By: Mallory Murray
About a month ago, I finished watching all the episodes of Scandal Netflix has to offer. Although finishing a really good series is always sad, it opens up a thrilling opportunity to find and become obsessed with a new show. However, much to my dismay, I have not been able to find a new show I truly enjoy. I’ve tried every recommendation from Friends to New Girl and Making a Murderer to One Tree Hill, yet nothing has been satisfying in the way our culture mandates Netflix should be satisfying.
Upon introspection, I realized a trend that left me ill at ease in all the shows I tried, they either lack strong female characters, or the women featured are seriously objectified. It cannot be denied that women have made wonderful, noteworthy strides in the media and entertainment industries, but these venues are still cluttered with objectification and gender stereotypes. According to a 2015 study analyzing female characters in prime-time television, 40% of speaking characters on cable, broadcast, and Netflix shows are female; however, only 22% of protagonists are female (and this stat is up 10 percentage points from 2014).
Even if a show features a female protagonist, she is likely to be shown in sexually revealing attire. The need for entertainment media to objectify women characters in order to draw in viewers is grotesque and works against the agenda of social equality of the sexes. Objectification of a person occurs when they are denied agency for their actions and are treated by others simply as a tool or object, commonly a sexual object. Honestly, I am not against the sexualization of women – and surely not against the sexualization of men. But any sexualization of a human should stem from their own agency and their conscious desire to – wait for it – be sexy. Not someone else’s desire to see them as such.
At this point, I’d like to take the opportunity to look at a couple shows that depict strong females who interact with males who also recognize their strength:
Game of Thrones
Game of Thrones has taken a lot of heat for its – shall we say – abundance of female nudity. And while the excess of female nudity compared to male nudity can be argued as female objectification, Game of Thrones displays powerful and capable women, which highlights how the show portrays gender equality. Not just one, but many brave, driven, confident women are main characters, and Game of Thrones deserves our respect as an engaging television show which also illustrates the power and abilities of women.
For those of you who have not yet seen Reign, I highly recommend it (you can find it on Netflix). This historical drama features Mary, Queen of Scots, and her exploits as she moves to the French court and marries the King of France. This show does an excellent job of highlighting how much power a woman can hold and how much respect she can command even while surrounded by a patriarchal society manifested in the monarchy. The women of Reign make their own political, social, and sexual decisions. With its love triangles, political betrayals, and court secrets, you’ll be hooked from Episode 1.
More important in molding the mind of society than the simple existence of independent females is the reaction to such characters from other characters, and specifically the support they receive from men. No, I am NOT talking about support in the sense that the woman’s power and agency is only credible because she has the help and support of a man, but instead other characters respect a woman’s authority or opinions because of the value of her insights. Women in media – and in reality – ought to be valued based on their abilities and not based on the fact they have breasts.
There exists in media a simple test to help determine if genders are being equally portrayed in a production. The Bechdel Test asks the question: are there two named women that talk to each other about something other than a man? According to the Bechdel Test data base, only 57% of movies pass. I encourage you to try out the Bechdel Test the next time you watch a show or movie and see if it passes. If it does not, or even if it does, ask yourself what message the show is promoting about women in society.
I think the most important consequence of how different roles are presented in media is the fact that they actively shape how society views people and constructs preconceptions. America grew comfortable with the concept of an African American president a decade before President Obama took office in the hit TV show 24. The television show Commander in Chief featured a female president but was unfortunately cancelled after just one season. The power of media in shaping public perception should not be underestimated. When women and minorities are portrayed in television as empowered, multidimensional characters, we will be one step closer to realizing these characteristics as accepted social standards in modern society.
While I understand that it requires much more than a couple empowered female characters to pull the audience’s attention, I urge you during your next television binge to consider what message the show you are watching is sending to female and male viewers about women in society.
In the meantime, I am still searching for a new show to obsess over and welcome all recommendations!
Check out these related articles from which I found my stats: