Advances in Journalism and Communication
2013. Vol.1, No.1, 1-12
Published Online March 2013 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 1
Feminism Ain’t Funny: Woman as “Fun-Killer,” Mother as
Monster in the American Sitcom
Jack Simmons1, Leigh E. Rich2
1Department of Languages, Literature and Philosophy, Armstrong Atlantic State University, Savannah, USA
2Department of Health Sciences, Armstrong Atlantic State University, Savannah, USA
Received February 1st, 2013; revised March 2nd, 2013; accepted March 10th, 2013
Whether America has realized President Herbert Hoover’s 20th-century vision of a “chicken in every pot”,
there is a television in nearly every home. Powerful and accessible, television programs, whether explic-
itly, convey values and messages to viewers and, thus, can play a role in reifying the status quo or affect-
ing social change. Given comedy programming’s roots in radio and Vaudeville, it is no surprise that a re-
current theme in situational comedies is the “war between the sexes”. Despite a surfeit of studies ex-
amining specific programs, however, there exists no comprehensive project exploring how gender depic-
tions have changed since television’s proliferation in post-WWII America. This time span is especially
important because it is bisected by second wave feminism. Regarding gender, TV shows need not fortify
traditional ideals. But how far has television come? Findings from a pilot study employing a Grounded
Theory analysis of selected US sitcoms from 1952 to 2004 suggest that, regardless of the progressive na-
ture of some programming, the most-watched sitcoms reaffirm mainstream stereotypes of women. What
has changed, however, is the hierarchical relationship between the sexes. While sitcoms have modified
roles of women in an effort to keep up with changing social norms, they have failed to meaningfully alter
traditional masculine narratives. What has been won is a superficial role reversal: Where once television
women were childlike subordinates to their male counterparts, now men are depicted as irresponsible
children women must mother and discipline.
Keywords: Television; Situational Comedy; Feminism; Representations of Women; Gender Roles;
Pleasure; Motherhood; Role Reversal; United States
The “Family Hour”
“Three things have been difficult to tame. The ocean,
fools, and women. We may soon be able to tame the
ocean, but fools and women will take a little longer1”.
—Vice President Spiro Agnew on the Women’s Strike for
Equality, August 26, 1970.
“Men want to have fun and wives want to walk that fun
deep into the woods and shoot it dead2”.
—Husband Eddie Stamm in ’til Death, September 7, 2006.
In 1951, I Love Lucy introduced American audiences to Lucy
Ricardo, “a talentless housewife ever hopeful of breaking into
showbiz” (McNeill, 1996: p. 401). While Mrs. Ricardo’s
star-studded dreams only amounted to funny fiascos, it would
not take long for comedienne Lucille Ball to succeed where her
most celebrated character always failed. In the 1952-53 televi-
sion season, I Love Lucy became the “first smash hit situation
comedy”, earning the highest average seasonal Nielsen ratings
and the distinction of America’s most-watched program, an
honor it would comfortably hold for four of its six years. In
1952-53, the wacky would-be redhead also became America’s
most-watched mother. Ball’s real-life pregnancy drove the
show’s second season storyline, and more than 10 million
homes tuned in to watch the screwball antics of television’s
favorite expectant parents (McNeill, 1996: p. 402).
I Love Lucy provides a stunning example of the power tele-
vision exerts in blending fact and fiction (McNeil, 1996),
bridging public and private life (Landay, 1999), and, thus, in-
corporating as well as influencing social mores.3 In sitcoms,
this is particularly true with regard to gender. It is no surprise,
given comedy programming’s roots in radio and Vaudeville,
that a recurrent theme is the “war between the sexes”. I Love
Lucy is the first in a long line of television influences that have
both mirrored and molded gender roles in general and the ma-
ternal in particular.
In one sense, I Love Lucy was progressive for its time. Born
from the radio program My Favorite Husband in which Ball
3While detractors may claim that television does not influence behavior, the
social experiments and Social Learning Theory of psychologist Albert
Bandura offer compelling evidence that media such as television play at
least a role in shaping our lives. Bandura’s 1961 “Bobo doll” study, in
which he showed children films of adults aggressively interacting with an
inflatable plastic clown and then observed the children’s subsequent unsu-
pervised play with Bobo, demonstrated that the children effectively mod-
eled the antisocial behavior and even extrapolated novel ways of attacking
the doll. Because of these findings, Bandura testified before Congress about
the links between television violence and aggressive behavior in children,
although he was blackballed by television network officials “from taking
part in the 1972 Surgeon Generals Report on Violence” (Griffin, 2003: p.
368; see also Bandura, 1977). We also contend that, were there no link
between television viewing and behavior, advertising would not be a multi-
billion-dollar industry.
1Quoted in an ABC News broadcast by anchorman Howard K. Smith (Doug-
las, 1995: p. 163).
2In this pilot episode aired on Fox, Eddie also states, “Because, in marriage,
women stop fun from happening”.
had starred with Richard Denning, I Love Lucy showcased a
female comedic lead, both in name and content (McNeill, 1996).
Lucy Ricardo, as Lori Landay notes in “Millions ‘Love Lucy’”,
took on the role of the “trickster”:
A subversive, paradoxical fantasy figure who does what
we cannot or dare not by moving between social spaces,
roles, and categories that the culture has deemed opposi-
tional. When faced with a situation that appears to have
only two choices, the trickster is the kind of hero/ine who
creates a third possibility. (1999: p. 26)
Lucy, the 1950s housewife and mother who envies her hus-
band’s public life in the limelight, tries to transgress traditional
gender boundaries in nearly every episode. (Of course, Lucy
does not do this within the narrative as a conscious feminist
protest, but rather, like a child, to be the center of attention and
admired as talented and desirable.) However, what is funny is
Lucy’s glaring failure when she ventures beyond the bounds of
domesticity. Regardless of its “proto-feminist” themes and Lu-
cille Ball’s own career success, in the end I Love Lucy reifies
traditional gender roles and sends television women and moth-
ers back to the home and kitchen (with consumer product door-
prizes in exchange for real role revolution).
