In a two-part article written for TV Guide in 1964, best-selling author of The Feminine Mystique Betty Friedan claimed that television has represented the American woman as a "stupid, unattractive, insecure little household drudge who spends her martyred, mindless, boring days dreaming of love--and plotting nasty revenge against her husband." Almost thirty years later, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Susan Faludi suggested that the practices and programming of network television in the 1980s were an attempt to get back to those earlier stereotypes of women, thereby countering the effects of the women's movement that Friedan's messages had inspired in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Although the analyses of Friedan and Faludi are undeniable on many levels, it is important to remember that television provides less than realistic stereotypes of men as well (although these stereotypes embody qualities--courage, stoicism, rationality--that society values) and the images of femininity justifiably disturbing to Friedan and Faludi are not necessarily read by female viewers in the ways intended by program producers and advertisers. Recent scholarship has studied not only female fan groups that rework television texts in their own writings, but has also suggested that narratives and images are polyvalent and dependent on contextual situations for meaning. For example, television scholar Andrea Press studied women's responses to I Love Lucy, finding that middle-class women drew strength from Lucy Ricardo's subversion of her husband's dominance and Lucille Ball's performing talents, while working-class women tended to find Ball as Lucy Ricardo funny, but thought the character was silly, unrealistic, and manipulative.

While scholarship such as Press's, motivated by an agenda of understanding cultural products and practices, attempts to understand how audiences negotiate the meanings of gender and class in their encounters with television, commercial broadcasting also has a history of research into audience composition and desires. Of course its agenda is mainly focused on understanding the audience as consumers, since the economic basis of commercial broadcasting is selling consumers to advertisers. As early as the late 1920s, market research suggested to advertisers the importance of the middle-class female consumer in terms of her primary role in making decisions regarding family purchases. Early radio programs included some targeted to the female listener. Advertisers found success with how-to and self-help programs that could highlight the use of a food, cosmetic, or cleaning product in their generous doses of advice patter. By the early 1930s, household product advertisers successfully underwrote serialized dramas ("soap operas") in the daytime hours, and their assumptions that women were the primary listeners during those hours meant that narratives often revolved around central female characters and that segmentation of story and commercial must conform to the working woman's activities as she listened.

Charlie's Angels

Several of the popular radio soap operas made the transition to television, with many new ones created for the medium which would eventually eclipse radio in audience numbers. As with their radio predecessors, these shows were programmed for the daytime hours and featured commercials aimed at the housewife, that "drudge" Friedan described as the stereotype of the post-war American culture. Daytime hours on television also included game and talk/advice shows, whose rhetorical strategies assumed women's capacity as caretaker of the family's economic and emotional resources. The make-up of daytime programming on the broadcast networks has stayed remarkably the same over the years, although soap opera plots seem to take into account the presence of male viewers (not only making male characters more important, but mixing action genre ingredients into the narratives). Perhaps even more significantly as programming strategy, game shows have given way on the schedule to talk shows.

This latter trend began with the tremendous success of Donahue, which started in 1967 as a local, Dayton call-in talk show aimed at women. Host Phil Donahue was interested in serving the needs of the woman at home who was intelligent and politically sophisticated, but unrecognized by other media. Appearing at a time of considerable political and gender unrest and change, by 1980 it was carried on 218 stations around the country, delivering the "right numbers" to advertisers--women aged 18 to 49. Oprah Winfrey also started locally (in Chicago) and two years later, in 1986, The Oprah Winfrey Show went national, not only beating Donahue in the ratings, but also becoming the third-highest rated show in syndication. Winfrey is now one of the wealthiest working women in the country, and has her own production company to produce theatrical and television films, often about African American women. Like Donahue, Winfrey aims her show at intelligent women at home, but she attempts more intimacy with her viewers by relating her guests' problems to her own difficulties with weight, drugs, and sexual abuse. The success of Donahue and Winfrey led to a glut of talk shows on daytime television, and the fierce competition among them has resulted in an exploration (some would say exploitation) of once-unspoken or repressed experiences of gender and sexuality (transvestitism, homosexuality, prostitution, incest, adultery, abortion, etc.).

Ironically, primetime television, once considered more "serious" than daytime programming, has continued to cause controversy in the 1980s and 1990s when dealing with issues (abortion, homosexuality) now regularly discussed on daytime talk shows. Primetime television has been considered by the networks and media critics and historians as more serious because of the presumedly "adult" dramas, mostly with male characters as central figures, scheduled during the late, 9:00-11:00 P.M. time slots. Of course, the unspoken here is that these shows are serious because they appeal to male viewers, who are stereotyped as more interested in violence, the law, and the sometimes socially relevant aspects of nightime drama.

