Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Women in film and television: empowered or objectified?

In the 1950s, conservative notions about a woman's role in society led actresses to be typecast as stay-at-home moms like June Cleaver and Olivia Walton. These on-screen moms typified the ideal woman, and homemaker, who cooked, cleaned, laundered, cared for her children, and obeyed her husband. Television has changed dramatically since the 50's, but not necessarily in a way that is favorable to women. Despite efforts by organizations like Women, Action & the Media (WAM) to promote gender equity in media access, women are increasingly portrayed as sex icons, and are less likely to be cast in serious roles. While women are no longer restricted to playing mommy roles, they are faced with a new challenge: can they be sexy?

Before sex columnist Carrie Bradshaw, Americans loved another journalist: Mary Richards of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Both characters depict single women in big cities, but stand "on very different ends of the chastity scale." In the 1970s, concurrent with the second wave of feminism, Hollywood debuted Mary as its first unmarried career woman in her thirties, determined to "make it on her own." Bonnie Dow asserts that Mary Tyler Moore was undoubtedly inspired by the women's liberation movement, and she was an intended departure from sexist portrayals of women on TV. Over its seven-year run, the series topped the charts, dealing with issues of sexism in the workplace, equal pay for women and men, contraception, and divorce. Mary Richards kept it classy and professional- she kept her clothes on, and kept her pillow talk private. So, how did  Mary Tyler Moore become Sex and the City

Katherine Lehman contends that the producers of Mary Tyler Moore needed Mary Richards to appeal to a broad audience. Given that single and sexual women threatened traditional American values, the writers developed a character that could broach controversial issues, without offending viewers. Id. But for some, Mary Tyler Moore played it too safe, offering viewers nothing more that a "glorified go-fer in a television news room."  

While Mary Richards served as a "gentle role model... [to] the shaky career woman" in the 1970's, Sabrina Duncan, Jill Munroe, and Kelly Garret sexualized traditionally male police work on Charlie's Angels. Dubbed, "the women who transformed television," Farah Fawcett (Jill), Jaclyn Smith (Kelly), and Kate Jackson (Sabrina) played a trio of police academy graduates, working as private investigators, combating crime with feathered hair and skimpy outfits. Charlie's Angels defied the rules of sexual etiquette and paved the way for a new typecast: oversexed harlot. But was this really progress?

Although the angels were strong women-- able to physically defend themselves against burly criminals-- they did so under the direction of their mystery boss, Charlie. The mere fact that the girls called themselves Charlie's angels, and were willing to service a man they had never met, reinforced male dominance and superiority-- not to mention the idea that women should put faith in men without asking any questions. Also distressing is Farrah Fawcett's declaration that when the show got to be number one, she decided it could only be because none of the girls wore a bra.  In fact, Charlie's Angels engendered a new industry acronym: T&A TV, otherwise, tits and ass TV. 

Debuting in 1998, Sex and the City took T&A TV to a new level.  Featuring four professional women and their adventures in sex and relationships, many women exalt the show as the "feminist Bible on screen.Given the series' recurring theme of no-strings-attached sexual rendezvous, nudity is a central element of the show. In fact, many scenes feature Kim Catrall (Samantha) completely nude and in the act of coitus. But how does sex make this show feminist? Have women failed to realize that these independent Upper Manhattan women are obsessed with men and the search for love? Who can forget that Miranda reconciled with her cheating husband, or that Charlotte gave up a lucrative career for kids? Didn't both Samantha and Carrie leave New York and abandon their lives to follow their boyfriends? 

The Women's Media Center 2012 report offers dismal statistics on the status of women in the media today. The report highlights the underrepresentation of women who determine the content of news, literature, television and film entertainment, as well as the negative portrayal of women in film and television. Moreover, in the 100 top-grossing films of 2007, 2008, and 2009, women represented only one-third of speaking characters over all three years. In many of these roles, women were hyper-sexualized, and more likely than males to wear sexy clothing and be depicted partially nude. In 2009 25.8 percent of females versus 4.7 percent of males in these films were shown in sexy attire, and 23.6 percent of females versus 7.4 percent of males were shown partially nude.

This piece is not a rant against sex, sexuality, or a woman's right to make them her own. Instead, it is an attempt to highlight another way that sexism is disguised as feminism. I say, if a woman has the nerve to bare it for the cameras, more power to her. However, the popularity and success of  actresses and their film and television characters should not depend on T&A. 


CET said...

I vote that women on TV today are more objectified than empowered. I think this is due to the increase in reality TV shows that center around women who are "famous" for being "real housewives" or "celebutantes." These women it seems are very focused on their appearance and are constantly getting into catfights with other women. Unfortunately, I think some people watch these shows and see these reality TV stars as representing the modern woman next door.

While there are other TV shows that feature strong female leads who are intelligent and articulate (Bones on FOX is one of my personal favorites), in 2010, 15 of the top 20 TV shows were unscripted reality shows. What are viewers learning from these shows? Lots of drama gets you attention and fame. It seems the women with the most character and sass get the most camera time.

I will caveat all of this by saying that I don't watch any reality TV shows except The Bachelor (which is among the worst as far as its depiction of women). From what I have seen, however, few reality TV shows aim to show women as strong, independent individuals who I would be proud to call a friend or role model.

Mo said...

I would agree with CET, and I think she makes a very strong point about reality television and the reinforcement of negative stereotypes. The entire line of “Real Housewives of [American City]” shows is really hard to stomach. The title alone is awful, and the premise leaves something to be desired. What’s really offensive, though, I think, is that these are all categorized as “reality TV.” Obviously, there is nothing real about anything on reality television, but the glorification and categorization of the behavior as “reality” has to be damaging on a fundamental level. That is, by giving these shows a viewing audience, we run the risk, as CET says, of conceptualizing the actors as the “modern wom[en] next door.” And that is simply unacceptable.

Sam said...

“Who can forget that Miranda reconciled with her cheating husband, or that Charlotte gave up a lucrative career for kids? Didn't both Samantha and Carrie leave New York and abandon their lives to follow their boyfriends?”

None have these acts is inherently anti-feminist. They become anti-feminist if they are done because a woman feels obligated or motivated to do them because of societal expectations for her gender. If Charlotte gave up her career because she feels women are expected to be caretakers, and the message of the show is that this expectation is justified, then her actions becomes anti-feminist.

However, if Charlotte gave up her career because that is what sincerely makes her happy, then her actions are perfectly consistent with feminism. Feminism is not an end in itself. It is simply a means for women to achieve a greater level of well-being.

The problem with media is that it fails to accurately portray the full gamut of what does – and what can – make women happy.

Attisaurus said...

This post really reminded me of the poignant and pressing issues brought up by the film "Miss Representation."

I think Sam is right that "the problem with media is that it fails to accurately portray the full gamut of what does – and what can – make women happy." But the ultimate root of that problem is the fact that women own less than 10% of major media outlets in America, including print and online resources. When the people deciding what is entertainment for a target demographic do not belong to that demographic, problems naturally arise.

The solution? More women with the education, empowerment, and financial wherewithal to manage and control media corporations - and the courage to remain authentic to real women's issues rather than issues that men perceive to be women's issues (how oh how will i find a husband by age 30, how can I be a more efficient coupon-clipper, etc).