On Tuesday, the Parents Television Council released a report saying that a large percentage of TV shows sexually exploited their female characters. The advocacy group surveyed 238 network sitcoms and dramas during 2011 and 2012 and found that two-thirds of episodes showed women and girls in sexual situations, and one-third of those were exploitative. Comedies were likelier than dramas to have offensive material; shows like Whitney, Glee, and Family Guy, among others, were found particularly guilty.
Now, I don't doubt that the PTC had the best intentions in distributing this report. The constant oversexualization of women by the media is disturbing, and it's important that more attention be paid to the issue. However, I have a major problem with the PTC's opinion of what's considered sexual exploitation.
They say the study used a 2003 United Nations Security General definition of the term, which calls it "any actual or attempted abuse of a position of vulnerability, differential power, or trust, for sexual purposes, including, but not limited to, profiting monetarily, socially or politically from the sexual exploitation of another," but from the examples the group chose to highlight in the study, it looks like they strayed far from its original meaning.
For every objectionable Family Guy quote about Meg's worth as a sex slave that the PTC reported, there's an example of a scene from Law & Order in which characters work to stop sexual exploitation, not encourage it. "Offensive" episodes of Glee in which strip poker was played or virginities were lost aren't exploitative in the United Nations' sense of the word; rather, they're sweet, honest, and reasonably realistic portrayals of teenage life. Just because females are shown in sexual situations doesn't mean they're being exploited.
Besides, even when they are, it's often for a good reason. I can think of numerous episodes of Friday Night Lights where Tyra or Becky found themselves in potentially dangerous situations and had to call on their own strength, or scenes in Modern Family where Haley acknowledges her beauty and purposely uses it to her advantage. Unlike what the PTC's survey says, many of the shows that depict women in sexual situations are often actually doing so in order to empower their characters.
I'm not saying that the PTC's study is meaningless. There are plenty of shows that sexually exploit females for no good reason other than a ratings ploys and so-called "humor," and it's encouraging that the PTC is condemning their actions.
But in order for a study like this to be truly effective, there needs to be a clearer definition of what's considered sexual exploitation. Otherwise, shows that portray their female characters positively will be unfairly criticized, and that's a major step backwards in the fight for feminism on TV.