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Comunicar Journal 47: Communication, Civil Society and Social Change (Vol. 24 - 2016)

The representation of workingwomen in Spanish television fiction


Charo Lacalle

Beatriz Gómez


During the sixties and seventies the limited presence of women in the public sphere was reflected in the restricted repertoire of roles played by female characters in television fiction (mainly those of mothers and wives). The strengthening of the feminist movement in the following decades increased and diversified the portrayals of women in the workplace, and further encouraged academic research on the social construction of working women. Despite the relevance of female professionals in current TV shows, the importance of romantic relationships and sexuality has led to a decreasing number of studies on the subject. This article summarizes the results of a study on working women in Spanish TV fiction, part of a larger project on the construction of female identities. The research uses an original methodology that combines quantitative techniques and qualitative methods (socio-semiotics) to analyse the sample of 709 female characters. The results show a coexistence of the traditional stereotypes of working women in customer service and care-giving positions with those of highly skilled female professionals. However, the empowerment of women in positions of responsibility is often associated with a negative portrayal of the character, while the problems of reconciling family and work are systematically avoided.


Television, fiction, woman, gender, feminism, work, analysis, socio-semiotics

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1. Introduction and current state of affairs

The active audience theory (Ang, 1985; Hobson, 1982; Morley, 1980) converged in the 1990s with the advent of the Second Golden Age of Television (Thompson, 1996) whose commitment to the aesthetics and narrative complexity of programmes (Mitell, 2006) earned it the title of «Quality TV» (Akass & McCabe, 2007). Prompted by the image of women that emerged from representations of female characters, a group of young academic women adopted the term «Third-Wave Feminism» to distance themselves from the historical presumptions about women (submissive-woman/domineering-man), adding a notable spin to certain aspects of research into gender and television fiction. In parallel, a line of post-feminism research, which celebrated women’s agency and the empowerment of new female characters, gained strength1.

Lotz (2006: 117) states that female characters in series such as «Ally McBeal» and «Sex and the City» represent a new generation that is redefining the socially constructed image of women. Stillion-Southard (2008: 164) considers «Sex and the City» to be a postfeminist text as it examines, from an original perspective, opposites such as feminism/femininity, individualism/collectivism and audacity/vulnerability. Baumgardner and Richards (2000) celebrate the advent of «young feminism», which questions historical clichés of femininity, such as weakness and subordination to men.

In contrast to postfeminist optimism, critics of feminism decry the strengthening of the neoliberal female icon: attractive, consumerist and willing to exert her sexuality at all times (Gill, 2007). For Gallager (2014), discussions on new femininities are conservative and mainly revolve around notions such as women’s individual choice, empowerment and personal freedom. Whelehan (2000) denounces the retro-sexism that is hidden behind postfeminist female characters, constructed, according to Attwood (2006), from iconographic models of pornography. McRobbie (2009) highlights the «double entanglement» of the attempt to juggle the values of traditional femininity with the desire to always be available for men. Tyler laments that society’s generalised «pornographication» (McNair, 1996) represents «an increasingly acknowledged trend in both the mass media and the academy» (Tyler, 2010).

In contrast to male characters, the overrepresentation of female sexuality finds its corollary in the secondary role of female characters in the fictional professional world. At the same time, researchers’ interest in the representation of sexuality results in a lack of studies on the role of the work environment in the construction of female identity.

This study forms part of a project on the construction of female identities in Spanish television fiction and on the Internet. The investigation presents an original methodology that combines quantitative (SPSS) and qualitative (socio-semiotic) methods to analyse the narrative construction of the working woman. The sample is comprised of 709 female characters that appear, in various degrees of importance2, in the 84 domestic fiction programmes first shown on public Spanish channels (national and regional) between 2012 and 2013 (series, serials, mini-series, made-for-TV films and comedies). The underlying hypotheses of this study are:

• H1: The greater narrative possibilities of working women result in their overrepresentation compared to unemployed, retired and student women.

– H.1.1: The workplace is usually fertile ground in terms of relationships (friendship, love and sexuality).

– H.1.2: Working women’s problems balancing work and family life are practically absent from the analysis sample.

• H2: Despite the large number of qualified female professionals, most female characters carry out tasks traditionally related to women, such as customer services and caring for people.

• H3: Women’s empowerment through holding positions of greater responsibility is associated with them being attributed characteristics traditionally associated with masculinity.

