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Tv Dramas And Gender Representation Film Studies Essay

One of the biggest events in American TV drama this year will feature the end of an epic which featured everything from teleporting islands and polar bears in the tropics to murderous smoke monsters and backwards talking apparitions. At its heart, though, LOST will be about the conclusion of the feud of two rivaling all-powerful, supernatural men.

Last year was Battlestar Galactica’s time, and the year before that was The Wire, and even before was The Sopranos—every single celebrated series enjoying critical success just like LOST does today.

It’s not just the regular commendations in TIME’s television programs review section or the Emmy trophies that these shows share, however, which they also do with other serial dramas currently duking it out on air—and for once, at least in this case, it’s not something to cheer about: their take on the gender issue.

Of course, it would take something more than a slight scan of the synopsis for this to be clear, but in LOST, it’s clear just from the first few batch of episodes: that doctor Jack Shephard has been the show’s crutch for six years now, his adventures to lead the people off the island earning him the irk of a rebellious boar hunter, a manipulative janitor, and a conman. Numerically, feminists can be pleased as Jack also had come to do business with a policewoman, a criminal girl, and a lady obstetrician. The catch: those three had just been relegated as his love interests.

And yes, that previous summarization of the roots of Lost wasn’t a typo: girls aren’t anywhere there.

Again, the trend is the same for the other shows. While hot and sensual Cylons are the ones Battlestar Galactica’s testosterone-filled viewers keep coming back to every week, it’s still Commander Bill Adama to whom they owe the continuance of the entire show to. The story of The Wire was cooped in a very busy Baltimore City which as the series progressed increasingly felt as if it had been designed to breed solely men. The big boss Tony Soprano interacted with vast families, both organizational and biological, in the run of his eponymous gangster drama series, but he is still the Alpha and Omega of the entire show.

A similar structure can be observed with other more popular mainstream serial dramas, no matter their genre or plot: men are always the ones followed by both the cameras and the audience. Sure, there may be some which do tend to be geared in the telling of stories from female perspectives, which Chandler (2003) mentions as welcome exceptions, but not anything more than exceptions. “Few” therefore, becomes the appropriate adjective which to describe the TV dramas treating Eve as anything more than the lighter side of life to Adam’s difficult and treacherous world.

…Sorry, make that Adams’ difficult and treacherous worlds.

Demographics

The statistics would tell you that women outnumber men in today’s world (CIA, 2009), but a quick surf through the channels at night would make you think otherwise.

The most watched serial dramas every week alongside Lost according to the top charts of live and DVR-ed shows include 24, Grey’s Anatomy, Desperate Housewives, the holy CSI trinity, House, Dexter, Private Practice, The Mentalist, Criminal Minds, NCIS, The Good Wife, and Medium (Seidman, 2010).

Of these, only Grey’s Anatomy, Desperate Housewives, Private Practice, The Good Wife and Medium feature ladies at the forefront of the stories. This means that they are the primary protagonists, the ones whom the plots revolve around, without the usual Hollywood recipe of knights in shining armors; again, only five from the sixteen off the biggest hits list. Notice how most even set theirs in the softer and less banner-worthy working environments: the hospital and the suburban neighborhoods.

There are more exciting and thrilling settings, of course, like the crime-fighting arenas, the supernatural and fantasy-oriented fields, and even the world of the warlords.

However, the ladies of the investigators in Las Vegas, Miami or New York are perennially doomed to just feeding Gil Grissom, Ray Langston, Horatio Caine, and Mac Taylor the crucial bits of information to solve their cases. Dr. Gregory House seems to use his female co-workers only to further sharpen his already sarcastic rhetoric. Dexter has a wife but claims that he only uses her as a disguise to benefit him. Abby Sciuto is amusing, competent, and reliable, but never overshadows agents Leroy Gibbs and Tony DiNozzo. Jennifer Melfi is as big as a woman can get on Sopranos, but without Tony, she would have been nothing as well.

As can be observed from the makeup of these shows, therefore, the employment of women actors of up to second or third billings is still prevalent and seen as staples to the overall production of the program. Their actual, distinguished involvement in the storylines is another thing though since those would now come from out of the heroic male lead’s pockets or holsters.

