Images of Femininity: Media Portrayals of Women

From the time we are very young we are exposed to media. These images surround us and teach us lessons about how the world should be viewed. Even as we grow older, we pay attention to media for cues on behavior. Often, television is listed as the main source of information for today’s youth (Holtzman, p. 74) . This presents an alarming problem for females. The ways in which they are represented in the media, especially on television, can lead to the continuing oppression of women and the continued belief that they are objects of male satisfaction (this image is especially pervasive in advertising).

There are television shows that are more positive toward women, and there has been progress made. The 1970s especially saw more feminist oriented programming. However, the 1980s saw an immense drop in such shows. Right now it seems that for all the progress made, some images still persist. These images are most often seen in advertising. And these images are some of the most detrimental of all. As people watch media portrayals of women, they develop an idea of how women should be, of what they are. It’s not just men that see these images and learn from them; women also interpret the messages as directions on how to behave.

This paper takes a look at media representations of women as they are portrayed on television. It contends that even though some progress has been made, women are still in need of better representation in the media. There are social dangers that result from the images that prevail, and these images need to be changed.


Because the media is so influential, it is important to look at the representations that it gives to society. While there is debate on exactly how influential the media is, there is little doubt that the media is an agent for socialization (Holtzman, p. 76, Weimann, p. 20). Sreberny and van Zoonen p. 226) contend that from the beginning television has been in institution through which Americans are informed about and socialized into society.

Not only does the media influence society, but it also upholds the current societal values and views. This creates a solid and united front of socialization. Indeed, according to meaning theory, “by endlessly presenting endless portrayals of reality in its content, mass communications provide experiences from which we collectively shape our meanings” (Weimann, p. 31). However, as televison becomes more and more a way of life it may come to be an even more influential socializer. The importance of media is evident, and the way women are represented in this most important of socializers should be of vital interest.

Women in Television Shows

The 1950s and 60s featured women in gendered roles, submitting to their husbands and being a consummate homemaker. Women made up only 32% of all characters on television and were almost never shown outside a home setting (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, p. 8). These images obviously served to help women return to their homes after briefly coming out of them to work during World War II. Show like Father Knows Best clearly demonstrated who the wise decision maker should be.

However, as the feminist movement gained some popularity in the 1970s, shows that focused on women increased. Charlie’s Angels showed women who were tough, effective crime fighters. However, they worked for and took orders from the mysterious male Charlie. In addition to this, they were dressed to accommodate the male gaze.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show was an example of feminist ideals being broadcast . She was independent, competent in her job and fulfilled, even though she didn’t have a husband. Unfortunately, the passive female was still evident on the show. The lead character almost never provoked a disturbance, and when she did, she suffered a humiliating consequences for her rebellion. Dow (p. 66) points out that even though Mary Richards (the lead character on Mary Tyler Moore) is not contained by location, she is contained by character. Woman’s character was still revealed to be one of submissiveness to the needs of others and her main role as that of mediator between loved ones.

Shows portraying divorced women who function fine without their husbands also came on the rise. The 1970s show One Day at a Time featured a woman who is experiencing independence after divorcing her husband of seventeen years. She recognizes that having her decisions made for her, first by her father than by her husband, have made it difficult for her to deal with decision making. However, she is willing to try and work at it. These shows helped project women and feminism into the mainstream. But, by the 1980s, where did it all go?

“The [1980s] has seen a powerful counter-assault on women’s rights, a backlash, an attempt to retract the handful of hard-won victories…” (Faludi in Dow, p. 87). Shows such as Dallas and Dynasty showed women of wealth and power, but this prestige was had through association with one or more of the male characters.

Shows with professional women seemed to break these stereotypes, at first glance anyway. L.A. Law and Hill Street Blues portrayed women who worked in traditionally male dominated jobs. However, the story lines of some of the episodes reveal how women are thought of when they attempt to be independent. Sergeant Lucy Bates tries to find a decent man to date. She also falls in love with her partner, who does not return her affections. This is an example of how in order to be successful women must sacrifice love, and it implies that a man is essential for the true fulfillment of a woman’s life. Grace Van Owen ( an assistant district attorney) from L.A. Law is driven, but unable to cope fully with her job and becomes addicted to pills, then has a nervous breakdown.

In shows that featured professional women as part of the family, the 1980s focused on how the ideal family didn’t need to change when women had the choice to enter the workplace. Any problems that arise in shows like Growing Pains, Family Ties and The Cosby Show are seen as individual. Few of these women have friends outside the home. This presents the idea that women’s problems are individual and that women have no need of a group identity (Dow, p. 99).

The 1990s feature women that do not act as women in shows such as Murphy Brown which played into the early 90s). She is successful and respected in her field. While Murphy Brown is an outspoken, independent woman who has no need for a man, she does suffer from bitterness. Always, putting her career first and wishing she could have a relationship. This implies that career women are somehow punished by not having a happy relationship (Shea, p. 19). In addition, Corky, who is her more feminine and traditional coworker, often deflates Murphy’s ego and one-ups her.

