Gender equality in TV shows

I recently watched the entire Nickelodeon series Avatar: The Last Airbender, and it struck me on completion that it’s one of the few shows to which I would give full marks on gender equality. I thought about other shows I love that get close-but-not-perfect marks, and the things that disqualified them, and I ended up working up a mental list of criteria for gender equality in popular fiction.

When I talk about gender equality in a show I’m talking about the number and quality of female roles vs. male roles. If sexism is a part of the show’s universe, that may affect which kinds of roles each gender can have, but a writer can still create interesting men and women within those constraints. That will become more clear as I go into the criteria further.

(A couple of notes: I’m only talking about plot-centric shows here: mystery, adventure, sci-fi/fantasy. Relationship-centric shows, like Gilmore Girls, tend to be even-handed or female-heavy. And I’m not even touching questions of heteronormativity or the gender binary, because pop culture is miles away from being even close to addressing these fairly.)

The first criterion is simply the ratio of male to female characters, within each tier of importance. You can’t just count up all the male characters and all the female characters and leave it at that: you have to separate the main characters, the supporting characters, and the background characters, and assess within each group. Babylon 5 is a good example here: this is the only category it falls down on. You have Sheridan/Sinclair, Garibaldi, G’Kar, Londo, Franklin, Veer, Lennier, and Marcus on the one hand, and on the other Delenn, Ivanova, and Lyta/Talia. (Conveniently, there’s a replacement character on each side, so I don’t have to decide whether to count them as one or two.) B5 crafts excellent, well-rounded, engaging female characters, but they’re heavily outnumbered. Since all the important characters are in positions of political or military power, you could argue that there’s in-universe sexism here, but that’s never mentioned to be the case (except maybe for the Centauri.)

I’m not asking that writers labor to balance their character sheets; that tends to lead to problems with my second criterion, and there are plenty of good stories that can be best told with a primarily male or primarily female cast. But it’s a symptom of a greater cultural bias that characters that form in a writer’s mind (except in relationship-focused stories) are far more often male than female.

The second criterion is diversity and depth of female characters. Contemporary writers generally recognize that they need to include important female characters, but the female characters they produce are overwhelmingly likely to be young, attractive, and socially competent: in other words, dateable. Flaws of fictional women most often fall into the category of “girlfriend flaws”: being naggy or oversensitive or interfering. Rare is the important female character who is over 40, or a jerkass, or truly plain or awkward (as opposed to Hollywood Plain and Hollywood Awkward.) House is a particularly egregious example of this failing: Cameron, Cuddy, and Thirteen are all eminently dateable. Amber, aka Cutthroat Bitch, broke the mold a little, but she wasn’t around for long.

Women also tend to have shallower inner lives. Teenagers aside, a moody, secretive character is likely to be male. A character who shows hidden depths or previously-unsuspected qualities is likely to be male. With female characters, what you see is usually what you get. Male characters also get the lion’s share of agonizing moral dilemmas: females aren’t often given the plurality of values that yields serious internal conflict.

Another angle of the diversity question is the roles women appear in. Even in shows with a solid range of well-developed primary female characters (Firefly and Farscape, for example), there’s often a dearth of women in the stock supporting roles. Comic relief, wise mentors, and especially villains are usually male. One might say, “No big loss,” since these are usually shallower roles, but it indicates the overall disconnect between the fictional universe and the real one. In the real universe, half the people are women, and they occupy the full range of human possibilities. In the fictional universe, people are male by default, and the females live within a fairly narrow range of roles and characteristics. The fictional universe needs more complex and conflicted women, more goofy women, more antagonistic women. And, for the love of Toph, more women that aren’t pretty.

Which leads directly into the third criterion, the eye candy quotient. This one is pretty straighforward: the ratio of sexy men to sexy women. I don’t have a problem with women as sex objects per se; my problem comes when women are mainly sex objects (as addressed above) or when men aren’t also sex objects. Some shows are more devoted than others to dishing out the eye candy, and I’m fine either way, as long as it’s equal-opportunity. This one is where Battlestar Galactica falls down. It does really well on the diversity-and-depth criterion, (with extra credit for the creation of Laura Roslin and Starbuck), but every single female on the show is smokin’ hot, while there are only four or five attractive males, and only three of them are ever played for sexiness. (If you’re curious, I’m counting Helo, Lee Adama, and Anders as the “played for sexiness” ones, with Gaeta and Baltar as the other two.)

