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Working Women On Television: A Mixed Bag At Best

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Working Women On Television: A Mixed Bag At Best

The Changing Lives Of Women

Working Women On Television: A Mixed Bag At Best

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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For a new series about the changing lives of women, WEEKEND EDITION turned on the TV.


SIMON: On one of TV's most popular comedies, "Modern Family," none of the adult female characters works outside of the home.


NATHAN GOULD: (As Luke Dunphy) You worked?

JULIE BOWEN: (As Claire Dunphy) Mm-hmm.

GOULD: (As Luke Dunphy) I can't imagine you working.

TY BURRELL: (As Phil Dunphy) Luke, let me tell you something. That is very offensive to women. Your mom works very hard - it's just now, she works for us.

SIMON: This hardly reflects a reality, where stay-at-home mothers are only 14 percent of U.S. women. For a little historical perspective, that's a 50 percent drop over the past 40 years. Television mirrors, and even helps drive, social norms and trends. NPR's Neda Ulaby wondered how accurately it might depict working women today.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: If you're of a certain age, you might have something in common with actress Geena Davis - your memories of working women on television.

GEENA DAVIS: I don't remember a lot of women on TV with jobs. I mean, there were "I Dream of Jeannie" and Lt. Uhura; I guess she - well, she had a job.


LEONARD NIMOY: (As character) Miss Uhura, your last subspace log contained an error in the frequencies column.

NICHELLE NICHOLS: (As Uhura) Mr. Spock, sometimes I think if hear that word frequency once more, I'll cry.

ULABY: TV has changed so much since "Star Trek," it makes "Modern Family" seem a little - hmm - less modern. Geena Davis runs something like a think tank that tracks gender and the media. It recently partnered with UCLA for a study analyzing gender roles and jobs on screen. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The partner institution is the University of Southern California.]

DAVIS: We looked at something like 11,000-plus speaking characters. And TV is actually doing a pretty good job of depicting women with careers.

ULABY: Careers, meaning the kinds of jobs a young girl - or boy - might aspire to, like the female neurobiologist on "The Big Bang Theory."


MAYIM BIALIK: (As Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler) Come on, tumor. Come on, tumor. Mama needs an aggressive little gliolastoma.

ULABY: Or all those women lawyers, doctors and detectives handling procedurals, like the ones on "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit."


MARISKA HARGITAY: (As Detective Benson) You should have done a better job stashing Sam's body. See, that, with your little trophy collection, is going to give you the death penalty.

ULABY: Or the small-town city councilwoman on "Parks and Recreation," who meets two, real-life female senators.


AMY POEHLER: (As Leslie) Well, you probably never heard of us. We're small and unimportant.

SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE: (As herself) I'm sure that's not true.

POEHLER: (As Leslie) But it is. We've had tons of problems. We're overrun with raccoons and obese toddlers.

ULABY: These are the working women Geena Davis hopes girls will see on TV and want, eventually, to be. She and her daughter were watching children shows when she became troubled by their terrible lack of gender parity. So she started her institute. Its recent studies shows family movies are vastly worse than television.

DAVIS: Eighty-one percent of the jobs are held by men.

ULABY: In real life, it's more like half. Davis once held the ultimate job on television: president of the United States, in 2005's "Commander in Chief."


UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) If we were to classify Zab(ph) as an enemy combatant...

DAVIS: (As President Allen) You're advocating torture.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) That is your word.

DAVIS: (As character) Which has not been proven to work.

My administration was very short. We only had one year.

ULABY: Washington, D.C., is where you'll find today's TV women most consumed by their careers - on "Homeland" and "Scandal." Those happen to be Jennifer Newsome's favorite shows. She's a documentarian who's examined representations of women in the media. She sees this problem: Nearly all those characters have something in common besides their careers - no kids.

JENNIFER NEWSOME: Let's forget the working mother, despite the fact that of working women, 60 percent are working mothers.

