On TV, successful female cops populate some of our favorite shows. From Law and Order: Special Victims Unit's Olivia Benson(Mariska Hargitay) to The Wire's Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn) toThe Closer's Brenda Johnson (Kyra Sedgwick) to Castle's Kate Beckett (Stana Katic), we see women in law enforcement apprehending sex offenders, performing stellar detective work, nailing interrogations, and closing cases. But in real life, women make up a surprisingly small percentage of police forces.
In 2007, women accounted for about 15% of the total sworn law enforcement officers in large local police departments. In large sheriffs' offices, female officers comprised about 13% of the total sworn officers. In contrast, local police departments with between 1 and 10 full-time sworn officers employed fewer than 2,000 female law enforcement officers nationwide (6%). Small sheriffs' offices across the county employed just over 200 total sworn officers who were women (4%) in 2007.
On TV, there's a new guard of heroines calling the shots. From chipper Leslie Knope on Parks and Recreation to fractured Carrie Mathison on Homeland to narcissistic Amy Jellicoe on Enlightened, we see women anchoring our favorite shows. So what makes these characters so often cringe-worthy?
In The New Yorker, TV critic Emily Nussbaum took note of this new small screen female archetype, the Hummingbird:
They're different ages; some are more manic, some sweeter or more sour...But they do share traits: they're idealistic feminine dreamers whose personalities are irritants. They are not merely spunky, but downright obsessive. And most crucially, these are not minor characters. On each show, the Hummingbird is a protagonist—an alienating-yet-sympathetic figure whose struggles are taken seriously and considered meaningful.
At first glance, this seems like a mere gender shift from the lauded male antiheroes whom TV audiences have embraced. Think Tony Soprano, Dexter, Don Draper, and Walter "Heisenberg" White. And to some extent, it's true: Contemporary audiences love to root for the bad guy, so why not the overwhelmingly eager woman?
In prime-time TV and in real life, America's working-class mothers find it tough to keep their heads above water while juggling their professional and personal lives.
Two current shows—Switched at Birth and The New Normal—show the paternalistic attitudes working mothers often face.
For Switched at Birth's working class single mom Regina Vasquez (Constance Marie), money is a particularly fraught issue. As the show's title suggests, her daughter was switched at birth with another. So though she has been raising teenage Daphne (who is deaf), her biological daughter Bay is being raised by the much wealthier Kathryn and John Kennish. Regina and Daphne had been scraping by for years, but once they accept help from the upper middle class Kennishes (including their guest home and a job opportunity for Daphne), they both start to bristle.
TV shows House of Cards and Parks and Recreation both point important real-world dynamics. While young men have a wealth of male mentors to choose from—as well as so-called old boy networks—young women have few gender-specific examples of what success looks like.
On these shows, we see two examples of young women looking up to a singular older, female role model: House of Card's cub reporter Zoe (Kate Mara) admires rich nonprofit chief Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) and Parks and Rec's city hall staffer April (Aubrey Plaza) has Councilwoman Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) to thank for much advice and career help.
The Americans, a new FX Network spy show developed by ex-CIA agent Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, illustrates the unique physical and psychological dangers that threaten women in espionage, the military, and law enforcement. In addition to the expected danger incurred in shoot-outs and international arms deals, the show's lead female character deals with the very real threat of rape.
On the show, as in real life, institutional sexism allows sexual assaults to persist the military. The Americans shows that unfortunately, for women, being in sexually hostile situations has for too long been a part of the job.
On the sitcom The Office, as in real life, middle class working mothers are stuck between a rock and a hard place.
They often face the choice of either compromising their career—working part-time or quitting altogether—or feeling like an absent mother. Men, on the other hand, are typically not held to the same standard. Rarely do employers worry whether their male employees will have children and scale back their working hours. Seldom do people worry whether men can "have it all." The Office paints a fairly balanced portrait of what it means when a husband and wife clash over their careers and their families. In the evolving relationship of Pam and Jim in the American version of the series, the married coworkers are equally responsible for their marriage's breakdown, and they should be equally responsible for fixing it—if it can, in fact, be fixed.
The show's central relationship echoes dynamics that feminist writers have pointed out for decades. This week is the 50th anniversary of the Feminine Mystique, the book which so clearly articulated the tension between the roles expected of women in their work and home lives. Writer Stephanie Coontz spelled out the real-life statistics behind this continuing conflict this week in a great New York Times piece:
When family and work obligations collide, mothers remain much more likely than fathers to cut back or drop out of work. But unlike the situation in the 1960s, this is not because most people believe this is the preferable order of things. Rather, it is often a reasonable response to the fact that our political and economic institutions lag way behind our personal ideals....Female professionals are twice as likely to quit work as other married mothers when their husbands work 50 hours or more a week and more than three times more likely to quit when their husbands work 60 hours or more.
On television and in real life, home health aides are an underpaid, overworked, and invisible workforce. Like Elisa (Salma Hayek) on season three of 30 Rock, they feed, bathe, cook, and clean for the nation's elderly folks and people with disabilities in their homes. Yet these workers struggle to make ends meet; on average, they make less than $10 an hour. They receive no overtime pay, and their work can often be physically demanding. Moreover, home health aides work in private residences where their labor receives little oversight and where they lack a support network to help them advocate for better compensation. And these injustices to home health aides matter now more than ever because—guess what?—with a growing elderly population, it's the fastest growing occupation in the U.S.
So while Elisa's plight is played for laughs against Jack's one-percenter lifestyle, the sitcom offers a surprisingly frank glimpse of an undervalued workforce, one that's comprised overwhelmingly of women and women of color—and one that hides in plain sight in homes all across America.
Onscreen, young women of color with immigrant parents are often far from traditional. Consider All-American Girl's Margaret Kim (Margaret Cho), Grey's Anatomy's Callie Torres (Sara Ramirez), The Office's Kelly Kapoor (Mindy Kaling), and Elementary's Joan Watson (Lucy Liu). Though these characters' parents are from various socioeconomic backgrounds and countries of origin, these young women all strive to balance their parents' expectations with their own expectations against the backdrop of society's often sexist and racist assumptions. And though these are some of my favorite characters on television, their experiences often veer from those of real-life second-generation immigrant women.
On the New Girl episode "Table 34," Cece (Hannah Simone) attends an Indian marriage convention hoping to meet an Indian guy for a long-term relationship. She had been with lovable douchebag Schmidt (Max Greenfield) but wants to date someone whom her Indian-born parents will approve of. When her friends hear about the convention, they decide that they want to check it out, too—though only Schmidt dresses like, in Winston's words, "the fortune teller in Big." At the convention, she has to fill out an application including her resume. The event hostess seats her at Table 34, which is clearly the losers' table. Has there been some mistake? The event organizer says, "Over 30 [years old], no advanced degrees, part-time employment. Table 34." Cece replies that she's a professional model, "I was in Lil Wayne's last video. I was the girl he was throwing strawberries at in slow motion?" The woman says, "Definitely Table 34."
Fashion model Cece is downwardly mobile compared to her parents, but she hopes that landing an Indian man will help her gain their approval.
On television, there's no shortage of portrayals of young, aspiring writers. From ruthless journalists to confessional novelists to sensationalist writers, current TV shows offer us a wealth of female publishing hopefuls. And while this inspires a new generation of women to make themselves heard in a largely male-dominated landscape, the growing number of TV portrayals of female writers reflects how the world represses young voices in general—and young, female voices in particular.