The Conquest of Women in Sitcoms

There’s a disturbing common thread in television which stems from a predatory attitude society should have gotten over years ago. Yes, that sentence could apply to a great many things, particularly when we’re talking about the way the media portrays women, but the American sitcom has a bulging vein running through it that it doesn’t seem able to shake off. Can you shake off a vein? Anyway, aside from female fronted (and frankly awesome) shows like Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock, I find that I keep bumping into the view of women as something to be conquered.

This is perhaps, most obviously seen in ‘Two and a Half Men’, where almost every episode revolves around the misogyny of its protagonists (notably, Charlie and Alan Harper). While Charlie is constantly winning over the hearts of women who are then disposed of quicker than dirty diapers, Alan somehow decides that this is a behaviour he wants to emulate and takes the attitude of a tired mountain explorer that can never quite make it to the top, while his brother is constantly setting and breaking records. This could be a tragic story if it wasn’t presented as a comedy. No one realises their faults, no one changes.Every time it looks like there’s going to be character development, Charlie gets dumped and goes back to forgetting that women are human beings and not pokémon to catch. Then he dies.

You can compare this to ‘The Big Bang Theory’, which, though in a similar vein, responded to feedback from its audience by adding more female characters, making them more nuanced, and actually having character arcs where the characters (particularly Howard Wolowitz) grow past this strange idea. This is not to say that it moves past it completely, but it does suggest that the writers are at least aware that the attitude of women as prizes rather than people is a problem, and not a loveable character facet, as seen with Alan Harper in ‘Two and a Half Men’.

This trope appears more subtly in some shows with wider acclaim. For example, I found it difficult to get through the first few episodes of ‘Community’ (I know, I’m a terrible, terrible nerd). This was purely due to the central character (Jeff Winger) and his attitude towards women. Jeff sees fellow student Britta as a challenge to be conquered, rather than as a person, and this is acknowledged within minutes. The difference here is that Jeff is not a nice person at the start of this show, and whereas the audience are supposed to feel icked out by his constant harrassment, Alan Harper in Two and a Half Men is shown as a tragic figure. If only he could get laid, we’re supposed to think, while he unsuccessfully tries to emulate a brother that is the archetypical misogynist.

I don’t really get what TV’s trying to do to me here. Does it assume I think of relationships as a sort of trading card game? Am I supposed to be unimpressed but secretly hoping they’ll change?

Alright, let’s move on to How I Met Your Mother, seeing as it just finished. While the show’s stereotypical insecure womaniser (Barney Stinson) is constantly berated (and rightly so) for his dehumanising views on women and his constant need for sex as validation of his self-worth, the show’s protagonist (Ted Mosby) tends to get a free pass. While some of Mosby’s relationships are genuine and he is often portrayed as a hopeless romantic, on multiple occasions he views an attractive woman as something to achieve rather than someone to interact with. This reaches its eyebrow-raising peak in the season 9 episode ‘Gary Blauman’ where he literally describes a woman him and the title character are talking to as ‘the prize’.

I should point out that having these questionable motifs doesn’t make a show, its writing, its actors, its characters, bad. However, it is a worrying symptom of a larger problem with our society that these shows are a part of, and indeed impact by feeding these tropes back into their viewerships. Also, this attitude is not going to go away even if US sitcoms ceased using it as a plot device or a joke, as they often do, but with more people aware of this problem, and less flaunting it as an acceptable way to treat 50% of the population, perhaps it could go away just a little bit.

(featured image used under creative commons license, by Joella Marano)


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Cat Strickson

Cat Strickson

Cat, or Elly, or Eddy, or whatever name they're going by these days, is a British palaeontologist and fantasy author. It's a pretty awesome skill set, but it doesn't pay much right now. They enjoy science, history, vidyagames and all things SFF.

1 Comment

  1. April 11, 2014 at 8:04 pm —

    A show I’ve gotten into recently is Brooklyn Nine-Nine. It’s notable not so much for the women characters (which are fine) but for the interesting twists on traditional masculinity. Plus I enjoy Andy Samberg. I recommend it.

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