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By Gina C.

Where have all the women gone? Have we regressed to a pre-second wave feminist movement mentality? One may have these questions floating through their mind as they idly flip through today’s primetime television. With shows such as Mad Men, The Real Housewives series, Cougartown, and The Bachelor, the evidence is hard to ignore: the portrayal of women in primetime television is still as sexist as ever! Women are ignored, marginalized, or used only to be sexualized or objectified by men, who primarily play both the heroes and the protagonists.

One of the huge problems with today’s primetime programming is the fact that women are “missing” from the cast of most popular shows. According to a report released by the Dr. Stacy Smith from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, only 19% of children’s shows and 22% of primetime shows feature a “gender balanced cast”. A gender balanced cast, according to the report, is “defined as featuring females in 45.1% to 55% of all speaking characters in a specific story, episode or movie”. The most imbalanced genres in primetime are children’s programs and comedy series, which feature less than one-third of speaking characters as girls or women. When women do happen to be represented in primetime television or feature films, they are more likely to be depicted wearing overly sexy clothing, showing a lot of exposed skin, or referred to as “attractive”. Further, it should be noted that many of the women portrayed are primarily white and substantially younger than male counterparts. This could explain why, according to the study, “not one speaking character plays a powerful American female political figure across 5,839 speaking characters in 129 family films”. 

Could this be an example of art imitating life? Does the broader TV audience prefer watching male-dominated shows where women are bubble-headed sex toys? Is TV accurately depicting women? It does not appear that way. First of all, our population in the United States is approximately 51% female. Last year, the Fortune 500 list included a record breaking number of female CEO’s (18 total, up from 11 in 2011). Powerful women like Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, have encouraged women to become working mothers and to pursue their careers. In rich countries such as Ireland, Australia, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, single women report higher wages than men. Today, women hold 18% of the seats in Congress, 20% of the seats in the Senate, and nearly 18% of the seats in the House of Representatives.

Women are also watching more television than men. They are making the transition from basic cable to primetime network programming quickly and they demographics show that the most popular show for women is AMC’s The Walking Dead, a zombie-apocalypse thriller. Ratings prove they also watch CBS’ “guy-friendly” show “The Big Bang Theory” and gory drama’s like CSI and Law & Order. So, the question remains: why the huge disconnect between reality, what consumers are craving, and the way females are portrayed on-screen? 

Perhaps the answer lies behind the scenes. It turns out that the hegemony portrayed in primetime television and feature films is merely a representation of what’s happening behind the camera. According to a study called the Celluloid Ceiling, produced by Dr. Martha Lauzen from San Diego State University, the top 250 domestic grossing films in 2012, 78% of them had not a single female writer. In the 2011-2012 primetime television seasons, 74% of the programs employed no women creators. And there has been a steady decrease in the amount of directors of feature films, from 9% in 1998 to merely 5% in 2011.

All of this data is disturbing because children today are watching more television than ever: according to data released by Nielsen Company in 2009, kids spend over 28 hour per week in front of the tube. After factoring in spring, winter, and summer breaks, kids spend more time consuming media than they do being educated at school. This is dangerous because with the messages being portrayed across all major networks, it seems as though we may be raising a generation of kids programmed with stereotypical ideals of how women should behave and look. Instead of advancing women’s rights and equality for all, primetime television continually teaches our children that women are to be gawked at, fantasized about, or used for their excellent skills in the kitchen or as a mother.

Works Cited

Bosker, Bianca. "Fortune 500 List Boasts More Female CEOs Than Ever Before." The Huffington Post., 07 May 2012. Web. 05 June 2013.

Lauzen, Martha M., Ph.D. The Celluloid Ceiling: Behind-the-Scenes Employment of Women on the Top 250 Films of 2012. Rep. San Diego State University, n.d. Web. 7 Apr. 2013.

Lauzen, Martha M., Ph.D. It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World: On-Screen Representations of Female Characters in the Top 100 Films of 2011. Rep. San Diego State University, n.d. Web. 7 Apr. 2013.

Shapley, Dan. "Kids Spend Nearly 55 Hours a Week Watching TV, Texting, Playing Video Games." Good Housekeeping. N.p., 01 Jan. 2010. Web. 7 Apr. 2013. <>.

Smith, Stacy, Ph.D. Gender Roles & Occupations: A Look at Character Attributes and Job-Related Aspirations in Film and Television. Rep. USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, n.d. Web. 7 Apr. 2013.

Thielman, Sam. "Gory, Raunchy and Bro-Filled TV Series Are a Hit With Women." AdWeek. AdWeek, 25 Feb. 2013. Web. 05 June 2013.

Thompson, Derek. "The 4 Rich Countries Where Women Out-Earn Men (With 1 Huge Caveat)." The Atlantic. The Atlantic, 17 Dec. 2012. Web. 05 June 2013.