The “third possibility” in popular television is, apparently,
not possible. In the same vein as I Love Lucy, other early sit-
coms depict the woman/wife/mother as like a child to the
man/husband/father (e.g., Granny in The Beverly Hillbillies or
Aunt Bee in The Andy Griffith Show). Mothers are loved and
lovable, even if their incompetence (think Lucy Ricardo) or
Madonna-esque innocence (Edith Bunker in All in the Family)
routinely creates problems for men.
Twenty years after Lucy gave birth to Little Ricky, and in the
midst of a national debate over the ratification of the Equal
Rights Amendment, film theorist Laura Mulvey called for the
realization of Landay’s “third possibility” for viewers: a new
form of visual pleasure no longer slavishly dependent upon the
masculine, but one that recognizes the feminine and maternal
(Mulvey, 1992).4 As second wave feminists in the 1970s di-
rectly questioned traditional gender boundaries, contemporary
sitcoms incorporated such glass-ceiling struggles into storylines.
Top-ranked sitcoms such as All in the Family, Laverne and
Shirley, and Threes Company exemplified the burgeoning
sexual awareness of the nation during prime time, that block of
evening viewing the networks would deem (at the behest of
Congress and the 1975 Federal Communications Commission)
the “family hour”. Even the mid-decade popularity of Happy
Days, with its romanticized, regressive idolization of the 1950s
as a time when men and women knew their place (and presi-
dents could be trusted), buoyed the reality of the transitioning
times simply by protesting too much.
Despite the efforts of Lucy/Lucille, Mulvey, and other for-
ward-looking women, the sexual revolution at least in popular
television comedies has been a pyrrhic victory. In this pilot
project, we chart the depiction of women, wives, and mothers
over a half-century of American sitcom history. Initial findings
suggest that, while television sitcoms have altered the roles of
women in an effort to keep up with changing social norms, they
have failed to meaningfully alter traditional masculine narra-
tives. Instead, what has been won is a superficial role reversal
—unthreatening and, thus, ultimately allowed by capitalism—
with sitcoms portraying men as children and women as mothers
responsible for disciplining them. Like Lucy, whose tomfoolery
predictably backfires and inevitably exposes her as the dupe
(Landay, 1999), women, wives, and mothers in top-rated sit-
coms such as The Cosby Show, Roseanne, Cheers, Home Im-
provement, Seinfeld, and Friends transform from lovable nui-
sances to not-so-lovable nags, or worse.
Second and third wave feminism and an equal rights move-
ment seem to have only relieved television women of their
sense of humor and capacity for fun—a curious thematic de-
velopment in situational comedies. In this sitcom evolution,
woman becomes mother, mother becomes nag.
This finding has emerged from a pilot project examining si-
tuational comedies that earned the highest average seasonal
A. C. Nielsen Company ratings from the proliferation of televi-
sion in 1949 to the present (Nielsen Media Research, 2007;
McNeil, 1996). A Grounded Theory methodology (Glaser &
Strauss, 1967; Glaser, 1978; Strauss & Corbin, 1998) was used
to analyze emergent themes from a pilot sample of top-rated
sitcoms. Sitcoms, during this six-decade time span, have earned
the highest Nielsen rating 25 times. Because some sitcoms
earned the rank of being America’s most-watched prime-time
program more than once, of these 25 seasons there are 13 dis-
tinct shows (see Table 1). We focused our analysis on the epi-
sodes from the first season a sitcom garnered the highest Niel-
sens. When the first top-ranked season was unavailable, the
available season closest to it was used. An analysis of all sit-
coms or even sitcoms ranked in the yearly Nielsen “top 20” was
beyond the scope of this pilot project, which aimed to identify
dominant themes and patterns related to gender portrayal in the
most-popular sitcoms throughout the history of television. An
expansion of this pilot project involving a more-inclusive sam-
ple is currently being completed, with an article to follow. (This
second article focuses on three tropes related to gender that
have not changed over the course of television history, regard-
less of social reformations: woman as overly emotional, woman
as intolerably talkative, and woman as inherently costly for men.)
Although researchers both in academia and advertising con-
cede that Nielsen television viewer ratings “are not without
measurement error” (Prior, 2009: p. 132), the A. C. Nielsen
Company has enjoyed a virtual monopoly in the audience re-
search industry since before the inception of television (Wood,
1962; Buzzard, 2002). Nielsen’s company began monitoring
the preferences and habits of television viewers in 1950, using
so-called “Nielsen families” selected from a random, represen-
tative sample of all American households based on US Census
Bureau data. Initially, this consisted of approximately 1200
homes, but sample size was increased in 1983 to roughly 1700
due to the proliferation of programs, the rise of cable, and the
newly identified need for demographically based “narrowcast-
ing” (Stoddard Jr., 1987). Industry competitors emerged in the
mid-1980s and pressured the Nielsen Company to increase its
sample size, which today numbers about 5000 households
(Nielsen Media Research, n.d.).
Nielsen ratings originally were calculated via two methods: a
patented Audimeter that attaches to a family’s television and
“record[s] automatically whether a set is on or off and to what
channel it is tuned” 365 days a year (Buzzard, 2002: p. 274)
4Written in 1973, Mulvey’s influential article “Visual Pleasure and Narra-
tive Cinema” was first published in 1975 in Screen, 16(3), 6-18.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 3
Table 1.
Broadcast network situation comedies with the highest seasonal Nielsen ratings from 1949 to the present.
