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

By November 12, 2009 7 Comments
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

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.

–Kate