Reinforcing the Traditional Patriarchal ideologies through Situation Comedies

During a Sunday barbecue, while my brother-in-law was preparing the meat and my husband was cleaning the lawn furniture, my six-year-old nephew, Justin turned to his dad and said, “dad, why don’t we men relax and let the ladies do the cooking and the cleaning.” We all laughed at the absurdity of the comment and ignored it as “kids say the darnest things.” Although we all found the statement amusing at the time, later on it drew my attention to the basis of such comment by a six-year-old boy.

The not so innocent statement depicts a deeply rooted gender division of labor in society that even a little boy is not unaware of. Children learn behavior from their classmates, friends, older siblings, and parents and above all else the media. People’s lives are empowered and disempowered by cultural and societal norms. Since the 1950s, television has shaped human experiences through variety of shows and advertising. Television plays an important role in the sociocultural conditioning process. For example, by the age of twenty, an average American is exposed to more than seven hundred thousand hours of television commercials.

Dr. Stuart Ewan, a leading researcher in the field, argues that people develop, maintain and revise their self-concepts, perceptions of gender and role identifications through watching television (Collins, 6-7). Collins argues that television is a way to control the needs and wants of society, to create and train new consumers and at the same time support the economic status quo by making it seem natural, thus unquestionable (Collins, 40). I aim to analyze the portrayal of the stereotypical gender roles in situation comedies such as I Love Lucy and According to Jim, while also intending to explore the challenges to the patriarchal ideologies depicted in the Mary Tyler Moore Show and Roseanne.

The 1950s sitcoms reinforced and recreated the post WWII patriarchal gender roles, in which women were happy being married and subordinate to men. While the gender roles have been challenged and transformed since then, a number of contemporary sitcoms maintain the old patriarchal ideology by portrayal of foolish husbands exerting dominance over their educated wives through humorous sexist remarks and comedic plots.

Public and Private Spheres 


Up until the First World War, society had well defined roles for women in the private sphere and men in the public sphere. These societal positions were hardly ever challenged and were considered part of the norm of society. During the War, women were compelled to take part in the work force and provide for their families. While WWI significantly affected women’s lives, WWII had a deeper impact in the sense that more men went overseas and the world was faced with the Great Depression. On the one hand, the Great Depression left many households in deep financial difficulties and losing the men to war made it harder for many to survive. On the other hand, WWII boosted the economy everywhere in North America and Europe through other industries.

The weapons’ industry created new markets for different raw materials and made jobs available for the majority of people. Women were the primary candidates for these jobs. However, after the end of WWII when men came back from the war and needed jobs, the majority of women were pushed out of the work force. Through television shows, women were shown their rightful places, which was at home. As television became a household item so did the idyllic myth of the housewife (Spangler, 26). Despite the growing number of women seeking jobs outside of the home, television shows showed that women were happier married and at home. In the 1950s, society considered the home the primary space for women. Television shows imitated the societal rules and showed that a woman’s world was either in the kitchen or the beauty parlour. She was never a socially or politically relevant being (Spangler, 4).

Challenging Gender Roles


When the I Love Lucy sitcom aired in 1951, it became a popular household show. The show depicts the life of Lucy, who is a housewife and her husband Ricky, who works in show business. The couple lives in New York City and is close friends with Fred and Ethel. Lucy is naive and ambitious, but at the same time, she constantly defies her role as the woman of the house by trying to get into show business. However, she has a knack for getting herself and her husband into trouble. Lucy ‘s attempt at escaping domesticity and housewifery is covered up by the humour and the resolution of conflicts at the end of each episode with hugs and kisses. While Lucy fails narratively, she wins the audience by her brilliant performance in every episode (Mellencamp, 323). Although Lucy never gets what she wants, at the end of each episode for six years Lucy accepts her domestic situation. However she goes back to defying her husband every chance she gets (Mellencamp, 329). Furthermore, the show depicted the consumerism era and the upward mobility of the middle class households.

The show was produced during post war era when women were not only encouraged to stay home; they were also being groomed to become consumers. Ethel and Lucy constantly attempt to buy new appliances and clothes. Ricky and Lucy buy an automobile and move to the suburbs at the end of the series (Mellencamp, 327). The sitcom was used as a tool to promote consumerism and maintain the societal status quo of gender roles through extreme humour and idiotic behaviour.

What did it mean to be a working woman?


