The myths of ‘the independent woman’ in television media

By May.12, 2013

By Sharon Coen and Jenna Condie

In a recent episode of the series The United States of Television: American in Prime Time, the evolution of ‘the independent woman’ was explored through an analysis of key women who have appeared in primetime television shows from the 1950s to the current day.  The episode’s main argument appeared to be that in the past, television portrayed and proscribed what a ‘real’, ‘good’ and ‘desirable’ woman should be, whereas today, television is freer to ‘reflect’ reality due to the increased freedom of the media and of women.  In the episode, creators of some of the most notorious and successful television shows featuring women as main characters explained how they are no longer bound to portrayals of what is ‘proper’.  Today, they are more able to be creative and explore the multifaceted realities and challenges faced by women in the modern era.

What we found curious is the schism between the conception of media as a means to influence society which characterised the first half of the show, and media as a mirror of the world which is the predominant theme of the second half of the show.  For example, the producer Roseanne Barr stated that ‘television trained and brainwashed a whole generation of women’.  This was echoed by the creator Diane English who argued that there was a lot of pressure on women around who they should be, what they should do, and how they should behave in socially acceptable ways. Television, in its early days, was seen as a means to force pre-established roles and standards onto women.

In time, producers and creators moved away from this model, proposing female characters that challenged these stereotypical ideals. The new characters were very successful and provided new images of ‘liberated’ women.  One icon was the heroine of ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ who, according to Shonda Rhimes, ‘influenced everybody’ by presenting the idealised role model of an independent, strong minded and self-sufficient woman who did not feel the need to apologise for the way she was.

Another example is the protagonist of Roseanne, a television series about a less fortunate, less ‘model-like’ mother and wife who lived the everyday struggles of life and laughed about it, allowing others to laugh with her. The striking reality of the everyday situations portrayed was certainly key to the show’s success.  The alarming realism allowed people to identify with the characters and enjoy the show.  Although no mention of ‘influence’ was made at this point, the creator Roseanne Barr made clear her agenda to depict how a woman can fail to comply with society’s ideals and still be OK, so long as she is not OK with how bad things are.

The ‘influence’ discourse disappeared later in the episode.  This was attributed to the rise of cable television which freed producers, authors and creators from the slavery of complying with the standards of companies that guaranteed advertising revenue. To attract advertisers, creators would produce shows that ‘wouldn’t disturb you too much, or didn’t make you think too much or really pay attention that much’ (David Chase). The idea is that cable television, not having to answer to anyone (because the income comes from subscription, not advertisement), allowed much more creative freedom.  Such circumstances enabled the world of media to open up and ‘portray’ reality rather than to proscribe it. Thanks to the increased flexibility and freedom, channels like HBO could finally portray women with a ‘frankness’ never seen before.

This is the argument drawn upon to introduce the first ‘liberated’ series that portrayed free, independent women: Sex and the City. Now, there is not enough space to explain why we strongly oppose the idea that Sex and the City is a portrayal of free and liberated women (this would deserve another blog post…or two).  Saying that this new, and free, form of television series portrays reality rather than prescribes to it is a myth. Evidence in support of this argument comes from the program itself (and not just from the sensationalistic Daily Mail headline stating that Sex and the City was to blame for the rise in teenage pregnancy): the actress Elisabeth Moss (of The West Wing, Mad Men) admitted that ‘when that show was in its heyday, I mean, that was our Bible’.

The same arguments have also surfaced recently in relation to new HBO series Girls which has been labelled as the more ‘realistic’ version of Sex and the City.  In a few years, will we be analysing Girls in the same vein?

It is an oversimplification to say that any of the television series reviewed in the episode (e.g. Grey’s Anatomy, Desperate Housewives, Nurse Jacky) are simply portraying reality and exploring its facets in a way that was never allowed before.  Media has influence and can influence ‘reality’.  In psychology (and in media psychology in particular) we know there is a very strong effect when talking about media influence: the third person effect. In essence, we are prone to believe others are more influenced by media than we are.

Therefore we would not be surprised if fifty years from now, a similar documentary claims with the same persuasive arguments that their current media are much further from the proscribed and diminishing roles assigned to women in the media and television series of the past. We would be even less surprised if they were just as wrong as we are today about the ‘reality’ of how television media portray ‘the independent woman’.

 

 

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