Sexism in Television

Authors: Madison Mallory, Greer Gorra, Chloe Campbell and Jenaye Gaudreau

The Problem Space

Sexism in the media has always been a prevalent issue. Whether it be in movies, radio, or news journals, sexism and misogyny has always been an issue. This project, however, is turning attention to television. Our project’s attention to television is due to the widespread availability of television to audiences. Television targets the young to the old, with a variety of genres and forms. Due to its widespread availability, television has the ability to quickly spread ideals and behaviors, as well as be a powerful tool for spreading messages of any sort to any audience. However, this is an issue when the ideals and behaviors are harmful or negative. Television is something common and frequent in most people’s lives, and having these messages, subtle or overt, is harmful due to that constant exposure. Behaviors and ideals can be learned in this way, almost ingrained into the audience’s mind, which can be both a positive and a negative based on what messages are being presented. We discovered that there is often a common thread between some, if not most, shows, which is the issue of sexism and misogyny being represented whether it be subtle or overt. The shows this project focuses on are of the fictional genre, and are; Johnny Bravo, Gossip Girl, Saved By the Bell, That 70’s Show, The Big Bang Theory, and Mad Men. We decided to choose these six television shows due to the differing range of audience, as well as the different ranges of genre, forms, and presentation of sexism and misogyny, while all having the common thread of sexism and misogyny be present.

Women in Johnny Bravo fawning over Johnny Bravo, playing into sexist stereotypes and stereotypical gender roles.

As our project’s attention is turned primarily towards television and the sexist and misogynistic behaviors presented in that form, other projects have also tackled the issue of sexism within the media. A journal article in the magazine Grazia, discusses “a new study from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and ad agency JWT New York” (Rosseinsky, 2017). The article discusses the findings from this new study, publishing them in a magazine in order to reach a wider audience and bring attention to the issues presented. Rosseinsky also goes on to write that “[…] women on screen were far more likely to be naked or wearing revealing clothing, with 30.2 percent described as ‘scantily clad’ compared to just 7.7 percent of male characters,” as found by the Geena Davis Institute and JWT New York study (2017). Another project was discussed on the McKinsey & Company website. “McKinsey created a one-year snapshot of how women are progressing in media and entertainment and how their workplace experiences differ from those of men” (Beard, Dunn, Huang, & Krivkovich, 2020). The project was essentially a year long research study with data collected from fifteen different companies and over 1,700 employees, both male and female, surveyed (Beard, Dunn, Huang, & Krivkovich, 2020).

We chose this problem space because it is something that is important to all of us. We each knew we wanted to look into topics in relation to sexism, as all four of us identify as female and have endured or seen sexism in our lives. While talking about potential topics, we got to talking about television shows we were watching, when it struck us just how influential these shows really are. We picked out some shows that were equal in their popularity and sexist content. We found that it wasn’t difficult to find examples of shows that portrayed women as the brunt of the joke, taken advantage of or just used as objects. All of these shows had multiple seasons and continued popularity, even after their end. We also noticed that the trend of sexism in television extended through multiple generations of target audiences. These factors combined showed that exposure to sexist ideals is constant throughout television. We recognized this massive influence and felt it was important to work in this problem space.

Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory making jokes about “a girls night” through belittling and stereotypes.

Our Project

Our project is a video, compiling examples, critiques, and citations from articles within the field on the sexism and misogynistic messages represented in the shows Johnny Bravo, Gossip Girl, Saved By the Bell, That 70’s Show, The Big Bang Theory, and Mad Men. This video has been uploaded to YouTube to help reach the biggest audience available to help provide examples within popular shows that may be overlooked in the subject of sexism towards women within television. There have been projects similar to our own, however only discussing primarily one television show. The YouTube video “The Adorkable Misogyny Of The Big Bang Theory” by Pop Culture Detective discusses in detail the misogyny and the sexism represented in the show The Big Bang Theory. However, our mission is to help bring awareness to this issue, as well as provide alternative ways to view the “jokes” or situations within television shows with a more critical eye. With the topic of sexism in media, the attention is usually drawn to movies rather than the more easily accessible form of television. When television is discussed, often when it is through an analysis or critique, the attention is drawn to one show or series. In order to help tackle this problem space, our group chose to take on six different shows, each providing a key example, a brief discussion of what is deemed problematic about the show, as well as a citation to help further prove the arguments being made.

We decided to create a video because we felt to best explain the issue, we needed to provide examples in the form of clips from the actual shows. By creating a video where we “watch” the clips with the audience, it creates a shared experience of learning together. Pointing out the insensitivities while watching, we hope will promote the audience to continue to question the content they are consuming on their own time.

