Gender stereotypes: still not funny

By Eliza Williams

Last year, to coincide with International Women’s Day in March, the Museum of Brands in London looked back over 50 years of commercials and defined six common female stereotypes in advertising. Joining the five above is ‘the bit part’, perhaps the most common depiction of women of all. According to the Geena Davis Institute’s report on Gender Bias in Advertising, men get approximately four times more screen time than women in ads. And this is based on looking at commercials that have won at Cannes Lions from 2006–16, so we can’t even blame it on more antiquated times.

Both the report and the Museum of Brands’ categorisations are wince-inducing but unsurprising. Advertising has long been accused of presenting outdated visions of family life, and of gender roles. While recent years have seen a plethora of ‘female empowerment’ ads, from Always’ Like A Girl film to State Street’s Fearless Girl sculpture, in regular commercials little has changed. Over to the Geena Davis Institute’s report again: “This research shows that our industry has ‘tent-pole moments’ — amazing actions or campaigns when we all rally around women, but when it comes to creating our ‘regular’ ads for our ‘regular’ clients, we forget about them,” says Brent Choi, Chief Creative Officer of J Walter Thompson, New York.

Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan in their Channel 4 sitcom Catastrophe; Top: BBC2’s Motherland, written by Horgan and Graham Linehan

It might be tempting to put all this down to a problem of outmoded advertising approaches. Advertising is by its nature a reductive medium – you have to get a message across quickly and stereotypes can often offer a temptingly easy shorthand to do this. Plus the creative roles in the industry are still dominated by men, and ad directors are also far more likely to be male. While we are seeing media outlets such as Refinery29 and Nowness actively giving creative opportunities to women, brands and agencies, despite much hand-wringing about diversity, are still dragging their feet in terms of real change.

But this is not a problem exclusive to advertising. Gender stereotypes also pervade TV and film, often popping up in our most celebrated and popular comedy series.

Following a successful pilot in 2016, November last year saw the release of the first full series of Motherland, a sitcom about modern motherhood and parenting. The show came with excellent pedigree, written by Catastrophe’s Sharon Horgan and Father Ted’s Graham Linehan, and starring Anna Maxwell Martin and Diane Morgan (she of the excellent Philomena Cunk character from Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe).

Motherland is packed full of sharp – and painful – observations about the difficulties of juggling children, work and relationships, as well as the increasingly competitive nature of motherhood. As such it received wide acclaim from critics and audiences alike.

Glow, the Netflix show about female wrestling in the 1980s

And yet its stereotypes left me cold. Certain characters felt drawn straight from the Museum of Brands’ playbook: the fraught juggler makes an appearance, as does the selfless nurturer and the unattainable goddess (who does, to be fair, turn out to be attainable in surprising ways). They are joined by other modern types of motherhood that you’ll see scattered across Facebook – another very reductive platform, where mothers regularly end up abbreviated (often via their own posts) to the alpha mum, the #blessed mum or the ‘hand me a gin’ mum. There seems little room in these spaces for nuance, and Motherland suffers with the same problem: unlike in Catastrophe, where Horgan’s central character (who ends up suddenly married with children after getting pregnant on a one night stand) develops in unexpected and empathetic ways during the show’s run, the players of Motherland operate more as one-liners.

Men suffer too, perhaps even more so than the women. Maxwell Martin plays Julia, effectively a single parent due to her husband’s absence at stag dos and work bonding weekends, where he phones in expressing admiration for her skills before inevitably being cut off just when she’s asking for help. Meanwhile, Kevin, the stay-at-home dad character, is portrayed as drippy and ineffectual, fitting in neither as a ‘real’ mother nor as a ‘real’ man. Everyone is unlikeable, and perhaps this is the central joke for Horgan and Linehan, but when there are so few other decent depictions of parenthood around, I’m not sure I’m ready for something this harsh.

A contrast comes, with relief, from Detectorists, written, directed and starring Mackenzie Crook, who appears alongside Toby Jones as the show’s central characters, Andy and Lance. There are opportunities for lazy stereotyping here too: the show revolves around a group of metal detecting enthusiasts, who are replete with all the geekiness this hobby might suggest. Yet Crook’s subtle portrayals offer his characters – male and female – the opportunities to stretch beyond cliché and instead present a warm, recognisable and funny view of the successes and shortcomings of everyday life.