Avatar meets all the criteria solidly. The important characters, characters whose development is important throughout the series, are Aang, Sokka, Zuko, and Iroh, (male) and Katara, Toph, Azula, Mai, and Ty Lee (female). The female characters are as likely as the males to be heroic, morally conflicted, goofy, and badass. There’s plenty of eye candy on both sides. Background and tertiary characters feature women in as broad a range of roles as men (from one-episode villains to bizarre comic relief). You get the sense that in the world of Avatar, just like in the real world, half the people are women.

The only other fictional work I can think of that gets full marks (although most of the shows I’ve named here come close) is the webcomic Girl Genius. Also perhaps the short-lived Joss Whedon show Dollhouse. (I haven’t watched enough of Buffy to judge it, but it may qualify as well.) Any other nominations?

9 thoughts on “Gender equality in TV shows

  1. Yeah, I was going to suggest Buffy. Lots of really great female characters, both main characters and side ones. And pretty much *everyone* is played for sexiness in that show, both guys and girls, so that comes out pretty even.

    Also, I love 30 Rock partly because I feel like Liz Lemon is one of the very few main female characters on TV who are TRULY awkward. The things she says and does wrong are very similar to the things I’d do, and it’s not set up as cute or endearing when she does it, it’s as awkward and uncomfortable as it would be in real life. Plus, she’s sometimes kind of a jerk. Heh.


    1. Yes! One reason I love Tina Fey is that she’s able to be both female and funny, in a way that feels so natural that you wonder why it’s so rare these days. I admire Allison Janney and Jane Kaczmarek for similar reasons. (The mom from Malcolm in the Middle makes me happy… wacky dads are common on TV, wacky moms almost unheard of. Which has always bothered me, since I intend to be one someday).


  2. The prob that comes with realistic aspects of life is that sometimes people don’t want things to be ‘fair’. While not a literary genius by any stretch of the imagination, there are many times that for the sake of visual media that characters that are unattractive are made attractive, more so if they are main characters.

    Avatar was good in the fact that while it was aimed for children, they were not afraid to challenge their characters, make them diverse but extremely lovable and understandable on a more adult level. See the ‘death’ of Jet (one of my favorite character)… Which they even made fun of in a later eposide.

    They had marvelous writing and never seemed to ‘sell out’… Or at least to an extent that it turned me off entirely. And just to prove that I’m still me…

    Sokka represent.

    (Also, do not have high expectations of the live action movie if you haven’t seen it yet. Otherwise you might be in for an Indy 4 experience.)


  3. I’m currently on my third time through watching the series Carnivale, and given your arguments, I think it represents possibly the best use of female characters in TV history. (Probably why it got cancelled)

    The two main characters are male. But in the second character tier, the majority is female, and while they fulfill some romantic roles, they fall all over the attractiveness spectrum. There is a woman (Rita Sue) who is full-figured (and not in the euphemistic sense of the word) and yet very sexy. Sophie is really not very attractive, but undeniably interesting. Libby is the ultimate pretty/cute/sexy one, but even that is largely by comparison. Iris and Ruthie are over 40, maybe even 50, but still get to be romantically involved in the plot.

    And how did this show get away with starring five unconventionally attractive women? Well, they’re all strong characters with motives, ambitions, needs, and uses… like you’d see with any male role. And the male roles are used for eye candy just as frequently as the women, I’d argue.

    Again, this show was cancelled after two seasons. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a show with such brilliantly well-rounded female characters. And everyone should watch it, so that someone will make a sequel or prequel or something.


  4. I’m discovering this a bit late, but it rocks. I’ve been bothered for a while about how female characters are measured solely by “can or cannot hold their own against the men.” What that philosophy does is merely reinforces the idea that women exist only in comparison to men, and narrows the scope of female characters who can be created. What about female characters who aren’t masculine enough that thats a fair comparison? Why can’t we have strong feminine female characters, or flawed female characters who are also complex?


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