Women on TV: still worrying about detergents

Women may have broken out of the mold in the world of jobs, but in the land of television the old female stereotypes still prevail. The latest of three recent studies confirming that finding is a check of 1, 600 commercials by four students at Cleveland State University.

While they found that the number of women representing products in ads was up -- particularly in afternoon programs -- most women doing the selling were cast in home or consumer roles. Very few portrayed professionals.

"I think it makes sense to pitch women's products to women, and not every woman is an executive," says Marina Pesch, a junior majoring in communications, who worked on the project. "But there's [still] a tendency to assume that a woman's whole worth is based on her ability as a cleaner. I feel that's kind of degrading. [Few women] would identify, for instance, with Mrs. Bronowski who becomes almost hysterical when the manufacturers of Final Touch [a cleaning product] threaten to take the bluing agent out and only later assure her they were just teasing."

Miss Pesch says, however, that the one finding that surprised all four students the most was the increase they found over the last 10 years, by comparing earlier studies with their own, in the use of a male voice to close out most ads with a final plug for the product. The researchers suggest there may be many reasons for it, including habit, but they consider it a telling sign that to most people the male voice symbolizes authority.

"It's a very subtle thing, but it's in up to 90 percent or more of the ads these days," she says. "It even holds for commercials selling feminine care products and cosmetics."

Dr. Richard Perloff, assistant professor of communications at Cleveland State University, who supervised the project, notes that while female stereotypes in ads and programs have remained virtually intact over the years, the research by his students did uncover some "positive" changes as well. In addition to an increase in the number of women representing products in ads, men in commercials are shown in a greater variety of roles, particularly in the household, than in the past.

In another sample study of women in prime-time and Saturday-morning TV programs over a three-year period in the mid- 1970s, Michigan State researchers also found that women's behavior and roles in most cases tended again to fit the traditional image.

Bradley Greenberg, chairman of the university's communications department and author of the recent book "Life on Television," which spells out the findings, says that men still outnumber women by 3 to 1 in TV roles, just as they have for the past decade or so. Yet even when they do appear, women are much less apt to take leadership roles and are much more apt to be emotionally dependent on others than are the men.

"The research was done at a time when the networks were ballyhooing all the changes taking place," Dr. Greenberg recalls. "But most of the behavior we found was consistent with the stereotypes."

Another look at women in television drama by the US Commission on Civil Rights, in an update of its 1975 "Window Dressing on the Set" report, concludes similarly that most were in their teens or 20s and tended to be secretaries, household workers, or nurses if they were employed at all. For every woman in law enforcement, the update noted, two portrayed criminals. Close to half of the minority women appearing in TV dramas had no paying jobs at all.

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