We created our video by first, all four of us joining a Zoom call and acting out the scenes of us pre- and post watching clips of the featured television shows. This was done by simply recording the Zoom call. Individually we recorded voice overs for each television show and overlaid those audio recordings onto carefully selected clips of their respective television shows. The initial Zoom recordings were then spliced in between those recordings and clips to give the illusion we were watching in real time. For the creation of the video, we used iMovie. After all parts of the video were completed, the video was uploaded to YouTube.

Our Video Project
Picture of the scene mentioned in the video where Chuck attempts to sexually assault Serena, only to be met with little repercussions for his actions — going on to become a romantic lead in Gossip Girl. Taken from “23 “Gossip Girl” Moments That Are Absolutely Preposterous” from Buzzfeed.
Picture of the scene mentioned in the video where Jackie is sexualized and made fun of. She is considered “hot” in the show only when the male characters can no longer hear her.

The Research

For our project, we intentionally chose television shows of varying genres targeting varying age groups. Johnny Bravo, a children’s cartoon. Saved By the Bell, a bubblegum teen comedy from the 1990s. Gossip Girl, a raunchier teen drama from the mid 2000s aimed at young women. That 70’s Show and The Big Bang Theory, two more adult comedies. And finally Mad Men, a critically-acclaimed period drama. We explicitly wanted an array to demonstrate the ways in which their unique streams of misogyny all flow to the same ocean.

Johnny Bravo is a classic example of misogyny as a punchline. Although Johnny is often the butt of the joke, the female characters are blank slates for him to harass for laughs. The typical women (with the exception of his child sister and mother) in this show are illustrated as thin blonde white women with near identical faces and interchangeable personalities. When addressing the Maisy Test, a version of the Bechdel Test for children’s media, Johnny Bravo fails with flying colors. Questions on The Maisy Test include: are boys and girls treated respectfully? While Johnny is frequently rejected, the show itself hinges on his remarkable lack of respect for women. Another question asked is: are body shapes healthy and realistic? In this show, the answer is a resounding no for both Johnny and the objects of his affections. This phenomenon in specific is noted in “Watching Gender: How Stereotypes in Movies and on TV Impact Kid’s Development”:

“An international study involving 24 countries that analyzed over 26,000 characters in over 6,000 children’s fictional programs for children under 12 years old documented the prevalence of the unrealistically thin and sexualized body shape of animated girl characters and the large, muscular chest.”

As for Gossip Girl, That 70s Show, and Saved By the Bell, we wanted to use mixed-gender ensemble shows targeted at the tween to young adult age group to demonstrate how sexist messaging looks in the space between childhood and fully realized adult media. With juvenile themes juxtaposing hypersexualization and objectification of underage female characters, these shows represent an interesting cultural intersection and speak to a disturbing cultural obsession with underaged girls as sex objects. While Saved By the Bell is the most chaste of the three, the girls and their bodies are often made prizes to the male characters. In the other two, the sexualization of the main female characters often reaches disturbing levels of dehumanization. This is even truer of the less central female characters. “Bit characters” as they are called are often thrown in as plot devices, existing only for the sexual gratification and plot advancement of men via sex. In a recent study, it found minor or “bit” female characters were “sexually objectified more often, and to a greater degree than the leading characters […]” (Murphy, 2015, p. 19). This can be seen with Lori Forman in earlier seasons of That 70s Show and innumerable girls across Gossip Girl.

The Big Bang Theory is guilty of a technique referred to as “lampshading.” This term refers to the phenomenon of writers “making something obvious to viewers, intended to let us know the writers are self aware and make us feel like we’re all in on the joke.” (The Adorkable Misogyny of The Big Bang Theory, 14:05). Yet lampshading doesn’t challenge or critique sexism, it simply acknowledges it in a humorous way. The punchlines always assert bigotry as comical, lighthearted, even innocent. “A critical approach to humour urges researchers to consider the potentially negative aspects of humour (e.g. ridicule), and to consider the role of humour in establishing or challenging power relations” (Drakett, et al, 2018, p. 111)The purpose of having “nerdy” men deliver classically macho brand misogyny is a two part goal: 1) to mock their failure to perform masculinity, and thus reinforce strict standards for it 2) to give bigoted messaging a more harmless appearance. Seemingly ironic subversion of bigotry is continually used to downplay its severity and champion its supposed comedic value.

Mad Men follows the happenings of a parasitic advertising firm in the 1960s. The men of the office reign over the women, and select them for employment based on their attractiveness. In It’s a mad, mad, mad, ad world: A feminist critique of Mad Men, they note that even the supposedly strong female characters are written to conceive of happiness as marriage and subservience to powerful men. “Men create the ideal life for both genders. […] This theme clearly illustrates, both explicitly and implicitly, that men can succeed without women, but to succeed, a woman needs a man” (Ferrucci, Schauster, & Shoenberger, 2014, p. 98). Ironically, the advertising industry’s misogyny hasn’t changed much from the 1960s today. “Not only do women appear in adverts four times less than men, they’re also more likely to be spoken over by their male counterparts and to appear partially or completely naked: men speak seven times more than women, while women are twice as likely to be naked” (Rosseinsky, 2017).

