols continued throughout the 1980s and arguably to a lesser extent in the 21st century.

Depiction of men

While the depiction of women is confined to either the housewife or the ditsy bombshell, men are also depicted in unrealistic stereotypes - however, in general these stereotypes embody qualities--courage, stoicism, rationality--that society values. Many primetime dramas of the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s drew on the "masculine" emphasis of genres successful in other, prior media forms--novels, films, and radio. The western, the detective/police thriller, science fiction, and the medical drama featured controlling male characters, having adventures, braving danger, solving problems through reason and/or violence. Many critics have pointed to the goal-oriented nature of these generic forms, as opposed to the more open-ended, process-orientation of the serialised melodrama assumed to appeal to the female viewer.

Gender inequality

Prime time television since the 1950s has been aimed at and catered towards males. In 1952, 68% of characters in primetime dramas were male; in 1973, 74% of characters in these shows were male. In 1970 the National Organization for Women (NOW) took action. They formed a task force to study and change the “derogatory stereotypes of women on television.” In 1972 they challenged the licences of two network-owned stations on the basis of their sexist programming.

In more recent research, NOW have found that:

  • On primetime cable news programs, more than three-quarters of the hosts are white men and less than a quarter are white women. None of the hosts are people of color. The typical guest on these shows is white and male; overall, 67 percent of the guests are men and 84 percent are white.
  • In children's television, male characters appear at about twice the rate of female characters.
  • Animated programs in particular are more likely to portray male characters.
  • Females are almost four times as likely to be presented in sexy attire and twice as likely to be shown with a diminutive waist.
  • In a study of G-rated films from 1990-2005, only 28 percent of the speaking characters (both live and animated) were female. More than four out of five of the narrators were male. Eighty-five percent of the characters were white.

Forum for Debate on Gender Roles

Television can provide an important public forum for debate on gender roles. As the New York times reported recently, in the Arab world, for instance, controversies over certain TV shows (which incited some clerics to call for a ban on television shows or more extreme measures) reflects a cultural gap between the producers and consumers of television. While most Arab television dramas are produced in Syria and Egypt, the Arab world’s biggest TV market, in Saudi Arabia, is by far the most religiously and culturally conservative. Some shows that test the limits on the treatment of sex and gender roles are clearly “exposing people who are culturally isolated to modernity at a pace that is faster than they would like,” said Ramez Maluf, an associate professor of communications at Lebanese American University. Some controversies were sparked by the depiction of pre-marital sex, abortion and a husband treating his wife as his equal.


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