This appears to be quite a difficult habit for TV producers to break as even a seven-year old content analysis done by Chandler (2003) supports that simple skim through the top 25’s of broadcast and DVR charts. According to his count, for each lady who regularly appears in a serial drama are three to four men who are enjoying the same casting. The same is true for soap operas; every three females cast is equivalent to seven male counterparts hired for the same show, which is amazing considering that soaps are said to be in the woman territory.

Those observations would be magnified when the focus spotlight is placed on the other oft-mouthed names of the TV pop culture household, like Heroes, One Tree Hill, Smallville, Fringe, Flashforward, Chuck, Fringe, Supernatural, Bones and Castle; indeed, when it comes to these, the feminist dream for serial dramas sinks even lower. Of those mentioned, only Fringe has a girl for a flagbearer, while Chuck and Castle, along with previously stated Dexter, even have their lead guys on the show’s title.

Lucy Ricardos versus Sarah Walkers

Thus, from those observed, the first thing that comes to mind is the misrepresentation of females with their roles when the gender issue regarding TV dramas is brought up. After all, feminists have kept on saying all along that the Hollywood woman is something of a helpless, weak and timid woman who gets bullied by the men around her no matter what the surrounding circumstances or settings may be (Horton, 2009). They are overly emotional and are usually thrown in with a popular lead actor to serve as his obligatory maiden-in-distress. Once they try to pick up the sword and the gauntlet and actually face their problems, the audience is conditioned to already expect the situation to get worse. A striking example is one of the heroines on Heroes, cheerleader Claire Bennett, who, even in her toughest stances, end up screwing things up just because the script called for her to try rise above the stereotypical mold of characterization for her type.

However, if Mary Desjardins (2010) were to be believed, this is actually a mere stain for today’s viewing public when compared to what women in TV—or all of the entertainment media, for that matter—used to be. Actually, according to her, dramas today are definitely more woman-friendly and if there were anything the feminists should attack, those be the sports and news departments of the TV networks.

Desjardins (2010) got her better 2010 TV period with a comparison to the formulaic representations prevalent on the small screen three or four decades ago during the reign of classics like Gunsmoke, Dr. Kildare and Star Trek. Chandler (2003) observed that the “good” women in these shows were often heavily acted with submissiveness, sensitivity, and a culture of domestication. The downed qualities intensified as the appeal of the girls in the story grew; they became even more gentle, demure, sweet-natured, dependent, and non-competitive. Meanwhile, those who didn’t have these traits were instantly the “bad” women in the story. They were often rebellious, independent, hysterical and selfish. In today’s standars, Desjadins offered, a viewer would think that they were labeled as the bad girls just because they didn’t conform to the extremely masculine standards of the plot—or, perhaps, of the TV producers.

Desjardins (2010) went further, quoting a writer who typified those hackneyed women in fictionalized TV as "stupid, unattractive, insecure little household drudges who spend their martyred, mindless, boring days dreaming of love--and plotting nasty revenge against their husband."

Taking that strong statement into account, a quick scan of the primetime drama scene today could then prove to be a little comforting. It’s easy to tell that “household drudges” are rarely seen on the screen anymore. Ladies from Battlestar Galactica pilot fighter space crafts and combat robots as well as any android modeled on Arnold Schwarzenegger. Female doctors head and compose the bulk of the diverse medical squads which perform complicated surgeries on patients on Grey’s Anatomy. Chloe O’Brian of 24 help subdue terrorists on a weekly basis. Women on TV have handled every rank, career and position imaginable from being the president of the most powerful country in the world in Prison Break and 24 to being the resident drug dealer of a quiet, peaceful village in Weeds. Meanwhile, the star protagonists of Desperate Housewives and Medium who do form lines behind the placards labeled “housewives” or “moms” go out with their friends, have fun, engage in adventures outside of changing their babies’ diapers and worrying about their husbands and encounter lives other than those in their home addresses. They are really an entire world away from the “stupid, unattractive and insecure” women of Desjardins. There are still “nasty plots” and “dreams of love,” though they have been reformed to fit the typical and modern American woman—smart, witty, and able to live outside the bubble of her own intense feminism.

