I write a lot about sexism in TV shows. And I’ll tell you why: it’s because there’s a shocking amount of sexism in TV shows. I don’t spend my entire life, eagle-eyed, looking out for terrible representations of women; I just watch a shit-ton of TV and can’t turn off the feminist inside me who’s pretty reasonably explaining to me why these things are kind of offensive. And I get asked a lot what it would take for me to find a TV totally inoffensive on the sexism front. Well, I’ve been thinking long and hard about this, and here’s my attempt at answering that question, with a few questions of my own.
1. Have You Presented Either Gender’s Sexuality as Dangerous, Manipulative, or Deceptive?
Positive representations of sexuality give Gael Garcia Bernal the horn.
Think about it: I can’t bring to mind many TV shows in the last ten years or so in which no-one-usually a woman- uses their sexuality in a deceitful way. And look, sexuality is a really complex thing, and there are a minority of people who do use their sexuality, not as expression of sexual attraction or personal pleasure, but as a weapon. The problem with showing that on TV is when you don’t provide an alternative view. Sure, show some people who use their sexuality in a manipulative way, because sexuality is an important and powerful thing, but don’t make that the be-all and end-all of your depiction of sexual expression.
Bad Example: Game of Thrones. Basically any expression of female sexuality- whether it be from the good guys or the bad guys- leads to someone getting hurt. In fact, you know what, don’t get me fucking started on the way women are treated in Game of Thrones. Now is not the time.
Good Example: Mozart in the Jungle. People are allowed to express their sexual desires, and they all receive pretty much the same consequences for their actions.
2. Are All Genders Being Paid the Same Respect?
Some characters are just there to push the plot on. That’s something that’s required from time to time in TV shows. But if the only representations of a certain gender come in the form of people who are there, not to have their own defined characters, but to provide conflict, romance or blatant exposition, then you’ve got a problem. All genders have the potential to be fully-formed, fascinating characters, so you’re doing everyone a disservice by writing off most of a gender as solely useful in relation to the other.
Bad Example: Lori from The Walking Dead. She had literally no discernible character of her own, and was there to cause conflict between Rick (her husband) and Shane (her ex-lover), flip-flopping and unable to stick to her own opinions for more than half a scene if they were getting in the way of the plot. Gratifyingly, everyone hates Lori.
Good Example:Everyone in Transparent. All the leading characters feed off each other, with everyone paid appropriate attention and respect regardless of gender. God, Transparent is bloody brilliant.
3. Are You Relying Entirely on Stereotype for Characters of One Gender?
Essentially, if you find yourself with nicely laid-out, deeply characterised examples of one gender, and end up depicting the other entirely through reliance on stereotype, you’re doing it wrong. There’s a temptation in shows that revolve around one particular sex (like Sex and the City or Suits) to focus entirely on the way that your leading characters see them, as opposed to how they actually are. As long as you can call out your lead characters for being awful people (See: It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), you can get away with it. But focusing on the lazy stereotyping of one gender is stupid, because you’re doing a disservice- and cutting off a lot of exploratory ground for your show- by refusing to acknowledge the possibility that people might exist beyond a sketched-in outline.
Bad Example: Two and a Half Men. Almost all the women are gold-diggers, liars, idiots, and-if they’re sexually active- generally a bit scary too,
Good Example: Ros from Frasier. While she’s not the best character in the show, she plays a self-reliant single mother with a full-time career that she loves and an active sex life that occasionally crosses over with romance.
4. Are you disproportionately representing one gender as overtly sexualised?
This is genuinely worth looking at, because we just don’t notice it a lot of the time. And yeah, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that women do have the rougher end of this stick, with even my favourite shows- like Battlestar Galactica, Neon Genesis Evangelion, How I Met Your Mother- guilty of offering a flash of female flesh for no real reason, even if they often do try to temper it with brilliant characterisation. Let me be clear here when I say that nudity in context is fine, but if there isn’t really a plot-worthy reason for you to show that nipple or flash of arse- or to stick your female crime-fighters in corsets, ahem Arrow- don’t do it. Over-use of a certain gender’s sexualised nudity suggests-well, it suggests something quite profound about the way you look at that gender, but it all suggests that you’re trying to cater to an audience that would appreciate this kind of sexualisation, and that can alienate the people who don’t fall into that bracket.
Bad Example: I could very easily pick on Game of Thrones here and, fuck it, I’m going to. The number of tits and naked woman compared to naked men is almost hilarious, to the point that one of their leading actresses refused to do any more nude scenes after series one.
Good Example: The Walking Dead. Once you get past the dearth of excellent female characters in the first couple of seasons, women and men are basically all treated the same way- as if they’re trying to survive- so the way they look is basically irrelevant.
5. Are you giving one gender power by taking it away from the other one?
In short, power is not finite. If you have to strip one gender of all power just so that the other one can seem strong by comparison, your just not writing a very good show. The idea that one character must seem weak for another to seem strong is generally pretty daft, and it’s especially annoying when this is gender-based.
Bad Example: American Horror Story. Look, I love this show and I love the female characters in it, but I don’t like that so many of the men are psychopaths/murderers/losers/pathetic/generally unsympathetic by comparison.
Good Example: I, Claudius. With a constant exchange of power running through the whole series, no gender is shortchanged. Power recedes and increases based on influence, not on gender.