I met Taylor at work about 5 years ago. He is a very talented man, as well as funny, kind and generous. It’s been a while since we last worked together, but I still miss turning around and seeing him working away in his cubicle. Taylor knows a lot about television, and not surprisingly is getting a Ph.D. in Media and Cultural Studies. Let’s say he is the guy who watches T.V. for fun but is not actually wasting time like the rest of us!
Knowing how much he knows about T.V. and especially female characters, I was curious to know what he thought of the role of women in television. Read on. This may change the way you watch your favorite shows.
LW: How are women portrayed in TV today?
TM: With the fragmentation of television, more and more outlets could provide richer opportunities for characterization. They could, but they often don’t. It used to be that the big three networks went unchallenged and so answering the question of “how are women portrayed” would have been much easier, because the characterizations would have been mighty consistent. But we watch television much differently now, not only with innumerable cable channels but also streaming services like Netflix that produce their own original programming. With a cast of richly-colored characters, Netflix’s Orange is the New Black is a really fascinating dramedy about a women’s prison, featuring an ensemble of women including many women of color. The show is based on a book written by a woman, and was adapted for television by a female showrunner (one of the few). You cannot talk about women on television without talking about women behind it. That show’s a game-changer, and you must all watch it!
More on target, for the most part, television is whited-out and middle-class. There really are relatively few representations of women of color leads, statistically speaking (ABC’s Scandal is the first network drama to feature an African American lead since 1974! It is helmed by a black female showrunner, Shonda Rhimes!) and even fewer representations of lower-class or working-class women.
LW: How have women’s characters changed in the last 30 years?
TM: I saw a photo, recently, of a crowd of people (men and women feminists) standing behind Texas Senator Wendy Davis as she fillibustered a controversial bill that has had drastic consequences for lower-class women and women of color in Texas. The protestor’s sign read, “Feminism: Now back by popular demand.” But this sign ignores the fact that, although we’ve made great strides, feminism wasn’t “achieved” in the 1970s. And in the supposed “postfeminist” media climate in which female characters are portrayed as being equal to their male characters, you’ll notice that the power they supposedly have is exercised in two ways: on their bodies and with their wallets.
In the 1950s and ’60s, women on TV served a domestic duty: have children and take care of them and the house. Kiss the husband when he comes home. And cause trouble that he has to fix. Most of these women lived in rural, heartland, or suburban areas of the country with “wholesome” shows like Andy Griffith, and Hee Haw, Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, etc. In the 1970s, networks began actively targeting younger, urban audiences, scrapping these shows in favor of urban, politically-charged shows which gave voice to some of the first outspoken feminists created by two independent producers, TAT/Tandem (Norman Lear’s company) and MTM (Mary Tyler Moore’s company). While Tandem was producing controversial shows like All in the Family, and its many spin-offs including Maude, MTM was producing slightly more wholesome shows with characters like Mary Richards who were kind of “softcore” feminists, almost exclusively young, beautiful, white, and middle-class.
In the 1980s, the re-election of Reagan brought with it a conservativization of the media itself, and many of these more outspoken feminist shows were canceled and their actors out of jobs. When The Golden Girls was being formed, female showrunner Susan Harris desperately wanted Bea Arthur in the role of Dorothy, but network execs feared audiences would no longer like her, given her former role as Maude, an unabashed liberal feminist who had an abortion. She was reluctantly hired when Harris promised her trumpeting feminism would be muted by an ensemble cast.
And then Roseanne premiered and the nature of women on television was most aggressively challenged. Roseanne was not traditionally feminine, nor did she want to be. She was not middle-class, and although she was white, she was from the wrong side of the tracks. Her body was described as grotesque, and her rendition of the national anthem was called a disgrace by then-president George H.W. Bush. There hasn’t been another character or another show like Roseanne since. What made her interesting was how much she was feared, and the more controversial she became, the greater the impetus to shut her up or dismiss her as crazy white trash. As another media celebrity with rising fame and power, Oprah Winfrey became another target that the culture tried to shut down, saddling her with endless lesbian rumors and tales about how much of a “bitch” she is. These kinds of discourses about women are examples of the kind of serious reflection I encourage people to consider before they join in.
Since then, as I said before, most women on television fit into a classical model of femininity. Most are young, white, middle class and most exert their “power” – labeled as their influence over men – by either their sexuality or their spending power. Sex and the City is a good example of this.
LW: Who are your favorite female TV characters and why?
TM: Roseanne – as both an actor and an executive, she challenged the status quo and brought a new kind of family to television, along the way addressing issues like class, menstruation, gayness and sexuality, domestic violence, racism, and sisterhood head-on.
Xena and Gabrielle – Buffy gets a lot of credit that I think Xena more accurately deserves. Xena: Warrior Princes, despite and yet because it is often campy, creates a rich world in which the perspectives of women are front and center. The show beautifully lays out a relationship between two women (lesbian or not), that is allowed to be layered and complicated and multivalent and everything and nothing all at once. Xena doesn’t, like most women on TV, stumble through an assemblage of relationships with men trying to navigate the waters of dating while killing vampires along the way. She instead follows a path of redemption with the emotional support of her sidekick, Gabrielle in a way that women just aren’t allowed to be important to each other in other shows.
Lucy Ricardo – Although she was always trying to find a way to get into the show, the wink wink nod nod of I Love Lucy is that it was Desi Arnaz who struggled to find fame alongside his unstoppably successful wife. The great beauty of Lucy is that she is untameable, uncontained, and out of control. She’s not a particularly good “domestic” and nor does she want to be. In my mind, she’s the first woman on TV who fights back.
LW: What does “having it all” mean for female TV characters?
TM: I think given, again, the white and middle class tendencies of the TV industry, “having it all” on TV echoes the kind of Lean In ideology of Sheryl Sandberg’s book. A powerful woman with a powerful job who successfully balances the responsibilities of family life. I can think of surprisingly few examples of this, given the continued conservativism of television, which would, in broad brushstrokes, most often portray a working mother as someone not being responsible to her children and/or abandoning them shamefully. She, as a working girl (in this ideology), is not fulfilling her role as a woman. Or, she is married to a deadbeat not fulfilling his role as a man.
You’ll see this a lot in shows like Desperate Housewives where characters like Lynette Scavo struggle with being a mother and a boss. Surveying other shows, most women are either single, working gals trying to find a man, or married housewives cleaning up baby poop and vacuuming cheerios out from under the table. Often in cable, working moms are single moms, like Nurse Jackie. But when we think of “having it all” we need to be careful, again, to reflect on how this is a middle-class luxury. Thinking back to Roseanne, she had to balance a career and a family, not to “have it all” but because she couldn’t afford the luxury not to. When I had the chance to interview Roseanne a few years ago, she said, “Nobody but white middle classes (those with disposable incomes) ever stayed home to care for their kids or ever got the choice–everyone but a small percentage of (white, or upper class) women always worked in the job force AND raised kids.”
As an academic, I would suggest those women (and men) who do have the option to “have it all” so to speak, stand in a place of enormous gratitude, recognizing the backs of the feminists upon which they do stand comfortably, and never forget or be complacent about the work still to do in terms of feminism and equality. In other words, instead of striving to “have it all” I would hope our goal as people is to “share it all with others.”
Taylor Cole Miller is a doctoral student of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. His primary research interests include LGBTQ, rural, and “low culture” media studies, feminist media studies, and television studies. He is also a writer for the Huffington Post.