Published by the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation, University of Canberra

Research and Stories through a Gendered Lens

Gender lens: BroadAgenda Research Wrap

Sep 2, 2021 | Equality, Research, Research Wrap, Popular Culture, News, Feature

BroadAgenda Research Wrap is your fortnightly window into academia. We scour the journals so you don’t have to. 
No topic too impenetrable, no research too eclectic; BroadAgenda Research Wrap brings you a glimpse of the latest gender research around the world – in plain English.

The BroadAgenda HQ has been in lockdown for a few weeks now. Entertainment – for obvious reasons – has been in short supply, so we’ve once again turned to our streaming services for a bit of comfort and escapism from the madness.

Trying to count the small things we should be grateful for, this year’s tv offerings have been slightly kinder to our brain cells. Less Tiger King, more White Lotus, and The Chair, if you will.

As such, we thought now would be a good time to take a look at the representations of women in the shows we consume right now.

(Actually, the question I’ve been most consumed with is whether anyone has quantified the number of times kids can say ‘Mama, I’m hungry. Mama? Mama!’ during distance education, but I’ll leave that for now. Hits a bit too close to home, one might say.)

The Netflix drama The Chair focuses on Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh) as the newly appointed chair of the fictional Pembroke University English department. At a first glance, it’s a nice change to see a woman professor of colour both as the protagonist and in a position of power. And as Nik Taylor and Heather Fraser point out, the show gets a lot right about racial politics in modern American academia.

But with that accuracy also comes pain. When other viewers laugh at the stuffy, bumbling, exclusively white staff, for those whom this is a lived reality the supposed comedy might result in anger and despair instead.

Speaking of accuracy and how this reflects the real world, a study (Journal of Neuroscience Research, 2020) on women in STEM showed that despite the widespread interest in women’s underrepresentation in science, the number of women in faculty positions in academia has remained largely unchanged.

The authors suggest a number of contributing factors, including numeric underrepresentation and stereotypes; lack of supportive social networks; and chilly academic climates. But here’s the really chilling fact:

“Only 5% of all science and engineering doctorates [in the US] are awarded to women of color”.

As Yi-Joon Kim finds in The Chair, it is lonely at the top indeed.

The Chair (L To R) Cynthia Macae s Mrs. Whittenden, Sandra Oh as Ji-Yoon, and David Morse as Dean Larson in Episode 3 Of “The Chair.” Picture: Eliza Morse/Netflix © 2021

The Chair (L to R) Cynthia Macae as Mrs. Whittenden, Sandra Oh as Ji-Yoon, and David Morse as Dean Larson in Episode 3 Of “The Chair.” Picture: Eliza Morse/Netflix © 2021

Moving on from these ugly realities, let’s turn our gaze to slightly younger audiences and ‘woke witches’ for a moment.

Dr Megan Henesy has conducted a fascinating study on the hit Netflix show The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (Feminist Media Studies, 2020). She writes:

What makes this new Sabrina interesting is both her gothic sensibility and her political “wokeness”, which are presented as aspirational qualities. Sabrina is flawed and idealistic, she makes mistakes, but she is also an advocate of choice, of free will, and she is not afraid to state her opinion or fight for what she believes is right. Chilling Adventures has reimagined the magical heroine as a gothic teenage feminist icon, and considering the current state of American social politics, this is a welcome adaptation.

What’s more, while all three female teens “feel like outsiders at some point in the series due to their liminality (Sabrina as a half witch, Ros as a woman of colour in a primarily white town, and Susie as a non-binary person), they all show strength in embracing that which makes them different, and develop support structures which promote individuality and independence.”

Their issues, as Dr Henesy points out, are at the same time timeless and contemporary: Puberty has always been a battleground, while the fights we thought had already gone away have once again raised their ugly heads in recent years – or for some, they had never gone away in the first instance.

For those of us who came of age during the 90s Girl Power era, this rings particularly true. Fun times? Undoubtedly. Shallow? Often. Self-aware? Not in the slightest.

Take the predecessor of Sabrina, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for example. (We’ll leave the issues with the show’s creator aside for now.) Buffy was our hero. The girl with magical powers, who took on the Watchers’ Council and successfully challenged the patriarchal narrative of potential slayers. In an all-white, middle-class universe.

But here’s the thing. Even Buffy faltered when the realities of life piled on and she became the guardian of her younger sister, and she had to take a job at a fast-food chain just to stay afloat.

For those of us who went on to have kids in Australia, the high child care costs, and what the researchers refer to as the “workforce disincentive rate” at the very latest made us realise that doing it all, being it all, and having it all was going to be a tad more complicated than the shiny empowerment messages of our youth.

The matter of representation is of course complex and starts long before the characters grace our screens. As a textual analysis of Latina representations and television casting breakdowns (International Journal of Communication, 2021) showed, the breakdown text itself (that is, the character description used by actors, agents and casting directors), is a “fundamental element contributing to and maintaining stereotypical portrayals and discriminatory casting in television”.

That is to say, given the deeply entrenched systemic inequalities across the board, it sometimes feels miraculous we’re not doomed to watch reimaginations of James Bond over and over again.

When it comes to representations of reality in terms of class politics, the HBO’s tragicomedy The White Lotus provides both compelling social satire and stomach-churning discomfort in equal doses. The predominately white guests of the exclusive holiday resort behave like spoiled toddlers, while the more diverse cast of employees serve them, dance for them, and cater to their every whim, no matter what the personal or professional toll on themselves.

One of the most appalling scenes takes place between the wealthy and troubled guest Tanya McQuod (Jennifer Coolidge) and the White Lotus employee, Belinda (Natasha Rothwell). Through sheer manipulation, some borne out of genuine grief, some simply through waving the promise of cash and a better future in front of her, Tanya turns Belinda into her personal comfort blanket, only to dump her swiftly when a proverbial knight in shining armour comes along. In Tanya’s world, Belinda is barely a human being in her own right, entirely disposable.

Ultimately, the show provides no solutions. The evil deeds of the 1%, no matter how heinous, are barely punishable. But perhaps we can hope, if a bit naively, that with increased awareness, action will follow?

Maybe not. Because as Dr Ju Oak Kim argues in her article ‘Intersectionality in quality feminist television: rethinking women’s solidarity in The Handmaid’s Tale and Big Little Lies(Feminist Media Studies, 2021), even “quality feminist television paradoxically simplifies the exclusion and alienation of minority women through the ongoing centralization of white female protagonists in gendered solidarity, as well as through racial dichotomization within the gender category”.

But it’s not all bad news.

This fascinating article by Dr Erin Borry (Public Integrity, 2021) examines social equity and popular culture.  Analysing two popular shows: Modern Love and Grey’s Anatomy, she argued that the exposure to gender identities beyond the binary may indeed help shift the dial on the fair and just processes and policy outcomes.

So can television shows be a force of good? We’re going to go with a strong ‘maybe’.

Feature image: Sandra Oh as Ji-Yoon in episode 2 of “The Chair.” Picture: Eliza Morse/Netflix © 2021

 

 

Dr Pia Rowe, author of BroadAgenda’s regular Research Wrap, is a Research Fellow at the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation, University of Canberra.

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