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Women and the Work/Life Balance Problem Onscreen

ABC’s rocky pilot episode of Body of Proof recently highlighted an ongoing problem television dramas seem to struggle with: the accurate depiction of work/life balance for women. As women in society in general are talking about the need for more support for a work/life balance, particularly for parents who want to pursue careers and raise children, the messages projected in television are often rather slanted, and are generally negative.

Women on television with careers tend to be depicted as single-minded people with few friends, the inability to raise children, and difficulty ‘turning off’ to engage in recreational activities or relationships with people outside their workplaces. In part, this is a fault of the medium. People tune in to television dramas like Bones and Grey’s Anatomy for the workplace setting, not to watch characters at home, out in their communities, or interacting with their children. The storylines are driven by the workplace, and the show must perforce focus on this environment.

For shows like medical and crime dramas, seeing children in the workplace would be unexpected.  We wouldn’t exactly expect to see detectives breastfeeding in the morgue, or teenagers hanging out in the operating room gallery (although both of these things do happen in the real world). Because the stories take place primarily in workplace settings, it is difficult to integrate people from outside the work environment. As a result, we rarely see the children, friends, and neighbours of our characters, even though they may be referenced.

But it’s notable to see how many shows have difficulty showing their characters achieving any kind of balance between their careers and their lives, particularly in the case of mothers. Miranda Bailey of Grey’s Anatomy has a son, but viewers almost never see him except when he is being used as a plot device to highlight the emptiness of her life. Viewers are reminded over and over again that she cannot be a surgeon and a mother, perhaps most notably when she discusses switching specialties to have more time to spend with him. On the same show, Meredith Grey struggles with infertility, a neat way to avoid figuring out what to do with a baby on a medical drama.

Cam on Bones has an adopted teenage daughter, whom again we almost never see except when the show needs to advance a storyline. The show points out that she feels disconnected from her daughter because of their limited interactions, implying that her job is at fault. If only she wasn’t heading up the forensic division, she would have more time to dedicate to parenting. Unusually, Bones also features this issue with a male character: we rarely see Booth’s son Parker, because, again, his busy job evidently precludes the development of a real relationship with his son.

On Body of Proof, we learn that being a neurosurgeon means you will end up divorced, with your ex having custody of your children because you work too much. Dr. Hunt lives in isolation because of her career and the pilot episode made a point of repeatedly telling viewers that she has no friends and doesn’t know how to relate to her daughter. Seeking a career, the implication seems to be, means that you cannot have a family.

Women who want to pursue professional careers in the real world struggle with attitudes about work/life balances and the role of women in the workplace. Asking for time off, attempting to set boundaries, and working on the cultivation of outside relationships are often frowned upon among women who want to be taken professionally and seriously, while single-minded women willing to sacrifice their lives to their careers receive praise. This is reflected in television, where women seem to be forced to choose between careers and families rather than having both.

Integrating family and other outside relationships into dramas not specifically set in the home is challenging, yet television seems capable of doing this with many male characters. Richard Castle on Castle enjoys a complex and rich relationship with his mother and daughter, both of whom live with him. We regularly see them on the show as distinct characters, not just plot devices, and the scenes at home feel natural, rather than forced insertions to expand the show beyond the halls of the police precinct.

Likewise, we see a great deal of Emily, Dr. Lightman’s daughter on Lie to Me. We see Dr. Lightman at home with his daughter and she also comes into the workplace. She’s also a complex character who exists as a standalone entity with her own life and storylines. Both Castle and Lightman are meant to be relatable as very human characters with complex identity, but the same courtesy is not offered to many women on television. How many times have we seen Dr. Brennan’s home on Bones?

When it comes to depicting work/life balances on television, there are some clear gender divides. Some of these are the consequence of the shows they are on; Castle, for example, is very much about Richard Castle and his life, and thus we expect to see more of his life, as viewers, while Grey’s Anatomy is not just about Miranda Bailey and her family life. But some of it also clearly speaks to a much deeper social problem–that many people seem to struggle with the idea of women and careers, and the idea that women belong in the home, not the workplace, continues to be very widespread.

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