Making a Difference in Prime Time: Women on Screen and Behind the Scenes in the 1995-96 Television Season
Lauzen, Martha M., Dozier, David M., Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media
Every evening, prime-time television provides its audience with constructed realities. These realities are products of multiple formative forces, including advertisers' moral and economic sensibilities, network politics, and the creative community's values and egos. This complex web of influence converges to create three hours of nightly programming that entertains and exaggerates, informs and irritates. While prior research has investigated the relationship between the business of television and television content (Gitlin, 1983; Turow, 1984), scant attention has focused on the influence of the creative community on television products. Research that has examined this latter relationship offers qualitative assessments of producer's, writer's, and director's experiences in constructing characters and series (Seger, 1996; Sklar, 1980). Prior research in this area has not systematically examined how the behind-the-scenes community influences television content.
This study provides a quantitative assessment of the relationship between women working behind the scenes and on-screen portrayals of female characters. Historically, women have consistently accounted for approximately one-third of all prime-time characters (Gerbner, 1993; Head, 1954; Smythe, 1954). As women comprise more than one-half of the U.S. population, they have been underrepresented since the inception of television. Thus, each characterization of women carries added import. In large part, prior research has analyzed the physical portrayal and representation of female television characters (Davis, 1990; Dow, 1996; Faludi, 1991; Gerbner, 1993; Meehan, 1983; Steenland, 1995). These studies have found that female characters tend to be younger, blonder, and more provocatively dressed than their male counterparts (Davis, 1990). In addition, female characters tend to do "women's work," occupying stereotypically female occupations; females are also more likely to be defined by their marital status than male characters (Steenland, 1995, p. 188).
The current study focused on a more subtle and less understood aspect of the portrayal of women -- their language patterns. Studies of audience activity during television viewing indicate that frequently viewers are not watching the televised images so much as listening to the characters (Levy & Windahl, 1984). Language patterns are often the only message attributes attended to by audiences. Yet, limited research has examined gender and televisual language patterns (Barbatsis, Wong, & Herek, 1983; Byars, 1987; Turow, 1974).
Prior research indicates that women (and men) learn gender-appropriate behaviors from television (Gunter, 1986), identify with female characters and develop parasocial relationships with female characters (Heide, 1995), and use these characters to construct "meanings about themselves" (Heide, 1995, p. 14). Seger (1996, p. 159) noted that the construction of female television characters is "complicated because the search for a more realistic depiction of female characters is also a search for the female identity." Thus, the study of televisual language stereotyping and its construction have important implications for women's self-conceptualizations.
The Relationship Between On-Screen Portrayals and Behind-the-Scenes Representation
Scholars and critics have examined the origins of television entertainment and film content from a number of theoretical perspectives. This study locates its theoretical framework in the dialogue between the auteur approach, used primarily by film scholars, and the structural approach, used by sociologists and others studying television.
The structural approach considered by Gitlin (1983) and Turow (1983) suggested that the business imperatives of television overwhelm most creative influences. While Turow acknowledged the role of creators, he suggested that the majority of producers, writers, and directors play a relatively powerless role in the construction of television product. Turow (1983, p. 23) noted that some powerful members of the creative community "have clout to personally initiate, shape, and finalize mass media works, clout that often exceeds the leverage carried by entire organizations that interact with production firms." However, this power is limited to a handful of enduring and popular actors, producers, writers, and directors. For the most part, the creative community bows to the greater power of their employers who, in turn, are driven by market forces.
In contrast, auteur theory posits that "movies are dominated by the personal vision of the director (Giannetti, 1987, p. 374)." Auteur theory juxtaposes the director's vision against the greater landscape of the film business, suggesting that directors may transcend the business of film making. Directors are seen as the central and dominant influence in the final filmed product. Whereas film has been considered a director's medium, television has been considered a producer-writer's medium. In the world of television, producers wield the most creative power. According to Cantor and Cantor (1992), the producer:
has a key role and relative power in the selection of content once a show is bought by a network or a syndication company. Producers are in charge of hiring the cast.., the directors, and the writers. They serve as coordinators between the networks for which the show is produced and/or the program suppliers. The producer also has final responsibility for cutting and editing the filmed product. This combination of tasks and associated power is common in the role of television producers but is not necessarily associated with the title producer in other media. The producer has many tasks that in the motion picture industry ... are assigned to the film director. (p. 71)
A more comprehensive explanation of television content embraces both the structural approach, at the macro level, and auteur theory, at the micro level. This study places the creative community working behind the scenes at the center of a system of influence. As the source of influence closest to the television product, producers, writers, and directors leave their creative imprint on characters and programs. At the same time, this study also recognizes that producers, writers, and directors work within a system of constraints defined by the larger business system of television executives, advertisers, networks, and production firms. Nesting auteur theory within the larger framework of the structural approach provides a more complete explanation of television content.
Limited research has focused on the relationship between the creative community working behind the scenes in prime-time television and on-screen portrayals of characters (Faludi, 1991; Seger, 1996; Steenland, 1990). Many of these writers suggest that women working behind the scenes leave a distinctive female signature on their programs and characters. Having lived a multitude of female experiences, women are "in the best position to know the intricacies of their psychology and to help formulate the character of the modern woman" (Seger, 1996, p. 160). While men may have knowledge of women's lives, they lack the understanding that comes from living as a woman.
Steenland (1990) and Seger (1996) examined how women working behind the scenes influence on-screen portrayals of female characters. In 1990, Steenland analyzed the on-screen physical portrayal and representation of women in prime time. She also considered the representation of women behind the scenes. Steenland (1995, p. 187) noted, "In TV's tales, men are more visible, more important, more varied and interesting. That's because it's mainly men who are telling the stories -- they comprise most of the producers, writers, directors, and executives in Hollywood." In 1990, 15% of the producers, 25% of the writers, and 9% of the directors were female (Steenland, 1990). Suggesting that the relationship between on-screen portrayals and behind-the-scenes representation was "too weak to measure" in 1990, Steenland speculated …
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Publication information: Article title: Making a Difference in Prime Time: Women on Screen and Behind the Scenes in the 1995-96 Television Season. Contributors: Lauzen, Martha M. - Author, Dozier, David M. - Author. Journal title: Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media. Volume: 43. Issue: 1 Publication date: Winter 1999. Page number: 1. © 2009 Broadcast Education Association. COPYRIGHT 1999 Gale Group.
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