Exploring TV Portrayals of Young Women in the Workplace
Throughout my twenties, I had almost all of the jobs associated with a Young Woman in the City. I worked as a retail associate, an intern, a receptionist, a model, a restaurant hostess, and a cocktail waitress—all in New York, and all before the age of 25. And so have characters on "Girls," "Ugly Betty," "America's Next Top Model," "Mad Men," "Don't Trust the B----- in Apt. 23," and more. And while these Hollywood portrayals of young women on the job reveal some truth of what it's like to enter the workforce, what television producers choose to gloss over—or flat out ignore—speaks volumes about how professional women are pigeonholed on TV as well as in real life.
Welcome to Woman's Work, a blog where I'll explore contemporary TV portrayals of young women in the workplace. Using my own anecdotes as well as accounts from other real-life women, I'll compare and contrast our experiences with those of our television cohorts. From coffee shops to reception desks, from retail counters to runways, how do Hollywood depictions of young women at work ring true, and how do they fall short?
To be clear, I'm not the type of woman you'd see on "Gossip Girl." I grew up middle class in the San Francisco Bay Area, worked since I was 20 years old, graduated from UC Berkeley, and moved to New York when I was 23 to become a writer. A newcomer to New York and to corporate environments, I was bewildered by the world of work. Why did editors even care what I studied in college when, ultimately, I as an unpaid intern would be running their personal errands? And why did my peers think my modeling gigs were glamorous when I was barely making minimum wage?
On TV, too, we see young, working women struggling--particularly in the service industry, media, fashion, and advertising. On "Girls," "Don't Trust the B----- in Apt. 23," and "Friends," young women work as baristas in hopes of landing their dream jobs in publishing, finance, and fashion, respectively. "Ugly Betty" and "Mad Men" depict tough climbs for Betty and Peggy who, unlike their female coworkers, get ahead based on their talent rather than their looks. And when it comes to fashion, "America's Next Top Model" and "Gossip Girl" suppress the ugly truths behind a beauty-driven industry.
To be sure, American TV offers a small crop of strong, young heroines. My personal favorite is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, though of course her career as The Chosen One is fictional. Olivia Benson of "Law and Order: SVU" (who was 32 when the series began), Carrie Mathison of "Homeland," and Dr. Mindy Lahiri of "The Mindy Project" are similarly driven in their careers. But rare indeed is the young woman who not only kicks ass--either literally or figuratively--but whose narrative arc focuses on these achievements. How much deeper might "New Girl" be if Zooey Deschanel's Jess focused less on her hot and cold romances and more on her career as a teacher?
Television isn't a perfect mirror, neither for American culture in general nor for young, working women in particular. The medium reflects us, yes, but it sometimes distorts our images before broadcasting them to a mass audience. That said, if young women are to embark upon and thrive in the careers for which we accumulated an average of $26,000 in student debt, it's time to look more critically at how TV represents—and misrepresents—our work and our ambitions.
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