Situation Comedy Network Broadcast Dates #1 Rank in Nielsensa Season Analyzedb
I Love Lucy CBS 15 October 1951-24 June 1957
The Beverly Hillbillies CBS 26 September 1962-7 September 1971 1962-1963
1963-1964 1962-1963
The Andy Griffith Show CBS 3 October 1960-16 September 1968 1967-1968 1964-1965
All in the Family CBS 12 January 1971-21 September 1983
Happy Days ABC 15 January 1974-12 July 1984 1976-1977 1974
Laverne and Shirley ABC 27 January 1976-10 May 1983 1977-1978 1976
Three’s Company ABC 15 March 1977-21 April 1977
11 August 1977-18 September 1984 1978-1979 1978-1979
The Cosby Show NBC 20 September 1984-17 September 1992
Roseanne ABC 18 October 1988-20 May 1997 1989-1990 1989-1990
Cheers NBC 30 September 1982-19 August 1993 1990-1991 1988-1989
Home Improvement ABC 17 September 1991-25 May 1999 1993-1994 1993-1994
Seinfeld NBC
31 July 1989
31 May 1990-21 June 1990
23 January 1991-26 June 1991
18 September 1991-14 May 1998
1997-1998 1994-1995
Friends NBC 22 September 1994-6 May 2004 2001-2002 2001-2002
aAs identified in McNeil (1996) and Nielsen Media Research (2007). bOur data sample includes the episodes from the first season a sitcom garnered the highest Nielsen
ratings. Four of these seasons, however, were unavailable and, thus, the available season closest to it was used: The Andy Griffith Show, 1964-1965; Happy Days, 1974
(midseason premiere); Lav erne an d Shir ley , 1976 (midseason premiere); and Cheers, 1988-1989.
and paper diaries in which individual viewers log what they
watch for one week during four to six “sweeps” months (Napo-
li, 2005). During the 1980s, Nielsen and its (now vanquished)
competitors developed the “Peoplemeter” in order to combine
and automate these two data collection tasks. Ironically, the
Peoplemeter was not necessarily an improvement in methodol-
ogy, both due to the costs and “the need for viewers to actively
participate in the ratings process” (Buzzard, 2002: p. 289).
What’s more, Nielsen’s dominance of the industry has proven
unflappable and today “Nielsen is alone in measuring TV rat-
ings despite attempts by four rivals to compete” (Buzzard, 2002:
p. 289). Nielsen thus provides the only comprehensive ratings
throughout the era of television and is used here for these rea-
sons, even though changes in data collection techniques over the
years and self-report diaries introduce methodological concerns.
Regardless, examining the nation’s most-popular television
programs offers insight into mainstream American culture.
Networks use Nielsen ratings to determine what to broadcast
and when (as well as how much commercial air time during
programs will cost). In a reciprocal way, viewers and television
ratings exert an influence on what popular culture exists from
season to season. Alternative and avant-garde programming
also have emerged and even flourished during the era of this
medium, particularly with the rise of cable and the Internet.
However, the consistent accessibility of broadcast prime-time
offerings places them in a unique position in the American
household to capture (and reflect) the attention of viewers and
to influence the collective consciousness.5
Viewing Pleasure and Gender Roles
The Traditional Wo man
In the early days of television, women were funny, wacky,
foolish, senseless, self-centered, impatient, impulsive, needy,
sweet, and mothering, or some combination thereof. Driven by
emotions rather than reason, their opinions and desires (real or
imagined) resulted in misadventure and, thus, entertaining plot
twists. In turn, their male counterparts, to whom they generally
deferred, often functioned as the “straight man”, caring for the
women and cleaning up their messes. Nearly every episode of I
Love Lucy centers on the silly schemes Lucy concocts that
Ricky ultimately must solve, whether it be Lucy handcuffing
herself to her husband (“The Handcuffs”, Oct. 6, 1952, episode
37), fighting with best friend Ethel (“The Club Elections”, Feb.
16, 1953, episode 47), wanting a bigger apartment (“The Ri-
cardos Change Apartments”, May 18, 1953, episode 61), or fal-
ling prey to less-than-reputable door-to-door salesmen (“Sales
Resistance”, Jan. 26, 1953, episode 45).6 A recurrent theme in I
Love Lucy is Lucy’s ineptitude. While the title to the Feb. 2,
1953, episode “The Inferiority Complex” suggests her lack of
talent is all in her head, the content underscores Lucy’s true
uselessness in everything nondomestic. Ricky, Fred, Ethel, and
even the psychiatrist Ricky hires collude in patronizing Lucy,
pretending her poorly told jokes are funny, her unreliable
bridge-playing skills are every partner’s dream, and her cater-
wauling she considers singing is delightful. The psychiatrist
even goes so far as to woo Lucy, saying she is a “living doll”
and a “gorgeous creature”, when in the end, Lucy is no more
than a big baby, needing to be appeased and wailing in her
signature fashion whenever she fails to get her way (“The Infe-
riority Complex”, Feb. 2, 1953, episode 46). Women in other
sitcoms of this era are depicted similarly and must be managed
by their men. Granny and Aunt Pearl in The Beverly Hillbillies
cook up plots as frequently as they do vittles, and Mrs. Drys-
dale and other minor characters in this same show use men for
money.7 Even the voluptuous tomboy Elly May—an asexual
sex object who refuses to be feminized or “citified”—must be
coerced into wearing dresses and controlled when she climbs
trees, “wrassles” her cousin Jethro, and like a child mothers any
critter, domesticated or otherwise, she can find.
Reliable bank assistant Jane Hathaway may be the exception,
but the writers make clear in “Granny’s Spring Tonic” that she
has, unlike Elly May, consciously jettisoned her feminine de-
sires to be a wife and a mother. In this episode, Jane Hathaway
compliments new employee Gloria Buckles, who like Hatha-
way is a “modern” but mousy woman, for her dedication to her
job: “[A]lready she has displayed those qualities so rare in a
modern girl: eagerness to learn, willingness to work, loyalty to
the bank, devotion to duty… Unlike so many others, this girl is
not here to find a husband. She is here to work. Right, Gloria?”
(March 27, 1963, episode 27). While the humor in this episode
stems from the fact that Gloria Buckles, who transforms from
plain-Jane to pin-up with a change of clothes, is nothing but a
nefarious gold-digger after Jed’s millions ($34,783,127.34, as
she recites repeatedly in her head), Ms. Hathaway, with her
masculine, prim demeanor, is left holding the bag: forced to
simultaneously forsake her femininity but still predominantly
serve the needs of men, be it greedy boss Mr. Drysdale or wise
client Jed Clampett and his family. Her character foreshadows
the changes to come in sitcom women—the archetype of a
woman who is liberated yet still limited in the roles she may
play in a male-dominated society.
