Weird Ways TV Is Still Sexist
We're living in the Golden Age of Television, which isn't exactly something we'll brag about to our children, but is pretty nice when you decide on an evening of Netflix. But you may have noticed that TV is still heavily biased towards focusing on men, and science backs that up. A study found that out of all kids who watch TV, boys (specifically white boys) are the only ones who gain self-esteem instead of losing it when they watch. Why? Well ...
TV's Portrayal Of Female Sexuality Is (Still) Messed Up
Hollywood prides itself on being progressive. It's always ready to hand out awards to shows and movies that address once-taboo topics like transgenderism and gay rights. But when it comes to female sexuality, TV is still bizarrely old-fashioned. Female characters seem far more likely to be brutally raped than to initiate and enjoy casual sex ... as if we're more comfortable with the former. The sexuality of female characters is portrayed about as well as it is in a 1940s propaganda tool warning women that sex out of wedlock is a communist recruiting tactic.
Think about how men have sex on TV. The dude gets laid, the dude feels awesome, and then one of two things happens: He's treated like a champion or he's embarrassed about being bad in bed (or, God forbid, sleeping with an ugly chick). But for women, sex is terrifying. As many critics have pointed out, the idea that it's normal and healthy for women to enjoy sex is still a foreign concept to many TV writers. For example, look at the oft-discussed boob-to-man-butt (B:MB) ratio on Game Of Thrones. Scenes of dudes banging ye olde hookers are commonplace, but women getting dudes naked, enjoying themselves, or even consenting to sex are much rarer. This seems to be slowly changing, but TV is still treating women like a nervous junior on prom night.
Look at those tense kids!
How pervasive is this? Well, a study looked at 238 episodes of a variety of TV shows and found that a third of them contained scenes that portrayed women being sexually exploited in some way (violence, harassment, sex trafficking, etc.). Sometimes it's played for laughs ("I bet our weird friend Steve has a dead hooker in his basement!"), and sometimes it's dramatic ("I bet our weird suspect Steve has a dead hooker in his basement"). Either way, the message is the same: Women (or girls) getting sexually exploited is either hilarious or kind of their own fault. Consider, well, any crime show ever. If the episode is about a sexual assault, odds are the victim was a naive young woman (or teen) who made the mistake of stepping out into the hinterland of rape that is the fictional universe of shows like Law & Order. TV sends a message that guys are free to have fun exploring their sexuality and make wacky mistakes, while women who try to do the same will find themselves chopped up in a dumpster.
She tried to go out for milk after 8 p.m.
Now here's where it gets disturbing: A study found that men developed more sexist attitudes towards women after viewing scenes of sexual violence, but only if the women were passive. That's right: Watching a rape made the guys feel worse about the victims if they felt like they didn't put up enough of a fight. What the hell?
"Well, she shouldn't have been walking around alone on set in that wardrobe."
TV Women No Longer Have To Be Mothers, Except They Totally Do
Kids are great. We'll need them to serve us breakfast when we're living out our retirement at Denny's. But television still sees children as the logical endgame for all women, even if they've previously been apathetic about or opposed to having them. Parks And Recreation's April never discussed having children in the entire series, but decides to have them in the span of about five minutes during the finale, seemingly because they had no other idea how to wrap up her story. Parks' Leslie and The Mindy Project's Mindy also both got saddled with kids in later seasons, seemingly out of a desire to check a box on the "female character development" list, rather than because it made any logical sense.
"Great, now we just need her to worry that her post-pregnancy body is hideous, and we'll be set for another season."
As with most items in this article, there isn't some dark agenda at play here. Hollywood isn't secretly trying to overpopulate the world. But if a character has a uterus, TV writers have a hard time thinking of anything else to do with them. One favorite plot crisis, for instance, is the surprise pregnancy. In Sex And The City, Miranda gets pregnant and decides to roll with it after briefly contemplating an abortion (and in an episode in which Carrie talks about not wanting kids, she's portrayed as an unhinged woman with a shoe obsession). In Homeland, Carrie (Mathison) ends up having her dead terrorist lover's baby, only to dump the kid on her sister for months and then try to drown the poor girl in the bathtub after being forced to spend a single day with her. Maybe she should have pulled the trigger on an abortion instead of trying for one many trimesters too late. But deep down, even she desperately wants to be a mom, right?
