By: Bianca Bucholtz
January 19th, 2023
This article is part of our Fall 2022 magazine. Click here to read the full edition.
Disclaimer: In being mindful of the distinction between gender and sex, and in an attempt to be inclusive of all genders and gender identities, it is the intent of the author that when referring to women or men, it includes both cisgender and transgender individuals.
When looking at some of the most popular TV shows throughout history, many center around groups of friends. And it’s not uncommon, especially in recent years, for that circle to represent a more diverse group of people. Yet, even with more representation coming to the small screen, few of these friendship-based shows put women at the center. And even fewer portray women in an inclusive or realistic manner.
The media, and TV in particular, has a long history of using certain character tropes that perpetuate gender stereotypes and reflect negatively upon women. Shows that center around friendships, such as “Friends” or “How I Met Your Mother,” may include women in the conversation but rarely put their goals or desires at the forefront of plotlines—often relying on women to be nothing more than the objects of men’s desires.
Because of this, audiences rarely see women interacting with or engaging in friendships with other women. And when they do, many find it is rarely accurate to the way women interact in real life.
“Far too many interactions between [women] characters are for the purpose of discussing another male character in the story,” said Lauren Bragg, a student at Grand Valley State University. “These relationships are usually a little skewed, as they often try to relate dialogue and plot lines with the main [male] character in the show, who often ends up being the [woman’s] love interest. Certain aspects of these [women] friendships are accurate or relatable, but they never seem to feel truly authentic.”
When looking at the way women interact with one another on screen, many feel they lack independence from man-centric storylines—and because of this, more and more people have begun to recognize when movies or shows fall short.
In 1985, cartoonist and graphic novelist Alison Bechdel created a comic strip called “The Rule,” in which two women discuss going to the movies and, as a joke, the other adds that she only watches movies that have at least two female characters who speak to each other about anything other than a man. This is now known as the Bechdel Test and is used as a gauge of gender equality in film and television. This test considers three things: are there two named women characters, do they speak to each other and do they speak to each other about something other than men. Despite these fairly simple requirements, few films and TV shows pass the test.
“Off the top of my head, I can barely think of a show that would easily pass this,” Rachel McCarthy-James wrote for BitchMedia. “One 30-second conversation about mothers, or daughters, or female friends, or goals, or cleaning, or even Applebee’s, in every 22 or 30 or 43 or 60 minute episode is not that hard of a requirement to satisfy. And the fact that this demand is completely out of line with what’s actually on television is an indication of the shitty state of television as much as whether any of these shows are well concerned with women — much like the film industry.”
According to Bechdeltest.com, out of 9,329 movies, only 56.7% passed. In 2021 alone, out of 117 movies released, 35 failed the test and when it comes to TV shows, the list is even fewer, with less than 20 shows in the last five years being cited as passing the test. The Bechdel Test isn’t foolproof and isn’t necessarily a measure of whether or not a show is good, and scoring TV shows using the Bechdel Test can be a bit more challenging, depending on whether or not the show is judged as a whole or per episode. But either way, the test highlights the gender inequalities found on TV.
With so many shows that center around friendships, few focus the story solely on women friendships. And when they do, they tend to rely on stereotypes—often centering the plot on ‘cat-fights,’ relationship drama and pointless comparisons of physical appearances.
“While part of me relishes watching the crazy drama as a guilty pleasure, I’m still saddened that the media perpetually pits women against one another,” blogger The Opinioness Of The World said in a 2010 article on her website. “Don’t get me wrong, I adore verbal sparring and watching women warriors battle it out. But cattiness is different; it invokes malice and belittlement, verging on cruelty. We should be cautious of the message movies and TV deliver about women.”
Many popular shows that center around women, such as “Gossip Girl,” “Pretty Little Liars” and “90210” all made strides for having women leads. And yet, the women featured were rarely kind to one another, and nearly every major plotline involved some form of conflict between the characters.
“‘Gossip Girl’ is one of the worst shows when it comes to plotting women against each other,” said Madelyn Holmes, a psychology student at Roosevelt University. “Blair was constantly jealous and never supportive of Serena’s life and choices. They fought multiple times and even stopped talking for entire episodes solely because Serena’s [choices] did not match up with Blair’s. When watching this, I got so annoyed that I had no choice but to be more interested in the male plotlines. It takes away the genuinity of the character and forces viewers to sometimes physically stop paying attention to the women based plotlines.”
