Roles and Respect for Women in Popular Prime-Time Broadcast Television:  Professional or Personal?

The representation of women in primetime television is changing. It may seem to some to be a revolution – where show runner Shonda Rhimes can successfully generate popular female characters that are celebrated for portrayals beyond sexual stereotypes and where these characters may even be the boss (Everett, 2015). This has occurred, in spite of the constraints of working in the television industry still considered to be a gendered production process, privileging males (O’Brien, 2015).

Rationale for Study and Selected Literature Review

Scholars have documented the portrayals of male and female characters on television for many decades; while most conclude the television programming does not provide fair or balanced depictions, often of either gender. Scholars have also shown some of the deleterious effects consumption of stereotypes may have on viewers. This content analysis proposal would examine contemporary professional and. personal characteristics of male and female portrayals in the most popular primetime programming, specifically programs in the drama and situation comedy genres.

In a long span of primetime programming (1967-1998) Signorielli and Bacue (1999) found that in terms of recognition and respect female characters were still seen as less than male characters in occupational roles where her value was clearly in her youthfulness. Signorielli and Kahlenberg (2000) found that the programs broadcast during prime time included in general more prestigious occupations (doctors, police, lawyers) and under-represented those jobs that are less prestigious (other blue collar and clerical-type jobs).  In primetime programming from 1993-2002 elderly women had limited employment options and those occupations were of “neutral prestige” (Signorielli, 2004).

More specifically, character roles will be examined to analyze the types of roles or respect that female characters display. For example, Lauzen and Dozier (2005) looked at characters in situation comedies and dramas during the 2002-2003 primetime season and reported a lack of characters older than 60 and a decline in occupational prestige after the age of 60. Male characters were seen in leadership roles as well with more occupational prestige than female characters. Lauzen, Dozier and Horan (2008) also confirmed that in a 2005-2006 sample female characters were most often shown as being concerned with interpersonal issues while male characters were shown in work or professional roles. It’s important to note that when comparisons Lauzen and her colleagues have conducted that the status of women’s work roles are better reflected when a woman can be identified as having had input into the female characters’ development and narrative (Lauzen & Dozier, 2004).

Theoretical Approaches

Two theories are commonly invoked when discussing a two-pronged approach to media effects where one of the “prongs” is an analysis of content; the second one consisting of effects on viewers: social cognitive theory (Bandura, 1986, 2002) and cultivation theory (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, Signorielli, & Shanahan, 2002). In brief, social cognitive theory connects its premise of observational learning to televised narratives, where identification and other aspects of portrayals may attenuate the effects. Cultivation theory predicts that television depictions are part of a cumulative socialization process where the status quo is protected and promulgated. For example, Ward and Friedman (2006) found that adolescents who reported being heavy viewers of sexual content in primetime television were more likely to endorse sexual stereotypes in an experimental setting while more detrimental attitudes such as a propensity to harass women have been found in adolescents who view sexualized content (Galdi, Maass & Cadinu, 2014). And adolescents who were heavy television viewers were found to generate occupational aspirations that matched those occupations on television (Signorielli, 2003).


While it is important to include both qualitative and quantitative methodology in the gender and media research arenas, quantitative methods are thought to work well in research which is looking to highlight “discrimination of the female gender in terms of access to the media, presence and occupations in professional key roles . . .” (Capecchi, 2012).    Here it is proposed that a content analysis of roles for women in popular primetime programming be conducted, identifying the dramas and situation comedies found in the top 25 rated programs on broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX) for one week in February, 2016. It is anticipated this will produce a sample of approximately 20 programs (due to considerable number of ties for rankings). While this is admittedly a limited snapshot, time permitting, the sample will be increased. Depictions of major characters will be coded according to the presentations in both professional and personal realms. Intercoder reliability will be included.



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Bandura, A. (2002). Social cognitive theory of mass communication. In J. Bryant & D. Zillman (Eds.). Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research (2nd ed. pp.121-153).     Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Capecchi, S. (2012). Methodological problems in gender and media research. Quality and  Quantity 48: 837-844.

Everett, A. (2015). Scandalicious. Black Scholar, 45(1), 34-43.

Galdi, S., Maass, A. & Cadinu, M. (2014). Objectifying media: Their effect on gender role norms and sexual harassment of women, Psychology of Women Quarterly, 38:398-413.

Gerbner, G.; Gross, L.; Morgan, M.; Signorielli, N.; & Shanahan, J. (2002). Growing up with television: Cultivation processes. In J. Bryant & D. Zillman (Eds.), Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research (2nd ed., pp. 43-68). Mahwah, N. J: Erlbaum.

Lauzen, M.M. & Dozier, D. M. (2004). Evening the score in prime time: The relationship between behind-the-scenes women and on-screen portrayals in the 2002-2003 season, Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 48(3), 484.

Lauzen, M. M., & Dozier, D. M. (2005). Recognition and respect revisited: Portrayals of age and gender in prime-time television. Mass Communication & Society, 8(3), 241-256.

Lauzen, M.M., Dozier, D.M. & Horan, N. (2008). Constructing gender stereotypes through social roles in prime-time television. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 52:200-214.

O’Brien, A. (2015). Producing television and reproducing gender. Television and New Media, 16(3), 259-274.

Signorielli, N. (1993). Television and adolescents’ perceptions about work. Youth & Society, 24, 314–341.

Signorielli, N. (2004). Aging on television: Messages relating to gender, race, and occupation in prime time. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 48(2), 279-301.

Signorielli, N. (2009). Race and sex in prime time: A look at occupations and occupational prestige. Mass Communication and Society, 12:332–352.

Signorielli, N. & Bacue, A. (1999). Recognition and respect: A content analysis of prime-time television characters across three decades. Sex Roles, 40(7/8), 527-544.

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Ward, L., & Friedman, K. (2006). Using TV as a guide: Associations between television viewing and adolescents’ sexual attitudes and behavior. Journal Of Research On Adolescence, 16(1), 133-156.