Television's Truth and Lies

How accurately does television reflect real life? Is TV's portrayal of women and girls expansive or narrow? What conclusions might one make about gender, race, sex, violence and social issues in the United States after watching the six major networks? Television's Truth and Lies As we put together this report, certain myths emerged from our research and field work. The following are the top ten myths that TV promotes. Are they true or false outside "the box"?

TV Reality #1: Men Run the U.S. and the World. Women may be capable of doing anything, but ultimately they answer to a male authority. TRUE, SADLY. On television, as in the real world, men are the heads of government (24, Spin City, The West Wing), the military (JAG), investigative agencies (The Agency, Alias, The X-Files), police departments (The District, The Job, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, NYPD Blue), crime labs (Crossing Jordan, CSI), law offices (Ally McBeal, Girlfriends, The Guardian, The Practice), hospitals (ER, Scrubs), movie studios (Yes, Dear), radio stations (Frasier, Once & Again), magazines (Just Shoot Me), schools (Boston Public, The Simpsons), factories (George Lopez), department stores (The Drew Carey Show) and space exploration (Enterprise). The rare exceptions to this include: The Education of Max Bickford (CBS-canceled), Family Law (CBS-canceled), Judging Amy (CBS) and Law & Order (NBC).

#2 The Jennifer Aniston Rule. The majority of women in the U.S. are young, thin, white and fall within a narrow standard of "beauty." FALSE. We all know that women come in many shapes, sizes, ages and colors. In an extremely informal count, however, we found 140 women on TV who were model-thin and conventionally beautiful, versus just 31 women who appeared to wear a size 10 or larger. The actresses who could (and do, sometimes) double as models are everywhere, so we really don't need to list them. The few exceptions include: Lesley Boone (Molly) on Ed, Tyne Daly (Maxine) on Judging Amy, Loretta Devine (Marla) on Boston Public, Camryn Manheim (Ellenor) on The Practice, Melissa McCarthy (Sookie) on Gilmore Girls, Della Reese (Tess) on Touched By an Angel, and Countess Vaughn (Kim) and Mo'Nique (Nikki) on The Parkers.

#3 Opposites Attract. Attractive women often couple with less attractive "average Joe" men and older men, placing value on personality over appearance. MOSTLY FALSE. While this male fantasy does happen in real life, it sure seems the standard on TV. For instance: Cheryl and Jim on According to Jim, Kate and Drew on The Drew Carey Show, Andrea and Max on The Education of Max Bickford, Claudia and Sean on Grounded for Life, Carrie and Doug on King of Queens, Connie and Andy on NYPD Blue, and even Marge and Homer on The Simpsons! The trend continues on new shows like Still Standing, and with a twist on the creepy Bram & Alice. Meanwhile, finding a handsome man with an older, more average-looking woman on TV is a futile task.

#4 Young and Sexy Saves the Day. Strong, brave, kick-butt women are almost always very young, thin and use their sex appeal to great advantage. Evidence: Alias, Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed, CSI, Dark Angel, Fear Factor, JAG, NYPD Blue, UC: Undercover, WWE Smackdown! FALSE. Even on TV, a number of older, "everyday" women on reality shows like Survivor and Amazing Race make our case.

#5 Black and White and Divided. People of color make up a very small part of the U.S. population and rarely interact with white people outside of the workplace. FALSE. The number of people of color in the U.S. has grown dramatically over the last ten years, to 30.9% of the population. However, aside from the handful of shows centered around African-American families, racial and ethnic diversity in primetime is minimal. With the introduction of just one show, George Lopez, the Latina/o population on TV increased dramatically. Asian American women may be the most under-represented people on television. Last season only four Asian American actresses (out of 277 total female actors) filled substantial roles: Linda Park on Enterprise, Ming-Na on ER, Lauren Thom supplying three characters' voices on Futurama and King of the Hill, and Keiki Agena on Gilmore Girls. No regular characters played by Native American or Middle Eastern women could be found.

#6 "Feminine" Qualities Are Undesirable. Accusing someone of acting like a woman or acting gay is an automatic insult because women and gay men are such tramps and/or wimps. FALSE. In the real world these attitudes are slowly changing as we come to value all people equally. In the world of television comedy, telling a male "you throw like a girl" or calling a sensitive man by a woman’s name are real knee-slappers. Calling a woman (or a man) a "bitch," a "slut" or a "whore" is also an acceptable cut-down in primetime TV. Repeat offenders include: The Drew Carey Show, Everybody Loves Raymond, Friends, The Job, Just Shoot Me, Scrubs and Spin City.

#7 A Straight Society. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are virtually non-existent in the U.S. FALSE. Last season, only 17 LGBT characters appeared in regular roles, representing 2.5% of the total primetime characters—a paltry number compared with the estimated 10% in real life. The visible lesbian/bisexual women on TV last season were: Tara (killed off) and Willow on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Original Cindy on Dark Angel (canceled), Ellen on The Ellen Show (canceled), Kerry on ER, Jessie and Katie on Once and Again (canceled), Sophia on That 80s Show (canceled) and Amy on Titus. Only three of these characters are returning to TV this season and there are no signs of "out" characters among the new fall programs.

#8 A Violent Society. Violent crime and violence against women are prevalent in the U.S. TRUE. According to the FBI, one violent crime occurs every 22.1 seconds in the U.S., including one "forcible" rape every 5.8 minutes. Accordingly, primetime television's most-watched list is saturated with violent crimes, particularly those involving the sexual assault, abduction and exploitation of women (especially young, attractive women and girls). Does the prevalence of actual violence in the U.S. fuel media content? Absolutely. Does violence on TV in turn influence reality? How could so many hours of violence not seep into our psyches? Witness the long line of shows premised on violence: The Agency, Alias, America's Most Wanted, Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed, Cops, Crossing Jordan, CSI, Dark Angel, The District, Glory Days, Law & Order, Law & Order: CI, Law & Order: SVU, NYPD Blue, The Practice, Smallville, 24, UC: Undercover, The X-Files, WWE Smackdown! And this list does not include the six TV newsmagazines, which have become increasingly preoccupied with murder mysteries—again, particularly those of murdered and missing women and girls.

#9 Differently-Abled Means Magically-Gifted. In everyday life, you're more likely to encounter a witch, an angel, a superhero or an alien than to see a person with a disbility. FALSE, OBVIOUSLY. We found 20 women on TV last season who possessed unreal magical/unearthly abilities, but only four women living with real disabilities or mental illness. People with physical and mental disbilities are the single largest minority group in the U.S. (an estimated 15-20%), and women are more likely than men to experience disability. The handful of characters on TV representing women with disabilties are: Marla (mental disability) on Boston Public, Kerry (mobility) on ER, Emily (stature) on Family Law, Karen (depression and mobility) on Once and Again, two of whom won't be back due to cancelation. More magical women have arrived with the new season, but at least one also has a disability (on WB's Birds of Prey).

#10 Sorry, Dan Quayle. Single moms, while facing admittedly tough obstacles, are combining work and child-rearing to good effect. And many married moms are also working outside the home (either out of necessity or for personal fulfillment) while maintaining healthy relationships with their children. TRUE. Great examples of single moms on TV last season include: Catherine on CSI, Lynn on Family Law, Roz on Frasier, Lorelei on Gilmore Girls, Amy on Judging Amy, Kathleen on Philly, Ellenor on The Practice, Joanie on Providence, Reba on Reba and Scully on The X-Files. Shows with married moms working outside the home include: Malcolm in the Middle, My Wife and Kids, Once and Again, The Practice, That '70s Show and more. And TV moms have even gone back to school on shows like The Parkers and Yes, Dear.


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