Yes, showing women struggling with motherhood is a realistic reflection of a society in which it's hard to have both a career and a kid. But most of these struggles end the same way: Whenever a female character doesn't want children, a man comes along and changes her mind. In How I Met Your Mother, we spend nine seasons watching Robin come to terms with the fact that she can't have kids and doesn't especially want them anyway. Then she hooks up with Ted and gets stuck with two stepchildren. Which is ironic, considering how we learned that Ted's mom was pressured into having kids by his dad.
We guess How I Met Your Selfish Stepdad doesn't have the same ring to it.
Meanwhile, Lily seriously struggles with being a mother, and is sometimes tempted to bail on the whole endeavor. That's fine (and realistic), but her husband Marshall never has the same problem. All of the fathers on the show are amazing, despite the fact that they also work hard and party hard. Either they secretly have more hours in the day than the rest of us, or fatherhood is just something easy that you knock out in between trips to the bar. That may explain the trend of men who are desperate to have kids and women who are opposed to the idea (in The Big Bang Theory, Bernadette is averse to kids, but Howard desires them). Why not? On TV, being a dad is easy.
Menstruation Still Transforms Women Into Disgusting Emotional Basket Cases
This one seems to stem purely from shows falling back on an easy, tired joke that happens to play into the worst female stereotype: that they can't function as rational humans due to their weird lady parts.
Admittedly, no one who enjoys The Big Bang Theory can function as a rational human, but still.
Despite being a normal and usually tolerable monthly occurrence, you'd be hard-pressed to find a show that treats menstruation as anything other than all-out biological and emotional warfare against men. Maybe it's a side effect of mostly-male writers rooms kind of learning about menstruation in school while getting distracted by the fact that vaginas were being discussed, then never having to think about the subject again outside of bad stand-ups complaining that their girlfriends are on the rag.
So on The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon remarks that it must be Penny's time of the month whenever she snaps at him. Family Guy has continually portrayed PMS as a source of rage. In New Girl, the main character can't even function properly in an interview thanks to PMS. On Modern Family, Luke describes three female characters as "monsterating." The IT Crowd's Jen has a period so brutal and emotional that her male friends start experiencing the symptoms. And it's not only that it's a bad joke -- it's also an old joke. Married With Children had an episode where Al Bundy would rather brave a rampaging bear than a cabin occupied by three menstruating women, and Everybody Loves Raymond dedicated an entire episode to how unreasonably crazy Debra acts when on her period.
An Emmy-winning episode.
Again, there's not some evil plan to undermine women. They're going for easy bodily function jokes, and folks acting all crazy makes for instant comedy. But there probably isn't a woman alive who hasn't gotten legitimately angry about something, only to have some smirking guy asking if it's "that time of the month." Thanks to pop culture, terrible dudes have a blank check to dismiss any woman who is ever upset about anything, ever.
We Hate Female Characters Who Aren't The Right Kind Of "Strong"
We all have characters we love to imagine suffering a horrible death, like Joffrey Baratheon or Sheldon Cooper. But female characters get held to a weird double standard. The set of behaviors we'll accept from a woman on TV is weirdly narrow. The actress who played Skyler White on Breaking Bad received so much vitriol from fans that she wrote an article in The New York Times defending her character. What were Skyler's crimes? Being a wet blanket who always criticized her drug lord husband, as if she was trying to stop him from going to the bar with his bros instead of asking him to stop emotionally abusing his family while he ran a violent meth empire.
But at least some people just want to masturbate to her.
And so many otherwise-rational men had such a burning hatred of Carrie Bradshaw that they achieved a dangerously ironic level of cattiness. She's routinely named one of the worst female characters ever conceived, for having the audacity to sleep around and be self-centered -- a trait that earns an equivalent male instant Awesome status. Oh, and for some reason, it's still considered hilarious for South Park, Family Guy and your comedy-challenged friends to compare actress Sarah Jessica Parker to a horse, because apparently it's perpetually 2002 and horses are a mythical animal no one's actually seen.