5Of course, sitcoms that have not earned the highest Nielsen ratings still have
been watched by millions of Americans (along with viewers abroad) and
also influence the broader culture. Due to the limited space an academic
ournal allows, we have focused our methodology for this article only on the
top-earning situational comedies. A more in-depth examination of 60 years
of comedic television programming is better suited to a book of its own and
is under way. Regardless, we contend that a majority of popular sitcoms
beyond our sample still conform to our main thesis. Shows such as The Mary
Tyler Moore Show, Married with Children, Murphy Brown, Scrubs, and 30
ock have been cited by some critics as alternatives to the mainstream fare.
Mary Tyler Moore’s Mary Richards, however, is comparable to Laverne an
Shirley’s Shirley Feeney as a transitional female character: still funny but
increasingly responsible and, thus, “maternal” in com
arison to her zanier
compatriots. Peggy Bundy, the spandex-wearing, self-centered, buxom
spouse of Married with Children’s ne’er-do-well salesman, Al Bundy, is
anything but maternal. Sex-crazed and lazy, she is a far cry from the televi-
sion housewives of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s (whom actress Katey Sagal
parodies in her portrayal), and, for Al, she is certainly a nag. Bundy daughte
Kelly offers nothing new as the dumb, blonde sex object, leaving the only
female character befitting feminist ideals to be boyish neighbor Marcy
Rhoades/D’Arcy who dominates her husbands. Likewise, Candice Bergen’s
Murphy Brown commanded this late-1980s series as a grouchy, no-nonsense
television reporter and anchor who delighted in torturing her young, male
boss and was difficult to please, eventually forcing the weekly
arade of he
inept secretaries to form a support group. Two recent episodes of Scrubs and
30 Rock also are telling. In “My Nah Nah Nah”, surgeon Christopher Tur
informs a patient’s father that he wants to try an experimental procedure but
he must “clear it with his boss” first. Dr. Turk is next shown rushing past the
hospital’s chief of medicine and instead seeking permission from Carla, a
nurse and his wife (Scrubs, “My Nah Nah Nah”, March 18, 2009, episode
811). Like Carla, 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon, played by creator Tina Fey, serves
in a maternal role to her immature, irresponsible coworkers, including he
boss. Her competence, however, is isolated to the workplace, and she re-
peatedly bears the brunt of jokes about her inferior looks and inability to
“bag” a man. Even when Liz Lemon dates an attractive but incompetent and
overindulged doctor in “The Bubble”, 30 Rock’s jokes center around the
discrepancy in their looks but their common inadequacies in bed (March 19,
2009, episode 315). “Ethnic sitcoms” written by and/or featuring minority
entertainers have not followed the trend we de
ict in this paper to the same
degree. This may be due to the fact that they have had a tendency to “[take]
up the mantle of traditional parenting that white sitcoms have shed. For years
TV’s white parents have been crass (Roseanne), dumb (The Simpsons), even
abusive (Titus). On My Wife [and Kids] and Bernie Mac, black dads don
Ward Cleaver’s authority-figure sweater” (Poniewozik, 2002: p. 64; see also
Frazer & Frazer, 1993). Still, Poniewozik cites Damon Wayans’ depiction o
his fatherly character on My Wife and Kids as “a bit of a Neanderthal”, and
Susan Horsburgh and Ulrica Wihlborg describe Kellita Smith of The Bernie
ac Show as “rul[ing] the TV roost as Bernie Mac’s wife” (2002: p. 105).
6In the postwar world of television, the “solutions” to Lucy’s conundrums
typically involve the purchase of consumer products. See Landay’s (1999)
“Millions ‘Love Lucy’” for further discussion about how television helps
create perpetual, product-
ased desire as demanded by capitalism. It is also
interesting to note that, in both our pilot and our expanded samples of sit-
coms from the 60 years they have been broadcast into American homes, one
theme that has not changed is the idea that women cost men money. No
matter how liberated women become, male sitcom characters routinely
complain about the “costs” of interacting with women.
Similar to Lucy and Granny, matronly Aunt Bee in The Andy
Griffith Show is anything but liberated and, though she may
offer more stability and sage advice than either of her prede-
cessors, she too frequently must be placated by her younger,
male complement, Sheriff Andy Taylor. When Aunt Bee gets a
part in the town pageant, for example, Andy and his son, Opie,
make Bee feel guilty about leaving her “boys” alone. (As Opie
purposely states, “I’ll be glad when that pageant’s over. I’m
getting tired of eating at the diner”.) They do this not necessar-
ily for selfish reasons but because Bee, like Lucy, is terrible in
the play and the director has found someone better. Rather than
telling her and risk hurting her feelings, she is conned into
choosing motherhood over her own ambitions (“The Pageant”,
Nov. 30, 1964, episode 138). Archie Bunker in All in the Fam-
ily, on the other hand, does not mince words about his wife,
Edith, whom he calls “Dingbat” and constantly orders to “sti-
fle” herself. Although as the “fool” she technically depicts the
calm next to Archie Bunker’s blusterous storm, like Aunt Bee
she is an older, asexual matron without a fully formed identity.
Nowhere is this more apparent or more telling than in a 1972
episode called “Edith’s Problem”, focusing on Edith going
through “the change”. When Edith’s husband and daughter
Gloria seek medical attention for Edith’s menopause, the “gro-
inocologist” tells them to treat her with kid gloves and refrain
from upsetting her (now a “Super-Dingbat”, according to Ar-
chie, until the prescribed hormone supplements take effect). It
is also up to the daughter, a liberated woman, to educate the
mother about her body and herself. “Imagine, you having to tell
me what’s wrong”, Edith laments. “When I was a young girl I
didn’t know what every young girl should know. Now I’m
gonna be an old lady and I don’t know what every old lady
should know” (“Edith’s Problem”, Jan. 8, 1972, episode 214,
emphasis original).8
7For example, Granny and Pearl repeatedly try to marry off Granny’s
granddaughter, Elly May, and Pearl’s daughter, Jethrene (played by Max
Baer Jr. in drag). Pearl also tries to bag oilman Mr. Brewster for herself.
