Sexy Sidekicks: The Misrepresentation of Women in the Media
by mango101 on April 19, 2017 - 9:41pm
The influence media can have on one’s life can be truly remarkable. More specifically, television shows can often change one’s outlook on life or future aspirations. After all, watching one episode of Suits can certainly promote the field of law as an interesting future career. Although, unlike Suits, which includes a leading female actress as one of the main characters, most television shows portray women in a troubling manner. The portrayal of female characters as sexual objectified inferiors is quite common in today’s television scene. Moreover, the popular HBO television series Entourage is constantly critiqued for their representation of women. Vincent Chase, the main character of the series, uses women as disposable sexual partners, limiting any women’s influence on the plot of the show. The current depiction of women in the media, as inferior characters with the sole responsibility of providing sexual pleasure, not only fails the categorical imperative, as introduced by Immanuel Kant’s ethical rationalism, but it also is considered a vice in terms of virtue ethics.
The first analysis of the representation of women in the media can be done using a deontological perspective and more specifically with an emphasis on ethical rationalism. An early developer of ethical rationalism, Immanuel Kant, described the moral framework using a categorical imperative. He argued that an action would be deemed immoral if it could not be adopted as a universal law for everyone to follow. Currently most women in the media are depicted as side characters with sexual appeal. A universal maxim declaring that all actresses must remain subordinate to men and satisfy their sexual desires would clearly be ridiculous. Displaying all doctors and lawyers on TV as men would be extremely concerning, considering women make up half of the world’s population. A maxim forcing television writers to include only male leads would contradict the growing influence of women on the global scale. In fact, this depiction of women can discourage aspiring young girls from pursuing top-tier jobs in the future. The Bechdel test, created by Alison Bechdel, examines the representation of women in the media. It asks if the work being studied portrays two named female characters having a conversation about a subject other than men. Although passing this test is a good start, most shows do not allow women to occupy important roles in society. Maerz, Breznican and Sperling (2015) argue that, “…movies like Cinderella and Fifty Shades of Grey pass the test, even though both stories focus on a woman getting a man, while films like Gravity with strong female leads sometimes fail because there aren’t enough characters to qualify.” Women are under and misrepresented in the media and establishing a maxim to limit their influence in plots would not solve this issue.
The ethical framework of virtue ethics would also agree that the current depiction of women in the media is unethical. Displaying women as low level characters with meaningless responsibilities would certainly not be considered virtuous. The virtues of equality, justice and cooperation would all be ignored by using these character descriptions. Men and women alike are meant to work together to achieve progress and success. Instead, women are shown as casual fun distractions for men to enjoy, while they alone attempt to solve the world’s problems. As well, this notion of manipulation and control of women is a vice in and of itself. While examining the motives of the women in Entourage, Richard Brody (2015) asks, “What motivates them to have one-night or one-morning or one-afternoon stands with the likes of E.?” He implies that the women are automatically drawn towards the show’s main characters, without any discussion about their interests. Once again, this assumed control of women, stripping them of their autonomy, is considered a vice.
On the other hand, every argument has two sides. It is important to consider the opinions of those who support the media’s current representation of women. A main argument behind this thought would be surrounded around the idea of utilitarianism. One could argue that the media naturally reflects society’s values and beliefs. Therefore, portraying women as sexually appealing is a representation of what those in society enjoy watching. In the words of a utilitarian, the majority of people would benefit from portraying women this way. This upper class of beautiful women is what viewers want to see. Furthermore, shows like Entourage that illustrate life in Hollywood properly depict the women that work in this industry. Amy Kaufman (2015) explains that Emmanuelle Chriqui “…doesn't think the movie makes ‘girls look super great’ but believes it's an accurate representation of women in Hollywood.” This argument, which places an importance on the context of the show, argues that this portrayal of women is acceptable. Looking back at utilitarianism, not only would the majority of people benefit from seeing the beautiful women they want to see but they would also benefit by showing the truth behind the Hollywood scenes.
Although the utilitarian argument is certainly valid, the need for change in the depiction of women in the media still prevails. Virtue ethics and ethical rationalism both counter this utilitarian argument. The argument regarding the happiness of viewers can be neglected since television shows should be ethically bound to properly represent women, regardless of preferences. Having strong female leads, who are not sexually objectified, would certainly not dramatically decrease viewer satisfaction. Furthermore, displaying all Hollywood actresses as attractive sidekicks would create an issue with self-identification. If women can only be seen as subordinate to men, then they will never be successful in breaking the glass ceiling. Mandujano-Salazar (2016) confirms this idea by saying, “a woman is to be considered feminine only by aligning with the traditional roles of wife and mother.” Female actresses constantly displayed as sexually pleasing girlfriends would force girls to identify with these gender norms and would not allow them to pursue meaningful careers.
Discussing the issue of the representation of women in the media is significant for the progression of society. Accepting the media’s current depictions would stall any development in the encouragement of women to break the glass ceiling. Recent portrayals also fail the ethical rationalist categorical imperative and include several vices that are condemned by virtue ethics. It would be unethical to suggest the media’s current misrepresentation of women should continue.
Brody, R. (2015, June 4). The Silent Women of “Entourage”. The New Yorker. Retrieved April 17, 2017.
Kaufman, A. (2015, June 3). 'Entourage' bros and their high jinks might not be so welcome anymore. The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved April 17, 2017.
Maerz, M., Breznican, A., & Sperling, N. (2015). Alison Bechdel Reflects on the Cult of Alison Bechdel. Entertainment Weekly, (1361), 38-43.
Mandujano-Salazar, Y. Y. (2016). Gender Stereotyping for the Re-naturalization of Discourses on Male and Female Traditional Ideals in Japanese Media: The Case of Samurai Blue and Nadeshiko Japan. Scientific Journal Of Humanistic Studies, 8(14), 1-10.