Contrary to I Love Lucy, the Mary Tyler Moore Show, which aired on CBS from 1970 to 1977, was about a single woman who was financially independent and was not tied down with marriage and children. The show reflected the politics of the 1970s that gave rise to a wide reaching grassroots politics. Unionized workers experimented with ideas like collective bargaining and employee ownership, which challenged the core foundation of American post war political economy (Zeitz, 676).

The second wave of feminism is probably the most important example of radical grassroots politics of the 1970s. While the first wave of feminism was about women’s suffrage, the second wave included topics such as the relationship between the nuclear family and the industrial economy, state socialism, work place equality, the politics of sexuality, marriage equality, sexual liberation and the meaning of gender (Zeitz 677).

Financial Dependency: a Consequence of Gendered Division of Labour

One of the major factors of female subordination has been the lack of economic independence. Many of the old and contemporary sitcoms depict married women as financially dependent on men, while men are depicted as the primary breadwinners of the family. In the I Love Lucy show, women’s financial dependence is a given. Lucy and Ethel are addicted to shopping and always fear overspending and getting in trouble with their husbands. In the popular episode ‘Job Switching’, Ricky scolds Lucy for spending too much money. The conversation starts as follows:

Ricky: Every month, every single month, your bank account is overdrawn. Now, what is the reason?!

Lucy: You don’t give me enough money?

Ricky: I don’t give you enough money?!

Lucy: Well, we both agree. That must be the reason!

Fred: Ethel spends money like I were printing it in the basement! Let’s face it, Rick. When it comes to money, there are two kinds of people, the earners and the spenders. Or, as they are more popularly known, “husbands” and “wives”!

One can safely assume that women not having financial independence is considered a normal part of life at this period of time. The underlying issue of lack of financial independence for women becomes a source of laughter and plot of the show in many episodes (Mellencamp, 324). While Lucy continuously tries to enter the job market, her efforts become part of the comedic plot and she fails at earning money.

“My money is my money, our money is my money?”

In the same manner, in ‘the Money’ episode of According to Jim, Cheryl and Jim face a conflict because of Cheryl’s lack of income and Jim being the sole financial provider of the family. While Cheryl, a college graduate, stays at home to take care of the children, Jim, who is a college drop out, owns a construction company. When Cheryl’s brother, Andy, asks for a loan of one thousand dollars, despite Jim’s refusal, Cheryl decides to give Andy the money from a savings account. Upon trying to withdraw the funds, she finds out that Jim has taken all the money out without her knowledge. When she confronts Jim, the argument gets heated up and Jim says, “I make the money, I am the chief, the alpha; it is my money.”

Throughout the series Jim is allowed to make this type of remark, which asserts his domination as the patriarch of the household. In retaliation, Cheryl starts selling her own personal stuff that she had before their marriage. Jim panics when she sells his favourite chair to Andy and apologizes by saying that he did not mean to be disrespectful. Cheryl expresses her displeasure and says that by saying that he makes the money, he belittles her work at home. She puts emphasis on the importance of raising children, but the significance gets lost when Cheryl says, “I am raising children here Jim, and they poop, they poop a lot.” Cheryl’s cry for financial independence is covered up in humour and the audience laughs at the matter. However, despite the feelings of belittlement, Cheryl does not express any desire to work outside home and earn money of her own.

Who belongs where?

Unknown-1 UnknownMasculine and feminine stereotypes have been the basis for gendered division of labour in North American societies. The media has helped in constructing and reinforcing these ideologies.

In the I Love Lucy sitcom, Lucy is a housewife, but she constantly tries to pull herself out of that situation. By societal rules she is supposed to be subservient to her husband, but in every episode a conflict arises in which Lucy defies her husband. However, at the end of the episode the narrative puts everything in order and things go back to the way they ought to be. In the ‘Job Switching’ episode, Lucy challenges Ricky that earning money is easy and she will be able to do it. The title of the episode automatically sets up precedence in the roles allocated to different genders.

The show portrays housewives as unsuitable for any other job but housework (Mellencamp, 332). When Lucy and Ethel start working in a candy factory, they fail miserably at it. They have no idea how to behave in a factory setting and how to perform on a speedy assembly line. Meanwhile, Ricky and Fred are at home trying to cook a meal and as expected the men fail at the task. They leave the kitchen a mess, while the women come back home exhausted. The reversal of gender roles is shown as utter disaster and the episode ends with Ricky admitting that the work Lucy does at home is important and not easy to perform. However, he also says that they should go back to the normal life and leave things in the proper order as before.


