Women on TV screens represent a collective image of women sitting in living rooms and watching television programs. The popularity of female stories on TV directly depends upon the degree to which televised characters reflect and depict the realities of women’s lives. Yet, with the growing power of mass media, TV series and female stories readily turn into a major source of public stereotypes. The goal of this paper is to review the way mainstream television programs and series depict different groups of women and the extent to which they distort women’s public image. The paper describes and analyzes the following categories of women: business ladies and sexual gossipers. Their implications for understanding the sociology of gender are discussed.
Keywords: women, business, sexual gossipers, Scandal, Sex and the City, Desperate Housewives, gender, sociology.
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Women on television represent a collective image of women in living rooms. The popularity of televised characters directly depends on the degree to which they depict and reflect the realities of women’s lives. However, with the growing power of mass media, they readily turn into an effective instrument of gender and social stereotyping. Television has great impacts on the public perceptions of women and lead to the development of public beliefs about and attitudes to women. Certainly, the mainstream television programs depict different groups of women in different ways. Business women often remain beyond the realm of TV popularity, whereas sexuality, consumerism, and materialism are claimed to be inseparable from female nature. The goal of this paper is to review the two major categories of women depicted by the mainstream television programs, series, and televised content. These two groups of women are “business ladies” and “sexual gossipers”. Both social categories of female characters have the features of post-modernity and feminism, but while “business ladies” represent a positive and more truthful side of the feminist philosophy, “sexual gossipers” represent women as deeply limited in their material desires and constant pursuit of physical satisfaction, which distort the mere nature of femininity.
Women on TV
The mainstream television uses dozens of female characters to depict and critique the realities of women’s lives. Kim (2001) is correct: “women on television have long been points of identification for women in living rooms. What makes them interesting or engaging to women viewers is that what their characters deal with are things that women can find important” (p.323). Simply stated, female characters on television are becoming more popular, as women watching television from their living rooms start to identify themselves with their televised characters. Unfortunately, while television is becoming one of the major power forces pressuring public beliefs about women, their stereotyping powers are also growing. In other words, the way the mainstream television programs, series, and shows depict women can be potentially detrimental to the public image of women in general and their gender and feminine features in particular. It has become typical for televised stories about women to devalue the figure of a woman while also sanctifying the institution of gender. That is, a woman is expected to be either self-sacrificing for the sake of men or a powerful object of consumerism and the source of materialistic/ sexual/ physiological desires, which distort the mere nature of femininity and womanhood. The long-standing image of female inferiority is difficult to combat (Williams, 1984). Even more difficult is struggling with the overwhelming presence of extremely sexual, physically attractive, but emotionally and spiritually hollow women on TV screens. Only recently has the mainstream television become open and explicit in its striving to break the established beliefs about women and present the positive effects of gender and social transformations many women have undergone in their post-modernity.
Women and Their TV Categories
In this paper, two categories of televised female characters are described: first, “business ladies” and, second, “sexual gossipers.” Both have become extremely popular in mainstream television programs and series, and both have huge impacts on the way the postmodern society perceives women and their place in the gendered world. A business lady, or a woman in a leading role, is getting more popular among women-viewers. The recent example of ABC’s Scandal confirms this truth. One of the main reasons why the images of business-like women are becoming popular on TV and among viewers is because they no longer contradict the realities of life. Professional careers have become part of daily realities in many women’s lives, and it is no longer unnatural to see a woman making a successful career against all odds. A “business lady” is a category of televised women, who have remarkable strength and endurance to fight with the pressures presented by life. These women are not deprived of genuinely feminine features, including physical beauty and sexual attractiveness, but they do not seem to be relying on men and do not seem to be waiting for a miracle to happen. They are decisive and active in their professional endeavors, and it is not uncommon for such women to beat men, who are less prepared to make a productive career. Between the 1970s and 1990s, the number of women depicted as professionals on TV had consistently increased, but not as much as to destroy the existing “home-made” stereotype of an American woman (Signorielli, 2001). The mainstream television is still far from being able to represent the statistical truth about U.S. labor force and fails to capture the tangible and intangible transformations happening in the postmodern American society, especially in terms of gender.
