Why are women on TV so dumb?

Published: July 30, 2011

Television reinforces the idea of how women are supposed to be – that is always pretty, with a fair complexion and domestic.

Whenever I hear the word “feminist,” I become nervous and look for the nearest place to hide – talking about sexism makes prone to be tagged as a feminist. However, I sometimes think that most people who have an ‘-ist’ at the end of their title aren’t really looking for a dialogue.

So just to start off, let me be very clear here: this is not a feminist rant; it is a call for dialogue.

The prejudice associated with sex-role stereotypes is known as sexism. In terms of population, women slightly outnumber men in the world, yet throughout history, women have been continually forced into subservience by men, and it was only in the second half of this century that conditions for women have made slight yet significant improvements. But, once again, we cannot look away from the incidents of domestic violence, abuse, harassment and intolerance that still dominate our society.

This is also a period in time when the medium of television has become the most popular form of entertainment in our society. The question then is:

How are women portrayed on television, in a world where a slight change in attitudes is on its way?

Television reinforces the idea of how women are supposed to be – always pretty, with a fair complexion and domestic – having children and then looking after them while the man goes out to work. Many drama serials that inhabit large space on many TV channels today are centred on relationships and mundane stories, inculcating people with traditional ideas.

Television targeted towards women focuses on dramas, morning shows and cooking shows.

Is that all what people, especially women, want to watch?

Hello! Have we forgotten what a terrible mess our country is in right now?

Our country is in a state of political turmoil. We need to create consciousness among the masses. But no, there are more important issues to be discussed like who Meera should marry, or how breakups should be managed, or what families should be doing regarding marital issues and so forth. By dropping these unintelligent ideas in the people’s minds, we still hope to see the masses working together for a greater common good, for change in this society towards betterment?

Another distinction that can be made is between the roles played – personality attributes typically displayed by men or women. In many drama serials and soap operas, one can see women depicted as ‘dumb’ or ‘silly’ beings, mostly present for comic relief. I will never be able to decipher how dumbness is associated with gender. I have come across many men who, with their illogical tirade, can easily displease you. So the idea of dumbness is not confined to gender – how illogical if someone thinks it is.

Clearly, there are suggestions of sexism in most programmes – exceptions might be there. These many programmes also suggest that women are perhaps not very good at being involved in action and adventure. Perhaps this suggestion in itself is a form of stereotyping – trying to pin genres down to a gender. I, for one, haven’t seen any adventurous women in a thrilling Mountain Dew advertisement as yet – maybe because “women belong to the kitchen.” But, I have come across many advertisements where women have confessed that their life will be incomplete without a detergent, liquid soap, certain cooking oils, curry powders and so on. Furthermore when a female character on TV is powerful and strong (and ‘unfeminine’), she is often shown as ultimately failing or floundering, and either changing to become more sensitive and caring, or being condemned to a life of misery and loneliness.

Although it has been seen that women are generally portrayed in roles that show them to be subservient to men in television drama (and even children’s television and cartoons), it is in advertising that television is most backward in comparison with society’s attitudes, and also where the most cliched stereotypes exist. A damning comment from Jean Kilbourne, a feminist author and filmmaker probably sums up a lot of adverts:

“Scientific studies and the most casual viewing yield the same conclusion: women are shown almost exclusively as housewives or sex objects.”

Depressing as it is, several of the supposed misogynist myths about female inferiority should be revisited.

To the female fighter pilots, architects, tax accountants, chemical engineers, Supreme Court justices, brain surgeons, bankers etcetera:

Yes, we can do our jobs and do them well, and I don’t think anyone should put obstacles in the path.

Although the world will remain sexist, even without television, the medium does open up a whole new door for people to gaze through, and believe what they see. Television allows people to see more things and so choose what they want to – but unfortunately, television perhaps confuses further an issue which it could help to resolve with more equal and less stereotypical portrayals of women.

Anam Gill

Anam Gill

The author is currently working as a columnist for Education for Sustainability, a project of a UK based organisation. As a freelance journalist she has written articles on various issues related to human rights and social justice. She tweets as @GillAnam

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.