Similarly, in According to Jim, Cheryl and Jim have clear gendered division of labour. The audiences constantly see Cheryl in the kitchen cooking or coming into the house with grocery bags or bringing the children home. Jim is normally seen either at work, with friends or at home relaxing on his chair drinking beer. The only time he is performing a domestic duty is in the back yard grilling steaks on a barbeque burner, which is normally labeled as ‘manly’ cooking. Despite Cheryl’s education, the narrative of the show never steers towards her having any desire to work outside the home. Instead, from having two children at the beginning of the show in 2001, the couple ends up with three more by the time the show ended in 2009. Throughout the show Jim is shown as the ‘macho man’ who is the king of his household and even though he constantly screws up, he is accepted and forgiven by Cheryl.

Masculinity in Danger

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The narrative of the show allows Jim to make sexist remarks and one can see clearly that he thinks of women as the inferior gender. Being one of the producers of the show, Jim Belushi insisted that “his character not be feminized and his wife not wear the pants (Kimberley, 45).” In the episode ‘Chicks & Cars’, Cheryl and her sister Dana are going to buy a car. The conversation starts as follows:

Dana: We are going car shopping for me.

Cheryl: Did you decide what kid of car do you want?

Dana: Yes, a blue one!

Jim: The two of you are going car shopping? Just the two of you?

Cheryl and Dana: Yes! What?

Jim: There is three things women should never do alone, work on their cars, walk to their cars and most importantly buy a car.

Cheryl: What about washing the car, can we still do that?

Jim: oh ya, you put on your wet t-shirt and get all soapy…

While Jim laughs at them and states that Cheryl’s dead father would be better at buying the car than two women, Cheryl and Dana go to the dealership and purchase a car. Cheryl is proud of their purchase, but unfortunately the car breaks down and a loaner is not in their deal. Jim and Andy go to the dealership to rectify the situation but instead Jim ends up exchanging Cheryl’s mini van with a sports convertible.

She confronts Jim and says, “We promised to make all the major decisions together.” Jim answers by saying, “haven’t you done anything spontaneous” and Cheryl says, “yes, but when I do, I come home with a box of pre cut lettuce.” With that statement, Cheryl is automatically shown as a housewife whose experiences revolve around domestic issues. Her spontaneous act involves vegetables, while Jim’s involves a sports car. These are stereotypical behaviours constructed by society based on gender. By changing the gender roles, similar to Lucy, Cheryl fails in the public sphere and ends up accepting Jim’s argument that women know nothing about buying or dealing with cars. In the episode ‘the Truck’ when Cheryl tells Jim that she is going to call the mechanic to get his truck back sooner, Jim says that cars are not her “department.” He says, “The kids, the bills, the house, the social calendar, and all the yard work” are Cheryl’s responsibilities, but “car stuff and” turning the clocks backward and forward as needed” are his domain (Kimberly, 48). In another scene, when Cheryl says that Jim should get his truck back and stop inconveniencing his whole family to protect his pride, Jim says, “It is not pride, it is honour and she would understand it, if she did not shave her legs (Kimberly, 48).

The sexist remarks and patriarchal ideologies are embedded in the humour of the show and the general audiences hardly ever question the abnormality of the situation. While Cheryl is shown as the wittier and smarter character and Jim as the foolish one, at the conflict resolution ending of the sitcom, Cheryl gives in and submits to Jim’s sexist attitude.

Can gender roles be reversed?

Additionally, The Mary Tyler Moore Show portrays Mary as self-sufficient woman who is the master of her destiny and does not conform to societal rules. In the ‘One Boyfriend Too Many’ episode, unlike Lucy, Mary is initially shown in her workplace not in her house. As the narrative moves Mary gets involved with two men and one of her co-workers criticizes her for it. She automatically defends herself and says that it is her business and nobody has a right to talk about her personal life.

In another instance, when Mary is shown in the private sphere she is complimenting her boy friend Joe on his cooking skills. Unlike Ricky, Joe is competent in cooking a meal and the role reversal is a success in this show. In another example, the stereotypical masculinity is challenged, when Joe finds out about Mary going out with her ex fiancé, he gets angry and says,

Joe: You think that just because I am a man it doesn’t hurt.

Mary: well, let us face it you are not going to cry all night like I did.

Joe: I will be doing the male version of crying. You know what that is? Acting like it does not hurt.

Society enforces certain traits as masculine, which define a man’s ‘manliness’ and Joe with his cooking and admitting his desire to cry resists those stereotypical roles. However, despite the challenges to the conventional gender roles, at the end of the show Mary admits to her ex fiancé that she is not one of those women who is comfortable with having multiple relationships with different men at the same time.