Mrs. Drysdale, moreover, is a hypochondriac who spends much of her time
visiting various doctors in Boston, and Mr. Drysdale also must pay for her
son, Sonny, to attend an Ivy League college back East.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Despite the burdens these early sitcom women engender for
their men, their mature male counterparts cherish them none-
theless. As Mr. Drysdale says of his wife, Mildred, “She’s a
snob, she’s a hypochondriac, she’s not young and beautiful, but
I love her”. Granny, on the other hand, pities the banker, de-
claring to Jed: “Poor man. He’s got all of the trouble and none
of the fun” (“The Clampetts Meet Mrs. Drysdale”, Oct. 17,
1962, episode 4). In this way, the early American sitcoms lend
support to a patriarchal hierarchy, where women (like children)
represent a chaotic force that must be tamed, so that by show’s
end, the women are schooled from lessons learned and are ul-
timately dutiful, at least until the following week.
It is not unexpected that these early sitcoms represent women
in this fashion. As feminist Betty Friedan chronicles in her
1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, the notion of “The Happy
Housewife Heroine” began appearing repeatedly in the pages of
women’s magazines in 1949. What is surprising, however, is
that this “traditional” view of women/wives/mothers as but ac-
cessories to their men and concerned solely with the domestic
and familial spheres was new or at least re-imagined. In the
1930s and 1940s, as Friedan explains, the “majority of heroines
in the four major women’s magazines… were career women—
happily, proudly, adventurously, attractively career women”
(1997: p. 85). This shifted in the 1950s: “By the end of 1949,
only one out of three heroines in the women’s magazines was a
career woman—and she was shown in the act of renouncing her
career and discovering that what she really wanted was to be a
housewife” (1997: p. 93). Friedan notes that male (and even
female) magazine editors and writers determined that American
women of the 1950s and 1960s “were not interested in politics,
life outside the United States, national issues, art, science”, or
even abstract ideas (1997: p. 100), thus refashioning the image
of women in popular culture—no longer spirited and inde-
pendent but “housewife-mothers, who cherish their ‘different-
ness,’ their ‘unique femininity,’ the ‘receptivity and passivity
implicit in their sexual nature’” (1997: p. 110). This essentialist
depiction evident in magazines is repeated in early American
sitcoms, despite the fact that one in three women at the time
worked outside of the home (Freidan 1997).
The Liberated Woman
In the 1970s, TV’s top-rated sitcoms candidly confronted the
question of gender by creating characters that challenged earlier
maternal roles and sought a new visual pleasure for viewers—a
pleasure in step with the rise of second wave feminism, the
sexual revolution, and the federal adoption of the Equal Rights
Amendment. These sitcoms ushered in a succession of single
women (sometimes contrasted with the previous generation’s
matriarchs), whose roles are less well defined, question classi-
cal notions of maternity, and increasingly drive narrative action.
Shirley’s relationship with her mother in the sitcom Laverne
and Shirley embodies this second wave transition. When Lily
Feeney criticizes the company her daughter keeps (“You’re still
with shore patrol and bowlers and sewer workers and ‘Iggly’
and ‘Squiggly’ from upstairs”), Shirley tells her mother, “Well,
I think I’m old enough to pick my own friends”. And Laverne
comes to Shirley’s defense after Lily questions her daughter’s
choices and sexual reputation: Lily pleads, “Why can’t I go
back [to California] and say, ‘Oh, Shirley, Shirley has found a
wonderful man and they have a lovely house in the suburbs and
her life is going up, up’? … Well, Shirl, what’s it going to be?
Is it going to be the good life or bimbo city?” Laverne promises
Lily that she does not “have to worry about her [Shirley] be
coming no bimbo, ’cause I’m watching out for that”. Interest-
ingly, Lily’s first response is to ask, “Am I really a nag?”—
dialogue that simultaneously conveys that grown women need
no longer be treated like children and, unfortunately, that
women, particularly mothers, are to blame for this older, patri-
archal ideal that a woman’s place is in the home. If the conno-
tation here is too subtle, Shirley ends the conversation by tell-
ing her mother, “I know you love me. The trouble is, you don’t
like me”. Moreover, Lily is depicted as a failed role model of
the traditional ways: She is a divorcée who married “one of
those guys” and “end[ed] up trying to eat [her] way to happi-
ness” (“Mother Knows Worst”, May 18, 1976, episode 15).
In contrast, Shirley is employed, self-supporting, independ-
ent-minded, and attractive, though not necessarily a sex object.
Importantly, she is still funny. The same can be said of Laverne,
Janet from Threes Company, and Gloria from All in the Fam-
ily. These characters take on roles traditionally deemed mascu-
line: Laverne and Shirley work in a brewery and endure the
juvenile antics of neighbors Lenny and Squiggy; “Good Old
Reliable Janet” heads a household that includes an innocent
bimbo and a not-so-innocent bumbler (Sept. 19, 1978, episode
301); and Gloria, although she lives with her parents (who il-
lustrate the old days), works while her husband attends college.
These women also are more in tune with their bodies and
themselves, actively pursuing personal interests and sexual
pleasure. In “Mike’s Problem”, for example, Gloria grows anx-
ious when her husband experiences stress-induced impotence
(Nov. 20, 1971, episode 208), and in “The Love Diary”, Janet,
who is juggling four suitors at once, has no desire to be “tied
down” by marriage (Sept. 26, 1978, episode 304). Even in
Laverne and Shirley, a sitcom set in the 1950s, the title charac-
ters straddle the line between classic gender roles and those of
the liberated woman. In “The Society Party”, Laverne tells
Shirley that a high society gentleman would only want Shirley
for “one reason—to have a good time, a few laughs, and a little
vo-de-o-do-do”. Although Shirley stops short of questioning
society’s sexual double standard (as a feminist in the mid-1970s
might do), she vocally stands up for herself: “I don’t vo-de-
o-do-do”. “You vo-de-o-do-do”, Laverne retorts knowingly and
with a smile. “I dont vo-de-o-do-do”, Shirley emphasizes, as a
traditional woman would. “You vo-de-o”, Laverne responds,
and Shirley, the precursor of a modern woman, concedes:
“Once. I was going steady for a whole year” (Jan. 27, 1976,
episode 1, emphasis original).
