Women might have greater presence in the small screen spotlight, but is “more” really the answer to gender diversity? -Written by Kate Everson
In the first of Mad Men’s final episodes, two advertisers board an elevator after being subjugated to sexist comments by a client. They cut the tension with knife-sharp dialogue.
Peggy: I know, they were awful. But at least we got a yes. Would you have rather had a friendly no?
Joan: I don’t expect you to understand.
Peggy: Joan, you’ve never experienced that before?
Joan: Have you, Peggy?
In less than a minute of screen time, AMC’s period drama presents two dynamic businesswomen who have different backgrounds, values and experiences—and, most importantly, have the ability and opportunity to interact with each other. ABC’s Scandal and CBS’ Madam Secretary, as well as Netflix’s ultra-femme Orange is the New Black, have become go-to examples of female representation in television.
Unfortunately, the numbers tell a story of decline. In 2014, women made up only 42 percent of speaking characters and 42 percent of major characters, a one percent decrease from the year before, according to San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film’s annual “Boxed In” study.
But as much as the quantity of women has decreased and remains unequal to that of men, the characters they play have become more noticed by viewers. Mad Men’s Peggy and Joan join Scandal’s Olivia Pope, and Parks and Recreation’s Leslie Knope as fan favorites and beacons of female empowerment.
But even though more women are getting top roles in high-profile series, they’re not branching out from a smattering of archetypes.
Amanda Lotz, author of Redesigning Women: Television After the Network Era, said that in the new post-network world that includes more women, it’s also limited its scope to professional, white, straight and unmarried characters.
Outliers include Friday Night Lights and the new Madam Secretary’s healthy marriages, Scandal’s Pope and The Good Wife’s Kalinda, an Indian bisexual woman.
“Yes, it is a wee bit better, and that is important to acknowledge,” Lotz said. “But there is still not enough diversity of women and stories about the varied lives we lead.”
Although dramas have pushed more women into the professional arena, primetime network comedy increasingly rely on them as denigrated mothers and girlfriends.
“To be fair, you have to have a sense of humor,” said Samantha Highfill, a TV correspondent for Entertainment Weekly. “Sometimes they’re purposefully dramatizing a stereotype that’s ridiculous and over the top, but there are those instances where the women are there to be the butt of the joke.”
Take Two and a Half Men as an example. Before it ended last year, Chuck Lorre’s 12-season series was repeatedly the most-watched sitcom and featured women as either humorless and domineering (Charlie and Alan’s mother, Alan’s ex-wife and housekeeper Berta) or parasitic sleeping partners.
The top watched series in 2014, The Big Bang Theory, originally only featured pretty but dull Penny, then added an intelligent but purposefully unappealing Amy Farrah Fowler. The women of Modern Family are all stay-at-home moms, and despite being the titular character, Jess on New Girl is one of only two females in an ensemble of mostly male costars.
Like with drama, there are outliers.
Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock had women at the helm, both in front of and behind the camera, and the characters they played never fulfilled just one TV trope. Mindy Kaling led her Fox sitcom, The Mindy Project, as an accomplished Ob/Gyn who faces issues that both involve and go beyond dating.
“Kaling is a fantastic example of a strong woman who creates an interesting character in the way she uses both men and women,” Highfill said. “She writes it fairly.”
The Mindy Project was cancelled in May, but was picked up by Hulu as a web-only show less than a week later.
Hulu isn’t the only site interested in diverse roles for women. Since the advent of streaming, more programming features women—not just white, middle-class female professionals. The most notable: Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, which features an almost entirely female cast that’s racially, sexually and socio-economically diverse.
“I don’t think you can make an argument that we’ve regressed,” Lotz said. “Some genres are shockingly retrograde, like reality, but I’d say scripted is as rich and richer than ever in terms of depictions of complicated women leading complicated lives.”
Lotz said even though complex women might not always be the poster femmes for feminism—for example, House of Cards’ Claire Underwood, whose main motivation is to advance her husband in hopes of one day him returning the favor—they’re more interesting to watch and meaningful to viewers.
Highfill said one of the biggest problems she’s seen is the idea that women can be a professional and a mom, but can only be good at one of them, and more times than not, the former.
The Mysteries of Laura was advertised as the story of a very good detective whose only unsolved case is how to raise her children at the same time. The two female leads on ABC’s Nashville both struggle with motherhood roles as their careers thrive. Even The Good Wife’s Alicia Florrick has a hard time keeping her son and daughter under control.
When Shonda Rhimes, showrunner of some of primetime’s most female-led shows like Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder, was honored at the Human Rights Campaign Gala, she delivered a speech in which she exhibited disdain for the term “diversity.”
“I have a different word,” she said. “’Normalizing.’ I’m normalizing TV.”
Although Rhimes’ sentiment can’t be argued—placing women, minorities, LGBT and other non-white-male characters in main positions should not be considered “abnormal”—it also runs into a problem that Lotz said is a tough measure: Accuracy.
She explained that an accurate depiction of most people’s lives wouldn’t make for a riveting drama or sidesplitting sitcom. Instead, showrunners should observe the trends and themes of what’s popular and adapt.
There’s already evidence of this happening. Promotions for Fear the Walking Dead, AMC’s spinoff of its zombie drama, hints toward a woman leading the survivors. CBS added (yet another) CSI spinoff, this one featuring Patricia Arquette as the head of a cyber crime investigation team. CBS’ Supergirl also promises to feature a woman in a title role that shifts between superhero and sitcom lead.
“Television caters to multiple audiences, and because we mostly watch what suits our tastes, we now mostly see the world as we imagine it reflected back,” Lotz said. “That does mean that some misogynist can watch nothing but misogynist programming, but it also means I can live in a world where those misogynist attitudes are readily criticized.”
See more from our Summer 2015 issue below!