This originally appeared on Alternet.org. Republished here with permission.
It’s pretty easy to get invested in TV shows these days, what with reality being a giant mess. In theory, television should provide an escape from the hardships of daily life—unless you’re a woman, that is, and nasty gender roles and stereotypes are repeated and reinforced on screen. Female characters are still sidelined in television and film, especially women of color. Despite being 51% of the U.S. population, women account for only 37% of prime-time characters. Many female characters are tokenized, objectified, sexualized, and otherwise treated like less than human.
Here’s a roundup of the most degraded characters on TV.
1. MacKenzie McHale and Maggie Jordan (The Newsroom)
Aaron Sorkin is known for rapid-fire dialogue that often leaves me with the dizzy feeling I get after watching a nail-biting tennis rally. Small details can be lost on viewers during this banter, but what’s not hard to miss is the overtly sexist characterization of female characters on “The Newsroom.” Take Mac. She claims a big, powerful space as News Night’s executive producer, but her legitimacy is often challenged by her past romance with Will. Meanwhile, Maggie, a News Night associate producer, is known for her frantic fits and the anxiety surrounding her office life, affection for Jim and a complex relationship with ex-News Night producer Don. Initially, we’re tricked into thinking the women we meet on “The Newsroom” have the same, equal space as the male characters because, look! There they are! We can see them. That means there’s no sexism, right? Wrong. Female visibility in the workplace does not negate misogyny. As Daniel D’Addario observed on Salon, “’The Newsroom’s’ shocking presumption that no woman can do her job effectively or without the ulterior motive of finding love” while the men are awarded the luxury of just, you know, getting down to business. It’s as if the women can’t be written into plots unless they involve a love triangle or emotional breakdown. This is a theme in Sorkin’s work, and sends the message that women are just noisy props with overly complicated sex lives.
2. Claire Dunphy (Modern Family)
ABC’s “Modern Family” is a mockumentary that follows the Delgado-Dunphy-Pritchett-Tucker family as they navigate non-traditional familial structures. Claire is the glue holding the more traditional Dunphy family together, but she doesn’t get the appreciation or respect she deserves. As she tries to rein in her clownish husband Phil and keep the kids in check, their defiance and outlandish errors are met with viewer laughs. Meanwhile, Claire is characterized as a nag for trying to maintain normalcy.
The writers never seem to get bored of crafting ways for Phil and the kids to get into senseless jams. Meanwhile, the family’s attitude toward Claire is flippant and disrespectful, despite her always showing up to save their sorry butts. This is oppressive, and pretty boring. Claire’s patience and dedication to her family are taken for granted, suggesting that women are expected to deal regardless of how they’re treated, because that’s just the way it is.
3. Gloria Delgado-Pritchett (Modern Family)
Gloria, mother of Manny and the Colombian wife of the much-older Jay, patriarch of the family and father to Mitchell and Claire, is tokenized and stereotyped by most of the characters on the show. Viewers are supposed to laugh at her inability to assimilate into American culture as she consistently mispronounces words (“ultimatum” is “old tomato”) and attempts to retain aspects of her culture, like the time she forces Jay to give Manny his poncho so he can wear it to school.
But there’s nothing funny, or modern, about white people oppressing marginalized populations by dictating their value based on whether they fit neatly into predetermined standards of whiteness. It’s hard to disrupt unequal power structures in reality, when white-washed prime-time television mocks people from different cultures.
If this show were really interested in creating a space where biracial and non-conforming families could exist, it wouldn’t be a sitcom where the very real struggles and experiences of oppressed populations are minimized to the butt of a joke.
4. Barney’s ex-girlfriends and one-night stands (How I Met Your Mother)
This bro-tastic jock sitcom is chock-full of stale and sexist storylines. HIMYM has introduced possibly hundreds of female characters, many of them nameless and literally faceless, as the viewer can often only see Barney’s face in these interactions, with the woman’s back to the camera. They are props to Barney’s schemes and sex-addled mind, made available merely for pleasure with little thought of consent or female agency.
Barney’s obsessive lying to women in an effort to sleep with as many as possible is supposed to be charming, and the women fall for it. He’s an astronaut! A Supreme Court justice! No, just a lying sack of you-know-what. We’re supposed to want Barney to settle down with one woman already, believing that the prospect of monogamy would make him a changed man. This puts an enormous amount of responsibility on the woman he ends up with to fulfill an obligation (that she doesn’t have, mind you) to make him a better person.
In the moments when that doesn’t happen (and there are many), our disappointment is not that another woman has been abused and exploited, it’s that we have to watch another damn episode to find out who the “mother” is. The laugh track cued to Barney’s sexist jokes is more than sinister, it’s a reminder that the joke’s on equality and sexual agency without double standards.
5. Jan Levenson (The Office)
Jan’s introduction to the “The Office” is amazing. She’s a high-powered executive living in New York City, owning her space and shutting down Michael’s misogyny, privilege, and total lack of decency (see: Diversity Day and file under “things not to do at work or anyplace, ever”). Eventually they start dating because (shocker!) television loves to make things overly complicated, usually at the woman’s expense. As their relationship escalates, we see Jan behaving inappropriately at work, thanks to her uncontrollable feelings toward Michael (and vice versa).
