Hundreds of millions of viewers across the world are watching Turkish TV series. With $350 million in revenue from foreign syndication, Turkey ranks second in the world, after the United States, in global TV series sales.
Within Turkey, studies regularly show that watching TV is the most popular social activity for youth ages 13-19, with 92.7% of Turkish teenage girls and 94% of boys. According to a study by Interpress Media Services, people in Turkey spend nine hours in front of a screen such as a smartphone, tablet or computer, including four hours watching television, though Turks are increasingly turning off TV to go online. In a striking finding, according to a recent Netflix survey spanning 22 countries, 47% of Netflix users in Turkey say it is more important for them to “watch films and TV series than have a conversation.”
This was recently highlighted by the Gender Equality Working Group within Turkey’s top business body, the Turkish Industrialists and Businesspeople Association, (TUSIAD). On March 5, the group published a report titled “Gender Equality in Television Series.” Prepared by academics Irem Inceoglu and Elif Akcali from Istanbul’s Kadir Has University, the report focused on traditional perceptions and stereotyped femininity and masculinity on Turkish screens. A total of 12 TV series selected from the list of the top-20 ranked series were used for the research, conducted May 1-31, 2017, based on analysis of scripts, main and supporting characters, language usage, venue selections, depictions and audiences.
The results showed a bleak picture for gender equality. Notably, 80% of female characters in the analyzed TV series were not involved in a work environment. Accordingly, 92% of housework content was written for female characters, and 82% of business-related content for male ones. Relatedly, in its “Women in Statistics 2017” report, the Turkish Statistical Institute stated that the rate of employment among women above the age of 15 was 28% and for men it was 65.1%.
Furthermore, a large proportion of the female characters were depicted as young and weak. Accordingly, out of 75 analyzed female characters, only one — a widow, aged 40-45 years — was a businesswoman and portrayed as “aggressive, extrovert, competitive, rude and smart.” The phrase "like a woman" was used quite frequently in condescending sense (62%) for both men and women. So media largely reproduces sexist narratives on the screen.
Producer Birol Guven, Meric Demiray, the president of the Scenario Writers Association, and Berfu Ergenekon, a female scenario writer, who were among the audience at the TUSIAD panel, responded to the criticism. For example, they mentioned that there was more diversity of female characters before 2002 (the year the Justice and Development Party came to power), and they highlighted the changes in targeted audiences that agencies use to measure ratings. Speculations suggest a push toward lower-income families for measurement rather than so-called group A and B, which are chosen from urban, educated families.
Despite a gloomy picture, there have been women whose characters in local TV series have pushed the boundaries of what is “familiar” or “expected.” Numerous surveys online ask the audience to list their favorite “strong female characters in a TV series” — those who have struggled against numerous obstacles or societal impositions, who didn’t give up and who fought for their goals or ideals. Yet rarely do they succeed resisting the patriarchal order at the end.
In a special report “Strong Women in TV Series,” which “Episode” — a magazine about local and foreign TV series and cinema — published in 2017 for International Women’s Day, famous actresses, female scenarists and directors were interviewed. Also interviewed was Nukhet Sirman, a sociology professor at Bogazici University and an expert in local TV series. She argued that women became more active in TV shows after 2010, so that now, “Women are not pushed around and shoved as easily anymore, even for their love.” She added, “Women even stand up to their fathers, and they are generally sensitive to women's rights and violence against women. They are not desperate; they put forward their personalities and wills.” Yet ultimately, said Sirman, the main story of female characters is how to found a family, and their profession either helps or prevents it.
The emphasis on family is omnipresent in Turkey. On April 3, the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTUK), which monitors the media and censors scenes deemed against “moral values” of society, announced a colossal budget of about 8 million Turkish lira (about $2 million) for new incentives for “family-friendly” TV series. Ilhan Yerlikaya, the chairman of RTUK, stressed that considering large exports of local TV series, “some problematic contents should be corrected in order to promote the Turkish society better.” This puts producers and screenwriters in a difficult position, as some might be trapped between the creative drive to produce different or fresh scenarios against the increasingly conservative current, risking financial fines, a lack of advertising support and backlash from more traditional audiences.
The sociopolitical transformation in Turkey in the past two decades, which has empowered the country’s religious conservatives, has its mark on the screen. Academic and expert in the field of TV and cinema Aydan Ozsoy from Gazi University in Ankara wrote that after the 2000s, especially in recent years, there has been a serious increase in the domestic TV series that emphasizes Islamic values. According to Ozsoy, “traditional roles of women and men are blended in pious life forms,” in these series, as the growing religious segment of society gains visibility. A new dichotomy is created, claims Ozsoy, between “urban, educated, rich men and women who often represent the values of the capitalist world,” versus “provincial poor, ignorant, immigrant or ethnic identity, and different characters that represent traditional and local values.”
All of that seems why Turkey’s top business group, which changed its name last month from “the Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen Association” to “the Turkish Industrialists and Businesspeople Association,” endorsed key principles for more gender equality in TV series. These include: increasing diversity in physical appearance, character, emotion and professional sense of women and men; balancing the responsibilities of life, work and home; not normalizing violence; using appropriate language toward gender equality; and providing and enhancing the visibility of characters with role model potential.
Traditional patriarchal discourse is well-represented on and off the screen. But TUSIAD’s effort reflects another trend in society — a relentless push for gender equality by women who fight against discrimination and violence, backed by civil society groups that work for progress in this domain.