Sexism and Television

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Editors: David J. Leonard and Stephanie Troutman Robbins
Date: 2021
Document Type: Topic overview
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Sexism and Television

Sexism, or the unequal treatment based on genders and sexuality, has come to both mainstream America and to the forefront of feminist movements as an inherent feature of American society. In television and media, in both series and Page 589  |  Top of Articlefilm, sexism continues to play a large role in shaping how understandings of sex and gender affect and impact identity at both the individual (personal) and collective (public) level. Sexism has also impacted popular discourse on many important aspects of identity and human relations. In particular, the persistence of stereotypical portrayals of women and feminine ideals points to the necessity for diversity on-screen, in the writers’ room, and behind the camera. Likewise, continued resistance to stereotypical characters and undeveloped female roles has led to much progress in the representations of gender and sexually diverse characters in American television. The Critical Media Project states that “the repetition of traditional gendered narratives and images in media has shaped cultural norms around what it means to be a man or a woman, masculine or feminine, often leaving little room for experimentation or nonconformity” (2018).

As one of the primary agents of socialization, television’s treatment of issues regarding race, sexuality, and gender is critically important. As we watch television, we receive messages about society’s values and ideals. Thus, television has historically treated women and minorities in ways that are reflective of dominant social views at particular historical moments. For example, while Lucy and Desi Arnaz were embraced as an interracial couple in I Love Lucy (1951–1957), the Hayes Code (basically a morality clause imposing particular constraints on sexuality) meant that they were only allowed to be shown sleeping in separate beds, even though they were married. Over time, industry standards would change—in tandem with shifts in public opinion and in relation to other social movements—thereby opening up greater possibilities for television, in terms of characters, shows, and material relating to sex, gender, and race. However, these shifts are accompanied by stereotypes and continued traditional sex and gender norms and representations too.

At another level, television sometimes takes up specific issues associated with sexism in the real world and everyday life. For example, Murphy Brown (1988–1998; 2018) explored unplanned pregnancy and professional single-motherhood, which up until that point, had never been examined in a popular sitcom. Another controversy around gender and sexuality on television erupted when Ellen DeGeneres came out as a lesbian on “The Puppy Episode” of her 1997 sitcom, Ellen (1994–1998). While Ellen has gone on to become a household name for her talk show and a huge celebrity and icon of the LGBTQIA+ community, her coming out as a lesbian (via her character) on television was groundbreaking and met with many negative responses.

So, what are we to make of sexism in television? What does television teach us about gender? Are we learning or unlearning sexism from the screen? What can we make of continued stereotypical portrayals of men and women on TV? What about breakthroughs in sex and gender representation with shows like Sex and the City (1998–2004), Girlfriends (2000–2008), Glow (2017–), and Pose (2018–)? In a wide variety of contexts, television has grappled with masculinity and femininity, sexual abuse and assault, workplace discrimination and harassment, and a host of other issues relating to sexism in American society.

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Television and the media are well-studied elements of socialization that confer the valuation of certain aspects and attributes of sex and gender. In addition to teaching about conceptions of manhood and womanhood over time, television also teaches about gender through representations of the family. The family, as a social unit, teaches us about acceptable forms of behavior and expression associated with gender norms. Historically, depictions of the family (or families) on television portrayed the traditional nuclear family, which consists of a legally married couple: a father—the patriarch and head of household, the mother as nurturer and homemaker, and two or more children. In the early days of television these families were predominantly White. Even today though television families are more racially and ethnically diverse, and sometimes include family members who identify as LGBTQIA+, it is still rare to see portrayals of family dynamics that are nontraditional in the most popular prime-time and mainstream shows. By failing to reflect the wide range of gender, racial, and ethnic diversity in American families, audiences receive limited representations of what constitutes a “normal” family. By extension, sex and gender expressions—masculinity, femininity, LGBTQIA+ identities and so on—are also conscripted and limited in how they are depicted in television.


