Characters Not Caricatures: The “Unruly Women’s” Revolt

Traditionally, television sitcoms in the United States have portrayed women in a very narrow role; women in sitcoms have been confined to their role as mothers, wives, or sex objects. These women are typically “willing and eager to serve men” and are often portrayed as unintelligent or ditzy. Think of any sitcom from the 21st century, what kind character comes to mind? Sitcoms, formally known as “new situation comedies” have female characters who have evolved immensely from the depiction of the traditional cult of domesticity housewife. Turn on any primetime television network with original programming, or even an online streaming service like Hulu or Netflix, and you’ll now see a hefty number of female-driven shows with characters who are dimensional, and often times have high-profile occupations. (Mercer) The repair of how women have been portrayed on television sitcoms has been a challenging and extremely ambitious journey, yet key players in this journey have made the evolution possible. In this essay, I will discuss the television shows that paved the way for this evolution, the stereotypes that female characters have shed, the producers and writers who are responsible for breaking the glass ceiling in the television industry by portraying female characters realistically. I will compare this evolution of repair to the repair stereotypes and challenges presented to us by Elizabeth Spelman in Repair.

Being a communications major, I’ve always had a special interest in television shows, specifically comedies. Upon choosing a topic for my essay, I was considering how I can relate a topic presented to us in Repair to something I’m passionate about. In this essay I will investigate how the portrayal of women on television sitcoms has evolved from the traditional role of a “housewives” to extremely dimensional characters. I’ve always paid close attention to television shows, and have found myself fascinated by the messages they try to send to their audience. Researching this topic has only furthered inspired me to pursue my passion for the television industry, and has validated that this is the industry of work I belong in. I will go into depth about who is responsible for this change towards accurate portrayal and how their efforts compare to the efforts of repair present to us by Elizabeth Spelman.

During the 1950’s, the extremely iconic television show, I Love Lucy, paved the way for sitcoms starring a female lead. I Love Lucy paved the way for the equally as famous Mary Tyler Moore Show which was a turning point for women in the television industry. The Mary Tyler Moore Show presented a new type of female character that the industry had not seen yet: a woman without a man, perusing a career in a male-dominated industry. This television show signified a shift towards a more feminist representation in female characters. (Montecillo) At the time, Mary Richard from The Mary Tyler Moore Show was the most revolutionary feminist representation of women. Mary Richard was portrayed as a “strong, independent women”, and has been analyzed as being a strong, career driven women, unconcerned with love and marriage. (Montecillo) Female characters in sitcoms weren’t just characters, they were caricatures of their gender. Women have traditionally been presented in their “cult of domesticity” role, the beautiful housewives, whose sole purpose in life is to be the homemaker, a wife, and a mother. Typically, these women only embodied the feminine characteristics of womanhood and were not portrayed as intelligent or respected people. (Fallon) Characters like Elaine Benes from Seinfeld, and Rosanne from Rosanne have important roles in why television comedies have changed.

Elaine Benes (left) and Rosanne (right)

Both shows presented the “unruly women”, which was a woman who could be seen going against what was considered as normal or acceptable by society, which caused the rest of the industry to reevaluate their rigid gender roles. The fact that society dubbed these female characters who were not the typical “housewife” or necessarily feminine as “unruly” illustrates how deep the gender stereotypes in the realm of television was. (Montecillo) In the last 15 years, the television industry has seen a dramatic shift in the representation of women on screen.

Currently, there are television shows featuring women of color, lesbian, queer, and gender fluid women, working class women, single mothers, single women embracing their sexuality, divorcees, and single older women with no interest in marriage or families. This new breed of three-dimensional female characters suggests a change in American society. These new female characters are smart, sexual, funny, and flawed; they upend expectations, thwart our sympathies, and complicate the way we talk about gender roles. (GirlTalkHq.com) This dramatic evolution is accredited to the dedication and talent of a number of strong, creative, and feminist women in the television industry who were not afraid to push boundaries of content and characters to send a clear message to society. These determined women who have brushed aside the traditional restrictions on their comedy have won at least a few major battles, and they’ve staked out a newly broad territory for women in sitcoms. These women are more important now than ever as we continue to push the boundaries of gender inequality in our country, and our society, aiming to set an inspiring, realistic, and ambitious example for the younger generation of women in this country.

One of the television producers who pioneered this movement towards a more realistic representation of women on television shows was Shonda Rhimes.

Shonda Rhimes is a producer and writer of well-known television dramas, Greys Anatomy and Scandal to name a few, that star strong female leads. Shonda Rhimes has been considered a “lightning rod for breaking sex and racial stereotypes” in the television industry. (Saad) Rhimes’ television show Scandal has one of the strongest female leading characters in television history, accompanied by other female characters in the show who are outspoken and actively stand up against gender stereotypes and sexism. (Saad) All three of Rhimes award winning shows feature assertive, dominant, beautiful women, who are living in worlds that are traditionally considered for men only, yet thriving to the fullest extent regardless of their gender.

Another producer and writer, Mindy Kaling, has done her part in changing the portrayal of women on sitcoms with her show The Mindy Project, setting an example of a step in the right direction towards achieving realistic gender represenation on television.

Mindy Kaling

(Montecillo) In The Mindy Project, Dr. Mindy Lahiri is an extremely girly, and unapologetically flirty gynecologist, who is looking to find a partner and settle down and start a family. At the same time, Mindy is fighting to prove herself in a male dominated doctor’s office, thus fighting against the gender stereotype of careers for men and careers for women. Kahling uses her sitcom to present audiences with a complex, and new kind of strong women, by teaching audience about issues through comedy and storytelling that there is more than one way to be a strong and independent woman.

