Menus Subscribe Search

Creasing the Celluloid Ceiling: More Female Roles on TV

• September 09, 2008 • 12:08 PM

A greater percentage of TV characters are female, a new study notes, but it’s still mostly guys offstage.

Let Gossip Girl spread the news to Ugly Betty and the Desperate Housewives: An increasing percentage of characters on prime-time network television are women. But the creative teams behind the shows are still dominated by males.

Females accounted for 43 percent of such characters in comedies, dramas and reality programs last season, according to a new report by Martha M. Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. That’s one percentage point above the previous season and the highest number since Lauzen started keeping track of such statistics 13 years ago.

In another first for the annual survey, “Female characters were not significantly more likely to be identified by their marital status as male characters,” Lauzen reported. “However, male characters were significantly more likely than female characters to have an identifiable occupation.”

Lauzen also noticed another intriguing shift this past season. Fifty percent of female characters appeared on programs with workplace settings and 50 percent on programs with domestic settings. This is a departure from previous studies, which found female characters were significantly more likely to be found in shows centered around home and family.

“The findings suggest those working behind the scenes are feeling increasingly comfortable placing female characters in a variety of settings,” Lauzen concluded.

Female characters tended to be younger than their male counterparts, with an amazing 63 percent in their 20s and 30s. (Some 53 percent of males fell into that age range.) Only 6 percent of female characters were in their 50s, compared to 10 percent of males.

The study looked at every character who spoke at least one audible line on camera. It also distinguished between major characters (series regulars and guest stars who were essential to the plot) and minor ones. Females comprised 44 percent of major characters and 41 percent of minor ones.

There were surprisingly large differences between the individual broadcast networks. Females represented 51 percent of characters on the CW network, which specifically targets 18- to 34-year-old women. On the contrary, they represented only 35 percent of characters on the Fox network. The other networks fell in between, with ABC at 47 percent, CBS at 43 percent and NBC at 40 percent.

The increasing presence of women on screen is not matched behind the scenes.

Lauzen found that females comprised 26 percent of all creators, executive producers, producers, directors, writers, editors and directors of photography working on prime-time programs. That figure is unchanged from last year.

Lauzen began keeping track of those statistics in 1997-98, when women accounted for 21 percent of individuals in those key behind-the-scenes roles. She reported there was “incremental growth” over the next decade or so, but the numbers have not budged substantially for the past two seasons.

Breaking the figures down for 2007-08, women made up 37 percent of producers but only 23 percent of writers, 11 percent of directors and 1 percent of directors of photography. (Things are even bleaker for women in the feature film industry. Among the top 250 domestic grossing movies of 2007, women accounted for only 10 percent of screenwriters and 6 percent of directors.)

Nevertheless, the on-screen representation of women has certainly increased over the decades. According to the Museum of Broadcast Communication, only 32 percent of characters in prime-time dramas were women in 1952. That number declined to 26 percent in 1973.

Lauzen’s survey shows there are far more female TV characters today, but they’re usually created by men. Perhaps that’s one reason this trend has not translated into more complex portraits of contemporary women.

“Of late, the portrayals that we see on the broadcast networks have tended to be less progressive than those featured on cable,” she said. “The Closer with Kyra Sedgwick and Saving Grace starring Holly Hunter are two examples of (made-for-cable) programs that offer refreshingly non-stereotypical roles for women.”

In contrast, “The lead character on Samantha Who? (an ABC sitcom starring Christina Applegate) is simply another ‘adorable dope,’ an archetype with a long history in prime time,” Lauzen said. “These characters tend to be very childlike and highly sympathetic. We want to like them. But they seem unable to make decisions for themselves, express a point of view, etc.

“Programs such as (the CBS sitcom) Two and a Half Men have really reached back to feature classic ‘bimbo’ female characters — a type of character that had almost disappeared from prime time but has seen a resurgence in the last few years.

“That said, some of the dramas airing on the networks do feature working-women characters that are smart, ambitious and successful,” she added. “But we haven’t seen any truly revolutionary characters on the broadcast networks like Roseanne or Murphy Brown for some time.”

What, Paula Abdul doesn’t count?

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Click here to become our fan.

Add our news to your site.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

August 22 • 4:00 PM

The Invention of the Illegal Immigrant

It’s only fairly recently that we started to use the term that’s so popular right now.



August 22 • 2:00 PM

What Can U.S. Health Care Learn From the Ebola Outbreak?