Unlike sex, which refers to one’s physical anatomy and how that fits into one of two categories—male or female (based on biological factors), gender “refers to the physical, behavioral, and personality traits that a group considers to be normal, natural, right, and good for its male and female members. In other words, gender reflects our notions about what is appropriately feminine and masculine” (Ferris and Stein 2016, 247). Gender can “be implicit in the chores or privileges girls or boys are given at home (washing the dishes versus moving the lawn) the ways in which they are punished or disciplined, where they go or do not go, or what they are encouraged or forbidden to do. Specific behaviors and displays of emotion are attributed as masculine or feminine as well. Thus, gender is socially constructed in our daily interactions with others. And, we are socialized in the home and in other places to learn the acceptable parameters for gender expression. Despite growing movement and social discourse aimed at redefining gender as a spectrum, including gender nonconforming, trans-, and gender-queer spaces for identification, it is important to note that the overall concept of gender continues to exist as a binary (male/female) in our society. The reality, that gender exists on a broad spectrum with varying degrees of feminine or masculine expressions is very nuanced and still widely misunderstood. Contemporary television portrayals regarding gender and gender identity often do not reflect this reality; though there are some exceptions to the rule.

A stereotype refers to the knowledge that an individual possesses about a particular group. The group could be men/women, racial/ethnic groups, class status, or sexual orientation. Stereotypes oversimplify complex information about Page 591  |  Top of Articleindividuals and categorize persons according to a group. Stereotypes can limit one’s capacity for objective judgment due to bias. Stereotypes associated with a certain group will often influence the way people process new information about an individual member of that group. For this reason, gender stereotyping creates expectations for how we view the behavior of men and women; it also influences how we treat men and women. Oftentimes, stereotypes and “isms” (racism, classism, ableism, sexism) go hand in hand.

Sexism is the belief that men (males) are superior to women (females). Sexism persists due to ingrained gender bias and stereotypes about men and women. Gender inequality and sexism can be found in all past and present societies, and it is rooted in the rationale of patriarchy, or male-dominated society. In patriarchal societies, women occupy positions of less prestige and are rarely the “breadwinners” in traditional families. Unequal pay, pervasive sexual assault and harassment, and limited opportunities for women in the workplace are evidence of a patriarchal or male-dominated society. Patriarchal societies devalue women’s contributions to society, limit leadership for women, and often constrain women to the home. Patriarchy also restricts men from showing the full range of human emotions—especially emotions associated with weakness or vulnerability. We see these gender norms, stereotypes, and sexism reflected in reality shows, TV sitcoms, and commercials we watch. Gender biases become reinforced in stereotypical narratives on television. With our consumption of these narratives, we learn how society values certain characteristics in men and women. We also learn to differentiate the genders and, accordingly, to understand which behaviors are rewarded and which ones are unacceptable (or less valuable) in our society and culture.


Through role modeling in families and on-screen, children grow up learning appropriate standards for feminine and masculine behaviors. This limits our understanding of gender as the Critical Media Project suggests: “The traditional gender binary is so ingrained in our values, ideas, media and products, we see fewer alternative gender models that open up possibilities for transgender and non-binary gender identities” (Godwill and Collins 2018). Likewise, in commercial advertisements from cleaning products to makeup, beauty standards for women routinely interrupt sitcom favorites to introduce new trends to help viewers understand and obtain the feminine ideal. These commercials present society’s standard of beauty and reflect our ideals about physical fitness and attractiveness. When young, attractive models appear in beauty commercials, this influences our notion of beauty and what a woman should look like. Hence, repetitious narratives of the beauty ideal can also greatly influence our ideas about body image and physical appearances, forwarding an elusive standard that excludes most women. In order to sell the viewer a product, advertisements also convey notions of authority and ideas about where society believes men or women belong (in the kitchen or grocery store versus on a dirt bike or in a monster truck). Examples of these ideals Page 592  |  Top of Articleare on constant display in television advertisements in commercial breaks that appear suddenly at the height of a suspenseful scene.

