Media Portrayals of Leading Ladies in Law: Time for a Comedy?

This semester I took on an independent study project that looked at media portrayals of women in the law based on a screening of Miss Representation hosted by the Women and the Law Program at American University Washington College of Law. Part of my research required me to watch all those television shows I had never had time to watch before. In addition to re-watching episodes of Boston Legal and Law & Order: SVU, I’ve watched Ally McBeal, The Good Wife, Damages, and Suits…as homework!

I’ve spent hours analyzing the character development of woman lawyers on television, identifying common stereotypes, and trying to determine the impact of these characters on the viewing audience. Throughout my research, I’ve been intrigued by the similar genre these shows fall in and the impact that might have on the public perception of women in the law. The viewing audience for the more prominent shows portraying women in the law is primarily adult—based on subject matter, scheduling, and channel.

Recently, a friend posted a funny clip on Facebook from How I Met Your Mother about a guy studying law on a Friday night. After watching the clip I went back to my research project but I couldn’t get the clip out of my mind. Not only was I studying law on a Friday night, but also I was studying scene after scene of serious and dramatic women arguing with bosses, counseling clients, and preparing for trial. These are not, on average, multidimensional characters that stress about paying back their student loans, laugh with their friends, and try to balance professional and personal lives. These are more narrow portrayals of women with legal careers. And that is what the viewing audience sees. These narrow portrayals then provide a basis for how the public characterizes women who work in the legal profession in real life.

Not that woman in the law should be turned into a joke. Obviously. A popular show that features an incompetent woman in the legal profession, like Barry Zuckerkorn from Arrested Development, will not likely improve the public perception of women lawyers. But maybe a crucial component to changing the stereotypes about women in the law perpetuated by shows in similar genres would be to portray these characters in different kinds of settings and on different kinds of shows. We’ve seen women in the medical field on Grey’s Anatomy, House, and Scrubs. Shouldn’t we be able to flip on the TV and see women in the legal field on dramas, mysteries, and comedies? 

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