It's not just viewers who have female characters under constant scrutiny. Whether it's the questionable journalistic ethics of House Of Cards' Zoe Barnes, Homeland's Carrie Mathison sleeping around, the victimhood of Mad Men's Betty Draper, or the unspeakable ugliness of Girls' Hannah Horvath, TV critics love to pick female characters apart for ... not being perfect, we guess? Meanwhile, Walter White straight-up tries to kill a child and he's still simply a "badass."
But a sometimes-annoying character on a show about young women learning to grow up is intolerable.
It's not that "badass" female characters don't exist. Look at two currently popular fictional universes full of the walking dead: Game Of Thrones and whatever that popular zombie show is called. Arya, Ygritte, Daenerys, Brienne, Michonne, Carol, Maggie, Sasha, other women with now-obscure names which will be dominating playgrounds 10 years from now ... they're all "strong" female characters who figuratively and literally kick ass.
Now, we fully support any woman who wants to professionally murder zombies. But any character who doesn't become an emotionless killer ends up loathed by the fans. Lori Grimes had the audacity to make bad decisions and demonstrate extreme emotion in the middle of the zombie apocalypse, and everyone hated Sansa Stark for being a teenage girl who somehow didn't grasp political complexities or have the desire to stab dudes in the throat. Sure, she survived a series of incredibly tenuous situations by being adaptable and emotionally manipulative, but that's stereotypical "girl" stuff, and we hate that shit. If women are to be heroic, they need to be chopping off heads. You know, man stuff.
But it's good to know that when civilization collapses and humanity is doomed to a slow and painful extinction, some people will still have their priorities straight.
Studies back this up -- we want female characters who fit a "superwoman ideal." They should have the "manly" traits of assertiveness and aggression, but we're turned off if they don't hit feminine beauty norms and show at least some vulnerability. That's the difference: It's fine for male characters to have a single manly trait (he's the badass, he's the smart guy) but if women can't do everything, then they're not good enough.
So how did things get like this?
There Aren't That Many Women Making Shows
There's no single explanation for why television is so frequently bad at writing women. As we mentioned earlier, some of it is writers imitating what they watched growing up. Jokes about crazy "sluts" and hormonal harpies show up for the same reason fat jokes do -- they're easy. Also, they're popular. TV comedy is about offering comfortable entertainment you can listen to while you're washing the dishes. Networks don't get monster ratings by challenging the audience's worldview. For cop shows, it's easy to get drama out of a brutal rape, or the threat of one. But in every case, "easy" is the key word. And over time, we fall into a pattern, which results in half the women we see being crusty stereotypes or shrieking victims.
Law & Order diversifies by always having both.
But the lack of diversity behind the scenes also plays a big damn role. A mere 27 percent of industry jobs are held by women, even though women watch more TV than men. It's probably no surprise that actresses have shorter careers than their male counterparts (if a female wants a career past 35, she'd better either be in great shape or funny as hell), but female screenwriters retire much earlier as well. Hollywood doesn't look too kindly upon older writers in general, because only a constant influx of youth will give the television industry a steady supply of those new and fresh period jokes we all love. But older women (read: wizened, 40-year-old crones) have it worse, even in a job where your age and appearance supposedly doesn't matter.
And it's trending down. In 2014, 25 percent of TV writers were women, down from the ancient days of 2007, and barely above where we stood in 1998. We're not saying there's some intentional system to shut women out of the process (Note: The Cracked editorial team isn't exactly bursting with women, either), but regardless of the reason, TV is definitely worse for it.
But it seems that what we really need more of is men complaining that female characters written by women are unlikable.
If you're writing about any group without a single member of it in the room, it's easy to fall back on lazy stereotypes. In a lot of cases, they're not writing about what it's like to be a struggling single mom based on any experience. They're writing about what '80s sitcoms told them about being a struggling single mom. Which means that you get the same jokes, decade after decade. Even if you don't care about political correctness or equality, having more women behind the scenes would mean better shows. No creative outlet in the history of the world has gotten worse by adding fresh perspectives. Why else do you think Cracked is constantly asking people to sign up?
Sure, why not follow and then rant at Nathan on Twitter? Or if you'd prefer to rant at him in a longer format, send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And be sure to check out 19 Surprisingly Sexist Messages In Modern Pop Culture and 6 Sexist Video Game Problems Even Bigger Than The Breasts.
Also, follow us on Facebook. Or don't. It's whatevsies.