Please note: the following is an excerpt from a research paper submitted as Master’s program coursework at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Use or copying of the following without permission and/or proper citation is considered plagiarism. You’ve been warned!

Gender Equality and Television

Television is, perhaps, the most omnipresent platform in the country. Nielsen reports that, on average, Americans consume 35.1 hours of television per week, as well as 1.5 hours per week watching videos online and 1.3 hours watching video on mobile devices.[1] An estimated 296 million people in the U.S. live in television-viewing households.[2]

In confronting the issue of gender equity, prime-time television[3] represents a platform with enormous influence and audience appeal. Moreover, prime-time programming has been shown to have a similar effect on political attitudes as does news media.[4] A March 2000 study found that participants exposed to a crime drama expressed more concern over the issue of crime than did participants exposed to a political drama, suggesting that viewing a certain type of content may alter viewers’ perceptions of the world around them.[5] Similarly, there is substantial evidence demonstrating that media depictions of certain professions, including those in law, military, and public relations, “are a primary source of how the citizenry learns about a profession.”[6] This is particularly influential given that entertainment media offers audiences a glimpse at a field in which they have no personal experience, and may in fact be the only frame of reference audience members may have.[7]

Media influence is of particular importance to young people, as television has been shown to influence identity formation and career ambition.[8] Adolescents’ “feelings connection or identification with television characters can influence their occupational attitudes, values, and aspirations.”[9] This relates back to the exposure effect of television portrayals of certain professions, as young people have limited experience and may only be aware of certain careers in the context of fiction. Adolescents’ perceptions of scientists, for example, are largely based on media portrayals,[10] and it has been demonstrated that young viewers identify more with characters of the same gender.[11] A recent study by Steinke et. al. showed that dominant female scientist characters “yielded greater wishful identification for girls,” as opposed to male scientist characters or characters exhibiting characteristics like intelligent, respected, or caring.[12]

The broader impact of cultural bias is apparent in the media treatment of high-profile female candidates. When Nancy Pelosi became the first women to serve as Speaker of the House of Representatives in 2006, she also became third in the line of succession to the presidency. Rather than focusing on the historic position of power Rep. Pelosi had achieved after a long career of service, discussion in the media turned to the question of whether she’d had a facelift, of her husband’s fortune, and her apparently  “elitist” dress style.[13] Two years later, Hillary Clinton suffered criticism on the campaign trail for being unlikeable, too serious, not feminine, and a “bitch.”[14] Meanwhile, the opposite stereotype arose in the form of Republican Vice Presidential Nominee Sarah Palin, who was tagged with labels such as “shopaholic,” “a whack job,” a seductress, a diva, and nicknamed a “smiling barracuda.”[15] When Geraldine Ferraro, the first female vice-presidential candidate in history, ran alongside Walter Mondale in 1984, more than 30 percent of her media coverage focused on clothing, makeup, hair, and other stereotypically “feminine” attributes. Elizabeth Dole, the first serious contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, more than forty percent of media coverage focused on such topics.[16]

(Un)Equal Programming

Several trends speak to improvements in recent decades with respect to how women are portrayed on television. Between 1953 and 1977, the percentage of women in major prime-time television roles varied between 25 and 35 percent.[17] By the 1992 – 1993 television season, women comprised 38.8% of speaking characters. The rise was consistent with more progressive public opinion regarding women in the workplace.[18]  Furthermore, between 1966 and 1990, the number of female television characters in management and professional positions increased, while the number of women in assistant roles decreased.[19] More recently, the media and entertainment industry has heralded the “strong female characters populating our television screens nowadays.”[20] Last year, Slate television critic Willa Paskin wrote that she couldn’t “think of a time when this many women have had this many rich roles in this many top-notch shows.”[21]

The San Diego State University Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film found that the 2012 – 2013 primetime television lineup featured women in 43 percent of speaking and major character roles.[22] However, the way in which women are depicted is of critical importance, given the influence of television characters on audience perception. One significant concern with how women are depicted on television is the subtle reinforcement of patriarchal, heteronormative values masquerading as feminism.

The depiction of women in the workplace, for example, belies any argument that women and men are given equal treatment on television. A 2012 study sampled prime-time programming on ten broadcast and cable networks and found that 54.5 percent of male speaking characters held identifiable jobs, compared with 44.3 percent of female characters. Female characters held 34.4 percent of all on-screen jobs.[23] Comparatively, women made up 47 percent of the U.S. civilian labor force in 2012[24], and 57.7 percent of women were employed.[25]

Women in prime-time roles also tend to be depicted as dependent on male characters.[26] For example, many of the shows most often cited as feminist or as depicting strong women present what Rush Shalit calls the “new breed of feminist heroine,” who is “untrammeled, assertive, exuberantly pro-sex, yet determined to hold her own in a man’s world.” She is “confident, upwardly mobile, and extremely horny” and “knows that feminism is safe for women who love men and bubble baths and kittenish outfits.”[27] There is overwhelming emphasis on leading female characters’ sex appeal and her relationships with men, such that “women’s sexuality and femininity” are “in service of a patriarchal agenda and status quo.”[28] The upward mobility and success of prime-time women often to rely on “achieving power through their appearance and sexuality” and “capturing male affection.”[29]

Even the long-running Law and Order: SVU, which brought a revolutionary feminist understanding of rape and sexual assault to a massive audience, falls short in its treatment of female characters. Storylines often implicitly condemn typically “feminine” characteristics, such as empathy and intuition.[30] The archetype of the modern female lead is what Neustatter describes as “a woman who does not appear to be in opposition” to men or to the patriarchal status quo. “If she will look good, act sexy, be on their side, then she can go out and be successful at work and drive a flashy car.”[31]

