Friday, September 13, 2013

The West Wing and the Portrayal of Women on TV

Imagine with me for a moment that when we sat down to watch television with our sons and our daughters, what we saw when women were portrayed were competent, smart women accomplishing important things and keeping their clothes on.  What would that be like?

I've spent the past few months watching through all seven seasons of NBC's The West Wing on my Amazon Prime streaming service.  As I have done so, I have been struck by the different way women are treated on this show as opposed to virtually any other show on TV, past or present.

One of the earliest episodes in Season 1 is called, "These Crackpots and These Women." In this episode, three of the high-powered male characters stand at a cocktail party and admiringly watch the strong, capable, smart women with whom they serve and comment on their inner qualities instead of the size of their breasts or rating their prowess in bed.  At one point, the chief of staff comments on one woman staffer who is "going punch for punch with Toby in a world that tells women to sit down and shut up."  By and large, this conversation among the male staffers summarizes the basic attitude toward women on the show.  You rarely see women sexualized, women are always portrayed as strong people with brains who have things to say, and women virtually always have their clothes on (and their clothes tend to be business suits or classy, sophisticated evening gowns). This is the TV show I want my daughter to watch.  In fact, this is the TV show I want my son to watch.  I want them to see how smart and capable women are, how wonderful it is when the two genders work together to accomplish goals.  I want my daughter to see that she is more than beauty (although she is that), but she is also a smart person, a serious person.

As I have found myself steeped deeply in The West Wing these past months, I have become very aware of how terribly women are treated on most other shows.  On most shows, women exist for men in some way.  Women are merely sex objects, bodies, for the consumption and pleasure of others.  Women are taught (Miley Cyrus, anyone?) that the more outrageous the spectacle of their nakedness and sexuality is, the more fame they will be awarded and the higher they will climb in achievement.

This point was underlined in a New York Times article by Jodi Kantor this Sunday, "Harvard Business School Case Study: Gender Equity."

In even such a venerable school as the Harvard Business School, women are often silenced and relegated to being sex objects.  Kantor writes: "Yet many Wall Street-hardened women confided that Harvard was worse than any trading floor, with first-year students divided into sections that took all their classes together and often developed the overheated dynamics of reality shows. Some male students, many with finance backgrounds, commandeered classroom discussions and hazed female students and younger faculty members, and openly ruminated on whom they would 'kill, sleep with or marry' (in cruder terms). Alcohol-soaked social events could be worse." This from a so-called "serious school"!  If Harvard fares this way, what hope the rest of the world?  The article goes on to detail the ways in which the leadership of the school is trying to upend the social system that makes such an environment possible.  They have made some modest gains and I hope they will continue their good work.

Sex is a part of life.  But is it all there is to life?  Has our culture become so saturated in a sexualized way of approaching women that we can no longer view them as real people with an important perspective to share?  As serious leaders?  As intelligent agents of change, hope and purpose?  I've begun to ask these questions even more after watching the eye-opening (and sometimes graphic) documentary Miss Representation (available on Netflix streaming currently).  Jennifer Siebel put this film together because of her deep concerns for her daughter as she looked at the way women were treated in the media.  She realized how powerful the images we see day after day on our screens can be to us.  She wanted to challenge the norms and raise a clarion call for higher standards.  She also wanted to challenge us all to consider what the media norms for the portrayal of women say to our culture about women in leadership.  Do they keep us from taking women in leadership seriously?  How can we change that?

I find myself wondering, with Siebel, not only how the media affects my daughter's body image and self esteem but also how it impacts what she wants to do with her life and whether she feels that she can be taken seriously in a world that talks more about Hillary Clinton's pantsuits and Sarah Palin's beauty queen looks than the substance of their arguments.  And I wonder how the media impacts the experiences of women in ministry too.  I was once a woman in pastoral leadership.  Did the men who I led see me as a serious person with intelligence and serious thoughts?  Or did they see me as a girl who needed to keep house, look pretty and leave the serious thoughts to the boys?  If I had to guess, I'd say that I think that there were probably some of both mindsets.