Men like Paul Ballard on Dollhouse, John Casey of Chuck, Horatio, Seeley Booth of Bones, and Richard Castle aren’t the only ones radiating qualities of leadership, aggressiveness, risk-taking abilities, and independence in their programs. They are already sharing it with their respective co-stars Echo, Sarah Walker, Calleigh Duquesne, Temperance Brennan, Kate Beckett. At the same time, those vixens are not overwhelmingly sweet, demure, gentle, nurturing, and affectionate—some of them are not even so on the slightest scale!—but are endowed with rationality, assertiveness, and competence—traits that TV would never have given them years ago. Many of them are described in their respective universes to be rebellious, independent, and selfish, but in no way does the script use that to have the audience root against them. Each character for most dramas today has been more likely than not a combination of John Rambo’s toughness and Princess Leia’s sensitivity, regardless of whether they are physically more alike with the big guerilla or the galactic princess themselves. For example, in Lost, John Locke is the epitome of the crazy colonels in war movies everywhere, but he is as soft as the mother who would not want even a hair of anyone from her home hurt.

Now it is worth noting that for those shows which still concretize that old, helpless maiden persona and the easily perceivable gap between the two genders, only one of such type continues to exist in TV today: the multi-awarded and universally-acclaimed Mad Men. Set in the 1960’s, the world of advertising agency creative head Don Draper is one where the men openly gloat and glorify in the privileges society gives them, while the women are just forced to smile and nod as they knowingly are taken for and made to look like fools. Male professionals crowd the corporate ladder, and enjoy every vice like cigarettes and alcohol and women as they go on their climb, while of course, their female counterparts are relegated at the bottom to do either secretarial or just plain house work, naturally off-limits from those same luxuries the men enjoy (Huston, 2009).

What is cringing is how Mad Men portrays this wildly disproportionate weighing scale between the genders as if it is an element of the matter-of-factly significance in the society then. Unfaithfulness in marriage and the general objectification of women may still be prevalent among the citizens of the 21st century, but at least the average human being sees the immorality behind them and doesn’t seem to observe them as standards in the community the way those in the time of Don Draper did (Huston, 2009).

Imagine how Desjanis would have rewritten her piece had there been at least three or more kinds of Mad Men in the tubes today.

But even if it appears that sexism from the days of I Love Lucy has only one remaining bastion on 21st century’s primetime TV, our dramas are still far from the totally leveled utopia of gender dramatization. After all, the other previously enumerated shows could not be considered the ideal shows just because they have more dynamic female characters than Mad Men does. In essence, because so few of those serial dramas headline women, discrimination can still be called out. The only difference is that by choosing to tell a story set in a decade empowering the feminist movement, Mad Men portrayed the unfair treatment of women on TV purposively, while by having their female lead stars stay in the backseat of their stories instead of spearheading it from behind the wheel, the majority of serial dramas these days are doing the discrimination subliminally.

As such, the Lucys living in 2010 may be relatively tougher, but they still play second fiddles to their Ricky Ricardos.

Ricky Ricardos versus Gregory Houses

With all the write-ups and points tackled, it becomes seemingly too easy to conclude that feminism is the only important principle TV dramas have overrun when it comes to gender.

Actually, women have been the primary focus of inquiries into unrealistic portrayal of human personalities on primetime dramas for a reason: men have always been portrayed up to the liking and agreement of the viewers. It doesn’t matter if the audience may be composed of more girls than boys, as the gender distribution among the world population suggest. There is evidence according to Chandler (2003) that girls grow up learning that TV is “a man’s world.” This may even be more apparent to those who are in their thirties or older, as people of these ages got used to being fed stories, images, and visuals by the media where the more powerful and knowledgeable are the men. The television programs, it seemed to Chandler, have been designed from and to frame the male perspective, as evidenced by what seems like a roster of male actor-headlined serial dramas given earlier.

However, just because there is a lack of suggestions against the male-driven stories on TV, it doesn’t automatically mean that those illustrations are perfect already.

As established, women are commonly boxed together with personal traits such as passiveness, sympathy, and overall softness, as compared to men, with excellent traits of aggression, assertiveness, independence, and leadership (Chandler, 2003). In fact, those shows which mainstays compose a group of characters central to the story always manage to elect—or have elected—in some way a certain alpha male as their de facto leader. This is despite the fact already proven much earlier that the leading lady in the program (usually, the main love interest of the leader) is also typically capable of handling the same arduous set of responsibilities involved in being the head of the pack. Kate Austen of Lost can attest to this, being relegated to a supporting role just because of the presence of the castaways’ eventual leader in Shepard, and so can Starbuck opposite of Apollo in Battlestar Galactica, Sarah instead of Casey in Chuck, or Catherine Willos in CSI because of Gil Grissom—although that is one thing that has already been changed, but, notably, only after nine years.