The literature on sexism and television highlights themes in the analysis of gender stereotypes in commercials on TV. These themes include (a) an age discrepancy between men and women that appear in ads, (b) a stark contrast in clothing and setting, and (c) the dominance of male voiceovers in commercials. In a study entitled “Gender Stereotypes in Spanish and English Language Television Advertisements in the United States,” the author studied 394 ads from 2013 to examine differences in gender representation. The research concluded that there is a prevalence of gender stereotypes in commercials that echo the themes in gender bias commonly observed in advertisements (Prieler 2016, 275).

The age difference between men and women acting in commercials is one of the common gender biases observed in commercials. Women actors and models are often younger than men, a preference that limits opportunities for older actresses while extending acting/modeling careers for men. The age difference is also likely tied to the discrepancy in dress between the genders. Women are often suggestively dressed in commercials, and this degree of dress would emphasize a youthful physique. Sexually suggestive dress also privileges men to gaze at seminude women. These representations not only forward a beauty standard that excludes older women but contributes to the objectification of women overall. When women are reduced to their body and beauty, viewers can learn to devalue women who do not look like the models imaged before us. Such a narrative would render older women invisible and strictly define an ideal of beauty that is unrealistic. Models, in general, have bodies that most people and consumers cannot relate to. So why do all the models, male or female, in underwear ads have perfectly shaped and ideal bodies? For these reasons, there continues to be much debate and criticism regarding the lack of diversity in representations of women in advertisements.

Another variable studied is the setting or where the characters appear in the advertisement. Research shows that there are more women than men in home settings and more men than women depicted in the workplace. Prieler notes that women are 3.5 times more likely than men to be presented at home versus at work (2016, 281). When viewers learn that gender correlates to space or setting, we can have expectations about where men and women should be. Girls learn that women belong as teachers in schools, nurses in hospitals, or mothers at home. Hence, they may make decisions in life that reflect these expectations and may be less willing to consider a career in construction or as a math professor. Such influence can contribute to gender bias or our perception of when men or women seem out of place.

There is a prominent tendency to market products according to stereotypes about gender. Women are often in commercials selling cleaning products like laundry detergent, and products for babies. These stereotypical depictions reflect and reinforce society’s understanding of gendered roles (i.e., women do the laundry and care for children). In the same manner, men continue to be central in commercials about lawn machinery, truck promotions, and condom advertisements. These ads point to society’s understanding of the activities that are appropriate for Page 593  |  Top of Articlemen or women. Men are allowed to buy condoms and have promiscuous sex, whereas women are portrayed as caregivers and as lacking sexual agency.

The third theme in gender bias in advertising points to the predominance of male voiceovers in commercials. Media researchers report and explain this phenomenon, male-dominated voiceovers, as a result of society’s gender bias in favor of masculine voices. Male voices represent authority, an authority that can be trusted for recommendations in important purchases—from tech products to car insurance. Because femininity is associated with passiveness, women are unlikely to be associated with authority. The gender of the voiceover may reinforce the association of a specific gender with authority and knowledge. This discrepancy is quite large with men having about seven times more speaking time on air compared to women (Innovation Group 2017, 6). Moreover, others point to how advertising to a specific gender can contribute to normalizing gender roles (Ferris and Stein 2016,109).

It is important to note that commercials also reflect the gendered reality of our daily existence. In order to sell a product, companies rely on being able to market their product as relatable to target consumer identities and desires. Or, as the author notes, “Boys eliminate their pimples and then can date the girls of their dreams; housewives are able to clean dirty clothes and are valued by their husbands. In general, people appear to become more beautiful and attractive by using a specific product, and then they are rewarded with love, success, and admiration” (Prieler 2016, 277). At the same time, exposure to television influences how we perceive real life. Television can distort our views of reality, and we can begin to believe that women should fit a mold of beauty or that women “belong” in the household. Likewise, deviations from what we see in the images presented to us can cause us to question the legitimacy and normalcy of say a man who likes makeup or a woman who enjoys male activities or hobbies. While commercials cultivate a worldview of social behavior, norms, and values, they also reflect a real world where gender is constructed in our daily interactions.