In an article for TN2 Magazine, author Ciara Connoly pointed out that most of these shows are targeted towards young women, who, without knowing any better, grow up to believe these types of relationships should be expected.
“As I’ve grown older, it’s been harder to find such shows aimed at women, rather than little girls, that put female friendships front and center in all their realistic glory,” Connoly said. “In a world still dominated by the male point of view, many ‘female-centric’ shows fall into lazy, baseless stereotypes.
“This is commonly seen in reality TV, where women are consistently portrayed as back-stabbing and catty to one another. These toxic traits seem to often be tolerated, and such groups of ‘friends’ are deemed normal, despite the individuals not appearing to even like each other most of the time. All too often in the media, it is as if women are not capable of forming actual platonic relationships with each other,” Connoly said.
This is not to say these shows are bad or undeserving of their notoriety but rather, they fail to represent what real women and real friendships between women look like.
“These portrayals of women can be extremely damaging to women in real life, especially young teens who are developing and still learning who they are,” Holmes said. “Shows like ‘Gossip Girl’ and ‘Pretty Little Liars’ have a teenage audience. Young girls grow up looking at these women on TV and there can be a huge psychological damage to these girls if what they are consuming is not healthy or empowering.”
As the lack of accurate portrayals of women friendships grows more and more evident, some shows have made significant efforts to change this narrative.
In 2009, the NBC sitcom “Parks and Recreation” was released, telling the story of Leslie Knope, the deputy director of a Parks and Recreation Department in Indiana, and her relationship with her coworkers. When talking about the writing of the show, creator Michael Shur said one of his goals was to create a story of women and healthy relationships between them. Because of this, the relationship between Leslie and her best friend, Ann Perkins, has become a symbol of what real friendship between women looks like.
“‘Parks and Recreation’ did a good job of representing female friendships with Leslie and Ann because they became increasingly close throughout the show and ended up being more like family to one another,” Bragg said. “They were heavily involved in each others lives but not everything revolved around sex or the male characters in the show. While there were moments about romantic relationships for these characters, their friendship was in no way based on them.”
At the “Parks and Recreation” 10th Anniversary Reunion at PaleyFestLA, Rashida Jones spoke about the relationship between Ann and Leslie and what it meant to her.
“Things like Leslie thinking Ann is the best, smartest, most beautiful, whatever she thinks [Ann is,] there’s something so tender and sweet about that because, in some regards, Ann’s just like ‘alright’ [as a person.] But Leslie just bolsters her as a human so much and to me, that is the core of friendships,” Jones said. “All of my girl friends talk about it. That’s how we interact with each other. That’s how we actually interact. Instead of the caddy, diametrically opposed women [we see on TV], most girls have friends that are like ‘you’re awesome,’ or ‘you’re great,’ or ask how they can help support your life and make you a better person. To me, that was something I was so happy to play because there really isn’t that opportunity to do that.”
In being a traditional, ensemble based sitcom, “Parks and Recreation” made an effort to show the sweet, vulnerable side of women friendships often left ignored.
“I think that it’s important to show that emotions can be involved in female friendships without them being centered around their romantic interactions with other characters,” Bragg said. “Showing the more vulnerable moments between characters allows them to be more relatable.”
“Parks and Recreation” isn’t the only show choosing to showcase this side of women friendships. In an article for Hello Giggles, Paulina Jayne Issace highlights 12 shows airing in 2021 that center around women friendships and pass the Bechdel Test in their entirety. Popular shows like “New Girl,” “The Bold Type,” “Sex Education,” “Never Have I Ever,” “Killing Eve,” “Grace and Frankie” and “Insecure” are all great examples of shows that uplift the relationships shared between women without relying on stereotypes. By creating realistic and uplifting stories of women, these shows help build meaningful and lasting relationships in real life.
“A huge similarity between these shows is that they all have women as head writers or co-creators—we write best what we know, and all of these shows have women that pull from their experiences to create content,” Holmes said. “‘Never Have I Ever’ is one of the shows that has had a huge impact on me. These shows also do a good job of showing flaws in women characters but they still give them personality past this, which creates the perfect balance.”
By authoring these stories about and by real women, these shows open the door for more accurate and comprehensive stories of women to be shown on TV. But in order to tell these stories about real women, it is necessary to show what real women look like. And when looking at the current variety of shows that focus on women friendships, many feel the lack of diverse women, such as women of color or LGBTQ+ women or nonbinary individuals, is striking.
