How TV Treats Women
The on-screen image has improved with an increase in female writer-producers. TELEVISION: TRENDS
LOS ANGELES — JUNE CLEAVER to Murphy Brown; Donna Reed to Roseanne; Harriet Nelson to ``The Golden Girls.'' From the 1950s to the '90s, women portrayed on American entertainment television appear to have ``come a long way, baby.'' But have they really?
At first glance, there appear to be more single, career-oriented women leading profitable, happy lives on TV than at any time in the 50-year history of the medium.
This season's ``Rosie O'Neill'' (CBS) presents a woman as a public defender, a new twist on older shows depicting women as lawyers (``L.A. Law,'' ``Cosby''), private detectives (``Sydney''), authors (``Murder, She Wrote''), judges (``L.A. Law,'' ``Equal Justice''), as well as moms, homemakers, and matriarchs.
Observers say behind some of these shows is a welcome influx of brilliant women writers and producers into the creative ranks and into other more technical jobs.
Writer/producers such as Linda Bloodworth-Thomason (``Designing Women''), Diane English (``Murphy Brown''), and Roseanne Barr (``Roseanne'') have turned personal visions into the hottest shows - both with critics and viewers - of the past two seasons.
But the high number of women-based series may have less to do with feminism than with the fact that women between the ages of 18 and 49 have become the most sought-after target for advertisers.
``I don't know if those demographics enter into producers' motivations for creating a show one way or the other, but I know it has everything to do with what stays on the air,'' says Diane English, whose ``Murphy Brown'' has been held up as groundbreaking for its use of a central character who is a world-renowned woman journalist.
Industry observers, however, say that if you go beyond the most calculated and consciously drawn depictions of women, the progressive march of women on the tube is less impressive.
Consider this list of ``yes ... buts'':
``Murphy Brown:'' The quintessential '90s career-woman, played by Candice Bergen, lives her work and lives alone. All this relentless careerism lands her in places like the Betty Ford Center for recovering alcoholics. For various reasons, Murphy Brown's love interests don't work out.
``Sex and romance are media symbols for power and happiness,'' says Sari Thomas, a Temple University researcher who studies the image of women on TV. ``The cost-benefit analysis of her life choices shows a successful, driven woman ... may have to forfeit marriage and homemaking.''
``thirtysomething:'' The women in this show are politically aware and businesswise, but their activities - writing children's books, environmental activism - are pursued as wives. Melissa, a photographer, is frequently out of work. Ellen, who has reached mid-level management, is frequently ill or out of sorts. The men, by contrast, are the ones with full-time careers. Gary, a single professor who is denied tenure, becomes morose and miserable when he is forced to take on the same activities as the women.
``L.A. Law:'' The married couple, Anne Kelsey and Stuart Markowitz, are respected members of the series' fictional TV law firm. But when it is time to worry about who takes care of baby, it is Anne who struggles most, solving the problem by bringing the child to an important meeting. When staff elections are held to replace the male senior partner, it is Stuart whose name goes in the ring. When a female challenges the long-standing male domination of the firm, she is portrayed as conniving and self-serving.
``I would say we've come a little way, baby,'' says Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, creator, executive producer, and writer of this season's ``Evening Shade'' as well as ``Designing Women,'' the sitcom lauded for its richly-drawn depictions of women struggling with social, personal, and political concerns. ``Women should not be seduced by these very tantalizing thoughts that we have made enormous progress and are just about through the gates.''
Although many female writers have argued that getting more women into the creative and administrative ranks will feminize programming, the time has not yet come to prove - or disprove - the assumption. Nor is it likely to come soon.
The Writers Guild of America points out that only one of its members in five is female. Median income for male TV writers last year was about $50,000, in contrast to $32,000 (37 percent less) for women.
Two studies released last month show the percentage of women among prime-time producers, directors, and writers remains far below their presence in the workplace. Women represent only 8 percent of the producers at ABC, 16 percent at NBC, and 20 percent at CBS.
Says Bloodworth-Thomason, ``The truth is: There are no women running the networks, none in powerful second positions, none running TV studios. There are very few women executive producers and still very few women who own and create their own shows.''
``Eighty-percent of what the world sees on American entertainment TV is written by white males under 40,'' says the WGA's Cheryl Rhoden. ``That means whole worlds of community, culture, point-of-view are not being told.''
That includes minority women, as well, according to Pennsylvania State University's Angharad Valdivia. ``White middle-class women have made advances, but there are virtually no role models for Asian women, Hispanics, native Americans ... and very few for blacks.''
While the door swings wide for the hot new female creative writers, says Diane English, it's the women with noncreative, administrative aspirations that get kicked around the hardest.
``If you can write a good script, it doesn't really matter if you are male, female, black, white, or what religion,'' she says. ``But if I were a woman trying to succeed at the [entertainment industry's] corporate level, I might bump my head on the glass ceiling a few times.''
Agreeing that the door stands open for good scriptwriters, Pamela Norris, a writer for several sitcoms including ``Designing Women'' and for ``Saturday Night Live,'' pinpoints the least-threatening programs as ways of getting material past what she calls the ``good ol' boy club'' that runs the networks.
``Comedy is the best rocket for propaganda,'' Ms. Norris says. ``It has allowed strong women to become palatable to network execs.''
For every nuanced depiction of women as intelligent, articulate, and forward-looking, there are four showing them in traditional straitjackets, says English.
Noted sociologist Gaye Tuchman has categorized these TV views of women in three harmful ways: symbolic annihilation (the sheer lack of numbers in comparison to men); degradation and victimization (the numbers of times women are hurt, killed, insulted); and trivialization (the use of women as scenery, appendages to male stars, or secondary characters).
The most noted of these in recent years is Fox Broadcasting's ``Married, With Children,'' which last year found itself boycotted by advertisers. ``The women depicted on this show are overly sexed, dressed suggestively, lazy, and stupid - classic bimbos,'' observes Penn State's Valdivia. The explanation is simple, she says: ``Sexism is still rampant throughout society: Why should we be surprised that it is reflected on TV?''
A Screen Actors Guild study released in August underlines the long-term dominance of men in leading roles for TV and film, though the picture was more balanced on television than in movies. In feature films, 71 percent of 9,440 roles in 1989 went to men, 29 percent to women. In television, 64.6 percent of the 39,161 roles went to men, 35.4 percent to women.
Still, scriptwriter Norris sees progress. ``I'm very optimistic [that] the networks are finding out that the women who run the shows are making them money. Women have come through the ranks and are ready to step in.''