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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?

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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.

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