Another category of televised characters to be described in this paper has been called “sexual gossipers”. Like professional and business ladies, this category of female characters has emerged recently, most probably, under the influence of sexual openness and the growing scope of consumerist ideals in society. “Sexual gossipers” have been designed mainly to entertain women and distract them from the difficulties they might be facing in their real lives. Sexual gossipers turn the lives of women into a never-ending glossy magazine (Arthurs, 2003). Everything in their lives is easy and quick, and, even in the most difficult situations, they manage to resolve their dilemmas without considerable losses. It is interesting to note, that Harvey and Gill (2011) call this category of characters “sex entrepreneurs” and “sex inspectors”. These categories of women were created against the background of the sexual revolution, as well as the unprecedented intensification of consumerism and neoliberalism (Harvey & Gill, 2011). Sexual self-expression and sexual pleasure are intricately related to all spheres of these women’s lives. They are open in their sexual desires and consider physical beauty as one of the principal factors of individual success. One of the most important aspects presented by “sexual gossipers” is their intent to teach the public how they should live their lives. This is how the characters of Sex and the City position themselves. Entertaining and overtly sexual, the show sends a hidden message that a successful woman will and should behave exactly the same way – be open in her sexual desires and do not feel confused about changing male partners every other night. Beyond sexualization, “sexual gossipers” spend their time discussing the details of their personal, including sexual, adventures. Most of their time, they look like they are sharing secrets with one another, turning their female viewers into involuntary participants of some secret endeavor. It is this fictional opportunity to look behind the curtains and learn the secret details of female characters’ lives that draw millions of women to their TV screens. Another important factor of their popularity is that they, actually, challenge the established image of female inferiority and suggest that women can live a different life, which is filled with pleasures. One of the main reasons why “sexual gossipers” are so popular among female viewers is because they make women believe they have a freedom of sexual, physical, and material choice. Unfortunately, these choices still depend on the quality, accessibility, and professionalism of men, with whom they develop sexual and other relations.
Business Ladies and Sexual Gossipers on TV
For the purpose of this assignment, the “business lady” category is presented by the character of Kerry Washington named Olivia Pope in one of the most successful recent TV shows on ABC, Scandal. Scandal was created by Shonda Rhimes and became the first TV drama starring an African-American lead character since 1974 (Nussbaum, 2012). Shonda Rhimes, who has also created Grey’s Anatomy, is well-known for her strong commitment to professionalism and outstanding quality of her televised works. Scandal is no exception to this rule – a drama, whose story has been borrowed from the life of the real woman, Judy Smith. Scandal can hardly be called a melodrama, due to its focus on female professionalism and crisis management. In Scandal, the character played by Kerry Washington sacrifices herself to protect the nation’s political elite and their public images by ensuring that their personal secrets never leak out. The drama is both tough and unexpected, depicting a woman as capable of fighting against the most serious troubles. This category is further represented by the real-life character of Oprah Winfrey, one of the most successful business ladies in the U.S. history. The character of Oprah Winfrey is important and demonstrative not because she is a woman, but because she is a TV-woman. Her show has become one of the most successful and profitable on American television. She is a woman millions of female viewers see on their screens on a day-to-day basis. She is real, not fictional, but her constant presence on the TV screen turns her into an effective source of important social and gender messages.
The second category, “sexual gossipers”, is presented in the two TV shows – Desperate Housewives and Sex and the City. Desperate Housewives is a story of several female residents of Wisteria Lane, whose juicy stories have fascinated thousands of women-viewers worldwide. Bree Van de Kamp-Hodge, Lynette Scavo, Gabrielle Solis, and Susan Mayer create a perfect image of a woman-sexual gossiper, who is not burdened with job concerns or professional strivings but looks for for physical and material pleasures. The plot of Sex and the City is, in many senses, identical to that of Desperate Housewives. A truly female TV series, Sex and the City depicts four beautiful and extremely sensual women, whose lives uncover the hidden aspects of individual sexuality and sexual relationships. Everything related to sexuality and gender roles can be easily found in Sex and the City. For the purpose of this assignment, all female characters of each TV series are used. They create a complex, collective image of a postmodern woman, and separating one or two characters is neither possible nor desirable. With the presence of all four female characters in each of the two discussed dramas, the image of a woman-sexual gossiper becomes more complicated, sophisticated, and multifaceted. Each of the four characters in each drama adds something unique to the collective image of a woman-sexual gossiper.
