Professor’s ‘Pink Television’ Probes Evolution of Women’s Screen Images

OSWEGO — SUNY Oswego professor Tina Pieraccini studies how the roles of women on TV evolved from subservient homemakers to “Desperate Housewives” in her new book, “Pink Television: Sixty Years of Women on Prime Time.”

The core of the book traces the evolution of women’s depictions on TV one decade at a time, starting with the 1950s, where parts were limited and domestic.

“In the early decades, you would see the prevalent stereotype of the homemaker,” the professor of communication studies said. “That was exaggerated by underrepresentation of women. Men outnumbered women 3 to 1 in the early days.”

The women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s involved new opportunities and images — from “That Girl” to “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” — but women finally reached equal representation in lead and supporting roles by the 1980s, Pieraccini said. Moreover, the roles they were able to play expanded greatly.

Leading ladies

“Back in the 1960s, most TV executives wouldn’t think about putting a woman in a lead role, because they wouldn’t think anyone would watch,” she said. “But by the 1980s you had very popular shows such as ‘Designing Women’ and ‘Golden Girls,’ the latter taking things a step forward by having a cast of older women.”

By the time “Ally McBeal,” “Sex in the City” and “Desperate Housewives” became big hits, there were no limits on how women were allowed to drive series, she added.

Recent years saw strong and professionally successful leading ladies like Glenn Close in “Damages” or Kyra Sedgwick in “The Closer” present realistically complicated characters. “Many of the more fascinating characters on TV today are flawed,” Pieraccini noted. “Viewers grew tired of seeing perfect people a long time ago. Roseanne Barr’s character in ‘Roseanne’ was a big turning point.”

Diversity also evolved over the years, with the number of black women appearing on TV tripling during the 1970s, Pieraccini said, while Hispanic women have made large gains on television in the past decade.

Not all decades fall into pat characterization — as Lucille Ball’s runaway success in the 1950s proved an exception to the rule, in many ways. The lead character in “I Love Lucy” ventured far outside the home, partaking in all kinds of workplace and other misadventures, but generally her husband Ricky (real-life husband Desi Arnaz) would rescue her, Pieraccini wrote. That CBS originally did not want to cast Desi, a Cuban bandleader, in the show, and Lucy prevailed, showed that her personal leverage had much to do with the show’s groundbreaking turns.

The book also offers a variety of other voices, with essays accompanying each chapter, often by industry insiders or professionals. Pieraccini pointed with pride to an essay at the end of Chapter 5 — by her daughter Alisha, an attorney, about female lawyers on TV.

More options

Today’s expansion of offerings on cable means that, instead of three big channels, problematic portrayals of women represent a smaller part of the spectrum. “If you don’t want to see the antics of Snooki on ‘Jersey Shore,’ you can check out Oxygen, Lifetime, the Hallmark Channel, the History Channel or any number of other options,” Pieraccini explained.

“There’s no idealized image you’d want to see on TV, because no two women are alike,” Pieraccini said. “You find a lot of different women in a lot of different roles.”

But TV still has some work to do with fairly representing women, she noted. “There seems to still be a physical ideal,” Pieraccini said. “So many of the characters are thin and perfect-looking. That is an area where TV could improve more.”

The book, which Pieraccini said would appeal to non-academic audiences as well, is published by Kendall Hunt, with which she previously worked for the book “Color Television” that looked at minority representation on TV.