[1] Nielsen Company, “A Look Across Media: The Cross-Platform Report Q3 2013,” Media and Entertainment Reports, Dec. 3, 2013,
[2] Nielson Company, “Nielsen Estimates 116.3 Million TV Homes In the U.S., Up 0.4%,” Media and Entertainment Reports, May 5, 2014,
[3] Prime-time television is generally defined as programming broadcast from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. Eastern and Pacific Time and 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. Central/Mountain Time, Monday through Saturday. Sunday prime-time broadcasts run from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. Eastern and Pacific time and 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Central/Mountain Time.
[4] R. Lance Holbert, Dhavan V. Shah, and Nojin Kwak, “Political implications of prime-time drama and sitcom use: Genres of representation and opinions concerning women’s rights,” Journal of Communication 53 (2003).
[5] Andrew Holbrook and Timothy G. Hill, “Agenda-Setting and Priming in Prime Time Television: Crime Dramas as Political Cues,” Political Communications 22 (2005).
[6] Michael Pfau, Lawrence J. Mullen, Tracy Deidrich, and Kirsten Garrow, “Television Viewing and Public Perceptions of Attorneys,” Human Communication Research 21, no. 3 (1995); Stephen Parker, Courts and the Public (Melbourne: AIJA, 1998); David L. Robb, Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2004);
[7] Karen S. Miller, “Public Relations in Film and Fiction: 1930 to 1995,” Journal of Public Relations Research 11, no. 1 (1999).
[8] Robert W. Roeser and S. Lau, “On academic identity formation in middle school settings during early adolescence: A motivational-contextual perspective,” in Thomas M. Brinthaupt and Richard P. Lipka, Understanding early adolescent self and identity: Application and interventions (Albany: SUNY Press, 2002).
[9] Cynthia A. Hoffner et. al., “TV Characters at Work: Television’s Role in the Occupational Aspirations of Economically Disadvantaged Youths,” Journal of Career Development 33, no. 1 (2006); Cynthia A. Hoffner, Kenneth J. Levine, and Raiza A. Toohey, “Socialization to Work in Late Adolescence: The role of television and family,” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 52 (2008).
[10] Jocelyn Steinkle et. al., “Assessing media influences on middle school-aged children’s perception of women in science using the draw-a-scientist text (DAST),” Science Communication 29 (2007).
[11] Sandra L. Calvert et. al., “Interaction and Participation for Young Hispanic and Caucasian Girls’ and Boys’ Learning of Media Content,” Media Psychology 9 (2007).
[12] Jocelyn Steinke et. al., “Gender Differences in Adolescents’ Wishful Identification with Scientist Characters on Television,” Science Communication 34, no. 2 (2012).
[13] Michele Adams, “Is family a moral capital resource for female politicians? The case of ABC’s Commander In Chief,” Media Culture Society 33 (2011).
[14] Ibid.; Amanda Fortini, “The ‘Bitch’ and the ‘Ditz’,” New York Magazine, Nov. 16, 2008.
[15] Adams, “Is family a moral capital resource?”;
[16] Diane J. Heith, “The Lipstick Watch: Media Coverage, Gender, and Presidential Campaigns,” in Anticipating Madam President, Eds. Robert P. Watson and Ann Gordon (Lynne Rienner Publishers: Boulder, 2003).
[17] Joseph R. Dominick, “The Portrayal of Women in Prime Time, 1953 – 1977,” Sex Roles 5, no. 4 (1979).
[18] Michael Elasmar, Kazumi Hasegawa, and Mary Brain, “The Portrayal of Women in U.S. Prime Time Television,” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media (1999).
[19] David Atkin, “The Evolution of Television Series Addressing Single Women, 1966 – 1990,” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 35, no. 4 (1991).
[20] Team TVLine, “TV’s 15 Most Empowered Female Characters (and Their 10 Hapless Counterparts,” TV Line, March 20, 2013.
[21] Willa Paskin, “A Good Time for TV Ladies,” Slate, July 19, 2013.
[22] Martha M. Lauzen, “Boxed In: Employment of Behind-the-Scenes and On-Screen Women in 2012-13 Prime-time Television,” San Diego State University Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film (2013).
[23] Stacy L. Smith, Marc Choueiti, Ashley Prescott, and Katherine Pieper, Gender Roles & Occupations: A Look at Character Attributes and Job-Related Aspirations in Film and Television (Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media: 2012).
[24] Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey,” U.S. Department of Labor (2014).
[25] Women’s Bureau, “Civilian labor force by sex, 1970 – 2012,” U.S. Department of Labor (2012).
[26] Garcia et. al., “Gender Asymmetries in Reality and Fiction: The Bechdel Test of Social Media,” Proceedings of the 8th International AAAI Conference on Weblogs and Social Media (2014).
[27] Ruth Shalit,”Canny and Lacy: Ally, Dharma, Ronnie, and the Betrayal of Postfeminism,” The New Republic 6 (1998).
[28] Elyce Rae Helford, “Postfeminism and the Female Action-Adventure Hero: Positioning Tank Girl,” Future Females, the Next Generation: New Voices and Velocities in Feminist Science Fiction, Eds. Marleen S. Barr and Boulder Lanham (New York: Rownman & Littlefield, 2000).
[29] Danielle M. Stern, “It Takes a Classless, Heteronormative Utopian Village: Gilmore Girls and the Problem of Postfeminism,” The Communication Review 15, no. 3 (2012).
[30] Lisa M. Cuklanz and Sujata Moorti, “Television’s ‘New’ Feminism: Prime-Time Representations of Women and Victimization,” Critical Studies in Media Communication 23, no. 4 (2006).
[31] Angela Neustatter, Hyenas in Petticoats: A Look at Twenty Years of Feminism (London: Harrop, 1989).


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