I don't know exactly what we do to change things.  But I have a couple of goals for my daughter and son as I seek to shape their view of women.  First of all, I hope to encourage them to view worthy, edifying television and movies.  Although I will seek age-appropriate viewing, this does not mean that I will look for what is the most squeaky-clean as my only concern but rather that I will look for media to consume that uplifts worthy values and worthy people, that shows the consequences of bad choices, and that stirs imagination and thought.  I will also hope to seek out projects that give a positive view of women.  Secondly, I hope to engage my kids in discussion about what we see on the screen.  We won't always agree with everything we see and I don't believe in throwing out the baby with the bathwater.  If the majority of a show is good, I won't abandon it because of one distasteful element.  But I will (and already do) talk to my kids about what we see, what is worthy, what is not, and why.  I will teach them to analyze what they see instead of just accepting it whole-sale.

And I will hope for many more worthy television programs like The West Wing.

What about you?  How do you navigate the challenges of media and the portrayal of women with your kids?  What shows or movies have you found to be especially worthy and edifying?


  1. Yes, women are objectified in Western culture because in the end sex sells almost everything. Men are mesmerised by women's bodies and women either switch themselves off and become disgusted by it all or are encouraged somehow to be eye candy for men. But, in the same way, so many other things are a problem too like the stereotyping of Black people, poor people, religious intolerance and anything else at all which demeans another person or another group of people in the eyes of someone else. Western culture is very good at dividing people and grading people into how useful they are on looks, how much money they have, how young they are and so on. People are not seen to have intrinsic worth as human beings, which the Bible talks about, but are only valuable for other less important reasons.

    And, not to be annoying, but men can also be objectified too now. Handsome men are desired by many women as beautiful women are desired by men, and often many men and women who do not make the grade somehow, those not perfect, which is most of us, are dismissed or seen as lesser than those who are. I believe that we all do this in fact, we often base who we like on their outer appearance or their value to us in some way, rather than seeing a creature that God made uniquely.

    1. Excellent point, Tim, that objectification is wrong whether the person being objectified is male or female. I completely agree. I think most sexual temptation comes about simply because of objectification. Whenever I stop to consider the personhood of another person, any temptation I may be experiencing is greatly lessened.

      I will say, though, that I truly believe women are much more the victim of sexual objectification than men are. Just watch a full day of TV and make note of how women are viewed versus men. On TV, women tend to exist for men's benefit and pleasure. And it's all about their body and how it needs to be perfect and beautiful and naked. Older women don't get interesting parts, normally, either. There are a few awesome exceptions. Men can keep getting interesting parts into their elderly years. Nobody expects that an unattractive man would fail to get work. But if a woman starts to show just a bit of age, she is over. It's really distressing. When we see the full realm of being human and being a woman, it's so much more interesting.

    2. Thanks Rebecca; I sometimes think that a certain kind of woman only thinks that only men can be sleazy, but it is obviously much more complex than this. Women have sex drives too and I am certain that in and out of marriage women can get gratification from sex and intimacy, perhaps a little less than men, but they still do. In our culture of course, it's seen as acceptable for men to be womanisers but still frowned on for women to do the same. I think this has deep roots historically and culturally, firstly being that a man is seen as a man if he gets a woman pregnant as it confirms his manhood but a woman is seen as a silly slut for letting it happen. Unfair? completely. Hypocritical? Totally. But on such skewed perceptions does the world spin. And obviously, a man can sleep with any number of women and whatever happens he can walk away; the woman can be left literally carrying the baby. This alone means women's views and attitudes to sex are going to be usually radically different than men. Men can be relaxed about it, women have to be aware of that all the time.

      In the UK for a number of years we have now what we call the 'ladette' culture, where women drink beer, get drunk like men, act brazen and can sleep around; so things do change of course. But, women are far more often sexually objectified than men, on the Net, TV, films, books and even video games, everywhere in fact, and it is so pervasive and prevalent that it is quite frankly very difficult to avoid. For a Christian like me who actively practises celibacy and has done for a number of years, this means that I have to consciously think about what I am viewing myself. Much of what we see in the world is of the world, when God's Kingdom is something else. In the struggle to overcome many things, including struggles with feelings of lust which many men and many women must have, we may feel miserable when it seems the whole world is indulging, but I believe an inner peace fills us as reward for not indulging. And I am not a little virgin by any standards, although not a gigolo either(!) but in the past when I sought women like my mates did, I found it any empty experience because I knew deep down I was seeking a girlfriend and not meaningless sexual encounters, and I also learned that women could use men in the same way men use women. We all seek love, to be loved, to be truly wanted for who we are, warts 'n' all, and sex without love is no substitute for that.


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