Other shows like Cybill include the “female trickster” (Landay, p. 205). However, Cybill and her female counterparts on the show aren’t the only tricksters in television history. Throughout the existence of television women have been seen as tricksters in addition to being compliant members of society who depend upon men. “The trickster refuses to stay in place” (Landay, p. 20) and she uses deception, tricks and guile to achieve what she wishes to have. This places the woman in the role of the dishonest, trying to get what she wants not through merit but through tricks.

Women have not gained more characters on television. Only about 1 in 3 characters on prime-time television are women (Holtzman, p. 76). This is comparable to the numbers had by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 1977. They are, however, more often represented outside the home. Women are more often portrayed without a husband. However, women are treated as different that men in most of these shows in terms of what roles they are given. Females on television are more concerned with sex and marriage than their male counterparts (Weimann, p. 126). They are also perceived as young beauties. While the men on television are also supposed to be good looking, it is more of a priority that the women be young and good-looking. In fact, the cut-off age for female portrayal is age forty; for men it is ten years higher, at age fifty (Holtzman, p. 75). Even in today’s shows it is found that “it’s the norm for men to talk more, give orders, solve problems, and run things. Society’s bias is so commonplace that it seems normal…Girls grow up with fewer role models. Their choices are smaller” (Steenland in Holtzman, p. 76).

This is also true in children’s shows. Female characters are at a mere 18% in this category (p. 76). While watching popular children’s cartoons and live action shows like Big Guy and Rusty, The Zeta Project, Card Captors, Los Luchadores, and Action Man one sees females being rescued from various situations. Females rarely solve problems (they are more often the cause), and they are often ridiculed for making unacceptable suggestions. In fact, Card Captors is the only one of the aforementioned shows with a female main character. And she isn’t the brightest. Shows like Lizzy McGuire that portray girls as the main character aren’t much better. Lizzy has a good friend who is a boy. She often turns to him for advice and he is usually right.

Why This is Harmful

These portrayals of women only serve to further ingrain in society the stereotypes of incompetent females who are in need of male help. Children’s shows are especially dangerous. We run the risk of another generation growing up to the devaluing of women. These shows provide roles for women. When girls see these shows they are influenced as to what is acceptable for them to do. They also absorb ideas of what they are actually able to do. There are studies that support the finding that people who watch fifteen hours or more of television weekly are likely to believe what they see on television as reality (Gerbner in Holtzman, p. 74).

Other problems arise from the “superwoman” image. Even though shows are showing more and more women in the role of professional, she is still expected to be the model housekeeper and mother. Sitcoms especially show professional moms keeping an immaculate house while raising beautiful children and going to work. This indicates that even though the woman is working as a breadwinner, she should still singlehandedly care for all things domestic. This gives the illusion that double duty is okay.

Another problem with television today is the unreality it is showing. While it is admirable of producers to make shows with women as positive role models, Americans lose sight of what reality is like and are lulled into a false sense that everything’s okay now. Equality won and women all across the country are empowered. There is a sense that women have no reason to fight to further improve things. This is because today’s shows, depicting a higher than average number of women in well paying jobs, give the idea that women have achieved job equality (Weimann, p. 125).

The idea that women need men is also harmful. It curbs the idea that women can be independent and it keeps them in a more submissive position. The continual oppression of women by their being defined by their relationships to men threatens the next generation. Men on TV are rarely defined by their relationship to women. Girls watch as females defer to men. They watch as women in television shows seek men out. Women as well as men interact with men much more frequently than with women (Lott in Weimann, p. 125). This gives the impression that female companionship and friends are not as important as relationships with men. Rather than having goals of self-improvement, actualization and sisterhood with other women, girls are taught to seek approval from males and define themselves by the success they have in gaining that approval.

The Problem With News

While watching the local news on television, all seems rather equal. Each segment features a woman anchor as well as a man anchor. Reporters are both male and female and the use of female meteorologists is on the rise (although they are called “weather girls,” implying their child-like stature while males are referred to as “weather men,” implying that they are more serious and professional). Unfortunately, the national news isn’t as well represented. Evening News With Dan Rather and The News With Brian Williams are done by men. Even though CNN has a show called The Point and it is done by Greta Van Sustren, Greta is still eclipsed by the fact that shows like Wolf Blitzer Reports and political news shows like The Spin Room are done by males.

However, the physical representation of women on the news isn’t as alarming as their lack of representation in the news. As far as coverage of women and their issues goes, women are rather invisible. During the 1960s and 1970s women’s gains were trivialized or ignored (Valdivia, p. 108). There hasn’t been much improvement either. A 1991 cross-cultural survey found that when women were included in newscasts (which wasn’t very often) they were most often sexually portrayed or seen in the home (p. 109). The news is also often narrated by men, and women are seen “not as speaking subjects, but as signs” (p. 109). In addition, while participating in interviews women are much more likely to be asked questions about their love lives than men. Men are more often asked about their careers, goals and accomplishments.