One of the most notorious shows revolving around women, “Sex and The City,” which premiered in 1998, was praised for it’s women leads and portrayal of women friendships. Yet when watching it through today’s lens, many struggle to believe only one woman of color ever had a significant presence on the show.
In an article for Odessey, Stella Grimaldi writes, “One of the only featured women of color in Sex and the City was in the Season 3 episode, “No Ifs, Ands, or Buts.” The conflict of this episode spurs from an African American woman named Adeena, who disapproves of the interracial relationship between Samantha and her brother, Chivon. She justifies her disapproval using the poorly written line, “it’s a black thing.” The fact that Adeena was the most well-developed woman of color in the entire series is pathetic. Ultimately, Sex and the City and Girls both succeed in depicting female agency, creativity, body positivity, success, and companionship — but who is to say that they actually succeed in empowering all women?”
“Sex and The City,” like many of the other shows mentioned, was celebrated by many for writing women as independent, confident individuals who broke the boundaries of what women friendships looked like on TV. Yet, it failed to include women of color in their triumphs—and many shows still do.
In 2019, a study was conducted by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media for the USC Viterbi School of Engineering on the portrayal of Black women in TV. The research showed Black women make up only 6.2% of all characters on TV. And in comparison to white women characters, Black women were more likely to be portrayed as “violent” or as “funny.”
Representation of women of color on TV has improved in many ways over the years, but the characters are not often given as diverse of storylines or portrayed with the same characteristics as their white counterparts.
“I think women of color are always seen as the comedic relief to a white main character; as if their only role is to be funny and give support to said main character when necessary,” said Macey Matthews, a student at Michigan State University and an openly transgender woman of color. “[With diverse friendships] I feel like there is this unspoken thing where if it isn’t spoken about on TV, it doesn’t have to exist or isn’t real. The sad part is we’re missing out on beautiful stories.”
With so many new and interesting stories coming to TV, there is room for more diverse characters with well-rounded and unique storylines. According to GLAAD, an organization committed to advancing LGBTQ+ acceptance, only 102 shows in the history of television have featured a transgender character—many of which were men. When a trans woman is depicted, very few are played by trans actresses. Similarly to Black women characters, when trans women are featured, they are rarely the center of storylines and often there as comedic relief or to provide a learning experience for another character.
“I don’t really see that many friendships with transgender people involved,” Matthews said. “A lot of the time, I see myself as the comedic relief in someone else’s circumstance rather than seeing myself as my own person. I think this may be because we very rarely have trans people be the star of the show and they are more likely to be a side character.”
The storylines of trans characters in media often portray the struggle of coming to terms with one’s identity, unlike the storylines of cisgender women characters, which many feel only enforces the notion that trans women aren’t actually women, pushing trans equality further behind.
“Oftentimes, the storyline about trans women in TV shows is that they are struggling to feminize themselves and fit in with other women—in fact, they are often masculinized to their [cisgender] counterparts,” Matthews said. “I feel like the storyline is that she is trans, rather than just being a woman. I think it is important to talk about the struggle trans women go through but not everyone experiences the same thing, so we should see more versatility amongst them.”
In order to tell accurate stories of women on TV, all women need to be included and need to be given the same quality of stories.
“It is important to show healthy supportive friendships between people who may not be cisgender, white or straight because people who aren’t that exist too, no matter how much society tries to erase or neglect us,” Matthews said. “In failing to do so, you are essentially missing out on an entire demographic of people.”
In real life, women come from all different races, religions, genders, sexual identities, abilities, socioeconomic backgrounds, etc. Their stories and experiences are filled with so much more than what’s shown on TV. And for many women, they take every opportunity to support other women in their lives.
“The relationships I have with the women in my life are very strong connections that I feel very secure and supported in,” Bragg said. “I feel like I have built relationships that helped me to grow and change to become the person I am today. Friendships involving women should be something meant to help build you up and create a support system of people you trust.”
The bond between women can be one of the most powerful things in life because regardless of their differences, they share the same battle and understand the strength that comes from fighting it. Supportive, healthy friendships between women can be so important and impactful—which can make TV’s hesitance to portray them even more frustrating.
Bianca Bucholtz is a senior studying professional and public writing with a minor in gender and women’s studies. She is currently working as the co-editing director at VIM Magazine. In her freetime, she enjoys spending time with her family and friends, watching movies/TV shows and baking.