The show closes with Mary at the workplace again, which shows that Mary’s rightful place is at work not at home. However, the show uses vague hegemonic devices to protect the patriarchal ideologies. For example, Mary’s relationships with her friends are usually centered at home, which involves personal issues, while her contact with men is at the workplace. Mary is shown as both a mother and daughter figure to her male co-workers (Kimberley, 33). Despite her independence, Mary does not seem comfortable in adopting the sexual liberation attitudes of the 1970s social politics.

The Matriarch


In contrast to According to Jim, the sitcom of Roseanne, which aired on ABC network from 1988 to 1977, challenges the cultural and social norms, but at same time subtly maintains the patriarchal ideologies. The show focuses on a working class family in the state of Illinois consisting of a couple and their three children. The show shows daily challenges of parenting, overcoming economic difficulties, family relations and marital issues. Roseanne displays assertive and class conscious behaviour. She is an overweight heterosexual woman who is at ease with her body and sexuality (Lee, 20).

In the sitcom Roseanne’s husband Dan models a male domestic figure, while Roseanne plays the centre role of the family matriarch (Lee, 20). In a 1994 study, women expressed that they liked the show because it deals with everyday life and the family is not perfect (Lee, 22). Roseanne is aggressive and does not put up with discrimination or inequality. Although included in the humour, her attitude towards women’s work inside and outside of the home portrays her as a feminist. The show helps women look at the world in a different way, critique the patriarchy and affirm women’s roles. However, the show still depicts Dan as the head of the family and the primary breadwinner, while Roseanne plays the role of the primary parent (Lee, 23). Roseanne’s problems and conflicts are usually home based and even the work related issues increase the tension at home. Dan is still shown as the ‘macho man’ who will protect his woman folk. Roseanne’s success is measured by resolving domestic issues, while Dan’s main concern revolves around the financial needs of the family.

The patriarchal gender division of labour has plagued society since the ancient times and no amount of transformation and challenges have been able to eliminate it from popular culture. Television has been used as a tool to reinforce and maintain these ideologies through usage of humour and comedy. From the 1950s’ I Love Lucy to 2000s’ According to Jim the social and political status quo of family life and patriarchy have been maintained. While ideologies regarding gender roles have changed, society through popular culture has held on to the masculine and feminine stereotypical roles. The I Love Lucy show, through its humour maintained the patriarchal ideologies of the post war North America. Fifty years later, According to Jim reinforces the same patriarchal attitudes through portrayal of foolish men with sexist attitudes. Their remarks are never taken seriously and female subordination and inferiority become a matter of humour, therefore unquestionable by the general audience.

The traditional gender roles played by Cheryl and Jim are portrayed as desirable positions since they are married and have stable and secure lives, while Dana and Andy despite having successful careers and financial security are depicted as failures in their personal lives.

Works Cited

“Cars & Chicks” According to Jim. ABC Studios, Burbank, California. 8 Oct. 2002.

Television. Accessed: July 15, 2013. Url:

Collins, Claudia Crowley. Gender Construction in Prime Time Sitcoms. Las Vegas: University of Nevada, 1993.

“Job Switching.” I Love Lucy. ABC Studios, Burbank, California. 15 Sep. 1952.

Lee, Janet. “Interating Popular Culture into a Pedagogry of Resistance: Student Respond to the Sitcom Roseanne.” Feminist Teacher 5.3 (1991): 19-24.

Mellencamp, Patricia. “Lucy.” High Anxiety Catastrophe, Scandal, Age and Comedy. Indiana: Indian University Press, 1992. 322-333.

“One Boyfriend too Many.” The Mary Tyler Moore Show. CBS. New York City.13 Dec. 1975. Television. Accessed: July 15, 2013 Url,

Spangler, Lynn C. Television Women From Lucy to “Friends”: Fifty Years of Sitcoms and Feminism. West Port: Preager Publishing , 2003.

Walsh, Kimberly. “Beauty and the Patriarchal Beast: Gender Portryal in Sitcoms Featuring Mismatched Couples.” Journall of Popular Fim and Television (2008): 123-132.

Zeitz, J. “Rejecting the Centre: Radical Grassroots Politics in the 1970s: Second Wave Feminism as a Case Study.” Journal of Contemporary History 43.4 (2008): 673-688.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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I am a junior historian, currently working on my dissertation on the social roles of lay confraternities of Rome. I am also a film and TV enthusiast.

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  1. I used to watch I Love Lucy on Nick at Nite when I was a kid and I’ve loved it ever since.

