Standort: / Meldung: "If she can see it, she can be it"

Joanna Bostock

Reading between the headlines.

8. 3. 2016 - 15:45

If she can see it, she can be it

How much progress has serial television made in promoting images of gender equality?

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In an age where digital technology has spawned a broad variety of seemingly innovative television series, one might think that all this room for creativity would be fertile ground for developing more modern female characters. But is it?

On International Women's Day I spoke to Alexandra Ganser, Professor of American Literary and Cultural Studies at the University of Vienna, and co-editor / co-author of Transgressive Television, a collection of essays taking a critical look at the genre of serial television.

Alexandra Ganser on gender stereotypes in TV series

Joanna: How much influence do TV series have on our perceptions of gender roles and stereotypes?

Alexandra: I think they do have a really strong influence. I might answer with a T-shirt actually that was designed by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. It’s a charity and they sell a T-shirt that says “if she can SEE it, she can BE it”. I like that a lot because absolutely, especially for younger women, it depends on what you can imagine yourself to be.

For instance, one show that is very much celebrated and that I also personally like watching, “Veep”, where you have a first female president, might be really detrimental on the other hand because you see the first female TV president and she doesn’t know how to do her job. I mean, it’s really funny, but it’s actually I think detrimental to women’s ideas of what they can do as politicians.

So it’s not simply the existence of female characters, it’s how these characters are, what they are like, how they behave and so on…

Exactly. So for instance I think concerning women’s bodies, if we compare the 1970s, 80s and early 90s you have much more diversity on TV in terms of how these women look. Now it’s kind of spectacular if a show like “Girls” uses women who … and I wouldn’t even say they are really overweight.

If we think of Rosanne back in the 1980s, or the Golden Girls who are four old women – that’s not something that happens anymore. Women are always beautiful, even if they are a little overweight; there are certain bodily regimes they need to adhere to.

And that’s one of the turns within feminism, this turn to what we call post-feminism, that women can have everything and women can be shown in all kinds of rolls on TV. [Producer and writer] Shonda Rhimes, for instance, insists that now women can do everything on TV.

The problem is that very often they CAN do everything on TV turns into they SHOULD do everything on TV, like in real life – so we should be always great-looking, right after childbirth we should be back at work and still look the same as before, for instance.

So it’s kind of a double-edged sword. You just mentioned Shonda Rhimes, that brings to mind Grey’s Anatomy, Meredith Grey, the surgeon juggling all these different things, so while we’re presented with this image of a woman who is very self-sufficient, very clever, achieves a lot, at the same time we’re being sent a negative message?

Absolutely. It puts a lot of pressure on to women to think “not only can I choose my career” for instance – because that’s what young women grow up with: ideas that they can do everything and that’s certainly a good thing – but once this becomes a pressure thing, if you don’t achieve all of this then you’ve kind of failed as a women and of course, that can have a negative impact.

I’m interested also in the hidden sexism in some of the most popular, cult series, for example the Big Bang Theory, Breaking Bad. How advanced are these series when it comes to the gender roles?

Here I would really like to mention my colleague Cornelia Klecker from the University of Innsbruck. She has written a great essay in which she invents the term “Drive-by misogyny” and she diagnoses many of these series as showing what she calls drive-by misogyny, defining it as “it hits you and you don’t even realise it, it’s gone before you realise you’ve been hit by sexism”.

She takes this grand tour through all kinds of series and shows that the progress we think we have made is, well, limited – let’s put it that way! Of course many things have progressed and there are many different roles for women today, but at the same time many of these shows retain a certain kind of sexism, the “smurfette principle" invented by the feminist media scholar Katha Pollitt in 1991.

The feminist collective Feminist Frequency shows that this principle is really intact. Basically, like in the Smurfs, there is one token female character in shows geared towards a male audience, and this one character is of course always good looking and sexy. This is still going on for instance in the Big Bang Theory.

She also looks at Shonda Rhimes’ series that usually are very progressive, but if you take a close look, and that’s what she did, you will find instances of (very subtle maybe) sexism. She looked also at Breaking Bad, where her argument is that we should by all means have sympathy with Walter White’s wife, but we actually don’t because she’s the nagging one, she’s the one who doesn’t understand, she’s not presented in a manner that you would like to identify with. And we tend to forget that once a show is labelled “cult” there is really a masculine perspective that’s produced as “cult” and we forget about women’s perspectives…

.. and then it’s untouchable …

Yes, yes – sacrosanct, even by critics. If you look at the film Toy Story for instance, it’s two male figures who are the main protagonists – an astronaut and a cowboy, how stereotypically American can you get? I’ve looked at critics’ responses to that film and everything is just praised for its technological advances, as ground breaking animation, which I’m sure it is.

But once something becomes celebrated for certain feats, other things are totally neglected, so I didn’t find any kind of gender criticism. And this is what young girls watch too.

If these are some of the criticisms, gave you got some best practice examples of how to do it right?

Well, I’m sure it can’t be done entirely right because those discourses are there and they influence all TV shows. But I think in the comedy sector one of my favourites is “Parks and Recreation” starring Amy Poehler. I think the female comedians do a good job.