Within the media overall, women are found to have less prominent roles and jobs. A study compiled by Omri Bezalel and Kirsi Goldynia discusses how within the news alone “women only make up 26 percent of op-ed authors in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Los Angeles Times” (Bezalel & Goldynia, 2016, p.118). Furthermore, the lack of female representation in television shows is also not very high. The “total representation of female characters (17.8% in 1990 and 23.8% in 1992) was very disappointing” (Swan, 1995, p. 8). Positive representation of women in television shows, as well as the absence of sexism and misogyny within those shows, is often hard to find. From the start of the 2010’s onwards, an introduction of “difficult women” characters have been introduced into television to help fight back against the stereotypes, sexism, and misogyny towards women characters (Hohenstein & Thalmann, 2019). “TV shows of the 2010s undermine and work against traditional and stereotypical portrayals of women on TV and instead establish feminist discourses” (Hohenstein & Thalmann, 2019, p. 113). However, there are still years of content on television with these sexist ideals to be pushed back against. So, while the push back has started, it still has a long way to go before we can expect to see these stereotypes, tropes, and sexist ideals completely leave the screen, if they ever will. “Women are portrayed as dependent on other characters, over-emotional, and confined to low-status jobs […] Even films aimed at a female audience often disappoint in depictions of independent women […]” (Murphy, 2015, p. 8). Even the media directed specifically towards women share these stereotypes and sexism, with women being portrayed as lesser than men, and the enforcement of stereotypical gender roles. Young women especially need to be shown media that does not put them down (Genz & Brabon, 2018).

Parents have also grown concerned with the content being shared to their children, which is shown within many other projects. The primary focus is on the messages of sexism and misogyny that are directed towards children, enforcing gender roles into the content that children are being exposed to. A parent on the website Sacraparental goes on to suggest a “Maisy Test’’ for children shows; a test very similar to the Bechdel test in the thought process. “[…] programmes (and games and movies) need to promote healthy gender messages in three key ways: gender representation, gender freedom and gender safety” (thaliakr, 2015). The next project is also directed towards parents, discussing the role of television and television messages in the development of children. In its study, it is discussed how “Around age 2, children begin to label their own sex and that of other people and begin to categorize and sort the world by gender,” which is incredibly dangerous when the messages in children’s television and movies are that of sexist and misognyistic ideals (Ward & Aubrey, 2017, p. 21). “A recent study by Haines, Deaux and Lofaro (2016) indicates that gender stereotyping is still strongly embedded in today’s society and can influence our judgements, choices and actions’’ (Gregori-Signes, 2016, p. 22).

The men of Mad Men showing the sexualizing of women, with them staring at the only woman in the picture.
A picture showing A.C. Slater’s pride in being a “macho pig,” or his womanizer persona, which in turns leads to many sexist and misogynistic remarks from the character towards other women in the Saved By The Bell, particularly Jessie in this case.


Our problem space is sexism in television, which is a very important topic when considering how influential and constant television is throughout all generations of society. Our video project aims to bring attention to these issues and educate our audience about looking deeper at the content they are consuming. Our work is distinct from others because we don’t focus on just one show, or one audience. We explore sexism in shows of multiple genres, geared at audiences of all ages. Our idea for this project stems from personal experience and our recognition of the amount of influence television has on society. Using Zoom and iMovie, we created our video for an opportunity to learn and grow. We want to encourage audiences to stop and reflect on what media they are consuming. The ideals being portrayed are harmful, and we want audiences to be able to identify, if possible, these beliefs in the television they watch.

We wanted to help spark the conversation of sexism in television, as well as ask questions such as; are audiences laughing because the jokes are funny, or are they laughing because they are being told the jokes are funny?

Other Projects

This project came out of the course COM 367 Multimedia Production & Digital Culture at North Carolina State University in fall 2020, taught by Dr. Noura Howell. More posts from our class:

Gender Gap in Pro Sports: Jonathan Hudson and Tommy Delaunay

Toxic Task Force (Content Moderation): Madison Neeley, Ashley Mullins and Alex Koonce

Candid Curly Collaborative: Marissa McHugh & Sandra Garcia

Sexism in Television: Madison Mallory, Chloe Campbell, Jenaye Gaudreau, & Greer Gorra

#NoWomanLagBehind — TJ & Lucas

Misprint — Aaron Kling


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