Lastly, a poignant example of sexism in commercials comes with the Super Bowl game advertising. The big game commercials often include stereotypical images of women and men. Stereotypes of women as annoying “nags” or sexual objects for men’s play run through these prime-time advertisements. As companies bank on prime-time audiences and massive viewership to sell their products, it is important to question why gender stereotypes are important to these sales and what these commercials convey to us about a culture of sexism in television. In Super Bowl ads, we encounter peak viewership of sexually suggestive and highly stereotypical portrayals of both genders. In 2017, the Mr. Clean commercial (a cleaning product by Proctor and Gamble), insinuated that men who clean should be praised and rewarded with catching a beautiful woman in return (Poggie 2018). In keeping with the theme of women as sexual objects or goalposts for male conquest, the ad placed a woman in the passive role and positioned the man (represented by Mr. Clean) in the active role. In this passive role, the woman is depicted as submissive and only in need of a bit of convincing before she consents.

The hype about Super Bowl commercials is related to the advertising industry’s profit made during the high viewership of the yearly highlight of the football Page 594  |  Top of Articlegame. The sports industry, especially football, is an arena of male domination. From the players to the broadcasters and commentators, we see a high level of male representation and a very low level of women represented. In the world of sports journalism, and broadcast journalism in general, sexism continues to play out on-screen and behind the scenes. For this reason, it is important to discuss how gender plays out in television journalism.


Gender bias in journalism manifests in the demand for journalists to appear or look a certain way. For women journalists, this is very much tied to our notions of women’s appropriate place in society (in the home) and a standard for how women behave and appear outside of the home. In a demand for attractive female journalists, our society’s valuation of women’s attractiveness (also a criterion for femininity) has created a beauty and dress standard for women journalists. This impacts the hiring practices of broadcast companies. The result is a requirement for female journalists to fit a beauty mold, prioritizing women’s looks over their news reporting skills.

In a study entitled “Sexism on the Set: Gendered Expectations of TV Broadcasters in a Social Media World,” authors Finneman and Jenkins investigate industry expectations for women in broadcast journalism (2018). Using surveys as the method for their research, the authors asked American broadcast journalists how their viewership perceived their appearance and if they believed gender bias, in relation to their appearance, existed. As such, the study examined how television journalists see expectations about their gender presentations (appearances and performances) while on air. According to their research, “87.5 percent of the female journalists that responded said they had received criticism about their appearance [from viewers] compared to 57 percent of men” (2018, 486). They conclude that industry standards of appropriate appearance and dress continue to influence gender dynamics in newsrooms today (2018, 480). In addition, the demand for a certain type of femininity has led female journalists to perform gender in a way that ensures their job position and helps them cope with the frustrations that come with working in a male-dominated industry (483).

The need for rapport is often intricately linked to how the audience identifies and trusts journalists. Finneman and Jenkins note that “television journalists are tied to a medium that has always required visual presence and personalization” (2018, 480). However, as women, such as Barbara Walters, entered the arena of broadcast journalism, these requirements shifted to a greater emphasis on the attractiveness of women broadcasters. This emphasis on beauty is inextricably linked to the audience’s perceptions of their quality of work as journalists. With the innovation of color television, an emphasis on clothing and makeup developed and necessitated the importance of general appearance on screen. The authors note that early on, journalists were cognitive of their appearance on camera and how it could contribute to their credibility. This, in turn, also applied to the credibility of women journalists. Hence, this valuation of beauty, before professional Page 595  |  Top of Articlequalifications, and as a determining factor in credibility, has led the industry to reproduce beauty standards in the journalists they hire.

