Representation Of Women On Television Media Essay

This study examines the representation of women on Television, which is one of the most debatable topics surrounding the medium and which is frequently discussed in academia and popular culture. I will be conducting my research specifically on representation of female leading characters on “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.” The examination will reveal whether the depiction of main female characters on Law and Order is positive or negative.

1.1 Women on TV

Joseph (2004) argues that women were underrepresented on network dramatic shows in 1950s to the 1970s, that and when they did appear, they were frequently seen in token or stereotyped roles. Although representation of women has changed greatly in the last two decades as we are progressing into a more equal society, the question is, has it really changed modern representations of women or does it merely replicate gender stereotypes (E. Dobash & P. Dobash, 1998). In recent years, “Xena Warrior Princess” and “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” pioneered the use of strong leading female characters in genre of fantasy on TV. Magoulick (2006) suggests that the positive reviews of Xena and Buffy demonstrate the extent to which these women characters resonate with female viewers longing for strong role models, or even just strong female roles on television. Lavery and Rhonda (2002) argue for a contrasting depiction of Buffy while she is represented as a strong and independent feminist icon her character is vulnerable and often shallow about her appearance (124). Xena’s character helped break gender norms by coding masculine traits such as bravery, strength and aggression with feminine traits i.e. compassion and her pregnancy in Season 5 rendering gender exploration (Boze, 2011: 24). The Buffy and Xena shows both reinforce and challenge gender stereotypes of women (Reid, 2008). I am concerned with the crime genre of television which depicts women as detectives working in a patriarchal society whereas the above characters existed in the fantasy and science fiction genre. In past couple of decades, programmes like Cagney and Lacey, Cats’ Eyes, Prime Suspect, Silent Witness and Juliet Bravo were popular detective dramas depicted strong women which paved the way for future representation of strong female characters.

1.2 Law & Order: Special Victims Unit

Law and Order: SVU first aired in 1999 and is currently in its 13th season. The detectives on the team solve sexually motivated crimes and child abuse cases, and the cast includes an exceptionally strong female lead character in Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and other popular female characters such as Amanda Rollins (Kelli Giddish), Assistant District Attorney Alexandra Cabot (Stephanie March) and Assistant District Attorney Casey Novak (Diane Neal). The episodes often feature real life crime stories and create episodes based on crime stories “ripped from the headlines” (Green, 2009: 2). Law & Order: Special Victims Unit is one of the most successful and popular spin off series of “Law and Order” franchise, which has won many awards as well as the 2006 Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for Mariska Hargitay (Emmys, 2006) who describes female audience’s reaction to her character “Olivia Benson” in Green’s book “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion”:

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“As the show got more popular, I received so many emails from so many survivors. They were identifying so much with my character, identifying with this lion, this strong powerful (Olivia Benson). And then I had thirteen-years-old going, ‘I want to be you; you are my role model.’ Hundreds of emails going, ‘ I want to be a cop when I grow up.’ And I thought this character has touched something deep in so many women and provided a safe place to go… I felt I had a responsibility.”

(Green and Dawn, 2009: 90)

1.3 Relevance of the Research

Women’s representation on television has significant value to female audiences because they view strong characters as role models. Singh, Vinnicombe and James (2006) studied career-minded women who keenly draw on role models from different aspects of life, television being one of them. They discovered that women used female characters from television as role models such as “Buffy”, “Alias” and “Xena: The Warrior Princess”. Analysing how female characters on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” might serve as role models will provide me with the tools to examine the codes used in the portrayal of women.

Research has been conducted on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit in the past, for example on the shows depiction of ethnic minorities and the victimization of women. Britto (2007, p40) has used content analysis to deconstruct the idea that women are overplayed on crime drama series as offenders and victims in her article “Does “Special” Mean Young, White and Female? Deconstructing the Meaning of Special in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”. Furthermore, there has been extensive research on representation of ethnic minorities, male and female on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. However, my research will focus on the main female characters such as Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay), Amanda Rollins (Kelli Giddish), Assistant District Attorney Alexandra Cabot (Stephanie March) and Assistant District Attorney Casey Novak (Diane Neal) and deconstruction of the codes employed to characterize them.

