As someone who wants to write for television one day, I spend days (binge) watching show after show, teaching myself how to create believable and intricate character development, story arcs, and nuanced narratives. I’ve seen hours worth of incredible and inspiring writing. But, more often than not, I’ve sat through a lot of bad writing. This is especially true when it comes to gender.
The way “men” and “women” are written is often times cliched, stereotypical, and sometimes violent. In 2016, we’re still heralding the men who save the day despite evidence of their fragile masculinity, women are still being questioned for having successful careers instead of children, and so many other antiquated ideals that should have been done away with decades ago. It’s hard enough to live in a society that constantly tells us how to perform gender, but seeing it in places we go to escape from our own worlds, can be — scientifically speaking — annoying. Here are some ways the TV shows we watch reinforce inane gender norms.
1. The New Feminism
Many new and upcoming shows today have been uplifted and deemed feminist for their depictions of tough and independent women. While many of these shows are doing more for feminism than Beauty and the Beast, there are still some areas that get muddied. For instance, there’s a moment in Netflix/Marvel’s Jessica Jones where a stranger (man) tells Jessica, a formidable heroine, that a ‘rude girl is [a] lonely girl,” to which she responds, “[I’m] counting on it.” As if Jessica is too strong for love, for intimacy — even platonically, as her only friendship is a strained one.
This new wave of filmic feminism shows that women can be powerful, sure, but also that power skews masculine. And, similarly to the way men are conditioned socially, masculine women are depicted as not being capable of having love in their lives. So, if you wanna kick some evil ass, you’d better love solitude more than people!
2. Motherhood Outside of Motherhood
In this day and age, it has become slightly more acceptable for women to choose to not have children. Often, their careers take the place of motherhood, as it is still seemingly impossible for women to have both jobs and children and still be happy and balanced humans — though I digress. These successful, childless women, though still end up in mothering roles, just at their place of work.
In ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder, Annalise Keating, a frighteningly brilliant lawyer and escape artist, often jokes about being the mother to the students she spends most of her days protecting from the law. Though Keating does not come off as particularly nurturing in a stereotypically feminine way, her presence is still that of shelter in the storm. This is true of Scandal’s Olivia Pope, Sleepy Hollow’s Abbie Mills, etc. So, TV still finds a way to embed gender norms, just in a slightly more subtle way.
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3. Male Dominance and Emotionality
It seems we’ll never move past the “man of the house” complex plaguing society. Men are constantly written as saviors and leaders — whether it’s at work, at home, or in a relationship. They are large and in charge. This usually takes the shape of: making decisions on behalf of an entire community/team without consulting anyone else (Frank Underwood, House of Cards), doggedly fighting over territory and claiming lives lost as collateral damage (Boardwalk Empire), and double standards that prioritize and normalize men’s sexuality over women’s (Ray, Hung).
This assertion of male superiority is not only limiting and lazy writing, it’s also dangerous.
It’s violent when these TV shows depict these men as omnipotent, but, when failing to save the day, they are wracked with heavy guilt. This sends the message that if a man can’t save literally everyone, then he is not really a man at all. You can see this in superhero/supernatural shows like Arrow, The Flash, Daredevil, Gotham and Supernatural. It’s also violent in its propagation of rape culture, that, because men are omnipotent rescuers, they are entitled to take up space, to own others’ bodies (Jaime Lannister, Game of Thrones).
4. “Feminine Wiles”
Somehow, “female privilege” and misandry are still a thing. Since the dawn of the femme fatale, film and TV shows have written about beautiful women who use their sex appeal to get what they want, often at the peril of men — Nikita, Buffy, Sydney (Alias), and just about every young woman in How to Get Away with Murder, Vampire Diaries, The Originals, Revenge, and too many more. Look, sometimes being the object of the male gaze can result in a free drink (“free” is used loosely here) or an opened door. More often than not, though, that gaze is more fatal to women than any woman’s beauty is to men.
In an episode of Gotham, a teenaged Silver is told she must get Bruce Wayne to fall in love with her using whatever means available to her. At first, she followed this command easily enough. However, she is then told that if she can’t get Bruce to love her, she will suffer painful consequences. This young girl has been taught to use her All-American beauty to manipulate a teenaged boy, lead him to his death, so that she can stay alive. This is “female privilege.” Hoping your body, your looks will keep someone from taking your life away.
5. Overly-Emotional Women
We get it. Women feel things. So much. We get so full of feels that we can barely think straight. At least, that’s what a lot of TV shows would still have us believe. With characters like True Blood’s Sookie — who often acted irrationally and recklessly, putting people she loved and herself in danger, and usually crying about her undead sometimes-lover Bill Compton — we are conditioning girls and women to distrust their heart and gut because it so often gets the characters we see into trouble.
In an episode the second season of HBO’s The Leftovers, Nora Durst impulsively buys a 3 million dollar house at an auction. She buys a house she has never seen. In a town she’s never visited. Minutes after learning the house she rented was no longer available. Until this point, I had trusted this character. But, in this moment, I felt strangely betrayed. Granted, it is within the realm of realistic human behaviors for anyone to act this impulsively after a loss of any kind, but this felt like a cheap way to keep the show’s story moving. Blame the crazed lady is a great way for any show to get from Point A to Point B (American Horror Story, The Mindy Project, New Girl)
More Radical Reads: New Masculinity: How the Alpha Male Stereotype Perpetuates Oppression
6. Hygiene Maintenance
Somehow, in post-apocalyptic America, everyone still finds the time, energy, and resources to stay clean, shaven, and toned with pearly-white teeth. If you look closely enough, you’ll notice this is true for every woman in LOST, The 100, Revolution, The Walking Dead, Xena. It’s encouraging, really, to know that, should the world succumb to the undead, or an alien invasion, or a nuclear war, I’d still be able to rock bald armpits and a six-pack.
One of my favorite action-heroines on TV is Michonne from The Walking Dead. This is a sword-wielding, forest-dwelling, zombie-killing, leather-clad, resting bitch-faced woman. Still, smooth and hairless legs. What this teaches us is that women have no excuse to appear unkempt or undesirable. Even in the end of days, we’re expected to attain a certain level of beauty, of touchability, and softness.
Don’t get me wrong, I watch every single one of the shows I’ve listed above. There are aspects of all of them that I love, respect, want to emulate in my writing. But…they’ve all got some gender-related issues.
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(Feature Image: Kerry Washington, a Black woman, wearing a white hat and white high-collar suit. She has shoulder length dark hair. The background is black. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/disneyabc/14175746182)
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