About BMC 277: Media and Diversity

This course asks students to critically examine the role of the media in facilitating and challenging the social constructions of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation in U.S. culture.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Cut Off Your Stereotypes: Art Fern and the Dumb Blonde Schema

Jasen Sokol

The recent scandal involving David Letterman and his affair with a female colleague has brought discussion of the role of women in late-night talk to the forefront. A recent New York Times article mentioned that Letterman’s show has had a “strikingly small number of women” as writers over the years (Cohen). This fact that women have played a minimal role in late-night television has meant that women are often objectified in the jokes and skits presented by the hosts. However, this is not a new phenomenon. For decades, Americans tuned into The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson to end their day. As such, he had a very powerful platform with which he could influence public opinion. The skits included in his program did not always put forth positive images of women. One such skit is the Tea Time Movie in which Carson plays a salesman named Art Fern who is accompanied by his sidekick, the Matinee Lady. Although these skits were humorous in nature, the portrayal of the Matinee Lady as a dumb blonde represented a negative portrayal of women on one of the most popular shows in television history.

One of the ways in which the Matinee Lady's dumb blonde portrayal can be seen as degrading to women is the way in which she is portrayed as just plain dumb. In many cases, the Matinee Lady makes statements that make her seem as if she has very little intelligence. In one skit, Art Fern says that a sound is that of a bull being neutered. The Matinee Lady responds “does that mean they take off all of the bull's clothes?” (Carson Show). Later in that same skit, Art Fern is describing a funeral home's promotional bumper sticker that says “honk if you're horizontal.” After hearing this, the Matinee Lady goes on to demonstrate for the viewers the difference between horizontal and vertical and appears to be very proud of herself afterward. Fern replies that the Matinee Lady should get her brain “checked out before the warranty expires” (Carson Show).

However, the most notable part of the blonde schema that can be seen in the Tea Time Movie skits is the use of the Matinee Lady as a sex object. The Matinee Lady is objectified numerous times in every skit. An example of this can be seen in a skit advertising insurance policies. In this skit, Art is describing why people should buy Shifty's Insurance when the Matinee Lady picks up an arrangement of insurance policies and holds them over her breasts. When he sees this, Art says “look at what these policies cover!” Clearly, Art Fern is not talking about accident coverage or vehicle replacement, but rather the Matinee Lady's breasts (Carson Skit). Another instance of the Matinee Lady being used as an object can be seen when Art says that classes at the University of Hay, or Hay U, start at dawn because being early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise. Playing off of the fact that she is portrayed as stupid; the Matinee Lady asks if going to bed will make her wise. Art responds “no, but it will make you wealthy” as if to suggest that she would be a good fit for a job in the prostitution industry (Carson Show). Any doubts about what Art thinks about the Matinee Lady can be cleared up in the middle of each skit, where they are caught making out when the camera pans over to them. This confirms that Art Fern sees the Matinee Lady as little more than a pretty face on a pretty body and something for his enjoyment.

Although the Tea Time Movie skits are clearly parodies of infomercials, the way that the Matinee Lady is portrayed can cause problems for blondes in the real world. In fact, a study performed by California State University revealed that blondes are more likely to remain sidekicks in the business world simply because they are blonde. The study showed that blonde women are rejected for jobs more often than brunettes and are usually paid less for the same work (Bates). This is due to an anchoring bias, or a tendency to focus too heavily one one trait or characteristic when making decisions, that has developed against blondes and has been perpetuated by the media (Anchoring Bias). The Tea Time Movie is a prime example of this perpetuation. This phenomenon is a real-world example of another phenomenon seen in the Tea Time Movie skits. It is clear in the skits that Art Fern values the Matinee Lady for her sexual attributes. However, his constant downgrading and insulting of her shows that he does not value her for anything else. Because of this, blonde women and women who choose to be blonde by way of hair dye are often put in a bind whereby they may feel that they will be thought of as more attractive if they are blonde, but will be looked at as inferior in the workplace

Johnny Carson's Tea Time Movies were intended to be a humorous look at the way that products are sold on television. However, beneath all of the fast talking and fancy slogans lies a slew of sexual jokes and degrading statements against the Matinee Lady that made her seem like little more than a sex object for Art Fern to enjoy. This tendency of late-night television to downgrade women continues today, as many shows do not have a single female writer. Portrayals like this have led to blonde women having less of a chance to be successful in the working world than other women, and as such they must be eliminated so that all women can have equal footing in the working world.

Works Cited
"Anchoring bias in decision-making." Science Daily: News & Articles in Science, Health, Environment & Technology. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Nov. 2009. http://www.sciencedaily.com/articles/a/anchoring.htm.

Bates, Brian. "The New Blonde Bombshell." The Observer [Manchester, United Kingdom] 29 July 2001: n. pag. The Guardian. Web. 1 Nov. 2009.

"Carson Show- Art Fern And TeaTime Movies." YouTube - Broadcast Yourself.. N.p., 20 Oct. 2008. Web. 1 Nov. 2009. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IHw825yq98M.

Cohen, Randy. "Is Letterman Hurting Anyone?." The New York Times 12 Oct. 2009: n. pag. The New York Times. Web. 3 Nov. 2009.

“Carson Skit#4." YouTube - Broadcast Yourself.. N.p., 29 Aug. 2006. Web. 1 Nov. 2009. .

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