The media are funhouse mirrors—female television protagonists, it turns out, don’t reflect reality.

Female TV protagonists do not reflect reality
Female TV protagonists do not reflect reality

Susan J. Douglas’s report, “Where Have You Gone, Roseanne Barr?” [PDF here], details the media’s failure to represent the real American woman—the everyday breadwinners and caregivers. Douglas says the media are funhouse mirrors that exaggerate certain parts of our collective reality and hide others.

The media, it turns out, are gravely overrepresenting the success women have made in the workforce.

By judging by the protagonists I see in the majority of TV dramas and sitcoms, I would deduce that, by and large, American women are successful doctors, lawyers, police detectives, and, sometimes even Presidents of the United States. They occupy high positions in male-dominated areas. It seems, at last, as if women have really “made it.”

I think I fell for it, too.

But in reality, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the top five jobs women held in 2008 were (in this order) secretaries, nurses, elementary and middle school teachers, cashiers, and retail salespersons. And the median salary for women was $36,000 a year — 23% less than men.

Most American women struggle like Roseanne Barr, a real, struggling woman protagonist that Douglas believes should make network appearances.
Most American women struggle like the character Roseanne, a real female protagonist, played by Roseanne Barr. Douglas believes that more women like Roseanne should be portrayed on network television.

Douglas asserts that as women were heading off to college and the workforce like never before in the 1950s and 60s, women in television were still stay-at-home moms and blonde bombshells. The media illusion at that time was that women weren’t making it when, in fact, they were.

Now, she says, “the media illusion is that equality for girls and women is an accomplished fact when it isn’t. Then, the media were behind the curve; now, ironically, they’re ahead.” But wait, I thought. That’s good, right?

Chandra Wilson as "Dr. Bailey" on <em>Grey's Anatomy</em>
Chandra Wilson as Dr. Bailey on Grey's Anatomy

Isn’t it good that young girls turn on the TV and see powerful women holding important positions, like Geena Davis as president in Commander in Chief, and Chandra Wilson as powerful, sharp Dr. Bailey in Grey’s Anatomy? Isn’t it good that the media recognize and acknowledge the accomplishments women have made in our society?

But change the channel. Flip through tabloids. Click through gossip blogs.

While we see successful women on our television screens, we still see dating programs that boil women down to airheads and sex fiends. We still see “Who Wore it Best” columns, Sports Illustrated bikini spreads, and articles that measure a celebrity’s success based on her weight management.

Why is that? Douglas explains that this disconnect in women’s portrayals exists because, since women have “made it” according to all those network programs, so it’s okay to keep objectifying women in other platforms. It’s ironic and amusing, and, hey, it’s okay, because all those women are successful!

What do you think? Is it the mainstream media’s responsibility to reflect reality or simply create entertaining shows? Is it better to overrepresent success, or do you think this constant depiction of accomplishment gives other outlets justification to continue objectifying women? Were you ever inspired by a female protagonist on a television show? And are you disgusted by others? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.


7 thoughts on “The media are funhouse mirrors—female television protagonists, it turns out, don’t reflect reality.

  1. I agree! It seems that as the years go by, society is just not willing to allow women to become people, real people. Making them appear as sex-objects in all the media keeps them less than people. Whether women are wearing mini-skirts and low neck lines or whether they are wearing burkas is the same: in both situations, they are objectified as sex objects. The only difference is that in one society they are allowed to reveal as much skin as possible to prove they are objects, and in the other society they are not allowed to do that in public. The more women complain about the media and the way it portrays women, the better! Let’s get over this and insist on being respected as dignified human beings.

  2. while i think that there needs to be both shows that portray women’s realities and shows that portray women achieving more than their current lot, i think the portrayal of women in higher positions is great and i never get tired of seeing it. i know that it excites me after getting bored and frustrated with women always being portrayed as secretaries and nurses and whatever for so long. i think it could give girls inspiration and role models to look up to. why can’t this portrayal exist without the objectification? i think the media will always find excuses to objectify women, whether shows are portraying reality or an ideal. the objectification needs to stop, but i think the powerful women characters can stay.

  3. I like seeing women in successful positions, but what I get tired of is seeing only stay-at-home moms on reality shows…like Supernanny, make-over shows, etc. I like watching those shows but I get a little frustrated because it seems like ONLY stay-at-home moms with a high-paid husband are featured. It’s wonderful that many women can do that…I would love to stay home with my kids, but that’s not our reality. And it’s not the reality for a great deal of women. Many mothers – single and non – have to work and raise their kids. Why don’t they show up more often on these reality shows?

  4. Many women are busy caring for others: children, elderlies… but these occupations are denied their value and are not financially recognized.

    Do we have to become doctors or laywers to be worth something? Are power and celebrity everything? Can it be that women are presented a poor choice between being a superwomen with masculine values and attitude, or dropping to the object level?

    The in-between is so vast and of greath worth.

  5. (disclaimer: I’m not a women, nor do I watch television)

    I think the post makes an interesting point, but I think we can separate the two pieces.
    1) I think it’s great that women are being portrayed as successful protagonist, “ahead of the curve” so to speak, in the media. This provides an example to young girls and all those exposed to the media about the reality of what they should be able to achieve. We are fighting for the exact same thing in the media’s portrayal of minority groups.

    2) The degrading objectification of women is a disgusting thing that continues to need to be attacked, regardless of the excuse. Douglas might be right that the excuse is women have ‘made it’ so it’s okay to continue objectifying in other areas, but that excuse is BS and we can all see that quite clearly.

    So, I’m all for successful female protagonist, young girls and boys need to see that, and I’ll continue to fight against the objectification.

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