    • Nilab Ferozan
      Nilab Ferozan

      It certainly was one of the funniest show on TV, that is why the reruns are still so popular.

  2. Television was not merely entertainment. It was a teacher, offering lessons in what was acceptable in society.

  3. There was no television show better encompassed the conservative values, beliefs and attitudes of the 1950s than ‘Leave it to Beaver’.

    • Nilab Ferozan
      Nilab Ferozan

      I used to watch “Leave it to Beaver” after school and yes it certainly is a very unique show that most of us probably cannot relate to anymore.

  4. Munjeera

    Excellent article!!! When I was a kid I never watched TV because I found the roles of women infuriatingly depressing. I was always thinking I sure hope my life never turns out like that. Well here we are in 2016 and progress has been made in TV. It is great to see not just alpha males, alpha females and healthy teams trying to achieve consensus working out their differences but most importantly, there is an awareness that working with different viewpoints is a valued goal. I hope this trend continues.

    I have always been very careful about what my sons watch on TV because I felt it would greatly influence their worldviews from a young age. If a critical commentary was not provided then we tried to start a critical conversation about the issues portrayed. Your critical analysis is one of the best I have ever read. I will be sure to recommend it.

    • Nilab Ferozan
      Nilab Ferozan

      Thank you Munjeera. Yes, I am glad too that nowadays TV is much more divers and gendered balanced. Although we still witness some slightly sexist or racist remarks it is nice to see that the majority of the shows are making a real effort to diversify as well as raise awareness to these issues.

  5. Emily Deibler

    Excellent analysis. I enjoyed the balanced approach at seeing how comedies have both subversions and potential issues, such as how Roseanne has empowering messages while not being entirely transgressive in other areas.

  6. Francesca Turauskis

    Good article. Having never seen it, I was watching re-runs of Everybody Loves Raymond for a while. I stopped after one particular episode that actually scared me a little – Ray wanting to show he is a can-do man insists on trying to get a splinter out of his wife’s finger. He chases her around, literally dragging her down the stairs and across the floor, and eventually pinning her to the ground whilst trying to ‘help’ her, all whilst she is screaming ‘no’ ‘stop’ etc. There is no humour in her voice, no laughter, just annoyance and anger. And the audience is just laughing – uproariously laughing. I really wondered whether they would have stopped if he had started to strangle her, or worse…

    • Nilab Ferozan
      Nilab Ferozan

      Thanks Francesca. I know which episode you are referring to and know what you mean about the absurdity of the situation. Although taken as humour, Everybody Loves Raymond could have fitted real nicely in my article in its portrayal of gendered division of roles.

  7. Arazoo Ferozan

    Great take on gender division and its portrayal on TV. Specifically, I like your arguments on the Mary Tyler Moore show. We can still see this gender division even on the modern shows that try to demonstrate a balance of equality. To a degree, it makes us realize how embedded these ideas are within our society.

    • Nilab Ferozan
      Nilab Ferozan

      Thank Arazoo and yes, you are absolutely right. Even new shows still try to reinforce the idea that a woman is the primary child care giver and the man the bread winner of the family. Even though there are more representation of strong female lead roles in TV dramas, sitcoms (in my opinion) are still behind in that regard.

  8. chrischan

    I never did like sitcoms where the was a clear divide and difference between the husband and the wife – the moneymaker and the homemaker. In part, it must have been because it was so unlike my childhood, both in that my mom was the one who wore a suit and went to work, but also because both of my parents worked. TV used to make it look like having both parents in a family working wasn’t common, but I think that’s changed in more recent shows.

    • Nilab Ferozan
      Nilab Ferozan

      You are right Chrischan. Many of the sitcoms, especially family ones, portray the typical and traditional nuclear family with the father working and mother staying home, which does not represent the lives of so many of us. That is precisely my point in this article that despite having higher educations and work experience, the woman in most sitcoms stay home well beyond the time needed for child care (meaning the children are not babies anymore) and willingly become “housewives” and dependant on the husband’s salary.

      • chrischan

        I totally agree with your analysis. When shows have tried to steer away from this archetype, they are met with a lot of criticism and complaints.

  9. Syn Nic

    Unfortunate that you were only able to cite a narrow range of sources, given the limitations of this space. (Apt though they are to making your point; when you turn this piece into a whole book you will be able to cite multiple examples, ask of which hammer home your unfortunate thesis about our culture)
    An interesting capper might have been ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, which, while nor a sit-com, has a frequently humorous tone, and features strong, vivid characters, oftentimes outside the heterosexual hegemonic norm, and THAT situation has all of them existing in incarceration. Riff on that fir a while.