A conversation with Jeanine Thomas, patient advocate, active member of ProPublica’s Patient Harm Facebook Community, and founder and president of the MRSA Survivors Network.


August 22 • 1:22 PM

Two Executions and the Unity of Mourning

The recent deaths of Michael Brown and James Foley, while worlds apart, are both emblematic of the necessity for all of us to fight to uphold the sanctity of human dignity and its enduring story.


August 22 • 10:00 AM

Turbo Paul: Art Thief Turned Art Crime Ombudsman

There’s art theft, there’s law enforcement, and, somewhere in between, there’s Turbo Paul.


August 22 • 8:00 AM

When Climate Change Denial Refutes Itself

The world is warming—and record-cold winters are just another symptom.


August 22 • 6:17 AM

The Impossibility of the Night Shift

Many night workers get “shift-work sleep disorder.” And no one knows how to treat it.


August 22 • 6:00 AM

Long Live Short Novels

Christopher Beha’s Arts & Entertainments comes in at less than 300 pages long, which—along with a plot centered on a sex-tape scandal—makes it a uniquely efficient pleasure.


August 22 • 4:00 AM

Why ‘Nature Versus Nurture’ Often Doesn’t Matter

Sometimes it just doesn’t make any sense to try to separate the social and the biological.


August 21 • 4:00 PM

Julie Chen Explains Why She Underwent Westernizing Surgery

The CBS news anchor and television personality’s story proves that cosmetic surgeries aren’t always vanity projects, even if they’re usually portrayed that way.


August 21 • 2:37 PM

How the Brains of Risk-Taking Teens Work

There’s heightened functional connectivity between the brain’s emotion regulator and reason center, according to a recent neuroscience paper.


August 21 • 2:00 PM

Cracking Down on the Use of Restraints in Schools

Federal investigators found that children at two Virginia schools were being regularly pinned down or isolated and that their education was suffering as a result.


August 21 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, School Principal?

Noah Davis talks to Evan Glazer about why kids aren’t getting smarter and what his school’s doing in order to change that.



August 21 • 10:00 AM

Why My Neighbors Still Use Dial-Up Internet

It’s not because they want to. It’s because they have no other choice.


August 21 • 8:15 AM

When Mothers Sing, Premature Babies Thrive

Moms willing to serenade pre-term infants help their babies—and themselves.


August 21 • 8:00 AM

To Fight the Obesity Epidemic Americans Will Have to First Recognize That They’re Obese

There is a void in the medical community’s understanding of how families see themselves and understand their weight.


August 21 • 6:33 AM

One Toxic Boss Can Poison the Whole Workplace

Office leaders who bully even just one member of their team harm everyone.


August 21 • 6:00 AM

The Fox News Effect

Whatever you think of its approach, Fox News has created a more conservative Congress and a more polarized electorate, according to a series of recent studies.


August 21 • 4:00 AM

Do Children Help Care for the Family Pet?

Or does mom do it all?


August 20 • 4:00 PM

Why Can’t Conservatives See the Benefits of Affordable Child Care?

Private programs might do a better job of watching our kids than state-run programs, but they’re not accessible to everyone.


August 20 • 2:00 PM

Oil and Gas Companies Are Illegally Using Diesel Fuel in Hundreds of Fracking Operations

An analysis by an environmental group finds hundreds of cases in which drillers used diesel fuel without obtaining permits and sometimes altered records disclosing they had done so.


August 20 • 12:00 PM

The Mystery of Britain’s Alien Big Cats

In a nation where the biggest carnivorous predator is a badger, why are there so many reported sightings of large cats?


August 20 • 10:00 AM

Death Row in Arizona: Where Human Experimentation Is the Rule, Not the Exception

Recent reports show that chemical roulette is the state’s M.O.


August 20 • 9:51 AM

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.


Follow us


The Impossibility of the Night Shift

Many night workers get “shift-work sleep disorder.” And no one knows how to treat it.

How the Brains of Risk-Taking Teens Work

There's heightened functional connectivity between the brain's emotion regulator and reason center, according to a recent neuroscience paper.

When Mothers Sing, Premature Babies Thrive

Moms willing to serenade pre-term infants help their babies—and themselves.

One Toxic Boss Can Poison the Whole Workplace

Office leaders who bully even just one member of their team harm everyone.

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one
Subscribe Now

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.