Issues that affect women most are often overlooked. We rarely hear about the stoning of women in Afghanistan or about the genital mutilations that prevail all over Africa and the Middle East. This is because much of what is associated with women is considered to be in the realm of the private. Marital rape, domestic abuse, and wage inequality are some examples of what takes backseat to murders, speeches given by influential men and ribbon cutting corporate events. Issues that affect primarily women are seen as things to be taken care of in privacy. Many times such things aren’t even brought to our attention because as Bernard Cohen wrote in 1963, “The press may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about.” This is very true. The media sees no need to have us think about problems women have.

Another problem is the interpretation, or spin, that is put on the news. Most of the spin given to news on women does not reflect any sort of critical thinking on comments made about gender. When the status quo of women is not questioned (as is the availability of guns) it simply ignores the problem and leaves the status quo as is (Sreberny and van Zoonen, p. 45).

MTV and its Problems

MTV is another televised purveyor of female stereotypes and representation of women. The music videos shown on MTV present women as sexual objects more than men are presented as objects. While men enjoy more close up shots of their faces (presumably representing their individual identity), shots of women are more often of their whole bodies. This portrays her as an object not separate from her sexualized body (Weimann, p. 198). Scenes of sexual violence in music videos further depict women as objects.

Women are portrayed as enjoying being objects. They enjoy serving their men and being looked at. They also are extremely beautiful. And skinny. Female pop artists in videos may not enact scenes where they are objects, but they still dress and act in ways that attract the male gaze and win them men. Young girls who see this can be influenced to lose weight to become ultra-thin. They may also do other things to alter their bodies, like plastic surgery. Not only can these practices be unhealthy, but they also encourage the girl to cater to others’ expectations rather than her own. Again, these videos illustrate the quest for men and sex rather than self actualized goals.

Even though in many videos, women are also seen as independent of men and can initiate encounters as well as men, they are still more sexualized. These women are seen as “easy”, and give the impression that being independent and sexually actualized for a woman is somehow dirtier than when men are (Holtzman, p. 94).


Unfortunately, media is a commercial venture; it makes it hard to change things. Sponsors of programming like to advertise during shows and programs that are not controversial and that keep the viewer in the social comfort zone. This makes it hard to change programming that is predominantly controlled by men and sponsored by men. In addition, it is still a male framed world that even women live in and adhere to.

Women have always been considered an important target of advertisers. According to the Nielsen organization more than 60% of viewers are women (Sreberny and van Zoonen, p. 227). However, the types of advertisements aimed at women sell products that are traditionally for women. These products are advertised during the same shows that promote hegemonic values. Just as women are often featured in the home during television shows and news features, they are featured selling home items in the home.

Also, in commercials selling children’s items, we see that often boys are seen outside, while 70% of girls are pictured in the home. This indicates that boys are to be more independent and roam the world, while girls are to stay at home and be dependent (Weimann, p. 129). Boys also play with a wider variety of toys and products than girls do. Advertising works hand in hand with television shows to teach girls and boys their respective and proper places.

MTV is very popular among adolescents, and the advertising on MTV follows the pattern of its programming. Men are much more likely to be using or controlling the product being advertised. Even if women were featured in the commercial, they were not shown in control of the product. This tends to show a bias toward men being more in control and more capable of using the product (Weimann, p. 203).


Television is a powerful socializing agent. Right now it is being used maintain the cultural ideals that have been prevalent ever since TV’s inception. While women are portrayed in a more favorable light now more than ever, it doesn’t mean that there is no reason to continue. Even though adult programs are becoming more equal, children’s programs still lack a true semblance of equality. TV, through its shows, news, programs and advertising practices, serves to keep women in their place. As construed by the current hegemony, this is mostly in the home doing passive, “feminine” activities. It includes letting men be the problem solvers and teaching women that they need men to by happy, fulfilled people. Television, especially MTV (which is the most blatant) also portrays women as objects whose primary goals should be finding male approval and keeping it. Advertising supports these lessons taught during programming by reinforcing behaviors and attitudes. Change needs to take place in order to better benefit society. Women are in an unhealthy position as long as they docilely accept the norms that are shown them by a male dominated and controlled media.


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Holtzman, L. (2000). Media messages. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

Landay, L. (1998). Madcaps, screwballs, and con women the female trickster in American culture. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Shea, D., ed. (1999). Mass politics. New York: St. Martin’s/WORTH.

Sreberny, A. & van Zoonen, L., eds. (2000). Gender, politics and communication. Cresskill, NJ:
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U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. (1977). Window dressing on the set: women and minorities in
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Valdivia, A, ed. (1995). Feminism, multiculturalism and the media. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE
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Weimann, G. (2000). Communication unreality. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Ltd.

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