Working Women On Television: A Mixed Bag At Best

May 19, 2013
Originally published on May 20, 2013 12:33 pm

When actress Geena Davis was watching children's shows with her daughter a few years ago, she became so troubled by the lack of female representation, she started a think tank on gender in the media. The Geena Davis Institute recently partnered with University of Southern California professors to conduct a study analyzing gender roles and jobs on screen.

The good news? Prime-time television's pretty decent at depicting women with careers.

"We looked at something like 11,000-plus speaking characters," Davis tells NPR. The study showed that 44.3 percent of female characters in prime-time television are gainfully employed. That's respectably close to the real-life figure of 46.7 percent. And it's vastly better than children's entertainment — meaning shows and family films — in which a grossly disproportionate 81 percent of the jobs are held by men.

Television today teems with female characters holding jobs of the sort a young girl — or boy — might aspire to. Think of all the female lawyers, doctors and detectives on procedurals, like Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. Or the wisecracking female neurobiologist on The Big Bang Theory. Or Leslie Knope, the earnest small-town city councilwoman on Parks And Recreation, whose political ambitions lie short of nothing but the presidency.

As it happens, Geena Davis actually played the president of the United States on the short-lived 2005 ABC series Commander in Chief. These are the sort of female characters Davis hopes girls will see on TV and aspire, eventually, to be.

But there's one problem, says Jennifer Newsom, who directed the 2011 documentary Miss Representation about women in the media. She points out that almost none of those characters have children. Nor do the career-obsessed heroines of her two favorite shows, Homeland and Scandal.

"Let's just forget the working mother," Newsom grouses. "Despite the fact that, of working women, 60 percent are working mothers." As part of her research, Newsom asked a Hollywood executive about this vexing absence of working moms on TV. The response, she says, was along the lines of, "Well, you know, our focus study group, they weren't comfortable with the mother [character] working so hard and blah, blah, blah."

Truth be told, it can be uncomfortable to watch a character like Nurse Jackie, a working mom over 40, struggle on her series to hold her life, job and family together. Newsom says Nurse Jackie is even more of an outlier.

"Forty and older are actually 47 percent of our population here in the U.S., yet only 26 percent of women on TV," she observes. Of course, 40 and older in the real world tends to describe the ages of CEOs, high-level politicians and people who've poured decades into building distinguished careers.

According to the Geena Davis Institute, prime-time programs show women running companies 14 percent of the time. In real life, it's 25 percent. Glenn Close played such a character in Damages, a TV show about a woman in charge of her own high-powered law firm. Damages originally aired on FX. Its president, John Landgraf, admits the channel is mainly known for its compelling male anti-heroes.

"Frankly, the reason I mistakenly passed on Breaking Bad was that at the time, we had The Shield, Nip/Tuck and Rescue Me," he says. "And I was like, 'Well, are we going to have four shows with white male anti-heroes on the air? Is that really the whole of our brand?' "

Landgraf wanted powerful female anti-heroes anchoring their own shows. So not only did he greenlight Damages, but he also gave the go to Dirt, a short-lived series starring Courtney Cox as the editor-in-chief of a sleazy tabloid. Neither show exactly found a Breaking Bad-like fan following.

"And it's fascinating to me," Landgraf adds, "that we just have really different, and I think, a more rigorous set of standards for female characters than we do for male characters in this society. It's much harder to buy acceptance of a female anti-hero."

Tell it to showrunner Janet Tamaro. She created Rizzoli and Isles on TNT, about a female detective and a female medical examiner that starts its fourth season in June. "I got a lot of a resistance when I wanted to write a scene with the two women in conflict," she recalls. "From both male and female executives, and everyone was squeamish about it — 'Oh no, no, no, we don't want to see women fight.' "

But Tamaro prevailed, and she scripted a spirited argument between her two leads that lasts until a colleague refers to their "cat fight," prompting them to turn on him. "Did you really just call a disagreement between two female colleagues a cat fight?" Rizzoli demands.

There's another place to look on television for strong depictions of working women, according to Geena Davis. "The most gender-balanced sector of television shows is reality shows," she says.

Look past the parade of housewives, bachelorettes and dance moms, and you'll see women flipping houses on HGTV, designing high-end suits on Project Runway, or running restaurants like Robbie Montgomery on Welcome to Sweetie Pie's. The success of reality programs like these proves that showing women working really works. For everyone.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

For a new series about the changing lives of women, WEEKEND EDITION turned on the TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF "MODERN FAMILY" THEME MUSIC)

SIMON: On one of TV's most popular comedies, "Modern Family," none of the adult female characters works outside of the home.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MODERN FAMILY")

SIMON: This hardly reflects a reality, where stay-at-home mothers are only 14 percent of U.S. women. For a little historical perspective, that's a 50 percent drop over the past 40 years. Television mirrors, and even helps drive, social norms and trends. NPR's Neda Ulaby wondered how accurately it might depict working women today.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: If you're of a certain age, you might have something in common with actress Geena Davis - your memories of working women on television.

