Exploring TV Portrayals of Young Women in the Workplace

Grace Bello
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Throughout my twenties, I had almost all of the jobs associated with a Young Woman in the City. I worked as a retail associate, an intern, a receptionist, a model, a restaurant hostess, and a cocktail waitress—all in New York, and all before the age of 25. And so have characters on "Girls," "Ugly Betty," "America's Next Top Model," "Mad Men," "Don't Trust the B----- in Apt. 23," and more. And while these Hollywood portrayals of young women on the job reveal some truth of what it's like to enter the workforce, what television producers choose to gloss over—or flat out ignore—speaks volumes about how professional women are pigeonholed on TV as well as in real life.

Welcome to Woman's Work, a blog where I'll explore contemporary TV portrayals of young women in the workplace. Using my own anecdotes as well as accounts from other real-life women, I'll compare and contrast our experiences with those of our television cohorts. From coffee shops to reception desks, from retail counters to runways, how do Hollywood depictions of young women at work ring true, and how do they fall short?

To be clear, I'm not the type of woman you'd see on "Gossip Girl." I grew up middle class in the San Francisco Bay Area, worked since I was 20 years old, graduated from UC Berkeley, and moved to New York when I was 23 to become a writer. A newcomer to New York and to corporate environments, I was bewildered by the world of work. Why did editors even care what I studied in college when, ultimately, I as an unpaid intern would be running their personal errands? And why did my peers think my modeling gigs were glamorous when I was barely making minimum wage?

WomansWork_MadMen_Peggy_subwayOn TV, too, we see young, working women struggling--particularly in the service industry, media, fashion, and advertising. On "Girls," "Don't Trust the B----- in Apt. 23," and "Friends," young women work as baristas in hopes of landing their dream jobs in publishing, finance, and fashion, respectively. "Ugly Betty" and "Mad Men" depict tough climbs for Betty and Peggy who, unlike their female coworkers, get ahead based on their talent rather than their looks. And when it comes to fashion, "America's Next Top Model" and "Gossip Girl" suppress the ugly truths behind a beauty-driven industry.

To be sure, American TV offers a small crop of strong, young heroines. My personal favorite is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, though of course her career as The Chosen One is fictional. Olivia Benson of "Law and Order: SVU" (who was 32 when the series began), Carrie Mathison of "Homeland," and Dr. Mindy Lahiri of "The Mindy Project" are similarly driven in their careers. But rare indeed is the young woman who not only kicks ass--either literally or figuratively--but whose narrative arc focuses on these achievements. How much deeper might "New Girl" be if Zooey Deschanel's Jess focused less on her hot and cold romances and more on her career as a teacher?

Television isn't a perfect mirror, neither for American culture in general nor for young, working women in particular. The medium reflects us, yes, but it sometimes distorts our images before broadcasting them to a mass audience. That said, if young women are to embark upon and thrive in the careers for which we accumulated an average of $26,000 in student debt, it's time to look more critically at how TV represents—and misrepresents—our work and our ambitions.


Read more of this guest blog Women's Work, which explores TV portrayals of young women in the workforce.

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17 Comments Have Been Posted


I like the idea for this column and I look forward to reading it, but I'm wondering about the focus on young women in the world of work. Why not include depictions or older, more established, working women?

Older working women

That would be a subject for a whole nother column. I'm interested specifically in how young women navigate the workforce, which is a new world for them, and how TV influences their notions of what a career is. That said, I will name-check some notable female characters who are more established in their careers, i.e. Wilhelmina Slater of "Ugly Betty" and others.

In fact ...

I'll be discussing older women on TV in my guest blog starting today!

Re: Buffy

To be fair, even Buffy had it rough. Our resident ass-kicker had to work at a fast food chain after she had to drop out of University to support her sister until eventually she got hired as a guidance counselor because Sunnydale High was too spooky to employ anybody else.

Re: Even Buffy had it rough

<p>Agreed! I definitely want to explore Buffy's non-slayer jobs through this column. So watch out, Doublemeat Palace.</p>

I'm Excited!

While I fully understand that not everyone can land their "dream job" right out of school, there need to be more portrayals of young women pursuing their dreams rather than being comically "in between" careers. That period of stasis isn't necessarily funny (it actually kind-of sucks). And, even though there is a serious debate about this topic, people need to see strong role models coming from film and television.