In a world dominated by men, such as broadcast journalism, such discriminatory hiring practices have also combined with an industry infamous for allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct on set. It is common for women broadcasters to experience sexual harassment in studios and with coworkers off set. In fact, in a project where they publish journalists’ stories of harassment, Neason, Dalton, and Ho write that “determined to do their jobs, the subjects of harassment over expectations, make concessions, work around it, and—most often—work through it” (2018). For example, accusations about the culture of Fox News underline the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in the world of broadcast journalism. In addition, the #MeToo movement, aimed at raising awareness about the amount of sexual assault in Hollywood films and TV, also points to the sexism that women on-screen face behind the scenes.

In a patriarchal society where men control much of what is produced and displayed on TV, women are confined to standards of body expression that are also controlled by men. In such a world, acceptable presentations of the body and femininity have limitations. These limitations—rigid expectations of how women should appear on screen—are reproduced in the world of broadcast journalism. It is important to point out that beauty standards in any patriarchal society are not objective, but subjectively defined by men. In a male-dominant culture, women do not have the power to set the standards of acceptance. In commodified visual culture, such as TV and film, these beauty standards likely reflect dominant narratives, determined by men, of what beauty is and what men and women should look like. In turn, women adhere to these standards out of internalization, industry standards, and the desire to succeed (Finneman and Jenkins 2018, 481).


Often the roles men and women play in media echo and reinforce the ideas and values tied to masculinity and femininity. Ideals of femininity are associated with nurturing and being emotional and submissive. We see these play out in television commercials and on TV shows. On the other hand, the ideals associated with masculinity include power, aggression, domination, and active engagement. For this reason, men and boys might take on the role of the hero or protagonist, while women are often portrayed as more passive or nurturing in their roles. When women do take on the heroine role, they may simultaneously be depicted as sexual objects, who eventually become dependent on men. For characters who work in the professional world, men might have more powerful and prestigious jobs as politicians, athletes, doctors, or corporate leaders. Women, on the other hand, often portray more marginal roles as secretaries, nurses, etc., and their characters are often valued for beauty (Godwill and Collins 2018). When we watch sitcoms, it is important to look for gender biases. Underrepresented and undeveloped or ‘flat’ female characters often relegate women to supporting roles. One guiding question for considering gender bias in sitcoms includes: What messages do the Page 596  |  Top of Articleplotlines, characters, and scenes convey to the audience about women in general? Modern Family (2009–2020) is illustrative in this regard.

In this popular sitcom, two adult women are part of the main cast. Thus, we can say that the women, as central characters, do play significant roles in the show. The two women are Claire Dunphy (Julie Bowen) and Gloria Pritchett. Gloria (played by Latina actress Sofia Vergara) is married to Claire’s father, Jay Pritchett (Ed O’Neill). Claire and Gloria are both stay-at-home moms. They have also been divorced, and they’re both on their second marriage. The divorced aspect of the characters’ lives underpins the idea that each woman is flawed and initially unsuccessful in love and marriage. The idea that they are stay-at-home moms supports the traditional role of women in the domestic realm, as caretakers of home and children.

Gloria appears stereotypical on two levels; as a Latina woman—she is akin to a sexy, feisty Latina—which is typical in terms of representations of Latina women on television (see also Devious Maids (2013–2016)). Likewise, as an immigrant she is depicted as a money-hungry “trophy wife.” On the other hand, the stereotype of women of color as tough and resilient also appears simultaneously as she is also portrayed as having a certain type of wisdom and strength that result from her experiences of growing up in a tough neighborhood in Colombia (Ferris and Stein 2016, 109). Claire, on the other hand, is a “daddy’s girl” who is initially jealous of Gloria. The common trope of the woman with “daddy issues” comes with Claire. Likewise, jealous rivalry between women is a common and long-standing trope in our society, and in this context, it plays out between Claire and Gloria. Likewise, the inevitability of motherhood for women also stands out with Claire. Motherhood is so central to her identity (and should be to every woman, according to our society), that she must redefine her identity as mother and leave the domestic realm of the house to find meaningful work as her children age. Indeed, it is only with an empty nest that a woman can leave the home to find self-fulfilling employment. In these ways, sitcoms like Modern Family provide powerful messages about gender roles and femininity to both female and male viewers.

