The Portrayal of Women in U.S. Prime Time Television

Article excerpt

Television depicts men and women in many roles and contexts. Many argue that television characters and their interactions affect the knowledge and behaviors of younger viewers during their impressionable years (e.g. Pingree, 1978; Ruble, Balaban, & Cooper, 1981; Tan, 1986). Some young viewers may learn behaviors from television (Bandura, 1977; Cobb, Stevens-Long, & Goldstein, 1982). Television may teach general expectations of self and others and whether behaviors for self and others are appropriate. For example, for a young female teenager, the actress she admires can serve as a multipurpose model: a source of occupational aspiration, clothing style, hair design, and more. An individual can be influenced by a given portrayal only if exposed to it. Exposure requires the individual to be viewing during the portrayal. Research attention has been focused on how television portrays women. Portrayals of women included in this research have both physical aspects such as presence, occupations, hair color, and psychological dimensions (success, power and importance). Researchers have concentrated their interest in how women are portrayed during prime time -- the time segment when most viewers are watching.

Content analyses of prime time TV programs have been reported for more than two decades. One frequently cited purpose of their content analyses is to document the manner in which women characters are portrayed. Documenting the television image of women provides researchers with data about the female models to which children, for example, may be exposed. In this context, content analyses can be used to gauge the potential effect of these portrayals on children. Another purpose of content analyses in this research is to track the presence of women on prime time TV over the years.

Content analysis researchers who simply track the presence of women remove from the analysis value judgements related to the manner in which women are portrayed. Examining the trend of women's presence on prime time TV enables the researcher to answer an important question -- the possible association between women's presence on TV and changes in society. A reliable trend of women's presence on TV can be constructed when enough relevant content analysis is available for each year. Societal changes concerning women may be gauged by women's acceptance in the workplace, Figures on changes in women's share of the total U.S. labor force by year are available from the U.S. Department of Labor. Important indicators of American values concerning women are reflected by Americans' answers to questions included in the General Social Survey (GSS). The purpose of this study is twofold:

   1) To add to the available knowledge about how women are portrayed on prime
   time TV programs broadcast in the United States; and

   2) To explore the possible association between the trend of women's
   presence on prime time TV and the trend in Americans' progressive
   acceptance of women as important individuals outside the home.

Although shares are progressively eroding, the leading television networks continue to capture about 60% of the television viewers in the United States in a typical week. Given this fact, and in order to compare our study results with those of work, we focus our attention on the broadcast networks rather than cable channels.


Over the years, many studies have reported the portrayal of women on broadcast TV. Seggar and Wheeler (1973) found that women across all ethnic backgrounds were not portrayed in proportion to the US population at the time. Using a sample drawn from the 1971 television season, the researchers found that women characters comprised 18.3% of the total characters analyzed. Seggar and Wheeler's (1973) findings were echoed by Downing (1974) who reported that women in professional roles was over represented (19.4%) when compared with statistics for the general population. …