Editor’s Note: This column is written by a researcher at NYU Abu Dhabi and is part of a podcast mini-series produced by Law School Transparency about women in law. This week’s theme is portrayals of women lawyers in popular culture and by journalists. Learn more here.
Here’s a potentially unflattering confession: I religiously watch Grey’s Anatomy. Even after 13 seasons on air, I keep coming back, despite increasingly unbelievable plot lines.
Yet, while I am complicit in encouraging the longevity of some fictional absurdity, it only extends to environments that I am not invested in. I’m not a medical doctor, so watching Meredith Grey remove three live bombs from a patient does not make me roll my eyes. The artistic license I grant here does not, however, extend to her network-sister on How To Get Away With Murder, Annalise Keating. As a lawyer and academic, I wince when I see her “teach” her 1L students to actively tamper with evidence or use clearly unethical means to get case-imperative information.
I imagine that for viewers with more distance from these environments (as I have with Grey’s), the dissonance is not that jarring. But when fictional lawyers are front and center behaving in stereotypical ways or even unwittingly saving the day on television, I can’t ignore how it shapes society’s understanding of the imagined professional. It brings to focus how portrayals in popular media — even as they highlight diversity — are ridden with stereotypes (the “normal”) and unrealistic portrayals (the “absurd”). And how both these “normal” and “absurd” portrayals, even if accidental, are “sticky” and can be mildly dangerous.
How can one have a problem with a show designed to break stereotypes about women professionals?
Media caricatures, even of strong women, have a way of reinforcing our assumptions about people and the environments they inhabit. We see something we’ve made an assumption about and don’t challenge the portrayals that are in sync with it.
Consider Ally McBeal. She was scattered, as we assume women often are under pressure; she was neurotic, as we assume dorks from elite law schools often are; she longed for her ex-boyfriend, as we imagine any woman who has a career but no love life must. The more distance we personally have from these portrayals, the easier it is to trust the fiction.
Fine. The normal is problematic. But these are shows about successful women — is that not empowering?
Absolutely. Watching strong women on TV certainly empowers, especially when viewers like or identify with them for personal reasons. But when television normalizes the absurd, it makes appreciating character subtleties more difficult on viewers. I don’t mean background noise like 1L classes that don’t address basic black letter law, but more substantial absurdities like Ally McBeal always managing to win the case at the last minute with some crafted loophole.
Loopholes make for great drama, but unrealistic portrayals do little to actually change our perceptions or negate our biases. Instead, they are unlikely to resonate because the average viewer is likely to either discredit it for being too unrealistic (e.g. Ally winning eachcase she argues despite being flustered in the minutes leading to it) or find the portrayal unrepresentative (i.e. Ally winning each case is about Ally McBeal the character, not women lawyers everywhere).
Thus, even when it looks like the media has taken giant steps to portray strong female characters, their strengths are curiously un-relatable because they and their environments don’t confirm our perceptions of the normal.
The “normal” and the “absurd” in these shows do the same thing — they reinforce and make sticky the things we expect (the normal) and they undermine the things that we don’t (the absurd). And the pervasiveness of popular culture makes these patterns problematic, especially because do not need to look like an explicit scene from Mad Men to do damage.
I recognize that shows can only do so much to change public perceptions. But as John Berger argues, we are never just looking at one thing, we are always looking at the relationship between things and ourselves. And in this recursive relationship between audience and media, we need to pay attention to what we are reinforcing.