Watching television is an opportunity to “switch off” as we switch on: TV is considered by many as a sedative and herein lays its power. Whilst we unwind, television works overtime as a wholly underestimated agent disseminating a continuous stream of ideas. Television can act as a night school for the masses but can also prop up reductive notions that linger on in society, as an insidious haze that obscures our vision and locks us in ideological stasis.
The immensity of the influence exerted by television media is exemplified by the statistic that in America, hours spent gawping into the cavernous depths of widescreens actually outnumber hours spent in school. So, given the authority wielded by television, what messages are being transmitted by the ominous black box?
It is revealing, and disturbing, that television has been rather resistant to ideological evolution; like an indolent and maladapted organism it continues to languish in its own ignorance and therefore has had to be forcibly wrenched into the present. In only 2008 a Heinz Mayonnaise advert was pulled following more than two hundred complaints due to its “offensive content” – two men kissing. The first gay kiss, which was dismissed by many as a tentative peck consciously drained of sexual intent, was only shown in 1987. Over twenty years have passed and gay relationships in the media arena still possess the somewhat dubious faculty to bewilder prudish audiences. The kiss shared by Nick and Todd in Coronation Street in 2003 provoked fierce debate; Ulrika Jonsson regarded the scene with distaste, asserting that it was inappropriate subject matter before the watershed. It would be amusing, were it not so alarming, the vast hypocrisy shamelessly enjoyed by a medium characterised by the proliferation of pornographic imagery when faced with the seemingly menacing prospect of gay scenes.
Feminism in the media, however, has no such landmarks to plot its stilted progression into representation and is thus often neglected. Women in the media are often reduced to consumable goods, like products in an assembly line made more palatable and appealing. We long for multi-faceted female protagonists that interrogate stereotypes embroidered onto our social fabric and are frequently disappointed by the fairly uniform representation of women: the classic tropes of the overtly sexualised femme fatale, the bimbo and the witty female often condemned to a peripheral role due to wielding no sexual promise leave us feeling disenchanted. Women are characterised either by their sexuality or by their absence: over half of viewers are female, yet in TV drama for every female character, there are two male characters (36.5% female roles to 63.5% male roles). Leading male roles are dominated by actors over 45, whereas it is at this age that female actors begin to vanish from view.
It seems that subsisting inequalities that have riddled society are abound in television media, so taking into account the media’s status as a barometer of social change and given our control as viewers over what we watch and our right to exert agency over content via complaints and petitions; is it television that is resistant to change, the last bastion of the bygone days of chauvinism and homophobia? Or is it us who are simply unable to progress?