By Andrea Martinez
My friend Cindy is in love with Kim Kardashian. She wants to be her, in all her voluptuous, powerful Kardashianess. Before, I, like many people I know, considered the Kardashians privileged, talentless celebrities who strangely kept us entranced with their daily dramas despite our having plenty of those ourselves.
After feeling guilty for watching a few episodes of a Keeping Up with the Kardashians marathon, I wondered exactly why I felt like I was wasting my time watching a show about someone else’s life. I came to a couple of conclusions: the first, I honestly could have been more productive with my time. Secondly, and more importantly, I realized that the way women are represented in media is problematic; the use of traditional gender roles and stereotypes place women in a demeaning light, which makes the audience feel like we are wasting our time watching silly shows about women.
A prime example is reality TV, a subgenre of television notorious for being trashy and unrealistic, generally considered to be scripted and not as true-to-life as its name implies. The problem is, whether or not it is scripted, women tend to be portrayed as silly, vapid, emotional, and oh-so-obsessed with shopping, among other things. Most women featured in reality TV become categories of their own, and are given labels that become a part of their identities on and off the screen; their on-screen personas are assumed to be their real-life identities, and can be used to misrepresent the person and encourage negative treatment of women who embody some of these qualities.
Common opinions of the Kardashians among my acquaintances include sexy or trashy, opportunistic, dramatic, power-hungry, and so forth. These are mainly negative opinions of the Kardashian family, and become more specific when regarding the individual members, but what positive things are there to say about women who display their private life for the world to see – and then complain about not having any privacy?
While the Kardashians and other reality TV stars do give up a considerable amount of privacy in exchange for time in the spotlight, can anyone honestly claim to know much about the person he or she sees on the screen?
Despite Hollywood’s alleged attempts at straying from clichés and gender roles for the sake of modern times, in everything from movies to sitcoms to reality TV, women are portrayed in a way that is still susceptible to classification and judgment due to the expectations society has of us. Shows like The Real Housewives and Honey Boo Boo focus on unconventional types of people and portray them in a light they wish to shed, allowing audience members to call them vulgar, stupid, or backwards, among other things. But the only obviously common factor between these two shows is that their main characters are women.
Encouraging judgmental behavior are shows like The Fashion Police, and segments similar to it in more general informative shows, which make it a habit to police a girl for wearing short outfits, for dressing too conservatively, for wearing not enough makeup, for wearing too much, for being too demure, for being too outspoken, and the list goes on. Stereotypes are used to personify foils in shows like Modern Family, where sisters Haley and Claire Dunphy (portrayed by Sarah Hyland and Ariel Winter, respectively), embody complete opposites: Haley is vain, knowledgeable in topics like boys, make-up, and hair, and is generally air-headed in anything else. Claire, on the other hand, is intelligent, nerdy, rather careless about her appearance and oblivious to everything Haley claims expertise on. While the show gets some laughs out of the viewers, and the characters are slightly more complex than they seem, the use of stereotypes show that one can’t be both pretty and smart, and in a way influences female viewers that they have to be one or the other.
In the world of movies, one can take The Hunger Games (the book adaptation) as an example. Katniss Everdeen is the heroine of a storyline with themes such as survival, sacrifice, poverty, and anarchy against a totalitarian, oppressive government, but is often talked about in regards to her romantic involvement in a love triangle. In superhero movies and popular TV sitcoms, women tend to take on supporting roles, dying or becoming endangered to make a male character more sympathetic and, ultimately, the hero.
While Hollywood “attempts” to dismantle gender stereotyping, women are still portrayed as the weaker, less intelligent, romantic goal of a story. And, in shows all about women, their representations are rather laughable. In the recent years, a growing feminist audience has allowed for a more liberating and less judgmental interpretation of female characters despite their stigmatizing representations. But more importantly, these characters are revolutionizing their own portrayals, attempting to shift from how women have always been shown to how they could be, more open-mindedly and true-to-life, depicted as people as opposed to types.