Personally, I believe that being constantly exposed to characters who are flippant about their careers strongly affects our own willpower and motivation. If girls see young women living a humorously glamorous life as a barista, they will think that it's OK to stay in that stage of life rather than achieving their dreams.

With that being said, I'm really excited to read your discussion about this issue. It looks promising. Good luck!

What about in Film?

If I hear one more "Devil Wears Prada" reference...!

Ugly Betty

I'm choosing to focus on TV rather than film. However, "Ugly Betty" has similar to themes to "The Devil Wears Prada," so look for a few critiques of that show on this blog. Thanks!

Dream Job?

I dunno, dream jobs are just that, dream jobs. How many of us are working at our dream job? I've been a working professional for 17 years and there's no dream job in sight. Many years ago I figured out that I have to get my satisfaction & happiness in life from my family, friends, and pursuits outside of work.

The myth that everyone is entitled their dream job is a dangerous one and gives people unrealistic expectations. How many musicians, artists, and dancers can a society afford? Being a trash collector is no one's idea of a dream job, but it's pretty important that it be done.

Dream jobs

Yes, this column will, in part, unpack various dream jobs. Obviously, one has the right to pursue whatever careers one wants. But I'm interested in dispelling certain myths (such as the belief that modeling is glamorous and well-paid) so that young women who choose to follow that path are at least better informed about it. Stay tuned!


Spot-on about baristas. Look for my post on the service industry next week. Cheers!

oh wow! super excited to read

oh wow! super excited to read this. as a young woman who has been working as a journalist in some way shape or form since 21, and am only now being offered challenging permanent paid work, i have always been kind of baffled at how television has sorely lacked any realistic representation of someone to aspire to be like... aside from perhaps, rory gilmore? very much looking forward to this.

I'm really looking forward to

I'm really looking forward to following your blog. People look at me pretty bizarrely when I show them a resume that includes everything from "dog groomer" to "karaoke cocktail server." I'm proud to say that most of my friends are where they want to be career-wise. Even so, it's nice to know that there are other young women out there who can relate to my ambitious, yet unfulfilled goals. Thank you!

Can't Freaking Wait!

I'm really looking forward to following your blog. People look at me weird when I show them a resume that includes everything from "dog groomer" to "kareoke cocktail server." I'm proud to say that most of my friends are where they want to be career-wise. Still, it's nice to know that there are other young women out there who can relate to my ambitious, yet unfulfilled goals. Thank you!

Well, you've got me

I'm really looking forward to this series! In part because I'm currently occupying two of the mentioned occupations.

TV is BS

I grew up lower class , moving all over the west coast from parent to parent who struggled to keep jobs and was determined to not to struggle like my parents did. I had my first real job at 16 in retail while still attending high school. I finished high school while carrying a full time assistant manager job in retail. After graduation and being kicked out of my home by an evil violent stepmother I worked 2 jobs and was still homeless at 18 in Las Vegas. I bounced from friend's couches to sleeping bags in parks, to boyfriends closets.
5 months later I moved to California to live with my grandma and within 2 weeks I had multiple jobs through a temp agency. I helped her pay bills and kept her from claiming bankruptcy while retired, then found a great full time position doing paste-up at a newspaper right after turning 19.
Within 6 months of that I had moved into a graphic design job. No college degree, no formal training, all self taught. I was the youngest designer at that paper for 9 1/2 years and one of only two females whom returned to work after having a child. Now I am a digital specialist at another newspaper in another state. I built a career from hard work and self teaching.
I know I just dealt out a whopper of a comment but my point is that : Not one of the 'young women" roles on TV relate at all to the struggle some of my friends and I have dealt with. I would LOVE to see a show with a female lead that isn't all wrapped up and googly eyed about romance that doesn't really HAVE to work cause someone else is paying their bills or their husband has a killer job.
Lets' see a real woman with a real struggle that has HAD to work to survive .

Amy and Bernadette on the Big Bang Theory

One of the (many) things that bothers me about the Big Bang Theory is that the fellas' careers in science are portrayed as a huge part of their personalities and leisure time, they often do fun science-y activities in their spare time. However the show goes out of its way to make the point that Amy and Bernadette (a neurobiologist and microbiologist respectively) are scientist, sure, but they are also ladies and love shoes and boys, and talking about shoes and boys. The scenes with the ladies are some of my favorites (and may have even passed the Bechdel test) but I wish they could do a better job of integrating their careers, which they claim to love, into their actual lives.

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