Wilson (2009) has also observed other common attributes which TV dramas consider “male” by default, primarily the athleticism and physical prowess. The competitive fire is also more pronounced with males as females are shown with the tendency to work together for a common goal, unless that goal is a certain love interest (in which case, they would commonly work against each other—another point against the treatment of women!). Males as seen by Wilson (2009) are almost always supremely confident, competent in just about every situation, and are shown to be in control over their problems. A cute example is in how the doctors Lisa Cuddy and Allison Cameron always end up doing everything short of shrieking when the patient’s lifeline goes flat but titular character House still manages to crack a joke.

As a result, men get more chances to play characters such as sports icons like Nathan Scott in One Tree Hill, showbiz personalities like Jason Chase from Entourage, and business tycoons as in Lionel Luthor from Smallville. This is still apart from their constant storylines about their responsibilities to their families as husbands and dads. Emphasis is given to the outcomes of instances when these men become so busy that they cannot come home to their families anymore. Heroes is guilty of this heightened family drama spotlight with its resident family man, Noah Bennett. Chandler (2003) notes that the same problem is rarely tackled for women who face the same dilemmas.

However, male characterization in dramas is also a two-way street; if they have all those cool personifications, they also have shortcomings. Chandler (2003) again notes that men are more likely to resort to violence and sudden bursts of anger. They smoke, they do drugs, they have vices. They are the usual culprits of dramatized drunk driving. They are the more powerful personalities in the drama’s romantic relationships, and often the ones more prone to hurting their spouses, physically or emotionally, than the other way around. Of course, in today’s world, these may be shortcomings, but many take that at least they are cool shortcomings. Some, like Susan Meyer and her friends in Desperate Housewives, may also meet these troubles in their respective shows, but as had been the norm with the issue, the same cannot be said for the rest of their gender’s population.

The bottom-line, according to Chandler (2003), is that all these details are so finely laid out for the viewers because it is clear from the story’s standpoint that the males are the ones living their worlds out more deeply and actively than the women.

But do these now really speak for a general picture of Adam’s line? Just like the case with women being more than caretakers of their babies, males could not be framed into such stereotypes because a more thorough scanning of the real world would reveal that Eves also stumble upon these pitfalls. While Bennett of Heroes was emphasized for the usual crime of being a poor dad, mainly because he is a male, moms like Erica Evans on V, also go through the same parental shortcomings and castigated in their own shows. In the meantime, a lot of women are also competitive and competent enough, and lady corporate heads are becoming more than trends in companies everywhere—something reflected in the portrayal of Nina Sharp, the CEO of Fringe’s version of Stark Industries, the Massive Dynamic. Of course, this still means that they could be caught driving under the influence from time to time.

The problem now is the way that the powers-that-be seem to think that only their guy actors and not their ladies would be creatively profitable when backdropped heavily with all those personality tidbits.

Brokeback Mountain on TV

The treatment of homosexuality on serialized drama during recent years has been done in a pretty straightforward but quick manner, denoting a vaguely standardized respect for gays. Characters are often introduced or discussed as homosexuals in fleeting statements in conversations and very rarely, at least in the said present dramas, has such issues been considered big deals. According to Chandler’s (2003) observations, though, gays on serial dramas are usually invisible in relation to their sexuality, or if it is a running element already in the plotline, are considered with pity. “They are rarely shown enjoying happy lives,” to wit. Homosexuality is tackled in these shows as something of a problem. This perspective is expected when viewing shows which universes have masculinity for a custom and feminism is an afterthought, such as in the 1980 series Dynasty, where the business tycoon’s gay son Steven has experienced deaths of his lovers. This homophobic attitude have continued up to some contemporary serial dramas like The Sopranos, where Vito Spatafore’s sexuality has been centered as a great source of distress and fear for the character. However, again, this is understandable considering that his story is rooted in an environment deeply masculine in nature.