ULABY: As part of her research, Newsome asked a Hollywood executive about this vexing absence of working moms on shows. Here's what the executive said:

NEWSOME: Well, you know, our focus study group, they weren't comfortable with the mother working so hard and blah, blah, blah, blah.

ULABY: It can be uncomfortable to watch "Nurse Jackie," a working mom over 40, struggling to hold it together.


EDIE FALCO: (As Nurse Jackie) Please give me a break, will you please, Kevin? I'm clean - months and months.

DOMINIC FUMUSA: (As Kevin) Great - Mother of the Year.

NEWSOME: Forty and older are actually 47 percent of our population here in the U.S., yet only 26 percent of women on TV.

ULABY: Of course, 40 and older in the real world tends to be the ages of CEOs, high-level politicians, women who've poured decades into building distinguished careers. According to the Geena Davis Institute, prime-time programs show women running companies 14 percent of the time. In real life, it's 25 percent. In the TV show "Damages," Glenn Close played a woman in charge of her own, high-powered law firm who mentors a female colleague.


GLENN CLOSE: (As Patty) Push him. You ask him the same questions 10 times, 10 different ways. Erickson has an ego. He'll get tired of hearing your voice; he'll want to hear his own. Then eventually, he'll say something he shouldn't.

ULABY: "Damages" aired on FX, a channel mostly known for its compelling male antiheroes. FX President John Landgraf:

JOHN LANDGRAF: Frankly, the reason that I mistakenly passed on "Breaking Bad" was that at that time, we had "The Shield," "Nip Tuck" and "Rescue Me." And I was like, well, are we going to have four shows with white, male antiheroes on the air? Is that really our whole - the whole of our brand?

ULABY: He wanted female antiheroes anchoring their own shows. So he green-lighted not only "Damages" but "Dirt," a short-lived series with Courteney Cox as the editor-in-chief of a sleazy tabloid.


COURTENEY COX: (As Lucy) I want to see an exclusive. What do we know about this dead cheerleader?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Amber Carmichael. Disappeared at a pep rally.

COX: Now, that's a solid cover.

ULABY: Neither show exactly found "Breaking Bad's" level of fan engagement.

LANDGRAF: And it's fascinating to me that we just have a really different, I think much more rigorous set of standards for female characters than we do for male characters, in this society. It's much harder to buy acceptance of a female antihero.

ULABY: Tell it to Janet Tamaro. She created the show "Rizzoli and Isles." It's about a detective and a medical examiner - both, women.

JANET TAMARO: I got a lot of a resistance when I wanted to write a scene with the two women in conflict, from both male and female executives. And everyone was squeamish about it. No, no, no; we don't want to see women fight.


SASHA ALEXANDER: (As Maura Isles) Thanks for letting me know that Agent Dean was planning to join us.

ANGIE HARMON: (As Jane Rizzoli) I didn't know he was going to follow us in. What did you expect him to do? He's a federal agent. Patty shot him...

ALEXANDER: In the leg.

TAMARO: They have this tremendous conflict, and neither one of them wants to give at all. And yet when a man says, "Did I just walk in on a catfight?" the two women instantly react.


HARMON: (As Rizzoli) Did you really just call a disagreement between two female colleagues a catfight?

ULABY: But there's another place to look on television for powerful depictions of working women, says Geena Davis.

DAVIS: The most gender-balanced sector of television shows is reality shows.

ULABY: That might sound funny, until you look past the housewives and dance moms to the professional women flipping houses on HGTV, designing high-end suits on "Project Runway," or running a restaurant in St. Louis.


ROBBIE MONTGOMERY: Trying to run the restaurant, making sure the employees are there, and all the food is out on time...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We got a line, y'all. We got a line.

MONTGOMERY: That's a lot to do by myself.

ULABY: "Welcome to Sweetie Pie's" is starting its third season this summer. Davis says reality TV, just like - well, real reality, proves that showing women working really works - for everyone.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.


SIMON: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News.

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