(WOMENSENEWS)--This week starts sweeps month, when networks put on their season finales, bring in special guests and do everything they can do to get more viewers and higher ratings so they can charge more to advertisers.
The focus in on prime time, those after-dinner hours from 8 until 11 when TV serves as the fire burning brightly in the national hearth.
If anybody reading this is in a Nielsen family--one of those that keeps a Nielsen meter in its home or keeps a viewing diary for the company--perhaps keeping watch of your dial in the coming month can help improve how women are treated by our most powerful form of mass communication.
For starters, you might think that since women watch more TV than men we would be reflected in the programming, with at least an equal proportion of male to female characters in prime time. But you would be wrong.
Women are less than 40 percent of the characters on prime time and are underrepresented as creators and writers.
But what's worse than the quantity is the quality of women on TV.
Bimbo, Bitch or Ball Buster
For a long time TV has cast women in one of three basic roles: bimbo, bitch or ball buster.
Back in the 1970s a Mary Tyler Moore sort of character would come along every once in a while and offer a friendly and eager-to-please exception to this pattern.
But Suzanne Somers' bimbo-style character in "Three's Company"--which went off the air in 1984--was more typical. She walked around in short shorts, a tight shirt and never really understood what was happening.
And there have always been bitches like Katey Sagal's character today in "Married With Children." She never stops heckling her husband Al for not making enough money and being a lousy lover. Nagging wives are a TV staple.
As for a ball buster, look no further than Candice Bergen in "Murphy Brown." There was an executive-level woman with authority over men and guess what? She also had a nightmarish personal life. The message was clear: professional women should give up trying to have it all.
But at least these characters had some kind of heart, were funny, witty or marginally sympathetic. And if they were bimbos, at least they were allowed some individuality.
Now bimbos are being mass produced as Vanna Whites, to be seen and not heard.
Just look at NBC's newest hit, "Deal or No Deal," which will air its 100th show during sweeps. There are 25 women on the show, but they're more like wallpaper. They stand posed in the background waiting submissively for host Howie Mandel to point at them so they can open a case, smile or frown. They are identically dressed in short tight cocktail dresses. They march down the steps in unison, stand identically and smile the same plastic smile. Silent. While their names and ethnicities vary, they are undistinguishable in their commodity-like appeal.
Reality TV is Really Scary
But what really scares me is the way women are portrayed in reality TV: in the big-budget and intensely popular shows such as "Trading Spouses," "The Bachelor," "America's Next Top Model" and "Pussycat Dolls: The Search for the Next Doll."
We have hit a new low, with what Jennifer Pozner, director of Women in Media and News, describes as "the cultural arm of the backlash against women." Of course reality TV doesn't actually have much to do with reality. Writers and producers typically have a "show arc" already written and wait for a "moment" to film what they already expect or want to happen.
Much of the time they are looking for embarrassing behavior, mean-spirited talk and tirades with words they can bleep.
What reality TV producers like is pitting women against each other.
Forget the cooperation and consensus-seeking behaviors for which women are better known and which a growing body of social-science research supports.
Let's just scratch each other's eyes out.
It started with "The Bachelor," which debuted in 1999 and is one of the earliest, all-female shows featuring women battling for a chance at a valuable prize, an eligible bachelor. The focus is not only to appeal to the man, but knock off other women in the process.
Backstabbing After You Get the Guy
In reality TV the backstabbing continues even after you get the guy.
Check out "Trading Spouses," where women trade families and move into each other's homes. The sniping begins as each traded wife explains why the other "wife and mother" is no good, and continues until we see the alternate spouse as a total "nightmare." The show ends with the women warning each other that unless they both change, their families will suffer. But if they stop backstabbing, there's no show.
When we're not viciously competing for men, we're stabbing each other in the back for a job, money and fame. (Strange behavior for the most affluent society on the globe, which you would think could afford a bit of generosity.)
Take "America's Next Top Model," where female contestants take misogyny to a new level.
This season they created one photo shoot in which they all pretended to be dead and another in which they were in prison. None of the women seemed to have a problem with this. But they all have problems with each other; sniping at one another and calling each other "bitches" and "hos." When did it become OK for women to call each other bitches and hos?
The bottom of this backstabbing barrel is "Pussycat Dolls Present: The Search for the Next Doll," in which sex appeal is portrayed as female "empowerment." The Dolls started out as a burlesque group. They parlayed their success at that into a Playboy spread, mainstream acceptance and now a reality TV show.
Are we really empowering women when asking them to compete for a place in a so-called singing and dancing group by parading in sexy lingerie and disrespecting each other?
When I was little, women on TV aspired to be homemakers. Now they aspire to be strippers. I was never a fan of Joan Cleaver or Harriet Nelson, but this?
"All of a sudden we're really regressing," says Martha Lauzen, professor of communications, San Diego State University. "TV doesn't live in a vacuum. These portrayals of women are reflecting what is going on in our society. On TV feminism has become the other F word."
Sandra Kobrin is a Los Angeles based writer and columnist.
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