Overall, however, the difference with the real world being a very modern 2010 is apparent for most shows, as gays have been accepted by default as significant members of the society, or at least as much as how hostility or disapprovals against them have almost gone nil. Interactions between them and the male and the female genders are commonplace already, and their successes in different aspects of life are respected. Discrimination is not totally gone, however, but at least it does not have the overpowering surge that it did before, and this is justly reflected in the serial dramas which choose to showcase the existence of gays in the society (Tipton, 2006).

If there is a noticeable trend among TV dramas today in relation to their depiction of homosexuals, it is that even less time is devoted to their distinctive personalities than the already marginalized women. Continuing with what seems like mindsets of “I’m a man, so I’m the hero all the time,” or “I’m a woman, so I’m a hero but only once next to the male hero,” among the majority of protagonists on TV, homosexuals appear to have been written with plotlines saying “I’m strictly speaking a man, so I’m part of the cast all the time, but as a gay, I’m there only once per season.” Even if such individuals were illustrated with respect and depth, they still appear too infrequently to really make an impact on viewer perspectives (Tipton, 2006).

Sure, there were groundbreaking shows which from the outset really targeted the lives of homosexuals, like The L Word, which was considered the pioneer of the homosexual awareness on modern TV dramas (Glock, 2005). However, on the more casual shows, gays don’t amount to anything more than unique cast members. Tom Friendly of Lost was a major recurring member of the cast for three seasons, a thoroughly used one even, but his gender was sufficiently explored for just a single episode. Janis Hawk of Flashforward underwent a similar marginal characterization when it came to her sexuality, but as one of the show’s more prominent FBI agents, she is listed and directed as a mainstay. A notable exception is Theodore Bagwell, whose bisexual preference is a major plot device over at Prisonbreak.

However, again, the status of gays still isn’t even in the same minority as the women are.

Reality? Reel-y?

Media is called as such because it supposedly “mediates” the audience’s view of reality (Authorstream, 2010). More so than probably what has ever been documented before, producers seemed to have dedicated themselves to the creation of worlds in TV which seem as true-to-life as possible, basing on the recent lines of realistic scripted drama offerings of networks the recent years. Darker issues like drug trafficking and politics, more traditionally associated with social awareness media of documentaries or independent movies, have been tackled by The Wire. The numerous science-fiction dramas, like Lost, Fringe, and Battlestar, center on environments which register way off the charts on real life impressionism, but deal with situations that any person in the real world contends with, like politics, bureaucracy, philosophy and religion. These used to be tackled only in the territories of the filmmakers. The medical franchises are set in worlds where tension, pressure and death always loom in the mix of each character’s personal lives—the same worlds which the actual hospital personnel experience. 24, CSI and their other siblings in the ever popular counter-terrorism and police procedurals genre show audiences their own respective views on the already much-excavated world of the blue boys.

Emotions and personalities of characters rarely get carved out of the stereotyped molds of race, profession, or gender anymore. Once upon a time, some Mexican of the name Javier Esposito would have been expected by the audience to fall in the hands of a certain detective Beckett for smuggling illegal drugs across the border, but instead, he gets portrayed as one of the crime-fighting officers of the NYPD in Castle. In dramas from a decade ago, a lawyer tasked to handle the risky, dangerous case of a death convict would probably have just greedily squeezed as much money as he can out of his high-profile clients and moved through the motions of the court proceedings, mimicking a zombie the best he could, but Veronica Donovan in Prisonbreak followed her leads and did her duty sincerely and as much as she could, with her life. A lady like Olivia Dunham out of the paranormal division of the FBI in Fringe would be expected by the pre-conditioned viewers to either be a sad sack consumed by her feelings for a dead spouse, or as a workaholic, stuck-up lady professional because of her gender. However, she actually comes out of those black-and-white pits of personification rightly dressed up in gray as a motivated, but open-minded investigator.

Surely, people would already have ideas of specific persons among their Facebook contacts with the descriptions of each of those types of TV characters. What is eye-catching, however, is that while minorities like Esposito and noble protagonists like Donovan agreeably fill up the stories in the small screens, Dunham remains an exception and a twice-a-night-in-a-week occurrence.

If there were only more tropical islands with female character leads to appear this year, then full-blown feminism might finally be considered a bigger TV event than LOST’s finale this May.

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