As for men, notions of masculinity are clearly displayed for male viewers. Aggressive lead roles by men who are successful in both love and career are the long-held staple for television. Often, the object of desire for an attractive male lead is a young and attractive woman whom he seduces with wit and power, despite a series of obstacles. In a similar way, stereotypes abound according to beauty—the good guy is attractive and the bad guy is well, less so. This sends clear notions of attractiveness associated with moral character to the audience. Likewise, this duality between good/evil also presents with evil women characters who are depicted as unattractive, as well, or demonic, such as with the classic Medusa and Cruella Deville characters. However, the trope of the sexy, evil (or dangerous) woman is also somewhat common.

Sexist themes in television are not confined to sitcoms, broadcast journalism, and commercials; they can (and do) show up in other genres as well. Another sexist theme common in television dramas is that of the portrayal of intellectual women on the screen. In the introduction to the book, Smart Chicks on Screen: Representing Women’s Intellect in Film and Television, author D’Amore points to Page 597  |  Top of Articlehow “women’s intellect is rarely the center point of television or film narratives, and when it is, these women are often represented as socially awkward ... or doomed to perpetual failure in intimate relationships” (2014, 3). In other examples, such as The Mindy Project (2012–2017), the central protagonist, Mindy, is a high-earning obstetrician who is obsessed with finding love. Her main concern for finding love overshadows her intellect and career as a successful medical professional. This theme overshadows many of the intelligent female leads in television dramas such as Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) in Scandal (2012–2018) and even the tech-savvy sleuth Penelope (Kirsten Vangsness) of Criminal Minds (2005–2020). Also, if the women are nerdy or smart, they are “forced to trade their intellect for desirability” (D’Amore 2014, 3).

In HBO’s Game of Thrones (2011–2019), other pertinent examples of sexism arise. In “Game of Thrones, Rape Culture and Feminist Fandom,” author Ferreday analyzes how rape culture and sexual violence manifest in graphic scenes (2015). From its onset, the show was controversial due to scenes with nudity, graphic sex, and extreme violence. Although these scenes are crafted for entertainment and ratings, it is also important to note how the differential treatment of male and female characters also mirrors men and women’s experiences in the real world. The prevalence of sexual assault in American culture and the current controversy over the understanding of consent (the #MeToo movement) cannot be ignored when scenes of rape play out on prime-time TV. Or, as Ferreday states, “the stories we tell ‘about’ rape ... tell us a great deal about society’s attitude toward gender, sexuality, violence, property and family relationships” (2015, 23).

Rape is a prominent narrative feature in films and in television series, and it is an overt and readily observed instance of sexism. Rape and lack of consent run throughout many violent scenes in Game of Thrones and frequent female nudity stands in contrast to rarely disrobed men. Two particular scenes of sexual violence stand out. In one of the show’s earlier seasons, Jaime Lannister (a knight) rapes his sister Cersei after grieving the death of their son (born from incest) in his funeral chamber. In another scene, Viserys Targaryen threatens to have his young sister Daenarys raped if she will not consent to being sold into marriage in exchange for warriors. When Daenarys refuses, her brother threatens to have her groom, Khal Drogo, his men, and the horses rape her. If she refused to marry, the ominous threat of rape by multiple men and even bestiality loomed as serious threats that could have been readily enacted. On her wedding night, her new husband Khal Drogo does indeed rape her. Although brutalized by Drogo, Daenarys forgives him and eventually falls in love with him. As she forgives her rapist, the idea of the benevolent rapist manifests. Instead of punishment, the rapist is forgiven because he is not “really” a bad guy and sexual assault is legitimized as a normal occurrence, a fact of life. As such, these scenes point to the idea of a benevolent rapist as common in our society, which gives rise to the eventual romance between a sexual assault victim and her perpetrator culminating in the fantasy of rape. As notions of gender and power are not isolated in our society, it is important to consider how the spectacle of sexual violence functions as pleasurable for the audience and to place the writing of such scenes within the context of a wider debate Page 598  |  Top of Articleabout rape culture and media presentation of sexual violence (Ferreday 2015, 21–22).

