Evening the Score in Prime Time: The Relationship between Behind-the-Scenes Women and On-Screen Portrayals in the 2002-2003 Season

Article excerpt

According to director Martha Coolidge, "gender, being a woman, affects everything" (Gregory, 2002, p. 132). Her perspective, as well as those of others, have been colorfully archived in a spate of recent trade books focusing on women's experiences in Hollywood (Abramowitz, 2000; Gregory, 2002; Seger, 1996; Steenland, 1990). Filled with first-person accounts, these books recount the desire and determination of women working behind the scenes to tell stories about members of their own gender on the screen. A small body of academic research supports these anecdotal stories by documenting the relationship between the employment of behind-the-scenes women and greater numbers of female characters in prime-time television (Glascock, 2001; Lauzen & Dozier, 1999).

Not all women in creative production roles hold a singular sensibility regarding the creation of televisual females. However, one might expect women's conception of what constitutes an interesting or appealing portrayal of females to differ from conceptions of males working behind the scenes. (1) Limited research suggests that women working behind the scenes may act to even the score for female characters in prime-time television, with fewer stereotypically male traits and more female characteristics portrayed across genders when women work behind the scenes (Lauzen & Dozier, 2002). Using a sample of situation comedies and dramas airing on the six broadcast networks during the 2002-2003 season, this study extends that research to examine how the employment of behind-the-scenes women may be related to occupational power, leadership status, goal-directed behaviors, and effectiveness in achieving those goals among male and female characters.

By understanding the behind-the-scenes/on-screen relationship, greater understanding of gendered media messages is gained. Ample research using passive and active audience models documents the overall role these messages play in reinforcing existing gender expectations and stereotypes (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, & Signorielli, 1986; Gunter, 1986; Heide, 1995). More specifically, media portrayals that underrepresent and/or misrepresent females in positions of power and leadership may have real-life consequences for girls and women. Studies of media use and sex-role socialization reveal that televisual portrayals influence children's notions of appropriate occupational expectations and choices (Durkin, 1985; Morgan, 1982). Further, organizational research has found that when even small, seemingly insignificant biases are repeated over time and on individuals, they can have significant consequences (Eagly & Karau, 2002). According to Eagly and Karau (2002, p. 589), "slight prejudice that is consistently acted on greatly reduces women's chances of rising to high-level positions in organizations." Media portrayals of women may contribute to and reinforce these biases against women, making it more difficult for women to assume positions of power and leadership and be accepted (Eagly & Karau, 2002).

Behind-the-Scenes Individuals and On-Screen Portrayals

Explanations for television content range from the unique nature of the television business (DiMaggio, 1977; W. T. Bielby & D. D. Bielby, 1992) to the hegemony of decision makers (Gitlin, 1987). DiMaggio (1977), and more recently W. T. Bielby and D. D. Bielby (1992), distinguished the television and other "culture" industries from more traditional organizational structures. These researchers noted that established writer-producers broker the relationship between commercial interests (e.g., the networks, advertisers) and creative interests. These brokers negotiate the ongoing demands of making a program appealing to demographically attractive viewers and more artistic concerns. While M. G. Cantor and J. M. Cantor (1992) suggest that these individuals are "caught in the middle" (p. 72) of competing and sometimes contradictory interests, they and others acknowledge that brokers must often favor commercial over creative interests (W. …