But when it comes to the consequences, Jan and Michael experience disproportionate responses to their inappropriate behavior from their supervisor David Wallace (Jan loses her job, Michael doesn’t). These differences make you wonder whether the writers are trying to mirror and satirize the very real sexism that exists in corporate spaces or whether it’s just easier to have female characters experience sexism, because it’s supposed to be funny.
The answer is probably both. As Bitch magazine noted, “by not offering an alternative schema, this narrative seems complicit in reinforcing the stereotype of women as aides to privileged men.”
6. Tara Teller (Sons of Anarchy)
This show has singlehandedly become one of the most sexist shows on television. Women are expected to stand by their abusers; this is lauded as club loyalty.
The writers have introduced female characters who exhibit a strong sense of agency at first, only to later be manipulated into making sacrifices for their husbands, boyfriends, and lovers. Tara is a surgeon in Charming, California, a town run by fringe gangs like the Sons of Anarchy motorcycle club. The love interest of Jax Teller, she initially resists his advances but eventually dates him, compromises her career, is complicit in several murders, and becomes his old lady. She is frequently at odds with Jax’s mother Gemma as she struggles with her desire for a normal life and her love for Jax. Gemma encourages Tara to have Jax’s child rather than get the abortion she wants, a pro-life plot that rears its ugly head in a later episode when another “old lady” is shamed for her reproductive choices. As Valerie Tejeda noted in Salon this fall, “instead of portraying Tara as a strong woman who wants out of the club, the show has turned her into a mirror of Gemma,” a woman whose loyalty to the Sons is displayed by her willingness to obey the group’s patriarchal structures amid threats and assault. The likeability of “old ladies” on this show relies on whether they’re loyal and benefit the club, which mirrors the complex realities of women’s roles in male-dominated paradigms. That’s just the problem, though: “Sons of Anarchy” isn’t reality, and it could have presented more complex female characters and relationships. But it didn’t.
7. The Doctor (Dr. Who)
Contributing Racialicious writer Joy Ellison wrote a great article this summer about race and gender in “Doctor Who,” noting that the long-running show has consistently cast a white man as the Doctor. Current showrunner Stephen Moffat defended his decision to cast another white guy as the Doctor because casting a woman didn’t “feel right.”
While the Doctor is not a woman (yet! I hope someday!), this character makes the list because in the nearly 50 years since it’s been on television, the show has reserved the role for the privileged class of white men, making it misogynistic, racist, classist, homophobic, transphobic and ableist. There’s no reason that the Doctor can’t be a woman, or a gay man, or a lesbian, or a person of color, and it’s telling that Moffat can defend having a white guy save the planet for half a century.
8. Tara Thornton (True Blood)
Tami at Racialicious posted this awesome analysis of “True Blood’s” stereotypes, namely the tokenization of Sookie’s best friend Tara as “the typical sassy, black sidekick.” Having the amazing black female character serve as sidekick to a lead white character is not only outdated, it’s plain racist. It’s the same idea that has plagued feminism since forever, one that the feminist blog Gradient Lair has discussed at length: The idea that black women are supposed to be “cheerleaders” for white feminism at the expense of their own experience creates the illusion that the resolution of gender inequality can occur without eradicating racism, homophobia, transphobia, classism and ableism. That’s not the case. Nor is it the case that Tara should be tokenized as Sookie’s sidekick, a “loud, brash, aggressive, and hypersexual” one at that.
9. The Moet & Chandon skit (Saturday Night Live) SNL has become painful to watch. Between its lack of cast diversity and its response to that lack of diversity manifesting as a month-long booking of only white male hosts and musical guests, it’s safe to say many viewers are over this whitewashed frat party. Cue the music: What’s that? Oh, just the most sexist skit in recent memory: Moet & Chandon. Cecily Strong and Vanessa Bayer play two porn stars who apparently booked a gig selling champagne. “You’ll think you just graduated from magna cum loudly [CUE LAUGH TRACK].” The women seem drunk, or drugged, eyes half open and words jumbled. All in all, it’s a clear display of whoreaphobia that perpetuates the notion that sex workers are dumb, trashy props with substance-abuse problems.
10. Amy Fowler (Big Bang Theory)
The conceptualization of Amy’s character could have been awesome. I love the presence of female characters with a science background who can hold their own. As noted by Michelle Haimoff in 2012, Amy is accomplished but undatable “while Penny, the hot waitress, is the one the male characters lust after.” The science geek stereotype is old. So is the she’s-hot-so-she-must-be-dumb stereotype. And what’s with not giving Penny a last name? Isn’t her character worthy of a full identity?
The lovely thing about creating television is that you can make people whomever you want them to be without real world consequences. Scripts don’t need to follow any rules. It’s pretty lazy to apply gender biases and stereotypes to fictional spaces if those biases and stereotypes aren’t providing alternatives to the status quo. I promise, it is possible to write female characters who have experiences that aren’t based in misogyny.
Jaclyn Munson is the founder and editor-in-chief of Onward and F-Word.