Have you ever walked down the street, seen a young woman stroll by and thought: I bet she’s terrible at her job? Me neither. Then shouldn’t there be somewhere, theoretically, in the giant churning media machine that is modern television, a precedent for a gal to totally own the hell out of her position at work? One would think.
There seems to be an open dialog in American culture right now about how women fit in to the workforce. And the general consensus seems to be: not well enough. We’ve all heard the statistic that women consistently earn 77 cents on the dollar for doing the same job as men, which may or may not be entirely accurate, statistically. But whatever the exact figure, it seems to be an unceasing pattern that women earn less than men. But in the last few years, there seems to be more of a discourse on what it means socially for a modern woman to be employed with male coworkers (or employees). Pantene a few months back released an advertising campaign highlighting the fierce double standards for men and women in the business world. Every quality that makes a man good at his job, just reads as overly forceful and irritating when exhibited by a woman. So, under this generally compelling logic, women are not only paid less but very much less respected at work. Wonderful.
So then if this is the case in the real world, what is the fate of working women in the fictional world? I’m talking about Television. Without generalizing all TV shows, and speaking specifically about a select batch of TV comedies, there seems to be an undercurrent or an implication that women are fundamentally not cut out for the work force. As if their two X-chromosomes are pulling at them like a tug of war match inside their body, trying to hurl them somewhere safer and less competitive.
If you’ve ever watched The IT Crowd, you’ll realize two things right off the bat: it’s hilarious, and it’s a workplace comedy. In the first episode, Jen Barber arrives at Reynholm Industries ready for her first day at work, when she’s placed as manager of the IT Department because of a lie on her resume. Jen never fully gels in her position; constantly fumbling her duties as manager and becoming distracted by “women things.” An entire episode of the show is dedicated to Jen becoming obsessed with a pair of shoes (as all women do, obviously) that are the wrong size. She ends up mangling her feet and even chasing off the Japanese CEO who was a potential partner for the company after an irrational outburst (whoops!).
In another episode, Jen suddenly gets her period and turns into a stark-raving maniac at work. She even goes so far as to let her womanness seep out into the office, infecting her male co-workers and reducing the staff to a bunch of weeping, emotional, dithering, incompetent irrational freaks (typical, right?). Jen’s status at the company also seems to be ever evolving because of her gender, but not in a good way. She eventually gets promoted to be the assistant to the head of the company, of course only because he wants to drug her with Rohypnol and have sex with her. This, needless to say, doesn’t work out. Another notable promotion finds Jen being accepted to be the new Entertainment Director at the company to an all-male group of business partners, but fails miserably at her new task because “she’s a woman…isn’t she?”. They men she is put in charge of entertaining were expecting strip clubs and drug binges but were instead taken to a performance of the Vagina Monologues, obviously. In the context of this show, however, Jen’s foibles could otherwise be considered exaggerated to the point of facilitating comedy, regardless of the implications. She’s merely a caricature, albeit a bit of a dated one.
Whether it’s about shoes, boys or otherwise, there seems to be a sense that women who work care too much about things that are not necessarily “work related” in the scope of TV. A feisty and somewhat scattered blond named Claire Dunphy is another one I follow on ABC’s Modern Family. Claire, for most of the series, is a stay-at-home mom, for lack of a better phrase. Her professional duties don’t extend beyond her household (more power to her), but in recent seasons she’s returned to the work-force. Since her two oldest children are entering adulthood, she decides to get a new gig. This consists of calling in a favor from her father who lands her a job at his company. In spite of the fact that Claire is college-educated, a proper job hunt was never on the table. Which, considering her lack of documented professional experience, is understandable. But when Claire starts her job, she instantly makes waves amongst the staff. She’s entering the game immediately with a disadvantage as she’s heralded as “the Boss’ daughter” who is obviously suspected of favoritism from Dad. But Claire’s misstep at this job is not that she’s the head honcho’s little girl, but that she makes a desperately concerted effort to make emotional connections with the other employees even though she holds a managerial position. On her first day, her father immediately criticizes her for bringing cookies for the staff, telling her it makes her look weak, which she disregards completely. Needless to say, she makes a fool of herself when she greets all her employees and gains absolutely no respect. She is more interested in being liked than fulfilling her duties as boss.
