Ever since The Mary Tyler Moore Show debuted in 1970, young, independent single women on TV have flocked to the cities to pursue their careers. But Mary Tyler Moore made it big in Minneapolis. In more recent single lady sitcoms—Cagney & Lacey, Living Single, Friends, Felicity, Sex and the City, 30 Rock, Ugly Betty, Don't Trust the B----- in Apt. 23, Girls, and The Carrie Diaries— storylines emphasizes that, for young, unattached, career-minded women, New York City is the only place to be. These shows suggest that, if you take your career seriously, you simply must move to Manhattan.
But conflating ambition, glamor, and New York City is has a major drawback: Living in New York is a lot easier for people who come from money. For working class girls like the title character of Ugly Betty, the dream will, more often than not, remain out of reach. If you have no trust fund, it will be hard to pay tuition to earn the "University of New York" diploma seen on Felicity's wall. If you need to support your family, there will be no hanging out at Indochine, like in The Carrie Diaries. If you need to pay off over $25,000 in student debt, Sex in the City's Fifth Avenue professional-outfit shopping sprees will remain a Manhattan myth.
On TV and in real life, there's a dearth of young women in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. While a few bygone shows exposed the barriers against geeks in general (think My So-Called Life's Brian Krakow, Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Willow, and Freaks and Geeks's Lindsay Weir), contemporary television shows fail to portray the bumpy path that exist specfically for young women male-dominated science and math career tracks. I say we need more characters like Willow.
Last week's episode of Parks and Recreation, "Women in Garbage", is fairly unique then, in showing women at work in a male-dominated career: takin' out the city's trash. In their own hilarious way, Parks & Rec focused on the fraught fight that needs to happen in order to undo a city's institutional sexism. In the episode, City Commissioner Leslie (Amy Poehler) discovers that very few women occupy jobs in Pawnee's public sector. She attempts to create a gender equality commission, but finds she's presiding over an all-male group—in April's (Aubrey Plaza) words, a "sausagefest."
In AMC's wildly popular Mad Men, administrative assistants are sexy secretaries in a male-dominated world. Sue in Veep and April in recent seasons of Parks and Recreation portray a slightly more empowering though still-tired trope: the sassy secretary. In real life, the role of administrative assistant is, statistically speaking, woman's work. But at a time when four out of ten recession-era postgrads are working whatever jobs they can, the reality is that assistant work has recently transformed from a job young women approach with ambivalance to a job that feels reliable in an uncertain economy.
It's surprising that we currently have so few female entrepreneurs on TV. In real life, women-owned businesses grew by 20 percent from 1997 and 2002. Sadly, the jump in female entrepreneurs hasn't been reflected on TV, which sends a dangerously inaccurate message to young female viewers. The lack of female entrepreneurs on television now suggests that men, not women, take care of business.
Onscreen, women struggle as unpaid interns but are saved by, in April's case, a surprise job opportunity in season two of Parks and Recreation. But in real life, about one in six 18-24 year-olds are unemployed and those who land coveted internships often go unpaid.
In fictional TV narratives, job interviews and negotiations are opportunities for farce. Especially when the manager is male and his subordinate is female, TV writers grab the opportunity to intersect career milestones with heterosexual complications. But when labor economics converge with gender in the real world, the result is far from uproarious.
Shows like Girls and The Nanny portray childcare as a temporary, middle-class job that comes with nonthreatening romantic entanglements. And Downton Abbey depicts domestic work as a stable career, so long as you can adhere to the house rules. But in the real world, domestic work is an unstable profession that can encompass unfair labor practices—and a lack of legal protection against them.
It's no wonder that there's a spot for Gossip Girl's Blair in the competitive world of fashion: she's the daughter of the creator of Waldorf Designs, she attended an elite private school where she gained connections to high society, and her family has no shortage of money. But for less privileged, real-life aspirants who move to New York in search of fashion dream jobs, the workforce is not so glamorous.
Women have comprised almost half of law school enrollments in the last three decades. But in terms of the federal judiciary, the numbers haven't risen a bit. Currently, fewer than one in three of the judges on the federal courts of appeal are female. But you wouldn't know that based on TV portrayals of judges.