Many primetime dramas of the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s drew on the "masculine" emphasis of genres successful in other, prior media forms--novels, films, and radio. The western, the detective/police thriller, science fiction, and the medical drama featured controlling male characters, having adventures, braving danger, solving problems through reason and/or violence. Many critics have pointed to the goal-oriented nature of these generic forms, as opposed to the more open-ended, process-orientation of the serialized melodrama assumed to appeal to the female viewer. Yet the primetime dramas addressing the male audience have never precluded the development of characters and community. Some of the primary pleasures of westerns, such as Gunsmoke and Wagon Train, derived from their emphasis on community and the "feminine" values of civilization over the male hero alone in the wilderness. Yet, Wagon Train and two other long-running westerns, Rawhide and Bonanza, had no regular female characters. Likewise, medical dramas of the period, such as Dr. Kildare, Ben Casey, and Marcus Welby, had rational male doctors diagnosing hysterical female patients and, as in the western Bonanza or the sci-fi show Star Trek, whenever a serious relationship developed between a female character and one of the shows' heros, she would usually die before the episode concluded.

The detective and cop thriller tended to fit most securely within the action-oriented, goal-driven narrative form assumed to be compatible with stereotypes of masculine characteristics. From the police procedural Dragnet to the buddy cop thrillers Starsky and Hutch and Streets of San Francisco, women were usually criminals or distractions. In many ways, these were men's worlds.

This was born out in the statistics gathered by media researchers: in 1952, 68% of characters in primetime dramas were male; in 1973, 74% of characters in these shows were male. These kinds of numbers, as well as the qualities of the portrayals of women, spurred the National Organization for Women (NOW) to action in 1970. NOW formed a task force to study and change the derogatory stereotypes of women on television, and in 1972 they challenged the licenses of two network-owned stations on the basis of their sexist programming and advertising practices. Although they were unsuccessful in this latter strategy, NOW and other women's groups provided much needed pressure when CBS tried to cancel Cagney and Lacey, a "buddy" cop show and the first primetime drama to star two women. Conceived in 1974 by Barbara Corday and Barbara Avedon, two women inspired by critic Molly Haskell's study of women's portrayal in film, Cagney and Lacey was originally turned down by all three networks, only getting on the air after eight years. Producer Barney Rosenzweig worked closely with organized women's groups and female fans to support the show during threats of cancellation, after CBS fired the first actress to portray Christine Cagney because she was not considered "feminine enough," and during periods when the show aired controversial episodes on such topics as abortion clinic bombings.

Despite the controversy over Cagney and Lacey, by the time it got on the air, there were already other changes in primetime dramas that reflected the impact of the women's movement and networks increasing desire to capture the female market in primetime. Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, even the detective thriller, Magnum P.I. with its Vietnam vet hero, had begun to emphasize characters' emotional developments over action, with the former two programs adopting the serialized form once more common in the daytime soap operas (NYPD Blue and Homicide inherit these changes in the 1990s). Made-for-television movies, scheduled almost every night of the week during the 1970s and 1980s often featured female characters in central roles, causing many critics to suggest that they filled the void of women's pictures now vanished from the theatrical feature film world. In the mid to late 1980s, shows such as China Beach (about nurses in Vietnam), Heartbeat (women doctors at a women's health clinic), L.A. Law (with both male and female lawyer partners) suggested new trends in primetime drama. Yet, in 1987, 66% of characters in primetime were still male.

The situation comedy, which filled the early primetime hours from the early fifties to the present, has tended to be more hospitable to female characters, at least in terms of numbers. In terms of their portrayals of women and femininity, situation comedies are more of a mixed bag. Because most comedy shows focused on the family, women were mainly seen as wives, mothers, and daughters. Within that context, the programs might center on the value of the mother's nurturance and work, as in Mama or The Goldbergs (for which star Gertrude Berg acted as producer), or marginalize her in decision making about the family's resources and children, as in Leave it To Beaver (the mother in The Brady Bunch of the late 1960s-1970s is heir to June Cleaver in that regard). Zany wives, who continually acted against their husband's wishes, were featured in I Love Lucy, I Married Joan, and My Favorite Husband; while Private Secretary and Our Miss Brooks represented single working women as only slightly less irrational. It would be wrong to suggest that these shows ignored gender tensions--some of the programs were fraught with them. In Father Knows Best, for example, although father Jim Anderson is the moral center of the show, his intelligent wife Margaret and ambitious daughter Betty are confronted in more than one episode with some of the agonies of the polarized choices (wife and mother or career) women faced in the 1950s. Likewise, Donna Stone of the The Donna Reed Show questions the connotations of the media's use of "housewife" in one episode, and Lucy Ricardo of I Love Lucy is probably the most ambitious and dissatisfied woman in all of television history.

