After 19 years on this earth as a consumer of media, I have learned one thing for certain: strong, independent women rarely exist in the media, especially television.
In a study from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, the only network to accurately represent women in proportion to population is, surprisingly, The CW with 51 percent of their characters being female. While this is reassuring, other aspects of this study, aren't as positive. Of people shown at the workplace, 39 percent are women, compared to 61 percent of men. Of the people seen "engaging in work," 37 percent are female which contrasts with 63 percent of men. In reality, women are 47 percent of the workforce and like our male counterparts, we work when we’re at work. This isn’t the only discrepancy between the portrayal of men and women on television: What television is missing is the depiction of real women.
I was raised by a single mother, by choice. My mother was 37 when she realized she did not have enough time to find a man, fall in love, get married and have kids, so she skipped to the part she really wanted. Three years later, I was born and when I was four my mother adopted my younger sister, without the support of her family. My mother has bachelor's degrees in psychology and sociology and in industrial engineering, a master's in Counseling and Personal Services and an MBA. As a female engineer, I have watched her struggle in a male-dominated industry. Her former boss made a third more than her with only a high school diploma. Despite these frustrations, has my mother ever given up? No, not in the slightest. My mother is a powerful, amazing woman who has taught me the most important life lesson, never give up. My history makes me biased, but in the best way possible because I know exactly what women are capable of: anything.
I began watching Chicago Fire because it was Jesse Spencer’s first project post-House, it is filmed in Chicago and who doesn't love hot guys as firefighters? But the reason I keep watching is Gabriella Dawson (Monica Raymund), an EMT who is training to become a firefighter. Earlier this season Chicago Fire introduced another aspiring firefighter, Rebecca Jones (Daisy Betts), the daughter of the Deputy District Chief. With a large chip on her shoulder, Jones had something to prove. However, her father doesn’t support her and tries to force her into a desk job. Two weeks ago, in Episode 18 of Season 2, audiences watched as her father’s pressure got the better of her. But instead of turning to her fellow firefighters or friend Dawson who offer help, what does Jones do? She commits suicide.
Are you fucking kidding me?
Not only does this demean women, but also trivializes suicide. Last week’s episode revealed that Jones has “struggled with depression” and “attempted this before.” The show can give all the excuses it wants, but it doesn’t effectively rationalize their treatment of Jones’ and her story arc. At one point in the episode, Dawson says it all, “How does someone like Jones who’s so driven, so determined, how does she just give up on herself?” My mother has taught me that a real, driven, determined woman would not have given up. The show built to this potentially climactic moment where Jones and Dawson join together to stand up for women and put an end to the blatant sexism running not only their house, but their industry and even society. Instead Chicago Fire copped out.
In an interview with executive producer Matt Olmstead, he revealed Jones’ original story arc, which proved to be even worse. She was going to have a love connection with fellow firefighter Jeff Clarke (Jeff Hephner) and after he is injured she realizes “she wasn't cut out for it.” But Hephner’s abrupt exit from the show put a kink in that plan and instead of treating Jones as a real, well-rounded woman, her entire existence on the show serves as a plot device. At a pivotal moment in the series and in Jones’ story, what the writers should have done was replace Jones with a man and considered what he would have done. When it comes to their careers, men and women aren’t that different. We will do anything to achieve our goals. While women may encounter more bumps along the way, it makes the reward that much more worth it. Chicago Fire cheated Jones of her ultimate gratification and they cheated their audience out a realistic woman that women everywhere could look up to.
There are other network shows that appear to be about independent women but fall short on closer inspection. ABC’s Scandal began with a bang, but has slowly fizzled out and now audiences watch Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) get manipulated by her father and two lovers. The series finale of CBS’s much loved How I Met Your Mother ostracizes Robin Scherbatsky (Colbie Smulders) for choosing her work over having a family. I assume that writers encounter strong, independent and interesting women every day, so why can’t they translate that to television?
Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) from Netflix’s House of Cards falls on the opposite end of the spectrum. She is both strong, independent and to many she would appear realistic. However, Claire is only half of a realistic woman. Her strength and determination serve as her only personality traits. I find Claire to be a flat character. If you were to combine Zooey Deschanel’s character from New Girl, a character with too much personality, and Claire Underwood, you would get a realistic woman, someone who is career-oriented, but continues to retain herself.
The message these events on Chicago Fire sent me was that my only options in entering a male-dominated industry are success or suicide. I understand that this may not have been NBCs intentions, but this is how I interpreted the situation. As an aspiring cinematographer in a male-dominated industry, I know that my path to greatness won’t be easy. No woman has ever been nominated for the Oscar for Best Cinematography. I don’t aspire to be the first because the film industry should recognize female cinematographers long before I established myself in the field, but I do hope to one day win this prestigious award. Even with my mother showing me that I can succeed, it’s hard to follow in her footsteps when I’m bombarded media showing me that I can’t. But if I am going to continue to believe in myself, I have to distance myself from the media. I’m done watching the media perpetuate the cycle of portraying women as weak, helpless, apathetic and indecisive. I am never going to sell myself short or give up. The media should reflect what women want, which is to be strong, independent and successful.