GEENA DAVIS: I don't remember a lot of women on TV with jobs. I mean, there were "I Dream of Jeannie" and Lt. Uhura; I guess she - well, she had a job.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STAR TREK")

ULABY: TV has changed so much since "Star Trek," it makes "Modern Family" seem a little - hmm - less modern. Geena Davis runs something like a think tank that tracks gender and the media. It recently partnered with UCLA for a study analyzing gender roles and jobs on screen. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The partner institution is the University of Southern California.]

DAVIS: We looked at something like 11,000-plus speaking characters. And TV is actually doing a pretty good job of depicting women with careers.

ULABY: Careers, meaning the kinds of jobs a young girl - or boy - might aspire to, like the female neurobiologist on "The Big Bang Theory."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE BIG BANG THEORY")

ULABY: Or all those women lawyers, doctors and detectives handling procedurals, like the ones on "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LAW AND ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT")

ULABY: Or the small-town city councilwoman on "Parks and Recreation," who meets two, real-life female senators.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PARKS AND RECREATION")

ULABY: These are the working women Geena Davis hopes girls will see on TV and want, eventually, to be. She and her daughter were watching children shows when she became troubled by their terrible lack of gender parity. So she started her institute. Its recent studies shows family movies are vastly worse than television.

DAVIS: Eighty-one percent of the jobs are held by men.

ULABY: In real life, it's more like half. Davis once held the ultimate job on television: president of the United States, in 2005's "Commander in Chief."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "COMMANDER IN CHIEF")

ULABY: Washington, D.C., is where you'll find today's TV women most consumed by their careers - on "Homeland" and "Scandal." Those happen to be Jennifer Newsome's favorite shows. She's a documentarian who's examined representations of women in the media. She sees this problem: Nearly all those characters have something in common besides their careers - no kids.

JENNIFER NEWSOME: Let's forget the working mother, despite the fact that of working women, 60 percent are working mothers.

ULABY: As part of her research, Newsome asked a Hollywood executive about this vexing absence of working moms on shows. Here's what the executive said:

NEWSOME: Well, you know, our focus study group, they weren't comfortable with the mother working so hard and blah, blah, blah, blah.

ULABY: It can be uncomfortable to watch "Nurse Jackie," a working mom over 40, struggling to hold it together.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NURSE JACKIE")

NEWSOME: Forty and older are actually 47 percent of our population here in the U.S., yet only 26 percent of women on TV.

ULABY: Of course, 40 and older in the real world tends to be the ages of CEOs, high-level politicians, women who've poured decades into building distinguished careers. According to the Geena Davis Institute, prime-time programs show women running companies 14 percent of the time. In real life, it's 25 percent. In the TV show "Damages," Glenn Close played a woman in charge of her own, high-powered law firm who mentors a female colleague.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DAMAGES")

ULABY: "Damages" aired on FX, a channel mostly known for its compelling male antiheroes. FX President John Landgraf:

JOHN LANDGRAF: Frankly, the reason that I mistakenly passed on "Breaking Bad" was that at that time, we had "The Shield," "Nip Tuck" and "Rescue Me." And I was like, well, are we going to have four shows with white, male antiheroes on the air? Is that really our whole - the whole of our brand?

ULABY: He wanted female antiheroes anchoring their own shows. So he green-lighted not only "Damages" but "Dirt," a short-lived series with Courteney Cox as the editor-in-chief of a sleazy tabloid.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DIRT")

ULABY: Neither show exactly found "Breaking Bad's" level of fan engagement.

LANDGRAF: And it's fascinating to me that we just have a really different, I think much more rigorous set of standards for female characters than we do for male characters, in this society. It's much harder to buy acceptance of a female antihero.

ULABY: Tell it to Janet Tamaro. She created the show "Rizzoli and Isles." It's about a detective and a medical examiner - both, women.

JANET TAMARO: I got a lot of a resistance when I wanted to write a scene with the two women in conflict, from both male and female executives. And everyone was squeamish about it. No, no, no; we don't want to see women fight.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RIZZOLI AND ISLES")

TAMARO: They have this tremendous conflict, and neither one of them wants to give at all. And yet when a man says, "Did I just walk in on a catfight?" the two women instantly react.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RIZZOLI AND ISLES")

ULABY: But there's another place to look on television for powerful depictions of working women, says Geena Davis.

DAVIS: The most gender-balanced sector of television shows is reality shows.

ULABY: That might sound funny, until you look past the housewives and dance moms to the professional women flipping houses on HGTV, designing high-end suits on "Project Runway," or running a restaurant in St. Louis.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WELCOME TO SWEETIE PIE'S")

ULABY: "Welcome to Sweetie Pie's" is starting its third season this summer. Davis says reality TV, just like - well, real reality, proves that showing women working really works - for everyone.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.