As noted earlier, other social norms according to gender, such as unspoken rules or codes for how men and women are allowed to “feel” and/or express emotions are also depicted on-screen. The phrase “feeling rules” refers to the emotions, or feelings, that our society accepts, in accordance with gender binaries, for men and women. Feeling rules differ for men and women. While women are often stereotyped to be overly emotional and susceptible to crying bouts, men learn in their socialization that crying in public or expressing vulnerability are not permissible in our society. As such, strong male characters are rarely allowed to cry or to express the whole range of human emotion. Likewise, in Hollywood and in television, violence continues to be an exclusive monopoly for male actors and the characters they play; the exception being women and female characters enacting violence, evil and cruelty as revenge against men or against one another.

Another issue resulting from sexism in television is the requirement for compulsory heterosexuality. This limits the diversity of lead roles, as gay characters often fall far from romantic dramas and into comedic sitcoms. In an article that encourages viewers to undertake critical reads of sexism in their favorite old(er) shows, Teen Vogue writer Bateman describes a hostile scene in an episode of the show Friends (1994–2004) entitled “The One with the Male Nanny” (aired in 2002). In this scene, the male character Ross interviews a male nanny and in a hostile tone mocks him asking “You’re gay, right?” Because the idea of a male nanny is outside of the acceptable performance of masculinity, Ross ridicules him. As such, the audience learns rules about gender roles and stereotypes about the male gender that discourage behavior outside of these norms (Bateman 2017). There are numerous examples of gender and sexuality being depicted in stereotypical, binary ways and used as comic relief or to reinforce heteronormative identities. However, there have been numerous strides in the last three to four years to incorporate a wider variety of genders and sexualities on sitcoms and dramas; one example would by the FX hit series, Pose.


Despite this criticism, shows like The Walking Dead (2010–) or Dear White People (2017–) potentially fill the gap in diversity and represent progress in the representation of more complex women characters (and characters who are people of color) on television today. The pushback to one-dimensional and marginal female characters has led to more diverse roles for women in contemporary shows. Snow White in Once Upon a Time (2011–2018) differs quite a bit from the version from childhood stories. Instead of the passive role in the traditional story that focuses on Snow White’s innocence and purity, the new adaptation depicts an independent and quick-witted version of Snow White. Likewise, as for representation, the notable Oliva Pope from Scandal is a strong-minded female protagonist who navigates White House scandals with intelligence and leadership—despite the everyday mishaps and troubles she faces outside of her job (Lee 2014). Page 599  |  Top of ArticleLikewise, Black-ish (2014–), a sitcom about a Black middle-class family, also pushes for a more inclusive definition of family and thus challenges stereotypical ideas about gender roles in family life. Moreover, these shows push for multidimensional notions of womanhood—that include race, class, and sexuality, to the forefront of discussions that highlight the various ways underrepresentation plays out both in life and on contemporary American television.

