Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Women locked inside the television

Television has a woman problem.


Of course, basically so does the rest of the media. But television right now is particularly confused on the matter of ladies. It’s trying so hard to tell compelling stories centered on women. This year’s fall lineup featured more women in lead roles than ever before. But where there are more women on screen, there are fewer women behind the scenes. This is the problem. It doesn’t matter if all your main characters are women. If a show is crafted around what men think women’s lives are like, it’s going to fall flat.


Going into the 2010-2011 television season, the number of television writers who are women fell from 35 percent to 15 percent, according to a study done by San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film.  Following this drop, we arrived at a new fall lineup including “Pan Am,” “New Girl,” “2 Broke Girls,” “Whitney,” “Prime Suspect,” “Homeland,” “Once Upon a Time” and the ill-fated “Playboy Club,” all of which have at least one woman in a starring role. It’s unclear to me why studios decided to role the dice on women on screen and not off, but the results are clear. The way most men in Hollywood are thinking about women and feminism is kind of messed up.

Over and over again in the marketing for “The Playboy Club,” producers said the show was about female empowerment. The bunnies on the show do find ways to get what they want. But their only power is in their sexuality. We see the trope of female sexuality as this ball-crushing power women wield against men a lot, and I do think a lot of male writers see this as genuine empowerment. Unfortunately, playing up our sexiness as our primary strength minimizes our intelligence, wit, drive and physical strength as qualities all women use to get places in the world. It emphasizes over and over again that we are only worth our sex appeal. “Pan Am” plays off similar themes, albeit in a subtler manner. These shows, trying to capitalize on a certain nostalgia factor, miss the complexities of women present in similar shows like “Mad Men” (most of the time, anyway).

Sitcom “2 Broke Girls” plays Kat Denning’s smart, capable character off of her ditzy blonde companion in a show that at least tries, but suffers under the weight of stereotypes and the occasional rape joke. That being said, it manages much better than fellow sitcom “Whitney.” “Whitney” does have a woman at the helm, but just proves a strong sense of internalized misogyny will really get you places in Hollywood. Whitney is a clunker of a comedy, but that shouldn’t say anything about women and humor. Women are funny. Whitney Cummings is not. “New Girl,” with manic, pixie dream-girl, Zooey Deschanel, breaks down to Zooey being “quirky” and her male roommates trying to “fix” her. Quirky girls everywhere wince.

The show that makes me the angriest, though, is “Once Upon a Time.” “Once” should be a much better show. I started watching it because its producers were “Lost” writers and the premise is interesting. The whole show is based around playing with fairy tales, putting them in a modern setting, messing with the classic stories. The main characters are almost exclusively women. Jennifer Morrison (“House”) is ass kicking in tight leather as the main character, Emma Swan. She is accompanied by the talented Ginnifer Goodwin (“Big Love”) and Lana Parrilla. They have a chance to subvert classic sexist fairy tale tropes and really create complex stories about women.

But what is every storyline in this show about? Pregnancy. Every single one of their storylines is centered on babies and motherhood. There’s some chasing after Prince Charming thrown in for good measure. “Lost” had this problem too. By the end of six seasons, every female character was trying to find or keep their baby or boyfriend. But most of the female characters were dead then anyway.

Childbearing is not something universally relatable to all women. Plenty of women out there will never have children or get married. Morrison’s character’s plot is centered around saving this town from the evil witch, but she is plagued constantly by the child she gave up for adoption. This isn’t even touching on the fact that this show has framed a loving adoptive mother as an evil witch. I would be happy to watch her fight an evil queen and save trapped storybook characters. If her character was male, she wouldn’t have this whole kid subplot. If her character was male, she’d be a more interesting character in general. Not because men are more interesting, but because they’re written that way.

This is not to say that there are no strong women on television at all. Shows like “Parks and Recreation” do a fantastic job at presenting strong, capable women with realistic flaws and goals. I don’t know if I would call it feminist, but “America’s Next Top Model” is having an all-star season right now, where they basically teach young women to be entrepreneurs. The models go through classes on marketing and branding. These are women taking charge of their lives.

In the end, this isn’t about teaching men to write stronger women, although it would help. Hollywood has got to get its act together and hire more women writers and directors. This goes for people of color, queer people, and disabled people too. The best way to get an authentic, interesting, three dimensional portrayal of oppressed people is to have the oppressed tell their own stories. Then maybe we’ll have some TV worth watching.

Victoria Knobloch is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected].

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  • E

    EdNov 17, 2011 at 6:31 pm

    I hadn’t watched television for so long that I actually was surprised that my TV actually still worked.

    If they can make every male character look like an idiot, looser or violent thug, should we really be complaining when they make every female character look like a bimbo? Fair’s fair, isn’t it?

    And I may date myself, but the turning point for me was the lemonade commercial where the woman spins the hammock so her husband/boyfriend falls face-down into the gravel. Folks, that is textbook domestic violence and it is something I would never do, let alone to anyone whom I cared about.

    Television’s attack on heterosexual men is well documented and women are forced to deal with a Faustian choice: lots of gratuitous “T&A” from sex crazed bimbos so that the guys will watch, or toning down the radical feminism and permitting the lead characters be male, e.g. “Mad Men.”

    Ladies, place the blame where it belongs — it is feminism which has reduced women to their body parts and their biology because otherwise women probably have more in common with men than not.

  • M

    MariaNov 16, 2011 at 4:50 pm

    Why oh why does it have to be either or? The whole beauty vs brains debate is old. Who says one can’t be sexy and still be intelligent?