Communicating Gender on Reality TV
Every day, millions of viewers tune into television programming that is based on “reality.” While questions of gender and gender representation on reality TV are a hot topic of communication debate, TLC’s hit reality series—Police Women of Broward County (PWBC)— provides a noteworthy site for debate as it follows the lives of women who have “made it” in a “man’s world.” On the surface, the series seems to celebrate female empowerment via the law enforcement profession, while problematically circumscribing women to “private sphere” gendered roles that have long plagued the televisual terrain.
PWBC: The Show
One of the first ways in which PWBC perpetuates gender norms is by focusing on female sex appeal. Here, policewomen are often featured as undercover hookers reduced to their physical attributes. They are scantily-clad, using their sex appeal to “bait” men in prostitution stings. Physical assets are emphasized as the camera focuses on areas associated with female sexuality (i.e., breasts, legs, and pelvic area). Even outside of work, the women are shown in barely-there bikinis on the beach and/or as they clean their pool(s). Here again, the camera zooms in on female body parts and slowly pans upward surveying the female form. The policewomen are sexualized because of their gender, as the show suggests even those women in male-oriented jobs are subject to the male gaze and objectification.
Beyond sexualized content, PWBC also conveys gender norms as it allies the policewomen withmale figures to alleviate the women’s threat to masculinity. For example, Shelunda Cooper is first introduced as she walks out of her home in uniform alongside her husband. She is framed as a female deputy who is married to a male deputy, which helps validate her ability as a female officer. Andrea Penoyer is allied with her partner Ronnie, as PWBC emphasizes the “back and forth” play interaction between the two. These on-screen moments lessen the women’s disruption to “male” law enforcement by reminding viewers it is the women, and their male counterparts, fighting crime together.
PWBC also features policewomen as objects of rough action that unfolds on-screen. As participants in action, the women are shown performing traffic stops and capturing criminals effectively. As objects, however, the policewomen are often “saved” by the men around them, such as when criminals fail to comply with Ana Murillo’s instructions or when Julie Bower is instructed that a group of male detectives are on stand-by should anything go wrong in her escort sting. The active agency that makes the women competent policewomen is seemingly erased as they become damsels in distress.
Further, PWBC also suggests that policewomen can have careers, but never at the expense of family. The females’ personal relationships are emphasized in every episode; they are mothers and wives first, and then cops. All of the deputies are framed in relation to their children and/or husbands, and are unquestionably heterosexual. Bower, Murillo, and Penoyer are often filmed taking their children to school, packing them lunches, and tucking them into bed, while Cooper (who is childless) meets with her husband, talks to him, and/or talks about him at length. By focusing so heavily on their private lives, PWBC suggests that females’ work pales in comparison to responsibilities at home.
Finally, PWBC also focuses on “women’s issues” at home and at work, and incorporates explicit general feminism as a means of normalizing gender roles and concerns. On PWBC, women’s issues at home include the juggling of work and family demands, which strengthens pre-existing ideologies that household responsibilities are still females’ concern. Women’s issues on the job include rape, sexual battery, and domestic violence, but what distinguishes these issues onPWBC is the manner in which they are managed by the policewomen. Here, the women work to resolve the situation andcreate shared understanding between themselves and the victim/suspect(s) based on mutual “female” experience. Explicit general feminism strengthens the communication industries’ prevailing rhetoric that gender equality has been reached, despite the series aptly demonstrating women are not equals in law enforcement but instead must “prove” themselves before they are regarded as equally competent.
In a media world saturated with reality TV, TLC’s PWBC conjures up complicated representations of gender on the small screen. In some ways, PWBC takes a step in the right direction by featuring women in male-dominated careers. Their presence in law enforcement and on television advances women’s visibility in jobs traditionally held by men. The series also acknowledges the multifaceted lives of women by including familial responsibilities. These are realistic gender portrayals.
The problem arises, however, when one considers that PWBC continues to frame women in ways that perpetuatestereotypical gender norms and expectations. The policewomen continue to be those valued for their physical assets, responsible for childcare and housekeeping, expected to be empathic, and treated as if their concerns are all alike. Despite working in a male-dominated field, they are expected to behave in ways society has deemed characteristically “feminine.”PWBC provides limited departure from women’s oppressive “second shift” and treats the unequal distribution of household labor as if it were a “given.” While policewomen have accepted feminist gains in the working world, the message here is that they have accepted traditional gender roles as well. Instead of questioning the social norms that treat females as primary caretakers of the private sphere, PWBC encourages us to applaud them for their ability to do so. By incorporating the more “feminine” aspects of the women’s lives, PWBC works to legitimize the view that males in law enforcement are the “norm” and are focused on “real” police work, while females are not.
Collectively, all of this demonstrates we must continue to critically question the way(s) we view females in male-dominated careers and females on reality TV, as the popular notions of “equality” still exist at a distance. As PWBC illustrates, there is still much work to be done in “leveling the playing fields” of representation in the communication industries, even though some deputies can change in the female locker room.