– H.3.1: Professional success appears frequently associated with negative characters.

1.1. The working woman in television fiction

In a pioneering 1964 study, DeFleur demonstrated that «the world of work on television is a man’s world» (DeFleur, 1964: 65). Along the same lines, research carried out in the 1970s confirmed the predominance of wife and mother roles in television fiction compared to the importance of the workplace in the construction of female characters (Seggar & Wheeler, 1973; Downing, 1974; Manes & Melnyk, 1974; Tedesco, 1974; Turow, 1974; Beck, 1978). Furthermore, while professionally better qualified women were usually secretaries, teachers and nurses, men were usually portrayed as professionals, directors or police officers (McNeil, 1975), although in the same decade a few female characters played central roles in adventure dramas (Lotz, 2006).

Against the persistent stereotypes of the 1970s and 1980s (Davis, 1990), the academic output at the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s «began to depict a transition, evident in the appearance of characters who occupied highly professionalized careers» (Lotz, 2006: 95). However, research carried out during this period confirmed the scarcity of female characters who worked outside of the home, and those that did were mainly portrayed as nurses or teachers (Kalisch & Kalisch, 1984; Van-de-Berg & Streckfuss, 1992), while men continued to monopolise power in the workplace (Gerbner & Signorielli, 1982; Signorielli, 1983; Davis, 1990). Although the number of female characters in highly qualified positions continued to grow (Atkin, 1991), most of these professional women integrated their work into their own personal development (Butsch, 1992).

Successive studies showed that the fictional workplace was still a male-dominated environment (Greenberg & Collette, 1997; Elasmar, Hasegawa & Brain, 1999), that a significant percentage of female characters could not be defined on the basis of their occupation (Signorielli & Bacue, 1999) and that a large number female characters were portrayed as either housewives or unqualified female workers (Greengerg & Collette, 1997). Moreover, female characters continued to be portrayed in professions associated with women, resulting in the persistence of gender stereotypes (Glascock, 2001 and 2003; Signorielli, 2009; Emons, Wester, & Scheepers, 2010). Nevertheless, although the percentage of male workers was still greater (Signorielli & Kahlenberg, 2001) and continued to monopolise better-qualified dominant positions (Signorielli & Bacue, 1999; Glascok, 2001; Signorielli, 2009; Emons, Wester, & Scheepers, 2010), the numbers of female workers continued to increase (Signorielli 1989; Signorielli & Bacue, 1999; Signorielli & Kahlenberg 2001). A few studies have underlined the greater variety of professions represented by women (Atkin, Moorman, & Lin, 1991; Emons, Wester, & Scheepers, 2010; Glascock, 2001; Signorielli & Bacue, 1999), along with an increase in the number of female executives and a decline in the number of traditional female occupations such as secretaries (Atkin, 1991).

In general, it can be said that the representation of femininity in television seems to be conditioned by interpersonal roles (Lauzen, Dozier, & Horan, 2008). The link between occupation and being single is fairly frequent (Signorielli, 1982; Elasmar, Hasegawa, & Brain, 1999; Signorielli & Kahlenberg, 2001; Glascock, 2003). In fact, the 21st century postfeminist woman continues to depend emotionally on men, despite the elevated socio-economic status of many female characters (McCabe & Akass, 2006). Moreover, the propensity to represent white-collar professions marginalises the working class (Ruido, 2007), an image in keeping with the tendency to omit representations of women who do not fit current moulds (Gill 2007: 69), a recurring theme in representations in television fiction (Greenberg & Collette, 1997).

In Spain, various studies have shown that female characters usually have greater prominence in the private domain (CAC, 2013; Galán, 2007; García, Fedele, & Gómez, 2012). Similarly, a marked tendency to portray women in professions related to the attention and care of people was also observed (Tous, Meso, & Simelio, 2013). Nevertheless, the 2007 report by the Women’s Institute highlights that, alhough female characters continue to assume domestic work, gender is not always a determining factor in the portrayal of women professionals. Similar conclusions were reached by Lacalle in an analysis of young women (Lacalle, 2013).