Simultaneously, these characters reject other feminine ste-
reotypes. Laverne cannot cook and neither can Janet or room-
mate Chrissy Snow, and unlike Lucy Ricardo, Shirley Feeney
was written out of Laverne and Shirley after a pregnant Cindy
Williams “chafed at working fourteen-hour days and demanded
that her hours be specified in writing” (McNeil, 1996: p. 470).
Unfortunately, a traditional “solution” to the pregnant employee
“problem” was instituted and marriage to medic Walter Meaney
was the vehicle used for Shirley’s demise (McNeil, 1996).
8Edith’s character as the “Dingbat” was, of course, intentionally ironic on
the part of the creators, and her lines often work double time as both funny
and wise. The same could perhaps also be said of Lucy Ricardo, Granny
Moses, or Marion Cunningham from Happy Days. With their traditional,
subservient roles in the household, however, each of these characters fails
to carve out a new possibility for television women significantly different
from the conventional housewife narrative.
Meanwhile, although Happy Days offered nostalgia in
content and form about a time when masculine narratives pre-
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 5
sented young men pursuing young women (whose own narra-
tives remained untold), sitcoms in the 1970s introduced a ver-
sion of the modern man. In All in the Family, Gloria’s husband,
Michael Stivic, stands in sharp contrast to his sexist, racist, ho-
mophobic, bull-headed father-in-law. Unlike Archie, Mike
openly questions capitalism and the workings of government,
he knows more about menopause than his mother-in-law, and
he is taken to task by his wife for his sexual wanderings prior to
marriage. When one of Michael’s ex-girlfriends abandons her
child on the Bunkers’ doorstep, Edith, in a traditional role,
maintains, “You can’t blame him for having a good appetite”.
Liberated Gloria, however, grills him until “5:30 in the morn-
ing… [saying] everything there is to say. Twice” (“Mike’s
Mysterious Son”, Jan. 22, 1972, episode 218). Archie’s nick-
name for the man who married his daughter is “Meathead”,
hinting at a traditional disapproval of this new, modern man,
just as Shirley’s mother cringed at the burgeoning modern
woman. Threes Company similarly introduces Jack Tripper,
who, in order to live among liberated women, pretends to be
As the authority of women in television comedies ascends,
then, traditional masculinity is rendered impotent. Yet, this role
reversal provides neither equality nor an unambiguous self-
image for women. While the traditional maternal role wanes,
woman’s identity blurs. Threes Company reveals this dilemma
that will be perpetuated in sitcoms to come: Chrissy, a buxom
dumb blonde, is “everywhere… a girl”, while Janet, a “very
bright” modern woman, half-jokingly compares herself to a
“gorilla” and a “chimp” (“Pilot #2”, unaired). Like Lily Feeney,
Janet’s self-incriminations lay the blame for demonizing
women at feminism’s feet. Simultaneously, Jack, for even ap-
pearing to be the modern “good guy” who does not objectify
women, must suffer questions about his sexuality. In reality,
however, Jack’s desire to find a mature, monogamous relation-
ship is merely a façade he knowingly uses—in conjunction with
other outlandish lies—to pursue women. In “Double Date”,
Janet acknowledges she is wise to Jack’s true character. “But
you are a creep”, Janet says, to which Jack responds, “I know,
but I just didn’t want you to think it” (Sept. 12, 1978, episode
302, emphasis original). Jack and Janet, both masculine char-
acters, repeatedly impugn feminism in Threes Company. In
“Jack Moves Out”, Jack replies to Janet’s complaint about how
he leaves the toilet seat up with, “Well, excuuuuuse moi. I sup-
pose you want me to apologize now for being a man” (May 8,
1979, episode 319, emphasis original), and Janet, in “Triangle
Troubles”, reduces the liberation of women to sexual exploita-
tion, telling Jack, “The last time you went out with an old-
fashioned girl we had to stay at the Regal Beagle [a neighbor-
hood bar] ’til you modernized her” (May 15, 1979, episode
321). In this way, Threes Company seems to ask, rather than
tell the viewer, what will the modern woman be?
The Mode rn Woman
Not until the 1980s would America’s most-watched sitcoms
present clearly defined roles for the modern woman and mother.
In both The Cosby Show and Roseanne, viewers are treated to
married couples in which husband and wife occupy seemingly
equal positions. Cliff and Clair Huxtable work as physician and
lawyer, Roseanne and Dan Connor hold blue-collar jobs. In
each case, both adults share the parental burden (a far cry from
Lucy and Ricky) and, at first glance, intellectual common
ground. Roseanne goes a step further, offering a new type of
mother. For the first time, a top-rated sitcom depicts a woman
whose appeal is rooted primarily in her comedic ability to drive
the narrative. Although the same could be said of Lucille Ball,
Roseanne Barr’s physique is perhaps more illustrative of the
“everyday woman” than Ball’s more glamorous pin-up figure
forged in Hollywood.
Unfortunately, neither The Cosby Show nor Roseanne pro-
duces a radically new perspective on the feminine and maternal.
Both sitcoms overstate the dominance of their leading women,
thus completing the role reversal that began in the 1970s by
turning the woman/wife/mother into a seemingly classic “str-
aight man” in opposition to the now more fun-loving man/
husband/father. In the part of “straight woman”, Clair’s primary
activity in The Cosby Show is to discipline her endearing hus-
band (like she does her children), through knowing disapproval,
denying permission, scolding, or nagging. For example, ire-
sponsible about his diet, Cliff must sneak into the kitchen and
clandestinely obtain his favorite foods lest he be reprimanded
by his wife, and in the episode “Off to the Races”, the 50-
year-old physician seeks Clair’s permission to compete in a
charity relay race (May 8, 1986, episode 225). Bill Cosby’s
character, Cliff, dominates the comedic space of the household
in his playful interactions with children and friends, while Clair
looms as the distant authoritarian.