The resistance to gender stereotypes in television and media has largely been led by women viewers. The rise of the #MeToo movement has brought sexism that occurs behind the scenes into mainstream conversations and debates. With this hashtag, the sexual assault that happens behind closed curtains in the film industry was brought to the forefront and became part of a national discourse about pervasive sexism in American culture. This discourse supports the notion that “there is a spectrum of abuses of power, some tiny and some huge, that all add up to a world where women’s voices, women’s work, and women’s sexual desires are ignored or devalued” (Jaffe 2018, 84). This spectrum of abuse (and its effects) are also perpetuated in the advertisements we view, the sitcoms we watch, and in newsrooms with women anchors, the importance of #MeToo in raising a collective voice about sexism on-screen and off is duly noted.

Audience resistance to stereotypical portrayals of women characters has led to the convergence of television and social media. Social media outlets serve as forums to analyze and critique underrepresentation in sitcoms, stereotypical roles in advertisements, sexual harassment, and forms of sexism (more generally) in the world of television and film. Television networks, such as ABC, have also acquired forums on Twitter with a hashtag (#TGIT or Thank God it’s Thursday) for viewer commentary on its popular Thursday night lineup, which includes shows like Grey’s Anatomy (2005–), Scandal, and How I Met Your Mother (2005–2014). #TGIT allows for a participatory culture where Black female fandom expands the characterization of Olivia Pope to make sense of their own experiences in a radicalized and sexist world (Patterson 2018, 87).

There have been other cultural milestones in television as our beliefs, as a society, have evolved. For example, Ellen DeGeneres is a well-adored, openly lesbian comedian and talk show host. We have also witnessed increasing diversity among models in advertisements—a move that potentially allows for championing body positivity for people of various sizes and physiques. Big gains have been won in representing full-figured women and women of varied racial and ethnic backgrounds. Still, we are perhaps very far behind in representing gender queer and nonbinary folks on the screen, though shows like Transparent (2014–2019) and Pose, are a start. Likewise, we have been slower to accept other physical stigmas, such as women who are disabled and those who do not fit into the dominant narrative of commercial beauty.

While change has been slow in television’s depictions of realistic women and men that represent the spectrum of gender expression, the push for alternative, more complex narratives is gaining momentum. This pushback from women in marches and organizing on social media has also pointed to the need for more women working behind the camera and in writer’s rooms to produce shows that have better representation of women’s experiences on screen. Various social actors have contributed to the formulation of stereotypes and rigid gender norms; at the same time, a Page 600  |  Top of Articlemultitude of people (from all walks of life) participate in challenging these narratives. As Caroline Heldman states, “We now know that simply adding women to scripts will not solve gender inequality in entertainment media,” as it is necessary “to write female characters with more screen time, more speaking time, more prominence in the storyline, with more personal agency, and without objectifying them” (qtd. in The Innovation Group 2017, 6). With responsible and conscientious writing, the possibility to rearticulate gender, overturn stereotypes, and eliminate sexism may not only manifest on screen, but transform society and the real world as well.

Courtney Sargent

Further Reading

Bateman, Oliver Lee. 2017. “Why Sexism and Homophobia in Old TV Shows Is Such a Big Problem Today.” Teen Vogue, May 12. .

D’Amore, Laura Mattoon. 2014. Smart Chicks on Screen: Representing Women’s Intellect in Film and Television. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Ferreday, Debra. 2015. “Game of Thrones, Rape Culture and Feminist Fandom.” Australian Feminist Studies 30 (83): 21–36.

Ferris, Kerry, and Jill Stein. 2016. The Real World: An Introduction to Sociology. New York: W. W. Norton.

Finneman, Teri, and Joy Jenkins. 2018. “Sexism on the Set: Gendered Expectations of TV Broadcasters in a Social Media World.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 62 (3): 479–494.

Godwill, Francis, and Annie Collins. 2018. “Gender.” .

Innovation Group, The. 2017. “New Trend Report: Gender Bias in Advertising.” J. Walter Thompson Intelligence, June 29. .

Jaffe, Sarah. 2018. “The Collective Power of #MeToo.” Dissent 65 (2): 80–87.

Lee, Alice. 2014. “Sexism in Modern Television Shows.” Her Campus, November 19. .

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Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX8143600171