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National NOW Times >> Fall 2002 >> Article

NOW Foundation Criticizes TV's Distorted Image of Women

by Lisa Bennett, Communications Director

What is television's role in our society? Is it simply entertainment, fantasy, an escape? Or should its potential to influence, persuade and inform be taken more seriously? We live with TV in our homes, every day, every night. For good or bad, it is a part of us. But are we a part of it? TV has the power to bring people together, to show viewers a full picture of our society. It also has the power to endorse destructive behavior, to reinforce the inequalities between women and men, and to ignore whole communities and sideline other groups of people.

2002 Feminist Primetime Report: Watch Out, Listen Up!

"On television, persuasive myths still exist about gender, race, sex, violence, class, age—you name it!" said NOW Foundation President Kim Gandy. "Network programming sends a distorted, often offensive, image of women, girls and people of color—brought to you through the point-of-view of white men and boys. Television remains very much a man's world, with women serving primarily as 'eye candy.'"

This fall, the NOW Foundation released the 2002 Feminist Primetime Report, the most thorough examination yet of entertainment programming on the six broadcast networks, as part of the Watch Out, Listen Up! media campaign.

Initiated by NOW in 1999, the mission of the Watch Out, Listen Up! campaign is to advance positive and diverse portrayals of women, girls, people of color and other under-represented groups on television. One of the key elements of this project is to encourage the public to talk back to the media.

Because ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, UPN and WB use a public asset—the airwaves—in order to transmit programming, they are required by the 1934 Communications Act to "serve the public interest." However, the Federal Communications Commission and Congress do little to enforce this obligation. So the NOW Foundation is determined to help viewers hold the networks accountable.

More than 80 teams of "feminist field analysts" across the country monitored 107 programs during the first half of 2002. Analysts reviewed shows based on four criteria: gender composition/diversity, violent content, sexual exploitation and social responsibility.

The NOW Foundation compiled and interpreted data returned by the analysts, in addition to sampling the networks' new fall programs. Findings included in the report demonstrate the inequity between regularly employed female and male actors, the overwhelming male point-of-view and a depressing lack of social responsibility.

More and more, advertisers dictate what we see on TV. The corporations who manufacture products favor targeting viewers ages 18-34, so that's the type of content we all get. It doesn't matter that 64% of primetime viewers on an average night are 35 or older. If you are a middle-aged woman, a lesbian, a Latina, a woman with a disability, a woman of size, a low-income mom struggling to get by ... good luck finding programming that even pretends to reflect your life.

"Violence is still far too prevalent on TV and sexual exploitation has reached a new low on programs like ABC's The Bachelor, NBC's Fear Factor and the upcoming Victoria's Secret Fashion Show on CBS," said Gandy. "TV bigwigs are using the incredible power of the medium to get rich by serving up an adolescent boy's fantasy world. Women and girls deserve better."

To the right is an excerpt from TV's Top 10 Myths, as identified by the NOW Foundation. Read the full 2002 Feminist Primetime Report online or call 202-628-8669, ext. 123 to request a copy.

Television's Truth and Lies

TV Reality #1: Men Run the U.S. and the World. Women may be capable of doing anything, but ultimately they answer to a male authority. TRUE, SADLY. On television, as in the real world, men are the heads of government (24, Spin City, The West Wing), the military (JAG), investigative agencies (The Agency, Alias, The X-Files), police departments (The District, The Job, Law & Order: CI, Law & Order: SVU, NYPD Blue), and more. The rare exceptions to this include: The Education of Max Bickford (CBS-canceled), Family Law (CBS-canceled), Judging Amy (CBS) and Law & Order (NBC).

#4 Young and Sexy Saves the Day. Strong, brave, kick-butt women are almost always very young, thin and use their sex appeal to great advantage. Evidence: Alias, Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed, CSI, Dark Angel, Fear Factor, JAG, NYPD Blue, UC: Undercover, WWE Smackdown! FALSE. Even on TV, a number of older, "everyday" women on reality shows like Survivor and Amazing Race make our case.

#5 Black and White and Divided. People of color make up a very small part of the U.S. population and rarely interact with white people outside of the workplace. FALSE. The number of people of color in the U.S. has grown dramatically over the last ten years, to 30.9% of the population. However, aside from the handful of shows centered around African-American families, racial and ethnic diversity in primetime is minimal. Asian American women may be the most under-represented people on television. Last season only four Asian American actresses (out of 277 total female actors) filled substantial roles. No regular characters played by Native American or Middle Eastern women could be found.

#7 A Straight Society. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are virtually non-existent in the U.S. FALSE. Last season, only 17 LGBT characters appeared in regular roles, representing 2.5% of the total primetime characters—a paltry number compared with the estimated 10% in real life.

#9 Differently-Abled Means Magically-Gifted. In everyday life, you're more likely to encounter a witch, an angel, a superhero or an alien than to see a person with a disbility. FALSE, OBVIOUSLY. We found 20 women on TV last season who possessed unreal magical/unearthly abilities, but only four women living with real disabilities or mental illness. People with physical and mental disabilities are the single largest minority group in the U.S. (an estimated 15-20%), and women are more likely than men to experience disability.

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