WOMEN: Female Roles Still Distort Reality


This article originally appeared in Issue# 35

Feminists have always recognized the power of the media to control women's lives. In the l880s Susan B. Anthony wrote, "Just as long as newspapers are controlled by men, every woman upon them must write articles which are reflections of men's ideas. As long as that continues, women's ideas and deepest convictions will never get before the public." Contemporary feminists recognize that it is not only women's ideas and convictions that are at issue, but the very meaning of woman herself.

Changing the media's projection of woman has been a consistent agenda of the women's movement since the early l960s. Initially the efforts were directed at raising consciousness of the images of women present in language patterns, textbooks, magazines, advertising, and TV programming. Typically women appeared in stereotypic roles "dumb blonde," sex object or whimpering victim. When women were presented in a positive light it was always in the role of mother and homemaker. Generally the image was of a passive, dependent and often silly person.

Through the efforts of women for over two decades new images of women are appearing. The recent Television Report by the National Commission of Working Women applauds the networks for some of the changes while noting that the old stereotypes still dominate the media.

The report notes, "there are more women characters, more minorities, new family structures, job diversity, new roles for men, and a focus on issues of interest to women." However, the norm for female characters remains young, white and single women, and is still thriving in action/adventure shows. Most shows still have all-white casts.

Moreover, the majority of adult female characters in new programs have jobs outside the home, usually in professional or high-powered positions. In reality, most women are concentrated in low-paying clerical and service jobs.

There is a marked increase in divorced and widowed women in the shows. Most of them work outside the home. Interestingly, only about 167 of the female characters are married and only about 67 are homemakers, a dramatic shift from the images in the '70s when over 50% of all female characters were homemakers.

In startling contrast to reality, over half of all TV children live with their fathers, who apparently have no difficulty fulfilling their role as single parent and successful professional. This image completely distorts the fact that 90% of all children in single-parent households live with their mothers, whose average income is less than $9000.

So, although a new image of woman is being projected by the media, we must consistently check that image against the realities of the majority of women's lives.

Author Bio: 

Maria Riley, OP is coordinator of the Women's Project, Center of Concern, Washington, D.C.