    • Nilab Ferozan
      Nilab Ferozan

      Thanks for the comment. Yes, there are many different representations of women on TV nowadays. Strong female lead roles is becoming more common. and yes it would be interesting to include Orange is the New Black (even though I have not watched it) or any other ones similar to it.

  10. Chavarria

    Gender representation on sitcoms has certainly drastically changed!

  11. In “I Love Lucy “, the combination of the “Lucy” and “Lucille” personas made her a sympathetic and truly empowering example for women.

    • Nilab Ferozan
      Nilab Ferozan

      Yes, Marx, she was a new depiction of womanhood on TV. That is for certain

  12. Many women did conform to the ‘housewife’ image

  13. Margert

    TV was the perfect medium to convey ideas to the majority of American citizens… and now it is the internet. Good job on conveying the right idea with this article.

  14. What modern sitcoms, if any, do you consider to be doing it right in terms of feminist representation? Do you think there are any sitcoms currently or recently on TV that hold a candle to Roseanne or MTM?

    • Nilab Ferozan

      JakeRoslyn, I have not claimed any such thing. On the contrary, despite the many strong female lead roles represented in TV dramas, sitcoms, especially the ones depicting families are still way behind in that regard.

  15. Burl Key

    I Love Lucy is not a perfect show, but it displays many progressive qualities having to do with gender representation.

  16. Chi Vue

    These stereotypes came from the conservative and conformist decade that produced the housewife.

  17. It was a man’s job and it wouldn’t be acceptable for a woman to do such work. The old days of terror.

  18. I liked your piece until the end when you extended your argument to “the ancient times.” From a rhetorical perspective I see the logic; it’s certainly true from our perspectives informed by the Civil Rights Movement & 2nd Wave Feminism. But, as someone sharing a similar orientation regarding the nature of popular culture as an educative force, it’s limiting to shift your argument so dramatically away from, what I assumed to be, a critique of early 20th century, 1st wave feminist discourse as they appeared (like ghosts) in sitcoms in the late 20th, early 21st century.

    Your argument regarding the private and public spheres as they “clashed” in the various sitcoms was great. It’s startling to see how the revolutionary properties of feminism, first in more property & fiscal terms then later as “the personal is political,” can be simplistically gleamed from these shows. In particular, your research regarding associations of masculinity and femininity along comedic binaries (men don’t cry, men are stupid, women MUST separate their personal lives from their ‘public’ ones around men) underlines how easy it is to become satisfied when these examples are compared to how things were “back in the day.”

    The most intriguing conclusion you’ve left is the notion of “family” as a site of recovery. Family is what reconciles sexism and disempowerment. It’s very interesting to see how all the “revolutionary” components aside, gender differences are excused because there is a desire for something intimate. As you began, the actions of a 6 year old prompted you to make this piece.

    Your article was well-researched and your argument was easy to follow. But I think someone else to consider it the notion of desire as it subtly embeds feminist discourse within popular culture. Humour, though a hegemonic tool you successfully argue for your piece, is nonetheless employed for its disruptive properties. While it can generate an imagined communal “truth”, that self-evident “oh that’s just what men/women do” moment can also present a desire for something conclusive. This is especially true when considering economics and labour; its cool to see how the desire to avoid work draws attention to what these sit com moments, sexism aside, offer in terms of leisure or escapism.

  19. Their “sanitized” view of American life and emphasis on the family was appealing to many back then.

  20. Great study. Female characters in 1950s sitcoms almost always exhibit characteristics of the stereotypical housewife.

  21. BestBob

    The opening to The Donna Reed Show sums up everything.

  22. tommiecach

    These shows portrayed happy families with simple structures: the father went to work each day, and the mother stayed home to run the house and raise the kids.

  23. JulieCMillay

    I agree with this wholeheartedly. I think our television/media has created a frigid gender role and social expectation for both men and women. Your article was well thought out and well cited. Female subordination has been reinforced by stereotypes, objectification and the overall misogynistic attitudes of patriarchal societies and is in part upheld by the women even today that still adhere to these exclusively domestic lifestyles. Not all women who stay at home are put down by their husbands or lack strength or independent qualities. What I mean is that the moment personal choice or importance is taken out of the equation for a woman- this is the same moment society wrongfully writes them off as the lesser sex. Your piece demonstrated just that, awesome work!

