NPR ran a segment this week entitled “Working Women On Television: A Mixed Bag At Best” in which they briefly examine the current state of working female characters on primetime television. The piece notes that TV is “actually doing a pretty good job of depicting women with careers… careers, meaning the kinds of jobs a young girl – or boy – might aspire to.” Yay! Go us! However, the main focus of the seven minute segment is on the lack of working mothers on TV. Jennifer Newsome, a documentarian who examines representations of women in media, sees this as a major problem. As a female, a feminist and someone who watches an excessive amount of TV, I’m going to respectfully disagree on this one.
First of all, I’m all for equal gender representation in media. I think it’s important to show well-rounded and interesting female characters who are successful across a wide range of fields. There’s no doubt that the things we see on TV affect our societal outlook and it’s important for young girls AND BOYS to see successful females on TV. With that being said, I’m not entirely sure why whether or not these successful TV career women have children is an issue. Feminism is fundamentally about gender equality. Yet, no one is asking how many of the working male television characters are fathers. No one’s asking, since it’s assumed that the burden of raising children falls primarily on the mother. Being a working mother is presumed to be a major struggle for the female character, yet I can’t think of a single straight male television character who struggles for more than one episode between career and parenthood. We view the burden of being a working parent as a solely female trait, which isn’t fair.
Furthermore, I’m not entirely sure why “a mixed bag” is a bad thing. The segment criticizes the show Modern Family in which none of the female characters work outside the home. It then goes on to criticize shows like Scandal and Homeland for portraying only career-obsessed women without children. They don’t cite any statistics as to how many working mothers are on TV, they just say that “nearly all” TV women consumed by their careers don’t have kids. Yet, off the top of my head I can think of nineteen* current on-screen working mothers. So, I guess I’m just not sure where the problem is. Why is it wrong to show women across all experiences? I grew up with a stay at home mom. When I watch Modern Family, I can relate to Claire Dunphy’s hectic life and it makes me appreciate everything my mother did for my sister and me. One day I hope to be a successful working mother. So when I watch The Good Wife I relate to Alicia’s desire for both children and career and admire how she makes it all work. At the same time, I can watch a show like Scandal and see that as a woman, motherhood doesn’t have to be the end-all-be-all to happiness (banging the president is). By showing a “mixed bag” we’re saying each path is valid. That women have a choice between motherhood, working and working motherhood and each path can lead to happiness. Isn’t that the entire point of the feminist movement? To allow us all the opportunity to choose our own paths in life?
Lastly, I don’t feel as though it’s important for TV to directly mirror real life. The segment spends a lot of time comparing real-life statistics to on-air statistics. It states that working mothers make up 60% of the female workforce, yet that figure is not adequately reflected on TV. So what? A very small percentage of Americans are CIA agents, brain surgeons, detectives and lawyers, yet so many of our shows feature these types of characters. I live in the real world every day, when I get home and turn on the TV I want to escape my reality and journey elsewhere. I want to solve crimes and save lives and fall in love with hot vampires. Yes, I do love shows like Parenthood and Switched at Birth which are more grounded in reality, but I don’t think that every show has to fit those standards. Jennifer suggests that viewers are uncomfortable watching mothers work so hard, which might be the case for some, but to me it’s all about the story. If Carrie Mathison is in the middle of a sting operation or Olivia Pope is trying to catch the person who shot the president, I don’t think it’s crucial to the story for them to stop and worry about if their child forgot their lunch money. If I sit down to watch a family drama, I’m expecting family drama. If I’m sitting down to watch a show about a ballsy bipolar CIA agent, I’m not expecting family drama, I’m expecting guns and bombs.
So, when it comes to working women on television, maybe a mixed bag is best. Actually, let’s go wild and mix it up even more! Throw in some racially diverse women over forty who excel in math and science and really shake things up! In all seriousness though, I understand the intent of the segment. It’s important to show the next generation that women can be both successful CEOs and great parents. However, I feel as though it’s equally important to show them that women can be great stay at home parents and career women without children. It’s not the television industry’s job to reflect the real world, but to entertain it and on some level shape it.
*Alicia Florrick, Kristina Braverman, Sarah Braverman, Rayna James, Regina Mills, Elizabeth Forbes, Bones, Frankie Heck, Meredith Grey, Miranda Bailey, Callie Torres, Arizona Robbins, Selina Meyer, Jules Cobb, Joan Holloway, Pam Halpert, Angela Martin, Jackie Peyton, Cathy Jamison
Feature images found and here.