A new study led by sociologist Stacy L. Smith reveals that females make up a third of primetime television characters, but for every five men that have careers in science, technology or math-related fields, there is only one female character in such a profession.
The study, conducted by the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Southern California and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, examined 275 primetime programs on 10 channels. It also revealed found that in primetime shows, men are more likely to be promoted over women.
It's no secret that women are underrepresented in TV and other media. The women portrayed on the small screen seldom appear in roles of leadership and are routinely exploited in the workplace, the study says.
According to New York psychologist Silvia M. Dutchevici, the sexualization of women on TV has an effect on female viewers.
"Marian Wright Edelman [civil rights and education activist] was correct in pointing out that you cannot be what you cannot see. For young girls this means that when they watch TV they do not see capable, loving and smart women living successful lives and having successful careers," Dutchevici said. "Increasingly they see women depicted either as sex objects, or worse, sexualizing themselves. In most cases, even when women are depicted as successful career women (for example 'Sex and the City'), their sexuality is still the focal point of their being. Therefore we learn, by watching TV, that women's worth is tied to her price as a commodity/object (sexy) rather than a subject (personality, feelings, agency)."
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Los Angeles actress and script copywriter Nancy Van Iderstine agrees.
"While it’s not true in every case, in general, men are valued as characters regardless of how they look. Women are still too often valued based on how we look," Van Iderstine said. "It starts with the writing, and is reinforced by financiers, who seem loath to separate themselves from archaic stereotypes about women."
Melissa Tapper Goldman, who directed the recent documentary "Subjectified: Nine Young Women Talk About Sex," believes the poor representation of women in primetime TV can lead women to suffer from self-esteem issues and view themselves as mere objects of male desire.
"There are the obvious results like poor body image or low self-confidence. And there are more complicated issues like believing that a woman's total value in work or relationships is intimately tied to her sexual appeal," she said.
Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), the female lead on the CIA drama "Homeland," is often cited as an example of a compelling woman in primet ime. Even though she is being an unstable and manipulative pill popper, many find Carrie's intelligence and unwavering dedication to her work refreshing.
Yet as Goldman notes, and "Saturday Night Live" mocked in a recent sketch, Carrie is far from the ideal representation of professionalism.
"This year, there has been much written about the increase in women writing TV shows and women main characters in prime time," Goldman continued. "But when we look at what's actually there, we see deeply troubling trends. The wildly popular 'Homeland' revolves around accomplished CIA operative Carrie Mathison. Carrie is supposed to be brilliant, but she is also constantly on the verge of emotional breakdown, she has sex as part of her job, and she does not eat. And this is one of the rare examples on TV of a woman who has excelled in her career."
Despite being portrayed in an undesirable manner, women in TV are making some strides.
"I can actually name a number of women-driven projects right now, which is fabulous," said Erin M. Fuller, president of the Alliance for Women in Media , "Ten years ago, if you had a show like 'Ally McBeal,' it was actually a male-directed and male-written project.
"When you look at some of the shows that women are behind today in terms of a creative direction and production standpoint, there are a whole bunch of women who are owning the means of production," Fuller added. "They're writing and producing and not just making money just by acting but by also being the creator and the driver, which I think is really important. That's to be celebrated."
Fuller cites "How I Met Your Mother," "The Office," "The Mindy Project," "Girls" and "The Good Wife" as some of the shows that feature positive and/or realistic representations of women.
Yet Fuller also points out that women still have a long way to go before they are portrayed the way men are in prime time.
"The biggest issue is that we still have these sexualized, dumbed-down characters in far greater numbers than we have a Tina Fey or a Mindy Kaling."