1.4 Organization of the Chapters

In this section I explain the structure of the chapters in this dissertation which will focus on literature review, methodology and findings of my research.

In Chapter 1 we have already established the basis of this research which is to examine the representation of leading female characters on Law and Order: SVU.

Chapter 2 will review the literature that will provide support for my arguments on themes of representation of women on TV, narrative, female heroism and women and crime genre.

Chapter 3 explains the choice of methodology, research design, uses and limitations of textual analysis. It also describes the discourse analysis methodology and its use in this study.

Chapter 4 consists of the analysis of the representation of female lead characters on Law and Order: SVU. It provides details of the findings including women driving the plot, women as heroes, maternal instinct and their personal lives. The collected data is analyses in this chapter to search out the result.

Chapter 5 is the conclusion of this study that presents the findings and also elaborates on the significance, limitations and scope of this study.

Chapter 2: Literature Review

A theoretical framework will direct my research in a focussed manner whilst facilitating a proficient and comprehensive analysis. It will provide a major foundation for my investigation. As “representation of women” is such a diverse topic, I will focus and limit my research with the help of a theoretical framework in order to achieve an accurate conclusion.

2.1 Representation of Women on TV

In order to build my research, studying the history of femlae representation in the media will enable me to understand the codes employed to construct female characters. In regards to the portrayal of women in crime genre, D’Acci’s (1994) meticulous exploration of Cagney and Lacey will provide the perfect groundwork for my investigation. Cagney and Lacey’s characters were represented in unconventional way rather than the traditional ones:

“Its heroines were in-control protagonist who solved their own cases (both mentally and physically), were rarely presented as “women in distress” and were virtually never rescued by male colleagues. In addition to being active agents of the narrative they were also the subjects, but rarely the objects, of sexual (heterosexual) desire”

(D’Acci, 1994: 5)

D’Acci not only examines the progression of female characters on the show but also studies the depiction of feminism on mainstream television. This will provide me thorough knowledge of what goes behind making a drama series with female lead characters and will equip me with the right tools to compare the representation of female characters on Law and Order: SVU. Furthermore, it contains other examples from the history of American television which will be beneficial for my research. Brunsdon, Charlotte and Spigel’s (2007) book “Feminist Television Criticism: A Reader” provides a detailed examination extending across television, media and screen studies and looks into representation of feminism as historical categories and political identities. This book gives a valuable analysis of women working both behind the camera and in-front of the camera as well as female audience and their response to television in their daily lives. With these sources, I will be able to evaluate the depiction of women on Law & Order: SVU in regards to historical and political viewpoint.

The representation of women in media has been a focal point of discussion since early nineteenth century. In 21st Century, even though television produced programs like Pan Am, Charlie’s Angels and The Playboy Club with female lead characters, they are still viewed through a very patriarchal ideology (Ingham, 2007). Dominick’s (1979) article “The portrayal of women in prime time, 1953-1977” concludes that female characters appearing on prime-time television from 1953-1977 were underrepresented on television and were frequently seen in stereotyped roles. This article will help me set the groundwork for my research as I can put female characters on Law and Order: SVU side by side with previous female representations on TV. Further research (Elasmar, Kazumi and Brain, 2009) showed that women were more likely to be shown playing minor roles and playing characters such as housewives and to be involved in a romantic relationship. I would need to further explore the depth of women representation on television, which will allow me to conduct adept research in this project.

According to Gill (2007), the media depicts contradicting gender characteristics which will provide theoretical basis for my work in contemporary gender representations. This book also provides a theoretical tool to analyze representations of women in media. Similarly, Melanie (2011) cross-examines the construction of feminism and femininity in cinema and television in a wide variety of female-oriented programs such as chick flicks, reality shows and dramas. This book will further equip me with an understanding of the relationship between feminism, femininity, and visual culture and tools to analyze images of female representation in media.