2. Materials and methods

Data coding was carried out in two simultaneous phases. In the first, the socio-semiotic template used allowed us to create an SPSS codebook and to apply the coding. In the second, the template allowed us to «interrogate» the analysed texts about those aspects important in the discursive construction of the fictional female worker and to complete the descriptive database. The 40 variables identified comprised three independent (age, profession and temporal location) and 37 dependent variables, five of which link data relative to the identification of the programme (character name, programme title, channel, fiction genre and format). Age was divided into eight groups to reduce spread: 4-9 years old; 10-14; 15-17; 18-23; 24-29; 30-45; 46-65 and over 65. The work variable was divided, in turn, into two sub-variables: occupation (female student, female worker, housewife, unemployed woman, retired woman, prostitute, other, not applicable, not known) and activity, which included work carried out by groups of «working» women and «other activities» (graduate, unqualified, waitress/shop assistant, trade, other, public worker, administrative worker, not known). Finally, the temporal location of the programme was divided into the present, past and future. Certain options allowed us to choose from a specific number of possibilities, while others were more discriminatory (yes/no).

The variables used to code the characters were divided into five headings: importance of character, scenes, main themes (family, friendship, work, health and sexuality), roles (thematic, semiotic and narrative) and temporal setting. The results presented in the next section summarise the relationship between the female characters and the workplace within the framework of the different interactions that make up the construction of the working woman in Spanish television fiction.

3. Analysis and results

63.2% (N=387) of working age female characters have a defined occupation, which in 58.4% (N=358) of cases is relevant to their configuration. 93.2% (N= 361) are represented in the workplace. 9.1% (N=65) of the women analysed are students; 5.7% (N=41) are housewives; 2.9% (N=21) are unemployed; 2.9% (N=21) are retired and 1.4% (N=10) are prostitutes. Similarly, in the analysis sample, 8% (N=57) are included under the heading «other activities», 8% (N=57) are of unknown occupation and 7% (N=50) neither work nor study. The female workers are mainly single3 (40.8%; N=158). 63.9% (N=126) of these portray a central character and are more affected by work problems (62%; N=240).

No significant differences were observed in the percentage of housewives portrayed in fictions set in the past (53.7%; N=22) or in the present (46.3%; N=19). Nevertheless, the temporal setting was important in terms of age, as nearly all the housewives under the age of 45 appear in stories set in the past.

The majority of unemployed female characters appeared in comedies (57.1%; N=12), which are traditionally characterised by the inclusion of a wide range of social problems that nevertheless barely affect narrative development. Foremost among the unemployed female fiction characters are married women (52.3%; N=11), followed by unqualified women (23.8%; N=5) and those whose education level is unknown (23.8%; N=5), while only three have university degrees (14.3%). Few retired women play a leading role (23.8%; N=5), but the large number of problems involving confrontations and competitiveness (57.1%; N=12) in their relationships results in a negative representation of older women.

All the female characters who play the part of prostitutes appear in fictions set in the past, the majority being between 18 and 23 years old and single (60%; N=6, in both cases). This group also has the greatest number of problems related to their work activity (80%; N=8).

The female characters in the group headed «other activities» portray a range of personalities, including female prisoners, nuns and criminals but mostly members of royalty or the aristocracy. The women who do not carry out any form of labour activity appear far more frequently in period dramas (84%; N=42) and most are married (56%; N=28).

3.1. The workplace

Working women who appear in Spanish television fiction carry out a limited range of work activities, foremost of which are those requiring a university degree (22.2%; N=86), followed by unqualified workers (16.5%; N=64). In third place are waitresses and shop assistants (14.7%; N=57), female workers such as dressmakers, hairdressers, bakers and cooks, etc. (14.4%; N=56), women who carry out other activities (11.8%; N=46), public workers (8.5%; N=33) and administrative staff (6.7%; N=26). The remaining 4.9% (N=19) play such minor roles that no mention was made of their occupation.

The majority of female characters holding degrees or diplomas are between 30 and 45 years old (51%; N=48) and 43.6% (N=41) are single. Moreover, they make up the group with the greatest number of central characters (48.9%; N=46) and include the highest percentage of characters whose fictional profession is a determining factor for their characterisation (81.9%; N=77). By contrast, unqualified women (mainly servants and cleaners) are between 46 and 65 years old (19.2%; N=20), are married (36.5%; N=38) and play secondary roles.

Fictional female characters under 30 years of age work as waitresses or shop assistants (21.3%; N=26), jobs that are carried out by only 11.2% (N=28) of over-30s. However, while the former tend to be employees, the latter have some connection with the ownership of the business, generally running a family enterprise together with a male character. In contrast to the other low-qualified female workers, the fictional profession plays an important part in these women’s characterisations (85.9%; N=55), which are mainly constructed in the workplace.