  24. I enjoyed this article. I think your interpretation of I Love Lucy might be a little too pessimistic. While it’s perfectly legitimate to argue that there is a didactic aspect in the way a show paints its picture of society/the family (“this is how things SHOULD look”) I don’t think that’s the whole story. Yes, Lucy repeatedly falls back into her “place” as a housewife. But the show was largely a meditation on the state of the housewife. If the plots had gone differently, if Lucy had succeeded in setting out into the world on her own, if she had evolved, over the course of a few seasons, into a Mary Tyler Moore, the show would no longer have reflected the lives of its core audience. Such being the case, much of the series is founded on her constant sisyphean struggle to realize her potential. She fails, but she also triumphs in forcing us to see that she is bigger than her role. It isn’t nearly enough, but then it wouldn’t be a sitcom if the central struggle tended toward total and final satisfaction.

    I also think that According to Jim is a bit of a soft target. I’m not sure anyone with the intellectual capacity to understand its flaws has ever spent a minute on it, except to tear it apart.

  25. Nice article! I wondered if you could elaborate on your thoughts on whether or not this portrayal is surprising to you, and what your reaction/article would have been had it been written in a different time period as oppose to in retrospect?

    To me, it seems that media and entertainment, especially in regards to television more so than film, since extended over a longer, more thorough time period allowing viewers to connect more so to characters, the goal is to actually enable viewers to directly relate to the actors, and in the case of your article including but not limited to, the “situational” aspect of situational comedy.

    I guess what I wonder is how rare is it for a program to not actually reflect the norms of a certain society given such a goal. And, is it possible to reflect those norms, allow viewers to relate, and not reinforce those norms, which in this case we can see today as ‘patriarchal’?

    I find it difficult to speculate as to what social norms we aspire to currently that will be looked on so differently (and perhaps in a negative light) in the future. That’s just how human morality and our output of media/entertainment business seem to evolve :/

    • Nilab Ferozan

      Thanks for the comment Daniel. I am a little busy with getting ready for a research trip. I will give you a reply back soon. I do have some thoughts on it, which I will be glad to share with you.

  26. The flip side of the coin and something I thought JMIWrites was getting at but didn’t, is the female who likes to stay at home, like the women depicted in your television show examples. Some women are really happy buying groceries, cooking and baking, cleaning, doing the laundry, spending time with children and the husband, blogging, and gardening. Are they any less of a feminist because they enjoy the patriarch system and choose to not work outside the home? Please forgive me, but I feel that so many take this narrow view of what feminism is, and it just keeps building. For example, I have an MA in English and teach college composition in a university. I love my job. But I also love my home, husband, and children and was a stay-at-home mom for many years – and I made many financial sacrifices to do that. I also think some of the 1950 TV shows were something to aspire to, like Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, and Andy Griffith. They depicted nice families who got into silly, but real-life predicaments, like our own. We laugh about them now and poke fun, but there are far less television shows on now that I would want my grandchildren to learn from. And if there were more shows on like those, than gun violence and sex, and especially for children whose parents both work – maybe we would have far less violence and single parents. And, from my own observations and conversations, parents who work outside the home are less satisfied and more stressed than those who rely on husbands and one income. On the other hand, the feminist movement has allowed feminist literature to enter the academy and be included in the canon. That’s what it’s really about. We are reading stories of women who have been beaten, abused, and mistreated by men. We need the truth told so it won’t happen again. We’re calling them out so they abuses will stop! But where does that leave the good men, the men who are kind and thoughtful toward women? Let’s keep the comedies in perspective, and look at who is picking on, or being mean to, who. When Ricky asks where all the money goes, Lucy’s reply is a great play-on-words.

  27. HeatherStratton

    I find it fascinating how, in our culture, we allow the media to set our ideals of society and gender roles. The 1950’s media propagandist mission to create the gender roles we know today was very successful as you evidence several ways it has permeated throughout pop culture 70 years later.

    I enjoyed reading this until the end. It feels like you rushed the ending and did not focus as much on the roles in Roseanne as much as you did with “I love Lucy” and “According to Jim.” You offered good examples and evidence of their roles and implications, but not so much with “Roseanne,” as that show was glossed over. The last paragraph felt odd and out of nowhere, as well. All of a sudden a new topic was brought up with the notion of marriage being greater than being single, but nothing to back it up or give it context to the rest of the issues at hand. This should have been the conclusion, yet a new idea was introduced and then truncated.

