TV’s stereotypes make women look crazy

Editor’s Note: The author, Justin Wilhelm, is a student in the fall 2010 Women’s Studies Program Special Topics course, That Chick is Crazy: Women and Madness, at The University of Akron.

After watching Dee Reynolds (a character played by Caitlin Olsen on It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia) lose her mind and her temper after being repeatedly harassed by her brother to peel him an apple, I began to wonder why comedies or sitcoms take such a stereotypical approach to women.

Of course I understand that comedies draw on common stereotypes to make their characters funny and to relate them to the people and thoughts of their audience. (Yes, it’s true, your favorite shows do rely on stereotypes for humor and appeal, and you can read more about the negative affects of this practice.)

So I began critiquing some female characters in my mind and comparing them to some male counterparts. This thought experiment provides what I believe to be a good snapshot of how society — or at least the TV writers trying to gauge society — thinks of women.

I started by considering all shows in general and discovered that television shows that fall into the “drama” or “action” category came up the same. A lot of shows in this genre had strong, dominant female leads, but it seems as though their respective heroines are interchangeable.   A characters’ personality can be seamlessly inserted into the character of another show without disrupting the flow of the plot. Each is one branch cut off of the same proverbial tree, if you will.

Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, Law and Order: SVU, Criminal Minds, Hawthorne, Weeds, and many other shows of this nature feature a leading or supporting woman.

Here’s what I discovered:

  • Each is outwardly strong and dominant because women must always appear to be in control.
  • Each is outspoken and often confrontational, especially when it pertains to her male colleagues because women are meant to be quiet and not rock the boat, hence the reason why this tension creates such drama.
  • Each is, in truth, is much more vulnerable and lonely then her tough exterior image projects because, at heart, aren’t all women just poor, emotional beings with fleeting emotions who suffer behind the scenes from the pressure of being a tough women?
  • Not all, but most, feature intense focus on her love life because women are simply waiting for their male character to come and rescue them, aren’t they?
  • And lastly, most feature women working to succeed in male dominated fields like law or crime or medicine because drama is created from watching women struggle against men who may not respect them.

So what about comedies then?  Dramas are meant to provide entertainment through a glamorized female role that deviates from most of society. That’s why it is so edge-of-your-seat entertaining.  Comedies, through their stereotypes, offer a much better perspective — ”woman” as seen by most people.  Here the cookie-cutter female character is much more crazy, out of touch, and seems to be in constant struggle to keep up with the plot, which makes these shows funny.

Here are some examples:

  • Remember Friends? Of course, me too. Rachel was fashion obsessed, Monica was constantly cleaning or devoting attention to the home, and Phoebe was odd (as she was different from the rest of the women).
  • How about Two and Half Men? Judith (the ex-wife, a favorite role of many comedies, it seems) is constantly portrayed as a money-hungry bitch.
  • That 70s Show featured Donna, who was mocked for being tall and boyish, and Jackie, who was the typical skinny, cheer-leading, ditz that got the boys’ attention.
  • You can also add It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Modern Family, Scrubs, Saved by the Bell, or even cartoon portrayals of women like Marge from The Simpsons or Lois from Family Guy, to the list of shows where hilarious moments ensue from stereotypical women having crazy outbursts at the men around them.

Another interesting element is how different the situations are when we compare two similar characters of different genders. Monica (Courtney Cox) from Friends is a good character to use because she is constantly cleaning her surroundings and ordering things in a typical “women is the consummate homemaker” role.

Monk (from USA’s detective show Monk) is her male counterpart.  Each is attentive to detail and will force the other characters to be tidy and orderly, as they are.  Yet in Monica’s case it is only natural for her to be this way because she is a woman.  Monk, however, suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and is a germ-a-phobe, because men are not meant to be clean and organized so some other factor that is out of his control must be what makes him so “womanly.”

If you stop to think about, we’re hit with damaging stereotypes everywhere that we look.  TV is just one of many good examples of how society views women.

But don’t take my word. Look for yourself.  Think of your favorite shows or movies and how they portray women.  Then, think of the shows and movies that are most popular today and how they portray women differently.  You should see a stark contrast.


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