The show is equal in the sense that it has lots of male and female characters, it’s not geared towards either a male or a female audience. It integrates love stories – we all want to see love stories and that’s one problem, how to depict that in a gender sensitive manner and not in a main stream kind of affirmative manner. And by using the technique of comedy of course she can do a lot more, and I think that’s one of the best practice examples.

You’re talking about comedy, what about more dramatic series where you have women as the “bad” person, the evil character, the criminal? Do we see any strong female “baddies”?

Well, we have Nurse Jackie, so there is a crime element, drug abuse and addiction, and that’s also one of the series that I really appreciate for first of all showing behind the scenes of a hospital in a very different manner, focusing on the nurses, not on the doctors, focusing on the stressfulness of the job, on the underpayment, on the long hours, on the pressure that you have if you also have a family, and she has two daughters and she’s not the perfect mum, but she’s a loving mum.

So, this is an ambivalent character that I appreciate for the sense that that’s the ambivalence that most women have to deal with in their lives. It doesn’t help so much to just look at potential female presidents or doctors, when probably more than half of society’s women will never be doctors and presidents.

It’s interesting that you’re talking about Nurse Jackie and her role as a mother. What about portrayal of women as mothers, and how that is actually put across in TV series?

That’s also pretty problematic. On the one hand, it’s part of this post-feminist agenda that women should have it all and should make the right choices, and if they don’t, it’s really their fault. So, plan your career, also plan when you’re going to have children and with whom you’re going to have children. It puts a lot of pressure on women not just to be very successful career women, but also great mothers, but one group is especially concerned with this problem and that is black women.

Another essay in our TV book, Transgressive Television, is by Kimberly Moffatt, one of our colleagues from Maryland. She comes from the Baltimore area and she wrote about black motherhood in The Wire – another of those cult shows that have been praised as flawless in many respects and very innovative.

But, she says (as a black mother herself who struggles with different roles and everyday life) black mothers on this show are basically troubled. They are either not nurturing enough, or they are too nurturing, and if they have power, then it’s always also a problem.

I’m also thinking of another mother on television right now, in Sons of Anarchy, the mother who has all the power, and that’s also problematic. She’s a strong woman, and you learn that she pulls most of the strings behind Sons of Anarchy, but at the same time, what that does is it insinuates that it’s women’s construction of the society; if she is responsible for pulling the strings, then she is responsible for continuing this misogynist, sexist motorcycle gang. So you make women complicit, then you praise them as a feminist icon, and that’s really quite tricky and deceptive.

I’d like to ask about detective crime series, where you have a female detective. It seems so me that these women are often portrayed as strong, but is it a good or a bad thing that they have to deal with the sexism of their male colleagues on screen?

Well, good or bad is always hard to answer, but certainly it is important to show how women deal with sexism at work, because that certainly is something that women still encounter. It may be less so in the United States, because the regulations are stricter. So yes, I think it’s important to show how women deal with those problems, and I think also some female detectives have been very influential, for instance The Closer.

I think that was really a strong female role that influenced what was to come in the detective genre. I think, however, that in the whole crime genre we do have this segregation into shows that are produced for women, like The Closer, and the shows that are produced for men, that are more technically geared, but I’m not an expert in the mainstream crime genre.

Is it any different with fantasy series, things like Game of Thrones, because obviously that’s not trying to depict a reality or something we can relate to on an everyday basis, at the same time we have men and women in different roles, power struggles and so on?

I haven’t watched Game of Thrones myself, but I know it is a very important series for many people watching it. I was talking to some of my colleagues and friends who are in film journalism for instance, and what’s interesting is that although this is an entirely fantastic world of course, we can only build those fantastic worlds with the building blocks that our society and visual language allows us.

We were talking about rape, and the function of rape in this series and in other series, and it seemed to them that in Game of Thrones the function of rape is very problematic, because it’s not that we shouldn’t talk about rape, it’s something that happens, but is has no other function than to keep women down in that series, and also in Sons of Anarchy.

The rape scenes are very gruesome, they are emotionally really hard for women to watch, and some of my friends said, “I can’t watch this anymore, I’m turning off if I see another rape scene.” Because what it actually does to the viewer, it shows or it highlights the vulnerability of female bodies, and while of course we should be aware of something like rape, we always tend to forget that 90% of rape happens within a partnership, within the family, and not so much by somebody attacking you on the street.

So that’s a distorted image of rape that we get, and the sole function of it for a female audience is to actually make them scared, and that’s problematic. So in this sense even the fantasy shows don’t really go a long way from what other shows do.

So to sum up, there’s still a lot of potential for the makers of TV series to come up with some good, strong portrayals or women characters, women’s lives, and how society can do more towards gender parity in our world?

Yes, I think that’s for both women and men. The way to go is really to show characters, like I said with Nurse Jackie, that are ambivalent, and not either good or bad, strong or weak, but show both sides, both men and women should be portrayed in that manner without actually losing sympathy for the character. Of course, the show is responsible that we identify with somebody, and we don’t want to identify with the worst villains, but this is a way for women to get more space to be ambivalent and complex persons – the complex persons we actually are.