Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
Welcome to the weekly recap of Yada Yada Law School, a lecture series on law taught through the lens of Seinfeld. This week, we hear from Professor Ann Bartow of the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law on the topic of Gender Law. While I haven’t reached my goal of finishing the Seinfeld series yet, I can definitely recall some possible connections to gender law from the episodes that I have seen. This in mind, I am excited to see what scenarios Professor Bartow chooses to teach from. Let’s get into it!
What even is “Gender Law?” According to Professor Bartow, Gender Law consists of both legislatively constituted and court-made laws that concern “gender.” In practice, this means that most gender law disputes deal with sex-based discrimination.
In 2009, a great example of such a dispute came in the form of The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. For context, In 1997, an Alabama woman working as a manager for Goodyear Tire discovered that her male counterparts were earning drastically more for the same work duties. Upon filing a lawsuit under a Title VII civil rights violation, Mrs. Ledbetter was awarded over $3.3 million in compensatory and punitive damages. In the Supreme Court, however, the court ruled that based on a lower court’s precedent, Mrs. Ledbetter needed to have filed her claim within 180 days of when the first discriminatory paycheck was issued. As a result of this decision, Lilly Ledbetter collected no settlement from Goodyear.
Two years after the decision of the Supreme Court, Congress enacted the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, changing the 180-day rule to begin at the issuance of the last discriminatory paycheck, rather than the first.
To put this into practice, imagine you work for an employer for 1 year for the hourly rate of $10 an hour. On your last day at work, all of your coworkers who perform the exact same function reveal to you that they have been making $20 an hour. Before the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, if you felt as if your reduced pay was due to your age, religion, national origin, race, sex, or disability, you would be unable to pursue a discrimination claim. This new fair pay act hopes to give employees ample time to discover whether or not discrimination has truly occurred by, in most cases, drastically extending the statute of limitations on such claims.
Should the Seinfeld series be considered sexist?
Professor Bartow believes that many sex-based discriminatory issues faced in today’s society like the one seen in Ledbetter’s case can be partly attributed to something called the “male gaze.” This phrase broadly defines how “most media” seem to be targeted towards a male audience. Consequently, this theory argues that women in media do not add genuine meaning to a scene but are rather left to be “observed and objectified.” Given the amount of media that we consume, this idea implies that if we are too often subjected to the “male gaze” media, it will manifest in societal discrimination issues.
But what about Seinfeld? Professor Bartow would argue that Seinfeld is a very gender-biased show. The evidence provided by Professor Bartow includes…
- Seinfeld contains many more male characters than female.
- Elaine is portrayed as “one of the guys,” representing a particular male fantasy.
- Elaine is often the subject of many stereotypes based on her gender as portrayed in the show.
- Other than Elaine, female characters generally function as plot devices and sex is usually part of the plot.
- Female characters presented in the show that are not sexualized such as Jerry’s mother and George’s mother are portrayed as “unpleasant.”
While Professor Bartow explains that gender law cannot do much in the realm of entertainment, I think to raise this point calls us to also question whether or not this is a real problem. I would agree that Seinfeld is written through the perspective of a “male gaze” and at times could definitely be seen as distasteful for this reason, but is this something that we should collectively rule as unacceptable?
I would argue that it is completely acceptable for Seinfeld to be written through a “male gaze” for one main reason: it isn’t the only show on the air. While Seinfeld, because of its dominant male perspective, may not be everyone’s favorite show, shows like New Girl or Downton Abbey offer the exact opposite perspective. Personally, I think we should celebrate the fact that we are able to choose from such a wide array of shows tailored to different perspectives.
Regardless, I think that Professor Bartow opens up the door to some really interesting conversations with this topic. To close, here are some questions to think about…
- Think about all your favorite movies and shows, would entertainment be better or worse if each piece of media were produced with a completely neutral perspective?
- Should the act of producing media so clearly in favor of a certain gender perspective be considered discriminatory?
- To prevent gender discrimination, do you think it is foreseeable that movies/T.V. will eventually be required to cast the same amount of each gender?
Thank you for checking out the week 4 recap of Yada Yada Law School. If you would like to watch the full lecture, you can do so for free here. Next week, come back to hear what Seinfeld can teach us about Tort Law!