Waitresses and shop assistants are usually the most popular female characters in their settings (39.1%; N=25), although they make up the second group, after female public workers (generally policewomen), with the greatest number of work-related problems (65.6%; N=42). Female public workers are mainly between the ages of 30 and 45 (72.7%; N=24) and generally members of the police force or Civil Guard. As such, this group is faced with the greatest number of work-related problems (66.7%; N=22) and are frequently shown in the work place (97%; N=32). Moreover, the fictional professional role plays a decisive part in the character construction of this group of women, which is the second largest group (39.4%; N=13).

Similarly, it is possible that female police officers stand out due to limited contextualisation of their private lives, to the point that their friendships and their position within their circle of friends fail to appear in the characterisation of 42.4% (N=14) of these fictional characters, as do their social status or the romantic relationships they have outside the workplace (39.3%; N=13). The low number of problems associated with relationships (45.5%; N=15) can be explained mainly a result of their portrayal as women dedicated to their work.

Finally, it should be pointed out that the majority of female administrative workers are between 24 and 29 years old (34.6%; 9 characters) and 30 and 45 (38.5%; 10 characters) and are mainly secretaries and receptionists. They tend to be young, generally attractive, obliging, efficient and have few relationship problems (30.8% and 8 characters), which perpetuates the stereotype of the secretary loyal to her boss and reaffirms the subordination of the female figure to the male (76.9%; N=20). However, despite appearing to have few relationship problems in the workplace, they have a large number of other problems (65.4%; N=17), mainly resulting from their boss’s authoritarianism, which usually spills over into sexual abuse.

4. Discussion and conclusions

The analysis carried out here shows that the percentage of women workers in Spanish television fiction is nearly 10 points higher than data presented in the latest report from the Ministry of Work and Social Security (NSI, 2015) and contrasts with the underrepresentation of unemployed and retired women. The low number of female characters older than 65 years old –who make up 81% (N=17) of the total number of retired women– is another persistent feature in the representation of older women (Gordillo, Guarinos, & Ramírez, 2009), who are generally characterised one-dimensionally, with their roles often ill-defined and minor (Bazzini, 1997; Signorielli & Bacue, 1999; Vernon, Williams, Phillips, & Wilson, 1990).

Similarly, our study reveals an overrepresentation of qualified women, a pattern observed in television fiction in the USA since the 1970s (Downing, 1974). In fact, women with university degrees constitute the group with the widest range of characters included in the analysis sample. 85.1% (N=80) of these practice their profession, establishing a direct relationship between higher education and professional practice that is deeply rooted in the social imaginary. Most of the women with degrees or diplomas studied in social sciences and humanities and have professions traditionally associated with women, such as lawyers, teachers, journalists, psychologists etc., which is another tendency inherited from US television (Signorielli, 1983; 1993; Signorielli & Kahlenberg, 2001). In contrast to Vande-Berg and Streckfuss (1992), no female character was observed working in the technical-scientific or technology fields, a fact probably determined by the greater narrative and dramatic possibilities of the professions described here rather than by any educational or statistical factors (Signorielli, 2009; Signorielli & Kahlenberg, 2001).

A large number of female characters with professions requiring qualifications have jobs involving caring for others, such as primary or secondary school teachers, nurses, carers and physiotherapists (Tous, Meso, & Simelio, 2013). However, despite the link between these jobs and the female world, the women who do these jobs are not usually questioned by their bosses or other male characters (Galán, 2007).

The medical profession is one of the most «subversive» professional groups and is characterised by decision-making and exercising authority (Philips, 2000: 53). In this regard, the gradual increase in the number of female doctors, determined in part by the longevity of the series «Hospital Central» (Tele5, 2000-12), has meant that the traditional model that confers the role of «saviour» (the doctor) to men, and that of «companion» (the nurse) to women, has been superseded (Kalisch & Kalisch, 1984; Women’s Institute, 2007). The overrepresentation of certain professions also explains the prominence of female police officers among public workers, the group with the best-defined professionals but with often the least developed personal lives. Although gender is not always decisive in the characterisation of professions (Lacalle, 2013), these women are usually observed adopting male characteristics in an attempt to allow themselves to be guided by their most rational side, eliminating «any trace of sensitivity» or hiding it «under a mask of coldness» (Galán, 2007: 231).