Roseanne’s character also conforms to the straight woman
motif, though not as straightforwardly as Clair. While Rose-
anne Barr’s sarcastic humor is relentless, her position as a “fun-
killer” (for both her husband and her children) is repeatedly
revealed week to week. This is taken to the extreme in the epi-
sode “Sweet Dreams”, where an exhausted Roseanne, who feels
like a “warden… responsible for everybody”, merely wants
“ten minutes alone in [her] own bathroom”, “a sink with a stop-
per that actually works”, and a bathtub that doesn’t leak. Un-
able to fulfill these desires, she falls asleep and dreams about
killing her self-centered children and bothersome husband.
When the judge sentences her to 25 years to life, Roseanne
replies, “I got 25 years to life when I married him”. However,
like the straight man, she quickly states for the record that this
“wasn’t a wise crack. I wanted 25 years to life. That’s why I
married him. I love him” (Nov. 7, 1989, episode 305). As illus-
trated here, Roseanne portrays the modern woman’s dilemma:
The true love she feels for a man is dangerous (in a tiresome,
“fun-killing” sense) to men and children. In this way, the
straight woman is “straighter” than the classic straight man.
Whereas classic straight men Ricky, Jed, Andy, and Howard
(from Happy Days) are likeable authoritarians (and admired as
a musician, millionaire, sheriff, and hardware store owner, re-
spectively), the modern woman comes across, at best, as an
annoyance and, at worst, as a Harpy. Because of this, the mod-
ern woman’s femininity and maternal fitness are put on trial. In
“Sweet Dreams”, Roseanne’s own friend, Crystal, takes the
stand against her:
Your honor, Roseanne had the best husband in the world
and what she did is unforgiveable… Let’s cut the crap
here, your honor. We all know Roseanne. We all know
what she’s like. She’s loud and she’s bossy and she talks
with her mouth full. She curses at people when she drives.
She feeds her children frozen fish sticks and high-calorie
sodas. And she doesn’t have proper grooming habits. And
most important, your honor, she’s married to the greatest
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
man a woman could ever want and she don’t appreciate
him a lick. Dan Connor is tender and kind and loving and
loyal and strong and masculine and sexy and virile…
Your honor, I say hang the bitch. (“Sweet Dreams”, Nov.
7, 1989, episode 305)
According to Crystal, Roseanne fails as woman, wife, and
mother. In what is now an all-too-familiar anti-feminist “cat-
fight” trope (Douglas, 1995), Roseanne in turn judges Crystal’s
success as a woman, defined by her ability to keep a man: “You
had three men in your life and you lost them all. And I have
been telling you… the only way you can keep a man happy is
to treat him like dirt once in a while. Men do not like waify
little cream puffs” (“Sweet Dreams”, Nov. 7, 1989, episode
305). Roseanne’s dream all but prescribes the role of modern
women in future sitcoms as nagging, domineering, or demon-
ized fun-killers, and this shift corresponds to a transformation
in the roles of men, husbands, and fathers, who—if they refuse to
be emasculated by their women—become childish pleasure-
seekers around which the sitcom’s narrative develops. In these
new roles, the greatest threat to a man’s happiness is his wife.9
The quintessential example of these new roles is the 1990s
sitcom Home Improvement, in which stay-at-home wife and
mother Jill Taylor must bear the impulsive, reckless, perilous
antics of not only her three male children but also her husband,
talk-show host Tim, who lives primarily for hotrods and power
tools but—similar to Lucy Ricardo—masters them only in his
fantasies. And unlike Ricky from I Love Lucy, Jill’s repri-
mands border on vitriolic, as when she tells Tim to “do us all a
favor and shut up” or “I don’t dream about you, Tim. It’s bad
enough I have to see you when I’m awake” (“Dream On”, Jan.
12, 1994, episode A362).
Sitcoms, post-second wave feminism and in the midst of an
ill-defined third wave feminism, render the modern man a sim-
plistic boob. In fact, Threes Company unashamedly brands
Jack with this designation. After Jack moves out of the apart-
ment he shares with Janet and Chrissy, Janet builds a booby
trap (which, ironically, consists of several pots and pans strung
together that neither woman ever uses for cooking) underneath
one of the windows that does not lock. When Jack later decides
to return home and climbs through the window because he has
forgotten his key, he trips the trap and causes a commotion.
Chrissy’s dialogue needs no interpretation: “Janet! I think your
trap caught a booby!” (“Jack Moves Out”, May 8, 1979, epi-
sode 319).10 Like Jack, Sam Malone from Cheers, Kramer from
Seinfeld, and Joey Tribbiani from Friends are but unmarried
versions of Tim, with Sam’s predatory libido, Kramer’s playful
mischievousness, and Joey’s charming stupidity unchecked by
the modern woman. Viewers root for these male characters to
win, unlike their emasculated equivalents: gender-enlightened
Al Borland, whom Tim regularly and disdainfully compares to
a wife and mother (see also McEachern, 1999); Cheers patron
and psychiatrist Frasier Crane, who buckles under the thumbs
of know-it-all dilettante Diane Chambers and frigid shrink Li-
lith Stern; Seinfeld-sidekick George Costanza, who escapes the
unpleasant confines of marriage only after his fiancée (at one
time a lesbian) dies; and “friend” (and serial divorcé) Ross Gel-
ler, who finds himself cuckolded by another woman.
Women, wives, and mothers, whether merely nagging or truly
monstrous, threaten to end the modern man’s happiness, tying
him down and freezing the pleasure-driven sitcom narrative.