    I am also confused by, “The patriarchal gender division of labor has plagued society since the ancient times and no amount of transformation and challenges have been able to eliminate it from popular culture.” Because not only is this a false statement, but it also assumes that media has been actively trying to eliminate the gender division when it has not done so in any major ways. We have yet to see a radical and widespread movement of pop culture trying to eradicate those norms. One could say it is actively happening as we speak, but it has not happened enough to become popular…which is where we get the term for “Pop Culture.” Also, there are many ancient and current civilizations who rely and refer to the matriarch. Patriarchal gender divisions of labor have not been plaguing society since ancient times. Ancient Egypt is one of many examples.

  28. As a man who used to watch sitcoms all day, I agree that they’re hurting our society. I feel as though even when comedy is trying to be feminist it comes off insincere. Sitcoms portray sexism as not only normal, but humorous, or an admirable quality for a likable douche. I feel so strongly about changing societal sexism that I, a Latino male, learned to cook, and I cook my mother and grandmother meals constantly. I also learned it kind of rocks to be good at cooking. You can have good food whenever you want, and you don’t have to wait for somebody else to cook it. Feminism rocks!

  29. This is a great article. I knew of how I Love Lucy established norms of the housewife, but I wasn’t exactly aware of its use in promoting consumerism! Being a college student now, I only know of vaguely about the names of shows of Roseanne, According to Jim, and the Mary Taylor Moore Show, so it was a fantastic opportunity for me to understand the gender constructions and general plotlines of those situational comedies as well. If we can ever get over ideas of the gender roles that the myth of the gender binary, and establishment of patriarchal society has drilled into us, and the sexism and misogyny that has come as a side effect of its normalization, we can move on to the fact that gender isn’t man or woman, but a spectrum of gender identities. Anybody can do anything. The fact that we’re stuck in what we’ve dealt with (specifically on television in the case of this article by Nilab Ferozan) since these 1950s situational comedies, change doesn’t come fast. But white people don’t brag about currently having slaves, and same-sex marriage is a thing, so maybe we’re on our way.

  30. Great article! I’d also be interested to hear your take on modern sitcoms. I’m a huge fan of several, but I know that some fall into this category of reinforcing gender roles. I feel like shows like “New Girl” and “Modern Family” push boundaries, while others, like HIMYM and “The Big Bang Theory” stay within the typical confines you discuss. I always think “Big Bang Theory” is a particularly interesting case–people write it off as being very basic and traditional, but I think especially this season they’ve really started doing the women justice and making modern points.

    • Nilab Ferozan

      To be honest, I have never looked at the Big Bang Theory from this point of view. To me that show is more about normalizing the “geek”. It also shows a mixing of the hip and the geek. But I would be interested to hear your point of view on the sitcom. However, Modern Family is an interesting one. While they push the boundaries in certain areas, I still see many of the old gender roles being reinforced. For example, Clair, while an educated woman, is a homemakers until her last child is a teenager. Gloria is a stay at home mom and never shows any interest in working outside the home. While Cam is working now, for the longest time he was a stay at home dad. I am not claiming that there is anything wrong with people who do stay at home with their children, but showing it as a “necessity” of sorts reinforces the traditional role of “mothers”.

  31. Stephanie M.

    Interesting article. Like other commenters, I’d like to hear your take on more modern sitcoms. I don’t watch too many of those, but I do have a few favorites. The funny thing is, it seems like the more a sitcom tries to stay away from traditional gender roles, the more traditional it seems. For instance, Frankie Heck of The Middle is a breadwinner like her husband, and is often too harried and busy to do traditional “mom” things like volunteer on the PTA or even cook dinner. “I made dinner,” she says once, plunking down fast food bags. We laugh, but I wonder if we, especially the women in the audience, also say to ourselves, “Ugh, I’d never do that” (knowing that we all have at least once)!

    Additionally, the male characters of The Middle are still seen joking about the superiority of men, trying to prove said superiority, or struggling with how “real men” are supposed to act. The obnoxious Mr. Ehlert constantly makes underhandedly sexist comments, which he thinks he can do because Frankie is his only female employee. Mike is often abrasive and sarcastic, if lovingly so, especially with his sons. Oldest son Axl is extremely uncomfortable showing his emotions, while younger son Brick is a puzzle to Mike because he doesn’t give a flip about anything traditionally masculine (sports, girlfriends, what have you).

    I could go on and name several other unintentionally gendered examples, but I’d probably be here all day. Anyway, I like where you went with the topic and would like to see more.

  32. Samantha Leersen

    At first I thought “oh, but I can’t think of modern sitcoms like that” but then I remembered that episode of Everybody Loves Raymond where Debra gets a job and there’s uproar from almost everyone.
    An interesting read, I can’t help but wonder if stereotypes like this will ever completely disappear.

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