Women and Television

Watching television has traditionally been an activity located in people's homes, so that you might presume a family audience. However, programming content for American networks is shaped to satisfy male viewers and is dominated by men. That, at least, is the findings of the report Locked Out: the Lack of Gender and Ethnic Diversity on Cable News (2007) by Media Matters for America, which looked at the guests on news shows aired by U.S. networks in prime time. The further report said that the guests of these shows were predominantly male. A study conducted a year later confirmed the findings of the original one.

Research by the American University's Women & Politics Institute has also illustrated the trend of female underrepresentation on the screen. It showed that female law-makers accounted for 13.5 percent of the Sunday show appearances by all representatives and senators in 2010. Some academic researchers blamed the result on the mind-set of network bookers. But producers argue that the selection of guests reflects the dominance of men in Congress and that the shows offer a realistic picture. Producers also argued that congresswomen are hard to reach and book.

Some researchers, especially feminists, have found that women are not merely underrepresented, but that they are inadequately presented in television programs. As Andrea L. Press (b. 1955) has argued in her book Women Watching Television (1991), women are often awkwardly portrayed. The book refers to studies that show how television representations fail to show the pressures of work and family that women face, such as paying for child care or tackling a stretched family budget. Television tends to portray all single mothers as at least middle-class, and almost half of all families are at least upper-middle-class. This contradicts the fact that the majority of women-headed households in the United States are poor.

Press distinguishes three stages of women's presentation in U.S. television programs- pre-feminist, feminist and post-feminist. Early prefeminist television, in the 1950s, depicted women primarily as housewives, wives to their husbands, mothers of their children. Rarely are early television women shown to be mature or independent individuals. The stage of feminist television, which starts in the late 1960s and the early 1970s, offered women on the screen in lives outside their homes and in a variety of professions. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, television offered many images of strong women. The post-feminist period displays a trend of a return to the traditional image of the woman as a household keeper and member of the family.

Modern television shows a bias in the use of female images in advertisements. In adverts, men are shown in more occupations than women, who are most often portrayed as housewives and mothers. While men actors are more likely to advertise cars or business products, actresses are used to advertise domestic products and are shown chiefly in domestic settings. Voice-overs also show stereotyping, with the overwhelming majority (up to 94 percent) of them being male. While in the 21st century there had been an increase in the use of female voice-overs, these tended to be mainly for food, household products and feminine care products.

Women are still underrepresented in television management roles, but in a 2008 survey conducted by Hofstra University showed that there is a tendency of more women taking directors' offices in the United States. At 28.3 percent, there were more women news directors in television than ever before. Women have also taken leading roles in some programs: in 1986, Oprah Winfrey (b. 1954) became the first African American woman to host a television show, the eponymous program selling around the world and breaking many commercial and TV records as it ran until 2011.

Women are perceived to have specific taste for television content, such as soap operas and talk shows. The interest in soap operas has been attributed to the characteristics of the genre - multiple story lines, repetitions, and interruptions, which allow a woman to watch the show while being occupied with her domestic tasks. Researchers have also noted that soap operas prompt women to discuss certain problems, thereby providing emotional relief. But women's preferences for content are also shaped by social and economic factors. Press discovered that working-class women assess content based on its realism and are often very critical when discussing it, while middle-class women were more sympathetic even to comic or unrealistic characters.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Women Watching Television: Gender, Class, and Generation in the American Television Experience
Andrea L. Press.
University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991
Television Culture and Women's Lives: Thirtysomething and the Contradictions of Gender
Margaret J. Heide.
University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995
Prime-Time Feminism: Television, Media Culture, and the Women's Movement since 1970
Bonnie J. Dow.
University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996
Television Studies: The Key Concepts
Bernadette Casey; Neil Casey; Ben Calvert; Liam French; Justin Lewis.
Routledge, 2002
Librarian’s tip: "Women in Television" begins on p. 255
Defining Women: Television and the Case of Cagney & Lacey
Julie D'Acci.
University of North Carolina Press, 1994
Television Culture
John Fiske.
Routledge, 1987
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 10 "Gendered Television: Femininity"
The Portrayal of Women in U.S. Prime Time Television
Elasmar, Michael; Hasegawa, Kazumi; Brain, Mary.
Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, Vol. 43, No. 1, Winter 1999
Does Sex Make a Difference? Job Satisfaction of Television Network News Correspondents
Price, Cindy J.; Wulff, Shaun S.
Women's Studies in Communication, Vol. 28, No. 2, Fall 2005
Television and New Media Audiences
Ellen Seiter.
Clarendon Press, 1999
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "Feminist Methods: The Parents' Support Group"
Women and Soap Opera: A Cultural Feminist Perspective
Dannielle Blumenthal.
Praeger, 1997
Women's Sport and Spectacle: Gendered Television Coverage and the Olympic Games
Gina Daddario.
Praeger, 1998
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