Spelman highlights the concept of the stereotypes surrounding “men’s work” and “women’s work” in chapter 3 of Repair which is titled “The Household as Repair Shop”. Spelman starts by explaining the expectations of each gender in the work place by posing the concept that “for the most part, women are much more likely to appear in pinup calendars in the offices and shops of repairmen- mechanics, plumbers, carpenters, cobblers and so forth- than as partners in such work”. (Spelman, 27) Spelman then further explains the concept by giving the example of repair books that can be purchased in bookstores. She explains that there are specific repair books geared towards women, often having the tone of a “pep talk” as if the writers of the book anticipate the women reading it will struggle with executing the repairs simply because she is a woman. Because our society is a very “masculine” driven society, mainstream American culture tends to be obsessed with the repair skills and characteristics domestic masculinity is thought to include. By projecting the concept of “men’s work” and “women’s work” being two very different things, it insinuates that women are not capable at doing the same type of work as men adequately, when realistically that isn’t the case. With the help of recent television shows, such as Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy, and The Mindy Project this idea is refuted by showing women who are successful professionals in industries that are traditionally known as “men’s work”. I think that as a society we’ve come an extremely long way from having such rigid concepts surrounding gender and occupation. In the 2016 election, the United States of America had the first female presidential candidate in history. As a society we came extremely close to breaking the glass ceiling of gender inequality, but unfortunately there are more people in this country who would like to see our country regress rather than progress.

There are many factors that can be attributed in assisting with this shift of realistic portrayal of women on television sitcoms. The main factor that has helped propel this feministic image of women onto screens of millions is the rise of online television streaming services. Streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime have shifted the nature of television. These streaming services have become new avenues for successful television shows, giving creators and performers more access to freedom in their creative and executive decisions. (Montecillo) This has been extremely helpful for television shows that have female creators and writers. This new medium of television streaming has allowed female creators and writers to have the creative freedom over what to present to their audience, without being required to answer to network executives, leaving the creators the ability to regulate their own content and perhaps push more boundaries in terms of content. (Montecillo) Streaming services have allowed for more television shows with strong female characters, where female actors and writers are granted more freedom to explore the topics that they desire to discuss without having to answer to a higher power that wants to regulate feminist discussion or representations. (Montecillo) Another factor that has encouraged the realistic portrayal of women is social media. Social media has given audiences a forum for discussion and interactions with creators and actors, allowing audiences to give feedback on the state of television and representations as well as discussions on how certain shows choose to handle particular social and political topics. (Montecillo)

In 2016 we now as a society understand that women can be as feminine as they choose to be, and that does not make them any less of a woman. Spelman discusses the fact that there’s a sense of entitlement around jobs that are traditionally a man’s job, insisting that if a woman decides to pursue that career it would prevent a man from having that job. This issue also pertains to the television industry; female producers are responsible for the change in the portrayal of women on television, but female producers were not always a common thing. Since the 1990’s, the number of female television producers has grown immensely despite the fact that career being considered a “man’s job”. Spelman elaborates and states, “sometimes what slips out is an undisguised assertion of entitlement: If women take these jobs men won’t have them”. (Spelman 28) Spelman gives the example of Mary Baird, a phone repair technician, who reported being reared by fellow employees that she was “taking a job away from a man who must provide for his wife and children”, as if women don’t have to provide for themselves and their family as well. Because female television producers have secured the fact that their career is not one for just men, they have been able to reclaim the way women are presented on television, and allow female characters to grow into more dimensional characters. Female television writers, producers, and directors have been the catalyst of the accurate portrayal of women on television as well as equal representation and treatment of women in society.

In conclusion, women are thankfully no longer confined to the simple, one-dimensional characters of the 40’s and 50’s. Female characters are no longer caricatures of gender, highlighting their sexual viability, or ability to be a mother or wife, yet dimensional personas who encourage girls that they can do whatever they desire to. Women on television are able to peruse whatever they want, regardless whether it’s a job, marriage, a family, or all or none of the above. Female writers are no longer concerned with the likability of their female characters after being reared in an environment and society projected otherwise. These women are setting examples for future generations of women, and young girls across the country that it is acceptable, and encouraged as a woman to put yourself first in life.


Work Cited

Fallon, Claire. “Women In Sitcoms Are Getting A Lot More Three-Dimensional. And That’s A Good Thing.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 5 Aug. 2015. Web. 24 Oct. 2016.

Mercer, Amirah. “Why ‘Shonda Rhimes Night’ Is an Enormous Triumph for Television.” Mic. N.p., 29 Sept. 2014. Web. 24 Oct. 2016.

“Mindy Kaling, Kristen Wiig & Lena Dunham Discuss Women In TV On Sundance Panel.” GirlTalkHQ. N.p., 26 Jan. 2015. Web. 24 Oct. 2016.

Montecillo, Victoria. “Gynecologists, Bureaucrats, and Stoners: The Rise of Women in Television Comedies and Critiquing the Postfeminist Perspective.” Thesis. Scripps College, 2015. Scholarship @ Claremont. Claremont Colleges. Web. 24 Oct. 2016.

Saad, Nardine. “Shonda Rhimes, Jenji Kohan Recognize ‘lucky’ Position as Female Showrunners.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 19 May 2015. Web. 24 Oct. 2016.

Spelman, Elizabeth V. Repair: The Impulse to Restore in a Fragile World. Boston: Beacon, 2002. Print.

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