Achieving Gender Equality On TV: Are We On The Right Track?

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Humanity has evolved by leaps and bounds in the last few millennia and will continue to do so in perpetuity. A lot of people feel our norms haven't evolved to match current realities as fast as it should, and that is true to some extent.

But we've come a long way from the days a doctor was trying to publish a journal warning women of how they risked "disabling" their uterus if they tried to absorb as much information as their male peers.

With the invention of digital media came a supremely powerful tool that, in theory, could be an unparalleled force for good and a medium of shaping minds on a global scale and at an expedited rate. That hasn't always been the case.

Women in Black - The 100 Season 2 Episode 14

But we're in the 21st century now, and the calls are louder for people in charge of putting these stories on our screens to represent as much as possible the diverse aspects of today's society and draw attention to biases which have been a part of that society for way too long.

In response, we've had female characters shown to be as capable as their male counterparts, as they should be, with more complexity than writers of old afforded them.

Related: Kyra Sedgwick on Ten Days in the Valley, Women in Film & the Human Connection 

It has been a struggle and like pretty much every struggle in history; it has been a two-steps-forward-one-step-backward tango, what with the increased visibility given to LGBTQ characters and subsequently turning a lot of those characters into fictional roadkill.

On the issue of sexism and the concerted effort to eliminate traces of it on our screens, have we been so focused on a narrow set of gender issues that we unknowingly ignore other problems and continue to perpetuate behaviors and norms that are offshoots of the very thing we seek to eradicate?

As it is, the depiction of violence and how it is perceived based on gender seems to be a little bit too one-sided. There was much uproar in 2016 regarding a promotional poster depicting the X-men's Mystique getting choked by Apocalypse (in a non-sexual way of course).

The reaction was appropriate because of the disproportionately high rate of male on female violence and that the message the image may unintentionally spread.

However, looking at what we have on TV today, writers and directors unquestionably have no issue showing men or women getting hit by other women. In some instances, it is even made to look cute or passionate -- a hurt girlfriend lashing out or a mother scolding a child. It is commonplace and doesn't do any good for anyone.

Slap in the Face - The White Princess

Any form of casual violence is never okay and should be stamped out unless depicted in the proper context. We also have the almost routine utterance of "innocent women and children" as casualties of war meant to draw out an audience's compassion. 

Not to take away from the horrors of war and loss they are trying to convey, but statements like that continue to breed the same unconscious bias that is currently being challenged -- women as physically non-threatening and utterly defenseless.

Then there is the constant typecasting of Asian characters as the tech support/hacker girl or guy. The rate at which this currently happens is alarming and should be a real cause for concern.

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Where else have we had missteps? Marriages, divorces and custody battles. It remains a fact that the numbers are stacked unfavorably against men when it comes to the issue of who has to pay alimony to whom and who gets to keep the kids in the event of a divorce.

There used to be a long-running joke in a few circles about people wanting to see who gets the kids if a lesbian couple were to get a divorce. While highly reductive, it does shine a light on an issue shows continue not only to ignore but continuously buy into -- the dad is never going to be as nurturing as the mother.

But we have since seen this joke play out on Grey's anatomy with Callie and Arizona and to a lesser extent Jeri Hogarth on Marvel's Jessica Jones.

Arizona and Callie Pic - Grey's Anatomy

But seriously though, why are there no shows focusing on a divorced LGBTQ couple? And if there are, the numbers are microscopic at best. Writers more often than not seem only to only swing from one extreme to the other when writing a gay relationship.

It's like we either have them be happy together, or we brutally murder one of them. There is an almost total absence of a middle ground. We've seen a few breakups, sure, but those are mostly B-Roll characters.

Are we, as a society, not ready to see a central, non-conventional couple's relationship hit the rocks like a lot of relationships in real life do? 

What you'll allow doesn't matter, Klaus. Welcome to a 21st century custody battle. Moms win them now.


As for sexism and its new form: much effort has been made to show male characters with supposedly modern sensibilities as being attracted to traits other than physical beauty.

That, in and of itself, is a remarkable break from the horndog portrayal from which a lot of male characters, but it has also led to the constant dropping of the "you're not like the other girls" line. In what world is that supposed to be a compliment?

Related: 17 Male TV Characters That Are Probably Feminists

Invalidating an entire gender with a single sentence simply because one man has found a woman who is, in most cases, depicted as not possessing what he considers the stereotypical traits of a female. 

Because obviously, if you're a woman, enjoying shopping sprees with friends, wearing makeup, and intelligence cannot exist in one package. Instead, be a guy with boobs, and the supposedly progressive male characters will worship the ground on which you walk.

If you don't look closely enough, you'd be hard-pressed to find a show that showcases any form of bias in its bare form, but it doesn't mean it isn't there. If anything, we're now too smug for our own good, and there has been a little too much patting on the back going on, which if left unchecked, will only lead to stagnation.

With that said, it is clear tremendous progress has already been made, but remnants of these issues, like a virus, have mutated and taken on a finer, subliminal form.

Writers, directors, and producers of our TV content in the 21st century have to adapt accordingly, or we risk the possibility of having all previous efforts neutralized by the new appearance of old proclivities.

Nuhu Danamarya was a staff writer for TV Fanatic. He retired in February of 2019.

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