Lucia (2005) investigates the representation of female lawyers in Hollywood film such as Jagged Edge, The Accused, The Client and so forth. Although these female lawyer characters are represented as strong women, the deeper study of these films exposes inconsistent characteristics which gainsay the recognition of women’s professional roles in a film. According to Lucia, these films featuring female lawyers depict:

“a patriarchal figure that possesses the potency, the genuine power to initiate the female lawyer into the structure of the law. These films accept law as patriarchal and the female lawyer as an inferior subject within that system.”

(Lucia, 2005: 19)

Lucia (2005) reveals that in these films female lawyer characters are put on trial themselves for defying the traditions of femininity and patriarchal authority. This will provide a basis for analysis of female lawyer characters on Law and Order: SVU.

2.1.1. Narrative – Writing the Woman

In order to create empathy with characters and peak interest in the audience, formulation of the character through narrative is of the utmost importance. Character and narrative in the text have an emotional connection and resonate with the reader if they identify with the character. Hence, analysis of female representation in Law and Order SVU through their characterization in the narrative will allow me to deconstruct the text. Specific aesthetic and narrative strategies used by the producers to create characters also append to feminism and female representation (Geetha, 2007). Mulvey’s (1975) groundbreaking article ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ will greatly aid in exploring the relevance of narrative structure in construction of female characters in Law and Order: SVU. Mulvey unravels the narrative and visual techniques in cinema and describes the male cinematic gaze that objectifies the female character, hence, turning her into a spectacle, ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’ (1975, 19). Mulvey (2009) revisits her theory in ‘Visual and Other Pleasure’ by applying her feminist theory to more contemporary work concerning film spectatorship. She also talks about ‘young modern woman’ of the 1920s in terms of images and narratives employed in Hollywood and European films, which will be relevant to assess portrayal of women in Law and Order: SVU.

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In regard to narrative and women representation in media, Teresa de Lauretis’s (1984) work will facilitate my research in the right direction, as she investigates the structural representations of woman in cinema. De Lauretis (1984) disagrees with Mulvey’s (1975) theory of women representation as being permanently subjective and affirms that it is in a consistent stage of self-progression. De Lauretis believes that narrative structure draws upon the character’s aspiration in social and cultural context and reproduces subjectivity. De Lauretis argues that female characters are formulated to incline towards femininity and conventionally portrayed as ‘ideal image’ perceived by men (1984, 143). De Lauretis’s conclusion of women’s oppression by employing techniques of cinematic narration will provide a diverse perspective in representation of women in Law and Order: SVU.

2.2 Women and the Crime Genre

The characteristics of gender have been reallocated in modern era in crime dramas where the female and male personalities are synthesized. The transformation also saw the shift of feminine traits of ’emotions, compassion and bond’ to traditionally masculine traits of ‘heroism, vigor, and power’ giving rise to “alternative action hero” (Feasey, 2008: 67). In 1970s and 1980s, the crime genre progressively began depicting women as significant characters, in a TV revolution. Snauffer’s (2006) book called “Crime Television” would aid in my research tremendously as it would be interesting to re-evaluate the history of crime genre which was traditionally dominated by men (Maureen, 1988: 2). Crime dramas have dominated our television since the genre came to be, according to Snauffer (2006), crime genre echoes the cultural transformation and growth in the society. He investigates crime films and shows from 60s, 70s and 80s such as The Untouchables, The Streets of San Francisco, The Rockford Files, and Baretta which represented variant heroes in multifaceted settings. This work provides a broad history of detective and police crime shows on TV, which will contribute to my research immensely.

Turnbull (2013) in her book ‘The Crime Drama: TV Genres’ provides a historical study of the crime drama series as a genre, which presents a number of case studies to clarify major concerns in the course of the genre. This book will facilitate my argument as it looks at female-led crime drama series from around the world such as The Wire and The Killing which feature important female lead characters. Crime dramas generally feature subject matter related to public sphere with male dominance, however, the addition of female characters to the crime genre has enabled writers to pursue a dynamic approach concerning gender bending transgressions, domestic issues and other feminist concerns (Feasey 2008). Nevertheless, women were not always depicted as strong willed and independent on TV.