In the 1960s, restlessness with domesticity appears in shows where the female characters have to literally use magic to leave their roles, as in Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, or in the girlish pretensions of would-be actress Ann Marie in That Girl. Although critics now point to her idealized feminine looks and her sometimes subserviant response to boss Mr. Grant, Mary Richards of The Mary Tyler Moore Show was a refreshing relief from the frustrated women in sitcoms of the 1950s and 1960s. Coming on the air the same year NOW organized its task force, this show still stands out in not compromising Mary's single status, in its development of her career as a news producer, in its portrayal of a character basically happy as a non-married, working woman. Her smart and sarcastic (and slightly more man crazy) friend Rhoda was so popular viewers that she was starred in a spin-off show. While producer Norman Lear's All in the Family was more successful in satirizing stereotypes embodied by male than female characters, other Lear productions, like Maude and One Day at a Time worked against earlier portrayals of wives and mothers. These women were married more than once, raised children, stood up for their rights and beliefs. Maude even had an abortion in one of the most controversial programs in television history.

Although sitcoms of the 1980s and 1990s, such as Kate and Allie, Designing Women, Golden Girls, Roseanne, Murphy Brown, Grace Under Fire, continue the trend of the 1970s in representing working women, female friendship free from competition, non-traditional family formations, etc., television producers during this period seemed fond of creating family sitcoms that banished mothers. Although in reality a statistically small number of households involve single fathers, Full House, My Two Dads, Empty Nest, Blossom, The Nanny, I Married Dora featured men as both mothers and fathers (who sometimes have a great housekeeper/nanny). Mom was around in The Cosby Show, but some suggested too much--the program hardly suggested the reality of a working attorney mother of five. The show's depiction of Claire Huxtable as free from the tensions of demanding career vs. motherhood caused some critics to label her character "post-femininist." At the opposite end of the spectrum, Murphy Brown and Roseanne have come under fire for depicting motherhood in too "non-traditional" ways.

I Dream of Jeannie

Ann Southern

While current broadcast network programming arguably presents a greater variety of representations of women than in previous decades due to changes in gender roles in society since the women's movement, this is as much because the "new woman" is recognized as a consuming audience member as it is because networks feel a responsibility to break down cultural stereotypes. Such marketplace driven political correctness even motivated the creation of Lifetime, a cable network for women, in 1984. At first relying mostly on acquired programming, which included many primetime reruns from the broadcast networks, in the late 1980s the channel began producing original TV movies and programs appealing to women on the basis of central female characters and behind-the-camera female personnel, such as director-actress Diane Keaton directing a TV movie. When NBC cancelled The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, a "dramedy" about a wistful divorced, working woman, Lifetime acquired the reruns and produced 30 original episodes of its own. While this decision did not generate the ratings hoped for, it was great public relaitons, and put the channel on the map. Morning hours concentrate on advice shows for young mothers, and the rest of daytime hours are filled with reruns of shows with proven appeal to women, such as Cagney and Lacey, The Tracy Ullman Show, and L.A. Law. While the channel refuses to identify itself as feminist--it only admits to avoiding programming that "victimizes" women--its existence does suggest that women are far from ignored by television.

Currently, the greatest gaps in television programming's representation of women probably reside in sports and news. Broadcast networks rarely cover women's sports (newer sports cable channels do a little better if only because they have 24 hours of coverage to fill), and when they do, media scholars have noted that the sportscasters call female atheletes by first name and use condescending or paternal adjectives in describing them. Female TV news journalists have had their own problems in getting airtime, and are usually submitted to sexist biases about feminine appearance. Women in television news divisions, both behind and in front of the camera, organized groups in the 1970s and 1980s to pressure executives to give women in these areas more power and representation. There were well-publicized sex discrimination and sexual harassment suits at this time, but change has come slowly. But CNN, a cable channel needing to fill 24 hours has put more women on the air (including an all women news show, CNN & Co.), and the profitability of increasing the number of "newsmagazines" on the air prompted the broadcast networks to include more female anchors in the early 1990s. Yet women are only used as "experts" on news shows about 15% of the time, an issue of representation as important as their presence as news anchors. Many media critics look to an increase in the use of women as "experts" as a possible catalyst for change in all areas of television programming. When women are seen as authority figures in our culture, their representation in fiction as well as non-fiction media forms will presumedly change for the better.

- Mary Desjardins


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See also Children and Television; Family on Television