It's rare to see TV show characters who actually have a job. A recent study showed that only half of prime-time speaking characters possess an "identifiable job." When shows do depict women working, we're rarely portrayed in nontraditional occupations. Television would have us believe that when women do have careers, we're in stereotypical "women's work" like being administrative assistants or glamorous fashion designers. In TV careers, men do the heavy lifting.
Last week's episode of Parks and Recreation, "Women in Garbage", is fairly unique then, in showing women at work in a male-dominated career: takin' out the city's trash. In their own hilarious way, Parks and Rec focused on the fraught fight that needs to happen in order to undo a city's institutional sexism. In the episode, City Commissioner Leslie (Amy Poehler) discovers that very few women occupy jobs in Pawnee's public sector. She attempts to create a gender equality commission, but finds she's presiding over an all-male group—in April's (Aubrey Plaza) words, a "sausagefest."
Leslie points out that the sanitation department is the worst offender of gender inequity—and one of the city's highest paying departments. When one man says, "It's a very physically demanding job. Your average woman can't handle it", Leslie and April take it upon themselves to work for a day as garbage collectors to show the dudes that women are capable of doing the job.
In real life, it's true that women are underrepresented in the particular job shown on Parks and Recreation; among refuse and recyclable material collectors, only about 8% are women. However, the show points out that we can correct the gender imbalance. After Leslie and April's experimental day as sanitation workers, the sanitation department later hires three new female employees. While it's not television's mission per se to advocate for gender equality, this episode manages to do so while still fulfilling TV's main goal of providing entertainment. (And on that note, mad props to April for this delightfully sarcastic line: "Leslie, you'll never land a beau with that domineering tone.")
In contrast to "Women in Garbage", several TV shows depict men and women in stereotypical jobs without illustrating the possibility of a better gender balance. Take, for example, the series that inspired Parks, The Office. In the first seven seasons of the American version of the show, the head boss is an inept Michael Scott (Steve Carell). The top salespeople are Dwight and Jim. However, the main female characters are relegated to the reception desk. First it's Pam (Jenna Fischer), Jim's crush and eventually his wife; later it's Erin (Ellie Kemper), who becomes Andy's girlfriend and Pete's crush. In this office as well as its accompanying warehouse, men do the bulk of the work while the women assist and ultimately partner with them romantically. And while the show illustrates this stereotypical gender imbalance satirically by portraying Michael as a dolt undeserving of responsibility and Pam as talented and underappreciated, the show never gestures toward the possibility of change and therefore serves to maintain the status quo. (Remember when Jan [Melora Hardin] ran the office? Let's never let that happen again, you guys!)
While I would like to see more progressive and, quite frankly, surprising portrayals of women in the workforce, I do think it's worth noting that women on TV have made strides. Think back to I Love Lucy's episode "Job Switching" from 1952, which not only features the famous scene at the chocolate factory but also explored the then-ridiculous question: What if women worked and men ran the household? Chaos!
However, in our current post-recession era with a still-contracted job market, it's essential that young women remain critical of the cultural messages that TV broadcasts. Sure, The Office satirizes a workplace in which a childish man is the boss and capable women go unnoticed except as potential girlfriends. But by not offering an alternative schema, this narrative seems complicit in reinforcing the stereotype of women as aides to privileged men.
I think the next step in TV storytelling is not just to ridicule this premise but to turn it on its head. Shows like Homeland, Deception, and Veep—all woman-centric and featuring young women in nontraditional occupations—do this already. So instead of asking whether women can handle traditionally male jobs, TV series will more often begin to ask what the impact is for everyone when women are in positions of leadership.
As Leslie says on "Women in Garbage": "We can't be just as good as the men. We have to be better." I'd like to see a TV narrative where that's no longer the case.