The ONE person she is able to befriend, for whatever reason, is the strange and socially awkward, turtle-owning IT guy named Todd. When Claire reports her new friend to Jay, he tells her that Todd is going to be fired as soon as he can find his replacement. When Todd and Claire subsequently have lunch, he tells her about his plans to buy a house. Claire, not being able to hold her tongue on a professional level, tips him off that he shouldn’t consider buying anything because he may or may not have a chance of being fired. This of course causes a storm of problems, causing Todd to “trash the network” at the company, becoming a mess for Jay to clean up. At least there are still those cookies. The underlying problem here is that Claire’s only reference for a business approach is to use her mom-sensibility with employees. It’s not necessarily her job performance (which rarely even comes up), but her maternal, nurturing, sense of interpersonal protection (which is essential for raising kids) that is catastrophic for a person in management. And god knows, modern, intelligent women don’t have the capacity to separate the two.
This sense of conflation between a woman’s job and her role as a Mother comes up again and again, and always adversely for the woman, regardless of how proficient she is at her job . Elizabeth Lemon on 30 Rock, while in a position of authority and essentially good at what she does, often has a hard time at work. She is the head writer on a fictional show-within-the-show called TGS, and she’s consistently having to heard, corral, baby and nurture her entire staff to accomplish even the smallest task. But in spite of all her nurturing, her tough-love, and the sacrifices she makes for her job, she never seems to gain much respect from anyone she works with. She’s not the revered Patriarch, she’s the mommy. Her job responsibility very often extends into being emotionally supportive with her employees on a completely personal, non-professional level. But regardless of her efforts, everyone around her has no issues exploiting her generosity and defying her authority. Because everyone knows no matter how much you run amok, mommy will always be there for you. It’s as if Liz’ uterus is roaming around her body too fast to manage anyone. The only time Liz can foster even a scrap of respect is when she decides to take a leave of absence — when the “kids” are left to their own devices, they realize how much they need a Mommy and the extent that they’ve taken her for granted. When Liz inevitably returns to her post, she’s invariably left with a giant mess to clean up (which she does). It’s only when other people are left in charge that they see what Liz does for them. And while they come to appreciate her, the next week everything reverts back to normal. Kids will do whatever they can get away with when Mom’s around.
Liz’ very status as a “woman in charge” comes into question during an episode where the writers are discussing unfair treatment to employees for their race and gender. Her Producer Pete tells her, after reading her work file: “The only reason NBC picked up [Liz Lemon’s show] is because of the flak they got from women’s groups after airing the action drama Bitch Hunter”. There you have it! That makes sense! Why else would there be a woman in a position of authority at a major television studio even though they’re good at what they do?
But what Liz seems to struggle with most of all is finding a work-life balance. Her reoccurring mantra is to be a woman who can “have it all”, but having it all is something she flounders to achieve. Unlike her boss and mentor Jack Donaghy, Liz’ dedication to her job is deemed unhealthy by her coworkers. In the pilot episode, Jack himself reads her and refers to her as “over-scheduled and under-sexed”. While on the other side of the gender coin, there are several instances in the series where Jack spends the night at the office working and in the end is the hero who saves the day. Liz is just, to borrow from the Pantene ad, “selfish” when it comes to her loyalty to her work. Her personal relationships are secondary to her relationship to work, which causes anxiety in her life and is why Liz is characterized as being (amongst other things) uptight, controlling, stressed out and tired. But again, Jack Donaghy, who also consistently putting work first, is always canonized as a smooth, savvy businessman who knows what he wants and then takes it.
Now, these very much dramatized fictional stories are obviously a hyperbole on what the modern workplace is like. But television, unlike big business, isn’t shoved into major metropolitan areas where the culture is generally more pervasively liberal. EVERYONE in America watches television. It’s a BROADcast to the entire nation, so the stories on television have to be interesting and compelling to every walk of life in the United States to stay afloat. So, sadly, it would appear not every American is ready to watch stories about confident successful woman in the workplace, doing a good job on her own professional merits. But, to quote once again the Pantene ad, “don’t let labels hold you back”. If women persist in the boy’s club of American business, maybe more people will eventually want to see it.