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Opinion

Not so Modern Family: Top sitcoms make for sexist, inaccurate television

In the five highest-rated primetime sitcoms (The Big Bang Theory, Modern Family, Two Broke Girls, Two and a Half Men, and How I Met Your Mother), male characters are professionally accomplished, while female characters are unemployed or struggling.

By Michelle Haimoff / January 27, 2012

Neil Patrick Harris poses backstage at the People's Choice Awards on Jan. 11 in Los Angeles. Mr. Harris plays Barney on the sitcom How I Met Your Mother. The majority of the show's male characters are successfully employed, while most female characters are struggling. This portrayal is sexist – and inaccurate– argue op-ed writer Michelle Haimoff.

AP Photo/Matt Sayles

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Los Angeles

The unemployment rate for women characters on network sitcoms is staggering. In the five highest rated primetime sitcoms – The Big Bang Theory, Modern Family, Two Broke Girls, Two and a Half Men, and How I Met Your Mother – the majority of the male characters are professionally accomplished, while the female characters are almost all unemployed or financially struggling.

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There is a difference between quirky, flawed characters and ones who are incapable of professional success. And when the latter is reliably female, it makes for sexist television. It also makes for unrealistic television.

Take a look: The female characters on Modern Family are stay-at-home moms; Robin, on How I Met Your Mother, is a struggling journalist (and Lily, the other female character, is a shopaholic nursery school teacher); Two Broke Girls is about model-pretty waitresses who can barely pay their rent; and in the dystopic world of Two and a Half Men, all of the female characters are stalkers, dimwits, cleaning ladies, vindictive ex-wives, or manipulative mothers.

The only accomplished women on any of these shows are on The Big Bang Theory. But like 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon, the most successful one, Amy, is undatable, while Penny, the hot waitress, is the one the male characters lust after.

The male characters on these shows are not just employed (and attractive to women), but most of them are wildly successful. Ted, on How I Met Your Mother, is the youngest architect to ever build a New York skyscraper, Barney is a powerful executive, and Marshall is a corporate lawyer. Mitchell, on Modern Family, is a lawyer, Jay owns a construction company, and Phil is a real estate broker. Alan, on Two and a Half Men, is a chiropractor, Charlie was a jingle writer, and their newest addition, Walden, is a self-made billionaire. And all of the men on The Big Bang Theory are brilliant physicists and engineers.

The male characters on these shows are far from perfect. They have their quirks and shortcomings, just as the female characters do. And as Modern Family’s gay Mitchell and Cameron illustrate, they’re not even conventional. But it’s a given that the male characters can hold down jobs, whereas for the female characters it is a constant struggle, except for Amy, who is borderline asexual.

Not only is this portrayal of women sexist – it’s inaccurate. The US unemployment rate for women (8.3 percent) is lower than it is for men (9.3 percent). According to the Department of Labor, 59 percent of women, or 72 million women work, and women make up half of the US workforce.

And women in the labor force is hardly a recent phenomenon. Prime time sitcoms used to feature smart, sexy female characters that rocked their full time jobs. Characters like Mary Tyler Moore, Claire Huxstable, Julia Sugarbaker, and Murphy Brown. I wanted to be all of those women. So why has television moved backward?

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