Cavender (1999) examines the depiction of women crime victims by comparing episodes from reality crime program on prime time television. His analysis will be helpful in further studying the crime genre as well as involvement of women. Humphries (2009) examines women, violence, and media presentations through the lens of feminist criminology. This book contains chapters on “Gendering Constructions” which lays the foundation for the volume and examines media presentation of gendered violence, female killers on Law and Order and women in media. This book will give me tools to analyze the media text meticulously.

In the crime genre, male protagonist used to focus on solving the crime while neglecting public concerns during the process. Attitudes started to change when women were portrayed unconventionally as brave, independent and intelligent characters breaking away from the societal norm from 70s, which resulting in writers shaping a new feminist archetype (Aisenberg, 1994). In her book ‘Ordinary heroines: Transforming the male myth’ she suggests that female representation has progressed into equal active crime-solving characters with slight borrowing from conventional masculine traits, such as Dana Scully’s (Gillian Anderson) character in ‘The X Files’, who was a powerful and independent professional woman even though FBI agent roles were profoundly male-dominated (240).

Cuklanz and Moorti (2009) examine a wide variety of texts to delve into the representations of gendered violence against women and formulation of gender. They believe that “Law and Order: SVU” featuring lead female characters engage in stereotypical representation of women, showcasing violence against them which included inherent misogynist communiqué. Cavender and Jurik (2012) inspect the optimistic side of the representation of women on TV as they analyse ‘Prime Suspect’ starring Helen Mirren as policewoman Jane Tennison in the popular British drama series where her ‘character disrupts the conventions of the traditionally male genre’ (p.65).

They focus on the portrayal of gender and law enforcement in the show featuring modern social tribulations where women play the central character. On one hand, ‘Prime Suspect’ has become a cult hit for being an exceptionally feminist show in a traditionally male dominated crime genre. On the other hand, it is still not devoid of gender politics: while Tennison’s character is shown as a successful woman she is pigeonholed as being old, lonely, obsessed with her career and friendless. Cavender and Juriks’ (2012) work will provide the framework to deconstruct the meanings and connotation in depiction of women in Law and Order: SVU in relations to social norm.

There has been a dramatic rise in representation of women detectives in modern texts, whether be film or television, which used to be dominated by men (Mizejewski, 2004). Whilst examining Jodie Foster’s character Clarice on ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’, Mizejewski believes that:

“Traditional Hollywood cinema has been unconsciously organized along these lines: men looking and taking action, women being looked at. The conventions of framing, lighting and editing in portrayal of women all play to these dynamics”

(p. 7)

Tasker (2007) believes female representation has progressed tremendously in recent years with transformed and empowered gender egalitarianism; however, there is still substandard issue (? what does this mean?). ‘Gender is a key constructor and differentiator of character in ensemble workplace dramas’ (Allen 2007, p 48).

The meticulous examination of popular crime drama Crime Scene Investigation (CSI) in ‘Reading CSI’ by Michael Allen includes the relationship of characters to their narratives and response of fans and will provide great depth and widespread views which I can apply to Law and Order: SVU during my research.

1.3 Female Heroism

Gunter (1986) argues that women are represented in a stereotypical manner associating with the character traits they typically exhibit. In comparison with men, their characters were subjugated by personal relationships and family issues. However, this began to change in the 1970s when women were portrayed in more dynamic roles. Knight (2010) believes that this trend wouldn’t have been possible without Sigourney Weaver’s character Ellen Ripley in Alien (1979) franchise, which has become an avant-garde symbol. Ellen Ripley signified the first final girl archetype, a term coined by Carol J. Clover in the book ‘Men, Women and Chansaw: Gender in the Modern Horror Film’ (1992), who conquered and triumphed against an evil villain “without any help or rescue from a man” (p.98). Knight (2010) and Clover’s (1992) examinations of women representation would aid in decoding the signs in Law and Order: SVU. Anthony (2009) believes that the progression in women’s portrayal on television and film was because women had taken over the market and were able to acquire positions as Producers and Directors. Consequently, “women were portrayed in more heroic roles which cancelled out the notion of women as victims, resulting in a positive ideological advance” (p. 80).

