TV: Where Men Work And Women Clean

When you sit down, especially with your kids, to watch TV you probably don’t want to think about gender inequality, sexism and your kids’ occupational ambitions in adulthood. I imagine you want to put your feet up, let your brain empty itself of any real substance and maybe even nod off for a bit. But, whether you think of it or not, there it is, on your screen, teaching your kids about men, women, work, and housework. Like the fact that women don’t work and if they do, they struggle financially and are unhappy. Or maybe that men are incompetent slobs, incapable of cleaning up after themselves and habitually making stupid mistakes that their paper-towel savior wives have to clean up.

As Michelle Haimoff pointed out recently in the Christian Science Monitor, in TV’s five top rated shows: “The Big Bang Theory, Modern Family, Two Broke Girls, Two and a Half Men, and How I Met Your Mother—the majority of the male characters are professionally accomplished, while the female characters are almost all unemployed or financially struggling.”

There are some TV shows with working women and some, like Up All Night, that feature stay-at-home dads, but not among the top ranked. We aren’t really on a first TV-name basis with working women anymore. Remember Claire Huxtable? Murphy Brown? Mary Tyler Moore? Roseanne? Kate and Allie? Women like these are hard to find on television today.

More disturbing, however, is that successful, hard-working women are particularly elusive in kids programming where 80.5% of all working characters are male versus 19.5% female. As Geena Davis, founder of, explained after the organization’s last study on gender and children’s programming:

“Our latest research shocked us. Zero progress has been made in what is specifically aimed at kids. What children see affects their attitudes toward male and female roles in society. And, as they watch the same shows and movies repeatedly, negative stereotypes are imprinted over and over again. Eye candy is not for kids,” says Davis.

Women on screen are doing almost anything but working, whereas in reality, according to the Department of Labor, more than 59% of all women work (outside of the home). Fully one-third of all households have a woman as the primary breadwinner. In 2009, women for the first time made up half of all payrolls. In addition to their absence on screen, when women do work, it’s more often than not played as an emasculating development for their confused spouses. The humor of several shows like Man Up and Last Man Standing hinges on half-serious notions of he-man masculinity and a zero-sum understanding of gender in which women’s professional gains are men’s losses. Given recent trends regarding men making successful moves into traditionally female work sectors as part of a “he-covery” this is actually the inverse of the truth.

Which brings us to part two of this equation…if the women aren’t working on screen what are they doing?

The cleaning, of course! Albeit, in sexually suggestive ways.

Advertising for household products almost ubiquitously shows smiling, perky women dancing their way through their cleaning, wiping, vacuuming, shining, folding, ironing, and toilet scrubbing. When you do see a man, he is still usually helplessly making a mess, admiring his wife’s chirpy cleaning efforts from the periphery or hovering in magical Mr. Clean way. Despite recent advertising adventures in Dadvertising, household product advertising is not in the business of challenging gender stereotypes by creating marketing messages that could be construed as feminizing men by making them the unpaid domestic laborers their household product-competent wives appear to be.

Advertising, particularly for household products, remains ridiculously gender biased. Household cleaning product marketing (and beer and alcohol advertising, also) is built on a foundation of stereotypes and caricatures about who does what around the house. On Planet Advertising men are clumsy, messy children with facial hair, women are tidy, competent, paranoid about germs; men play games and drink, women nag and roll their eyes. It teaches kids a lot of antediluvian, caricatured lessons about what it means to grow up and be a man or a woman, a husband or a wife. And, banish any thoughts you may have about non-heteronormative representations of household and gender dynamics.

Couple these advertising messages with TV portraits of men and women in family shows and kids programming and you have the ideal prep for the big screen, where most of the working women you see are some eye-candy variant of eye-candy: sexy mom or sidekick, dazzling heart-of-gold “working” girl,  gold-digger or older (read “no longer usefully fertile”) ball-breakers. In any case, not the type who is seemingly born with instructions for “how to vacuum” tattooed on her ovaries.

The issue, of course, is really not who is on the screen but who is behind it. Who is writing these stories and producing this content (including the advertising)? The management of the advertising, media, and entertainment industries are still boys’ clubs. Why don’t we see working women on screen? It’s because they made up very small percentages of the executives and leaders of these industries.

Women are only 15% of television writers. Despite all of the women-taking-over-TV hype that surrounded the 2011 fall TV lineup, the fact is that not only is the number of women writers and producers for television already low, but it is declining, precipitously: 15% is down from a high in 2006 of 35%.

Take a look at the ads that ran during this year’s Super Bowl and see what they look like in terms of gender stereotypes. In 2011, no less than 94% of the creative directors for Super Bowl ads were men. This year, in anticipation of biased advertising, a #werenotbuyingit campaign, as well as a petition drive, were launched to raise awareness of the out-dated and hyper-masculinized representations of gender in most Super Bowl ads.

That 6% of creative directors last year were women is actually good—the industry rate is 3%. There’s even a conference for them: called, shock of all shocks, The 3% Conference.

The movie industry’s gender breakdown is similarly skewed: Women directed 7% of the top 250 grossing films of 2010, the same as 2009 and wrote 10% of the top 250 grossing films of 2010.

In England, the revelation that there had been an exodus of more than 5,000 women advertising and media executives in two years, (compared with only 750 men) prompted the head of that country’s National Film and Television School board, to suggest a policy intervention. In this country, (until recently) we haven’t favored market interventions, believing instead that the market will always correct itself. It is very unlikely that the entertainment and media industries, unprompted, are going to spontaneously develop cross-gender empathy and a social justice agenda designed to reduce the harm that stereotypes create or to meet gender equality goals.

The Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media, an industry research and watch-dog leader on the issue, has these recommendations for dealing with imbalance in the portrayal of gender and work on screens:

1.      Watch TV, advertising included, and movies with your children. 

2.      Talk to them and teach them to think critically about what is being represented in the media they consume.

3       Engage children by asking them who is missing in the story and whether what they see on screen reflects what they see at home.

I would add the following:

4.      Spend your money to reward companies and producers that create programming and content that changes these paradigms.

5.      Use social media whenever possible to raise awareness and lobby companies to change their content in ways that promote equality instead of undermining it with outdated images of men and women.

Soraya L. Chemaly writes about gender, feminism and culture for several online media including The Huffington Post, Fem2.0, RHReality Check, BitchFlicks, and Alternet among others. She is particularly interested in how systems of bias and oppression are transmitted to children through entertainment, media and religious cultures. She holds a History degree from Georgetown University, where she founded that schools first feminist undergraduate journal, studied post-grad at Radcliffe College.

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