Leadership/empowerment of businesswomen and women directors also entails the attribution of traditionally masculine traits. In fact, television fiction rarely opts for the novel representation of a dominant, independent woman but rather opts for copying characteristics associated with masculinity, namely aggressiveness, individualism, competitiveness and decision-making (Van-de-Berg & Streckfus, 1992), as well as authority and organisational skills (Greenberg, 1980; Signorielli, 1989). Nevertheless, the representation of these power-defined women brings with it a stigma that calls into question their work success. For the most part, they are negative female characters: ambitious, unscrupulous, resentful, vengeful, despotic, strong and implacable. Their professional success is frequently belittled by associating their position of power with other male characters (husband, father, etc.) (Van-de-Berg & Streckfus, 1992)4. On other occasions, the reasons behind the success of these women is not questioned, but is, rather, presented as compensation for an unsatisfying personal, family or love life, and successful female characters are portrayed as women who have been unable to «satisfy their «instincts» as a mother or wife» (Ruido, 2007: 12).

From an androcentric point of view, the negative characterisation of the powerful woman represents a form of punishment for pursuing profession goals at the expense of her partner and/or family (Tous, Meso, & Simelio, 2013). The desire to abandon traditional stereotypes such as the housewife, mother and wife has been frowned upon (Women’s Institute, 2007), while secretaries, on the other hand, continue reaffirming «the [male] corporate hierarchy and power, often including among their normal services favours of a sexual or affectionate nature (Ruido, 2007: 12).

Unlike sexual abuse or relationship problems experienced by those female characters who, for reasons of narrative economy, spend most of their time in the workplace (Galán, 2007), other issues, such as juggling work with family life, are practically non-existent (Ortega & Simelio, 2012). This is reflected in the greater percentage of working single women (45.7%; N=177) compared to married women (27.3%; N= 106), a feature also observed in the US (Glascock, 2003; Signorielli, 1982; Signorielli & Kahlenberg, 2001). The percentage of single, qualified women (52.1%; N=49) is also much higher than the number of married qualified women (28.7%; N=27) (Atkin, 1991), although the difference has gradually decreased since the 1980s (Elasmar, Hasegawa, & Brain, 1999).

The analysis presented here confirms the different hypotheses and sub-hypotheses underlying this investigation and highlights not only the debate between the achievements made since the first representations of women workers in television fiction but also the persistence of certain stereotypes «strongly rooted in normative patriarchal designs» (Menéndez & Zurian, 2014: 70). It thus justifies the need to combine a quantitative diachronic perspective with a qualitative analysis of the roles and stereotypes of the female worker in order to adequately contextualise the effects of the representations of the woman on viewers. In this regard, our choice of a method that brings together a quantitative (SPSS) and a qualitative (socio-semiotic) analysis represents a novel contribution to studies on gender and television in Spain.


1 The term post-feminism, first coined by Rebecca Walker in 1992 to define «third-wave feminism», is a culturally complex concept. Brunsdon illustrates it in television fiction through characters appearing in series such as «Sex and the City» and «Desperate Housewives» (Brunsdon, 2013: 378). Lotz believes that third-wave feminism represents the overcoming of certain limitations of «second-wave activism» (Lotz, 2006: 8).

2 Only those secondary characters that appeared in less than three episodes in the same season were excluded.

3 Every country’s television system reflects the historical, political, social, economic, and cultural contexts within which it has developed (Gerbner, Gross, Jackson-Beeck & Signorielli, 1978: 178). In line with the situation in Spain, women are considered «married» if they cohabit with their partner and, as such, we prefer the term social status to marital status.

4 Waitresses and shop assistants who own the business are also similarly discredited, since they are portrayed as running it with a male member of the family.


This article forms part of the project «The Social Construction of Women in Television Fiction and the Web 2.0: Stereotypes, Reception and Feedback» (FEM2012-33411), financed by the Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness. In addition to the authors, the following also participated in the study: Deborah Castro, Mariluz Sánchez, Belén Granda, Tatiana Hidalgo, Elsa Soro and Karina Tiznado (researchers), and Marc Bellmunt, Paola Cabrera, Estitxu Garay, Germán Muñoz, Amaia Neracan, y Lucía Trabajo (collaborators).


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