Inness’s (2004) “Action Chicks” is a groundbreaking collection of essays providing a new look at female action icons such as Xena, Buffy, Lara Croft and so on. These essays take a look at how recent depictions of women in action films, TV shows, comic books, and video games reflect an increased acceptance of women in traditionally male heroic or tough-guy roles. This highly specialized and scholarly study is suitable for my research and will give me context for my analysis of Law and Order: SVU.

In order to analyze the representation of women in Law and Order: SVU, I will suggest that if the women embody four essential constructing features which are body, attitude, action and authority in a tough hero (Innes, 1998). Brown (1996) has the same belief about women portrayed as action heroes stating, “the female action heroine’s body is represented by using same codes as a male hero in regards to object and subject in action films” (p. 56). Goodwill (2011) agrees with Brown’s statement that new female action hero possesses positive “masculine” characteristic which were previously reserved for men only, breaking away from orthodox “feminine” attributes. With the fusion of traits, the earlier archetype of the hero has been amended in popular culture containing both masculine and feminine traits which will enable me to interpret female traits presented in Law and Order: SVU.

Hill (1999: 38) states, ‘action heroines are the new type of protagonists in action genre who are smarter and tougher than conventional female heroines and even their male counterparts’. This new breed of action heroines contravenes not only cinematic but cultural gender codes of women being submissive and tangential characters and transform traditional cinematic depiction of women. Noble (1999) produces an innovative framework to create a new epitome of heroism for women in her book “The Sound of a Silver Horn: Reclaiming the Heroism in Contemporary Women’s Lives”. She puts forward certain qualities that a female hero should possess to transform her and the world, such as strong-minded, valiant and a risk-taker.

Harris’s (2004) groundbreaking work will provide a framework for my research since she looks at the intricate representation of girls in recent history. Siehlohr’s (2000) anthology investigates generic codes used in gender in regards to national identity in European films. She also examines how representations of women are affected by particular national milieu. This provides a baseline to investigate influences of societal factors on representation of women in Law and Order: SVU. Hanson (2007) proposes alternative ways of viewing classic and contemporary Hollywood heroines and the associations of gender with genre. She investigates the representation of women as the investigator and heroine in the variable context of the film industry, which will enable me to apply the same approach to my research. She confers meticulous attention to the production of narrative, actions and perception as well as negotiation of feminine self and desires across the past.

Jacey’s (2010) book “The Woman in the Story: Writing Memorable Female Characters” will be of significant value on this topic as it explains the importance of different traits, character development and gender issues in constructing a female heroine. This will allow me to dig deeper into the depiction of female characters on Law and Order: SVU such as Olivia Benson’s character’s role as a Detective and Alexandra Cabot’s character as a District Attorney. According to Knight (2010), female action heroes extensively influence individuals in society, and also reveal a lot about our society. Her analysis of female action here will help me understand Olivia Benson’s character on Law and Order: SVU as she is seen as a role model and heroine to a lot of women. Furthermore, I will examine “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” which was a very popular show with very sharp and provocative commentaries on gender. In “Undead TV”, media studies scholars tackle the gender representation of Buffy and its influence on popular culture (Levine and Parks, 2007). Stuller (2010) illustrates the triumph of female hero in contemporary mythology which has cracked through male dominated environment and discusses the crucial role of female crime fighters in popular culture. Thornham elucidates the codes of a female hero in her book ‘Women, Feminism and Media’:

“For a female character to become the hero of such a series she must appropriate agency, action, command, the occupation of public space, discursive authority and the control of the investigative gaze. All of these, of course, run counter to the norms of femininity.” (p. 69)

The above mentioned codes and symbols will aid in deconstructing the structure of female lead characters on Law and Order: SVU as heroes in a patriarchal society. I would be able to examine the amalgamation of feminine and masculine traits in the discourse.



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