Growing up pre-Internet in a small town where everything closed at 9pm save for the WAL*MART and the two local Denny’ses (pancakes and auto parts, yee haw!), television was my only link to the outside world. Not to take all the credit away from my family, teachers and peers, but I think television shaped who I was as a person growing up in a huge way.
Back then, I could see a lot of myself reflected back to me through the TV, and I suppose I took that for granted. I was relatively tall, painfully thin, and hated every minute of it. I basked in the rays of the magical glowing box and it left an indelible tan on my psyche. I identified with what I saw. I loved TV, and I thought TV loved me, and what’s more, I thought nothing would ever change.
Now I’m an adult. Relatively average in almost every physical way, and really okay with it. Problem is, I now realize how unrealistic the depictions of women on TV that I grew up with were.
I remember two basic female archetypes from my childhood sitcom viewing. The first is a faceless blur of neurotic size >2’s, prancing around fretting about their appearance in direct regards to how they would be perceived as unattractive to men. To a scared and lonely teenager, I felt normalized and vindicated in my own concerns about my pubescent changing body and looming adulthood. It was easy, then, to believe that if I didn’t present a certain way, I would die alone, as was the fear of Grace Adler, who sticks out in my mind. Returning to that same show today, I find the conceit of this woman trivial and condescending. Yet, that was how I felt I was being represented.
The second archetype was a bombastic, angry size 10+, whose romantic life was always lacking in fulfillment and career life seemed to plateau at the level of “sassy secretary.” “Roseanne” and “Mimi” from The Drew Carey Show were strong women who sacrificed their beauty (apparently) for strength, wisdom, and personality. They were self-assured, but they also played the villain most of the time. When they weren’t, it was understood that they could be nice, seemingly in spite of their ugliness, which was a burden to overcome.
Ten years into my legal adulthood, I still don’t see a lot of variation on these two types of characters on TV. Perhaps that’s why I watch less and less, and turn to classic movies and tried-and-true vintage television like Cheers and Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Because for all we have learned about diversity in the past few years, the Truth About Cats and Dogs (ick, what a terrible movie) is still that thin women can’t be smart, fat women can’t be happy, and all women have to sit in column A or column B in order to make it to network. Hmm…