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?
Masculine 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
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.
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.
“Cars & Chicks” According to Jim. ABC Studios, Burbank, California. 8 Oct. 2002.
Television. Accessed: July 15, 2013. Url: youtube.com/watch?v=D3d-JWmSI5I
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“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.
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“One Boyfriend too Many.” The Mary Tyler Moore Show. CBS. New York City.13 Dec. 1975. Television. Accessed: July 15, 2013 Url, youtube.com/watch?v=_a-fgpNspV4
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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.
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