Women’s Liberation in Sitcoms: Then and Now
Situational comedies, or sitcoms, tend to be viewed as bottom of the barrel, low-art television. They feature predictable plots, obvious morals, and archetypal situations. How many times have we seen a kid take home a poor report card and try to hide it from their parents, or maybe one of the characters learns that their wild lifestyle (or in the case of Rudy Huxtable, a life of staying up past nine) isn’t all it’s cracked up to be?
These familiar plots can be called archetypal at their best, cliche at their worst. These plots are relatable, though, and keep the sitcom in familiar territory. People don’t want to be challenged by sitcoms (although some of the best are quite revolutionary, like Roseanne), they want to relate to the characters and laugh with them or at their naivety and hijinks.
In a recently aired episode of The Brady Bunch on TVLand, “The Liberation of Marcia Brady,” dating from 1971, a familiar plot plays out, the “You Go Girl” trope, as TVTropes labels it. The episode begins with Marcia Brady, the eldest daughter, being interviewed by a newsman after school, who asks her how the women’s liberation movement is affecting teenagers. The newsman brings up Marcia’s brothers, to which Marcia declares that it is unfair that boys think they can do more things than girls can.
At home, Marcia’s brothers give her a hard time for the interview, and even Mike, the father, thinks “the women’s liberation movement” is a funny idea. Marcia, in protest, decides to join the all boys Frontier Scouts, to prove that girls can do whatever they want. What ensues is a series of trials in which Marcia passes, including setting up a tent and a long hike through the woods. At the end of the episode, Marcia makes it into the troupe, but explains that she never really wanted to join in the first place. She then goes and reads a “fashion magazine” with mother Carol.
The episode immediately recalls several other similar-plotted episodes, including The Simpsons episode “Lisa On Ice,” a Punky Brewster plot, and an episode of Lizzy McGuire. But even more so, an episode of animated sitcom King of the Hill, “Bobby Slam,” comes to mind, with some poignancy.
The episode in question revolves around Connie Souphanousinphone’s desire to join the junior high school’s wrestling team after Peggy Hill encourages her to. Earlier in the episode, Peggy had been substituting for a girl’s gym class, where she realized that the school offers far more benefits to male students. Her protests for more basketballs and uniforms for the girls go unheard by the administration, so to shake things up, she tells Connie to join whichever sport she wants.
Bobby Hill, who usually dislikes team sports, has been enjoying wrestling thus far, and the coach of the team, to get back at Peggy, pits best friends Bobby and Connie against each other in the wrestling ring, hoping to deter Connie from joining. In the end, Bobby and Connie work together, staging a fake match, using “pro” wrestling moves and fake blood, effectively making a mockery of the coach’s reign.
“Bobby Slam” was originally aired in 1997, over twenty-five years after “The Liberation of Marcia Brady” aired. Bad grades and staying up late are situations that will always seem contemporary. They’re practically built into society, maybe because of television. Both of those particular situations are fairly innocuous. “Women’s liberation,” not so innocuous.
Gender stereotypes, according to these two pieces of media, are essentially the same as they were nearly thirty years ago. Young girls (young people in general) still face these gender stereotypes, that boys enjoy and are good at one thing, and girls, another. It seems absurd to even bring up, as most anyone will say that “girls and boys can do whatever they want,” and this is great to say and even to think, but as a whole, is this truly what society values?
Granted, the episode of King of the Hill itself is also fairly old, nearing the twenty year mark. Much has happened, at least in North America, in terms of liberation, as a post-Gay Liberation movement United States continues to make progress toward a more accepting and freer population, along with third-wave feminism and trans-awareness, since the episode aired.
Perhaps the episode isn’t truly indicative of anything, merely fulfilling its television trope role. The King of the Hill writers are rarely lazy (“A Firefighting We Will Go,” a combination of The Three Stooges and Rashomon, is particularly great television), but perhaps “Bobby Slam” is a run of the mill episode, with a cliched plot dating from the early 1970s.
There is an interesting diversion from the trope, though, in “Bobby Slam,” that is worth noting. At the end of “The Liberation of Marcia Brady,” she essentially liberates herself from the liberation movement. By proving she can join the scouts if she wanted to but in the end taking the fashion magazine, she ends the conversation with an exclamation point. Although the ending seems to offer only more stereotypes (likes like fashion, boys are scouts), Marcia goes with her gut instinct instead of her political one, and never does something she does not want to do. In a way, she has her bra and burns it, too, but it is almost equally important not to conform to the “liberation movement” as it is to not conform to the stereotypes its fighting.
Connie’s story is different. In the end, she does not prove that “girls can wrestle as well as boys,” as Marcia does, instead opting to choose her friendship with Bobby over their parent’s and school’s politics. Peggy, who would be from Marcia’s generation, teenage girls in the 1970s, fights for women’s rights very naturally and very instinctually, while Connie, a teenager in the 1990s, does not seem as concerned with “women’s liberation.” In the end, both Connie and Bobby work together to trump the system of “stereotypes versus liberation,” and this is the key to the episode.
For a teenage girl in the 1990s, a “boy’s sport” such as wrestling is as open to join as much the teenage girl in question wants it to be. In contemporary media, stories like this, stories of teenagers being wronged, along with stories of same-sex couples at school proms, make national headlines, bringing whatever school it is gallons of hot water. In the moral zeitgeist of contemporary US culture, women’s liberation seems to be much less of an issue than it was in the 1970s. It is expected that males and females are given the same amount of opportunities, and any breach of this “contract” results in negative media attention and rightful shaming.
So when Peggy and the wrestling coach play out their trope characters, the woman’s liberation champion and the chauvinist male, Bobby and Connie don’t really care much. The politics don’t affect them, and the only thing they have to prove is their loyalty to each other.
This can be viewed as progress from the 1970s or not, but it seems like a positive change.
What do you think? Leave a comment.