Early Portrayals of Women on Television

“Lucy, you got some ‘splainin’ to do!”

In the early days of television, women were portrayed as hypersexualized, submissive objects. Besides a few amount of television series, most female characters could fall under the category of “less important” than their corresponding male co-stars. Historical events such as World War II and the feminist movements had huge impacts on every aspect of television shows such as its plot and characters. When women in society started pushing for a change in gender diversity, it was shown through how female characters were represented. Still though, research results regarding gender studies reflected the underrepresentation of female characters as well as the stereotypical portrayal of the hypersexualized woman.

It is important to understand the different gender stereotypes because just as real-life issues affect what is on television; media content has an impression on what goes on in our society.

Televisions started making appearances in households in the 1950s, just in time for issues of gender, race, and class to be put into question in ways it never had been before. Sitcoms of the post World War II era, such as “I Love Lucy”, “The Donna Reed Show”, and “Leave it to Beaver”, were largely based on depicting the average, ideal American family. More often  than not, these American sitcoms portrayed the “zany housewife”, in which female characters would cause a ruckus and do or say things that would anger the leading male character. Men, on the other hand, were depicted as the aggressive father who would berate, threaten, and punish their wives as well as their kids. It is crucial to understand the era of which these shows took place because of the connection between military service and domestic violence. The aggression of these men was usually justified by their service in World War II.

This violent, patriarchal nature caused wives to also be characterized by an underlying fear of their husbands, such as Lucy Ricardo in “I Love Lucy”.  In the episode “Lucy Wants New Furniture”, Lucy buys new furniture for the apartment without Ricky’s permission while he is away at work. Lucy, not knowing how to keep it a secret from Ricky, becomes very anxious at how her husband will react and fears telling him the truth. Although this argument between them did not end in violence, many others did. In “Ricky Loses His Temper” (23:20), Ricky gets so mad at Lucy he actually bends her over his knees like a child and spanks her repeatedly. The sad part is, back then this was considered comedy.

Not only were women seen as submissive to men, they were also fairly underrepresented in the workplace. Female characters of the 1950s-60s, besides a very few, were portrayed as solely housewives and mothers. Although Lucy Ricardo made a few attempts at handling domestic responsibilities as well as exploring professional interests, her habit of getting into various slip-ups caused her to be seen as more goofy than competent.

With the second-wave feminist movement on the rise during the 1970s and 1980s, women were shown as fighting to get their foot in the door of the workplace as well as becoming more independent in everyday life. The prime-time series that set the bar for these new female roles was “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”. The main character in this show, Mary Richards, had just turned down her boyfriend’s proposal and started working in an all-male newsroom as an associate producer, something no female character on TV had done before. This was considered “TV’s first truly female-dominated sitcom.” While one could argue that big steps were being taken to more positively represent women, it would still be fair to say that women were still characterized as submissive. Yes, they were finally making their way from housewife to the workplace, but only 6.6% of women were seen in managerial positions, meaning men still had power over them.

This was not an issue that was going to change overnight; a movement like this was going to take several years before it could be taken seriously. The late 1970s was just the starting point.




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