At its centre is a depiction of male friendship that feels gentle and true. This may not make it sound very comedic, but Crook manages to inject humour without cruelty. I was left longing for an equivalent vision of female friendship on screen.

Toby Jones and Mackenzie Crook in the BBC’s Detectorists, which Crook also wrote and directed

It’s not that there are no shows out there tackling this subject. Glow, a new and much-celebrated series from Netflix that reimagines the development of the 1980s women’s wrestling show Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, places female relationships at its heart. But from the outset, there is competitiveness and betrayal.

Fleabag, a brilliantly fresh series from the BBC, written by and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge, presents a warm and believable vision of female friendship before this too is revealed to be marred by complex betrayals (plus is additionally complicated by one half of the friendship being dead, and thus only seen in flashbacks).

It can be hard to shake off the image of women as untrustworthy backstabbers, even if the effect of the knifing is shown to be as damaging to the protagonist as the victim. Older women often fair worse, especially if they are unfortunate enough to be cast as stepmothers. Olivia Colman’s portrayal of the godmother-turned-stepmother in Fleabag is both brilliant but glaringly stereotyped. Will we ever see a stepmum who doesn’t turn out to be a self-absorbed nightmare for the family that she joins?

Perhaps Colman’s character will develop over the second series of Fleabag, which is due to arrive on our screens in 2019. Carrie Fisher’s portrayal of Sharon Horgan’s difficult and demanding mother-in-law in Catastrophe – another traditionally horrible female figure – gained nuance and empathy over the three series she appeared in. Interestingly, the most surprising vision of an older woman comes from Motherland, where Julia’s mother is shown to be as far from the doting grandmother as you can get, preferring to lunch with her mates and go swimming than to take on childcare duties. She may be pretty unlikeable too, but she is not predictable.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag, the BBC sitcom which she also wrote

Once you start looking for female stereotypes, they pop up everywhere, even in shows you love. Both Horgan’s character in Catastrophe and Waller-Bridge’s in Fleabag initially appear to confound many accepted ideas of women. Nurturing, wholesome role models they are not. But as a portrait of a real woman, they come closer than most. There is extremism here – and often excruciating depictions of sex and relationships – but over time even the more shocking moments make sense as part of a broader picture of a complex human being. There is a danger in these shows though, as with the bawdier Bridget Jones series before them, of presenting women as always being in need of saving, if only by a therapist who will show them how to do it themselves. This is not a particular criticism of Horgan and Waller-Bridge, who have both produced funny, poignant and original series, but of the general scarcity of female voices and female stories to help fill in the cultural gaps and move the stereotypes on.

One of the wider ripple effects of the fallout of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and #MeToo – beyond the central horror of the abuse – is the realisation that the long-held suspicion that women’s voices and experiences had been systematically shut out of Hollywood and the wider culture was not only true but in fact was far worse than ever imagined.

We’ve been conditioned to believe that the female experience is niche, and will only appeal to a limited audience, an excuse for why there are not more films centred on women’s stories. So it is gratifying that last year, of all years, three of the top-grossing films in the US were women-fronted: The Last Jedi, Beauty and the Beast and Wonder Woman.

So perhaps the drumbeat of change is finally upon us, and with more female voices, creatives and directors emerging in TV and film, we will begin to see a wider picture of womanhood appear. Certainly TV sitcoms are already proving a fertile ground for new female talent: alongside Horgan and Waller-Bridge, there has been Michaela Coel’s Chewing Gum, Roisin Conaty’s GameFace and Lisa McGee’s Derry Girls, to name but a few. Hopefully advertising will also follow this trend.

“Representation matters because the stories and images we see have the power to shape how we view ourselves, each other, and the world around us,” says Piera Gelardi of Refinery29 in the Geena Davis Institute report on gender bias. “By creating responsible, inclusive, and complex stories and images we can overturn stereotypes, make people feel valued, and change the way the world sees.”

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