Same ol’ Hips, Just a Different Sway: Illuminating on the role of women in TV series
“I’m a bitch, I’m a lover, I’m a child, I’m a mother, I’m a sinner, I’m a saint, I do not feel ashamed.”
~Meredith Brooks – Bitch 1996
When Bitch, by Meredith Brooks, came out, I was only 6 years old, but for some reason, it liberated me. I sung the lyrics to myself, very low of course, and for some reason I didn’t want to be a “Barbie girl, in a Barbie world”, I wanted to be “a sinner” and “a saint.” I felt like this was the type of woman who had an individualistic mindset, and could definitely relate to me. I would also watch television shows like Living Single, where the women weren’t portrayed as submissive to men, or as non-complex beings as individuals, which also related to me. These things lead me to wonder; does television teach its viewers to see that the “realistic woman” is a bitch, mother, child, and lover all at once? Not really, it teaches us that women may possess all of these qualities, but not collectively, we are more shown to have each of these qualities, split amongst the individual woman.
Over time an endless progression of television programs that tell stories about women’s lives. With so many shows targeted to, and cast with women, we can notice many similar characters reappearing. The most pronounced group of characters I see recurring on television involves a group of four women. Within this grouping, there is usually ‘the smart one,’ ‘the sexy one,’ ‘the naive one,’ and ‘the motherly one’. It would be foolish to believe that the similarities amongst these characters in TV shows over generations are an accident. In fact I think that they are important to understanding our culture, not only because of their common re-productions, but also because the variations among these representations, point to significant cultural differences in society. These characters teach viewers that women are versatile creatures,
Let’s think about these three different television shows (all top rated), from different eras: Golden Girls (85’-92), Living Single (93’-98’), and Sex and the City (98’-04’); which each includes a quartet of women characters. Now while these shows are about very different modern women (older White women in suburban Florida, twenty-something African-American women in Brooklyn and thirty-something, White, professional women in Manhattan), the four main characters in each show similarly represent four feminine models found throughout Western culture: the iron maiden, the sex object, the child, and the mother.
Miranda from Sex and the City, Max from Living Single, and Dorothy from Golden Girls represent the iron maiden archetype. These women usually wear business suits and have sharp, blunt, and shorter hairstyles. They’re cynical, competitive, sometimes abrasive and mean-spirited, and often antagonistic toward men. Their viewpoints might be considered feminist or just plain “bitchy,” and they value women’s right to be equal. These women work in male dominated professions and achieve high status (Miranda is a lawyer, Carrie a writer, Samantha is in PR). Most interestingly however, for these women, although they may desire a romantic partnership, they’re independent and do not need a men in their lives. They more commonly find romantic love impractical and/or incompatible with her career ambitions and independent needs. For example when giving advice to Charlotte, Miranda says, “it’s all about control . . . if he goes up there, either he’ll have the upper hand or you will . . . the question is if he goes up your butt will he respect you more or less . . . that’s the issue,” exemplifying her focus on blockading male dominance.
Samantha, Regine, and Blanche embody the sex objects in Sex and the City, Living Single, and Golden Girls. They are concerned with the male gaze and do what is necessary to get that attention. They’re sensual, superficial, and take great pride in sexual experiences. Money, power, and sex are central to them. They also feel power from sexuality and believe that women should use their sexuality to get what they want. The comments made by them are mostly sexual and shallow, and they are all about being “lovers.” For example, in the first episode, Dorothy says, “I would kill to be 40 again” (TVLand.com), talking about how, when with a group of 20-something male teachers were at work earlier that day, she had forgotten that she was older than the other women.
Charlotte, Synclaire, and Rose portray the child character. They’re usually dressed in skirts and girly accessories such as bows, ribbons, or flowers. They’re prudent and conventional, and often seen as simple characters. These “childish” women portrayed as immature, although sometimes making surprisingly profound statements as children sometimes do. They’re naive and their comments are usually silly and discounted as ridiculous. Similarly also, these women believe deeply in romantic love, and desire romantic love above most other goals. Interestingly enough these women seem to have a relationship and have the most content love life. In a conversation about sex Charlotte decides that she cannot be “the up-the-butt girl” because “men don’t marry the up-the-butt girl . . . whoever heard of Mrs. Up-the-Butt . . . no, no, no . . . I can’t, I want children and nice bedding,” this showing her use of ridiculous phrases, and her longing for a loving family like a child would want.
Finally, Carrie, Khadijah, and Sophia are the characters portrayed as the mother. While Sophia is reduced to the comedic stereotype of the ethnic mother, Khadijah embodies the strong independent mother common in notions of the Black family. These characters are central to the group, and ultimately help seek wellness for the group. The stories they tell reflect the complexity of the world, like a “mothers” would, even with the use of wit and sarcasm like Sophia often uses. The mother character is more neutral on issues, and often contemplates, and over-analyzes the dilemmas in her life as well as in others. For example in the episode where Sinclair blurt outs the secret that Regine’s new “man” is married, to comfort Regine, Khadijah puts her arm around her and says, “Look . . . listen, as much as I love to be right, and you know mother does love to be right. I wish I was wrong this time, but girl, the man is married,” referring to herself as a “mother” type.
These shows provide examples of the different personalities women have and help us see that the “realistic woman” isn’t much of a “Barbie Girl”, but is more commonly “a sinner and a saint”. However, these archetypes placed within a cultured system can then become stereotypes, and while stereotypes can change over time, they generally become set within specific cultural contexts. The women portrayed in this show are from different time eras, in different settings, and yet, they embody almost the same exact personalities, ideas, occupations, and personal issues, and this is what teaches people about the lives of realistic women. If only Television could show us that there is more versatility within the personality of the individual woman, they would really accomplish teaching us about what the realistic woman is. They need to teach more that we are all uniquely different, rather than being confined to the “Same ol’ Hips, Just a Different Sway.”
~Sasha Sanders, CWGS Alum, Class of 2013