Business Ladies and Sexual Gossipers: Main Characteristics
The main question is what each of the characters mentioned above has to say about the female category she represents. In terms of a business lady, both the fictional character Olivia Pope and the real Oprah Winfrey are smart, run a successful business enterprise, and remain in the center of public attention whenever they enter a room (Springer, 2012). Needless to say, these women are strong and focused on their professional goals. They possess remarkable problem solving skills, and effective crisis management is one of their best talents. Both women, despite the differences they display in their professional commitments and career, are inspiring and invigorating. It takes a great deal of time for Olivia Pope from Scandal to persuade her clients that they have a chance to withstand public pressures and keep their public image intact. It takes a great deal of time for Oprah Winfrey to persuade the public to look and deal with the most acute problems facing contemporary American society. These women are decisive enough to leave the social pathway most women in a gendered society choose. These women choose to swim against the current, and their business endeavors eventually pay back. Unfortunately, despite their great intellect and continuous self-improvement, they cannot leave their past behind. They are too idealistic and experience huge moral pain every time they realize that the world is not perfect.
A woman-sexual gossiper is quite another story. Looking at the four Desperate Housewives and the four sexual women in Sex and the City, it is clear that their physical beauty, sexuality, and desperate striving to act against the gendered norms of their society are their brightest features. These women do not sit in living rooms and do not wait for their husbands to come home after a hard work day and taste their supper. They act, although the way they choose to act differs greatly from the one used by business ladies. Their principal goal is self-objectification, “the conscious effort to gain attention through one’s feminine traits – again, sexual attention, not professional attention” (Kim, 2001, p.324). These women depict another side of a woman’s life, which resembles a glossy magazine or a continuous line of personal pleasures and small achievements. One of the key messages sent by both TV series is that men are insensitive and even blind, as they cannot see beyond their own insensitivity (Carr, 2010). Thus, one of the best ways to bring them back to life is to have an affair with another man (Carr, 2010). A woman-sexual gossiper does not seem to be intellectual or well-educated. Rather, she is material and extremely rational. They suggest that overcoming even the major life obstacles is easy if a woman is beautiful, slim, sexy, and willing to act.
Gender Stereotyping and Its Detrimental Effects on the Public Image of Women
Unfortunately, both fictional categories described in this paper have potentially detrimental impacts on the image of woman in general. Both categories restate the simple truth that television continues disseminating stereotypic messages about women and gender relations in society. While the image of a sexual gossiper turns women into an object of sexual and material desire, the image of a successful business woman raises many questions regarding the role and place of traditional family values in today’s society. Yet, even in the life of a successful business lady, the traditional family nucleus is better secured from the risks of failure than in the lives of four housewives or four beautiful and economically independent women, who are looking for sexual pleasures. Under the influence of a woman-sexual gossiper, traditional family values are under sustained challenge (Boggs & Pollard, 2003). Being a housewife is no longer the same as being a family carer. Rather, this role is associated with personal, financial, and sexual freedom. In both Desperate Housewives and Sex and the City, professional growth is moved to the background of women’s lives, turning them into passive recipients of the simple everyday pleasures.
Both a business lady and a sexual gossiper possess strong motivation and intent to move forward, but goals they are pursuing differ dramatically. Whether or not this sexual, non-business motivation can help these young ladies to survive in the world of patriarchy is a difficult question, which no one can answer (Kim, 2001). In this whirl of events and pleasures, both images make it particularly difficult for the public to understand the problems faced by women in a gendered world. Both categories position themselves as highly independent. They depict women as if they do not want and need male support. To a large extent, the creation of such characters on TV reflects women’s ongoing desire to withstand and reduce the historical pressures of patriarchy. However, these characters represent the extreme side of femininity, which turns women into an object of trade. Women lose their traditional characteristics. They are no longer the source of beauty and a foundational pillar of traditional family unions. In this situation, the category of “business ladies” looks like a perfect response to the emergence of “sexual gossipers”. Even with all these potentially detrimental effects, business-ladies look more natural and seem to create a more truthful picture of a modern woman than a sexual gossiper, who is committed to material and physical desires with little motivation to self-educate.