All hope, however, is not lost for the modern woman, though
it is at best tenuous. There is acknowledgement, whether overt
or subtle, in the more recent top-rated sitcoms regarding the
way both pop culture and society have portrayed women, and
there have been some attempts to change traditional ideals. In a
season eight episode of Roseanne, for instance, Roseanne and
her sister, Jackie, lament while on a road trip how the music of
their generation was largely “guy music” such as “Take a Let-
ter, Maria” (a secretary whom Roseanne says is “getting scre-
wed twice”) and “Baby, Baby, Don’t Get Hooked on Me”,
about a man who tells his female counterpart “don’t get hooked
on me/’Cause I’ll just use you, then I’ll set you free”. Like the
modern woman she is, Roseanne’s response to such a lothario
is: “Use me, I’ll set you on fire, you bastard”. Even Jackie’s
attempt to think of “all those sweet guys, you know, like Dono-
van and, and Jim Croce and The Beatles” ends with a discus-
sion of the main lyric in John Lennon’s “Run for Your Life”:
“I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another
man”. Roseanne and Jackie, of course, immediately consider
female greats such as Janis Joplin, Pat Benatar, Chrissie Hynde,
and Patti Smith and then move on to toying with an “idiot
trucker with the naked woman mud flaps” (“The Getaway,
Almost”, Nov. 14, 1995, episode 807). Unfortunately, this out-
right feminist discourse occurs in Roseanne’s penultimate sea-
son, when it slipped to 16th in national ratings compared to
ninth, fourth, and second in the three years prior (McNeil, 1996;
Nielsen Media Research, 2007).
Seinfeld also attempts to address feminist issues as part of the
show’s commentary on the always inconvenient and often il-
logical rules of society. For example, in an episode in which
Jerry dates a Romanian gymnast who earned a silver medal
inthe 1984 Olympics, Kramer convinces Jerry to pursue a more
intimate relationship with the woman, believing the gymnast’s
flexibility will result in unimaginable sexual pleasure. When
the reality fails to match this male myth, Jerry is saddled with
dating the woman longer than he had planned (a torturous task
limited to conversations about the horrors of Ceauşescu’s dic-
10Paradoxically, labeling modern men as “boobs” not only fails to challenge
the masculine narrative but also manages to usurp some of the feminine and
maternal from women. Jack Tripper, immature and girl-crazy though he
may be, is a culinary student with dreams of becoming a professional chef.
By taking responsibility for all of the cooking, Jack maintains a respected
position in the business world and in the household, simultaneously under-
scoring Janet’s masculinity and undermining her femininity. (Chrissy’s
blatant ineptitude in the kitchen fails to stand out in light of her—as a sex
object who yearns for a traditional relationship—implied receptive aptitude
in the bedroom.) Capable in the realm of men but not in that of women,
Janet’s nondomestic independence borders on the mannish and hints at the
monstrous femininity characters such as Roseanne, Carla from Cheers , and
Elaine from Seinfeld will exhibit. Boob or no, male sitcom characters con-
tinue to work outside of the household, maintaining at least some of the
power that defines traditional masculinity. What does change is their ac-
9It is not only in Roseanne’s dreams that this role reversal takes place. In
“Somebody Stole My Gal”, Roseanne half-jokingly warns Dan that he can’t
have any cookies “before you’ve had your dinner”, and she forgives him for
failing to fulfill a promise by telling him, “Honey, I’m your wife. I already
hate you” (Oct. 3, 1989, episode 304). In “Guilt by Disassociation”, more-
over, she in not so many words calls her husband fat: As Roseanne readies
herself for a job interview, Dan asks, “What do you know about packing
meat?” Roseanne replies, “Well, I’ve been living with rump roast for 15
years”. She also berates a confused Dan for not knowing where she is going:
ROSEANNE: Now, didn’t we lay in bed for two hours last night
talking about how important this was and now you’re saying,
“Where’re you going?”
DAN: [humorously hanging his head and placing it on Roseanne’s
shoulder] Forgive me. I’m the worst husband who ever lived.
(“Guilt by Disassociation”, Sept. 26, 1989, episode 302)
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 7
tatorship) in order not to be cast as one of those men Roseanne
and modern women like her would set ablaze. Jerry eventually
discovers, however, that the gymnast was only dating him be-
cause of fables in her country about the sexual prowess of co-
medians, and she ends the relationship when Jerry comes up
short (“The Gymnast”, Nov. 3, 1994, episode 606). Although
this plotline and others in Seinfeld endeavor to even society’s
sexual score, the sitcom remains a story told from a male view:
In “The Gymnast”, Jerry tries to explain to Kramer that there is
always a price to pay for sexual dalliances—whether an esti-
mated three weeks of dating for one night of sex in order not to
be labeled the “bad guy” or embarrassment in being exposed as
a less than sexually satisfying man. Even Elaine, the one main
female character in the sitcom, is treated as “one of the guys”,
and when her femininity is recognized, it is as something in-
herently different. Nowhere is this more obvious than in “The
Contest” (Nov. 18, 1992, episode 411), in which Jerry, George,
and Kramer make a $100 bet to see who can forswear mastur-
bating the longest. When Elaine wants in, the men refuse, ex-
plaining “[i]t’s apples and oranges” and “[i]t’s easier for a
woman not to do it than a man”. They only way the men con-
cede is if Elaine gives them odds, with George demanding a
two-to-one $200 bet and Kramer upping it to $1000. Just like
the gymnast, a modernized Elaine loses the bet after succumb-
ing to primitive sexual desire—working out behind a span-
dex-clad John F. Kennedy Jr. in her aerobics class—suggest-
ing that men and women are essentially the same. This equality
in terms of (sexual) pleasure, however, has its consequences.
When John F. Kennedy Jr. finds out about the bet from Jerry’s
girlfriend, Marla, both Elaine and Jerry pay a price for engaging
in such childish (and stereotypically male) antics: John F. Ken-
nedy Jr. forgoes his date with Elaine to console Marla, who
loses her virginity to him instead of Jerry. (George, the least
“manly” character of the sitcom, is punished from the top of the
show after his overbearing mother catches him in the act and
ends up in the hospital because of it.) Failure to conform to
more traditional gender roles quashes everyone’s pleasure,
other than the virtuous (i.e., virginal) Marla, the quintessentially
masculine John F. Kennedy Jr., and Kramer, the “wild”,
Tim-like character in Seinfeld who makes no apologies for his
self-satisfaction. This motif is repeated in other episodes, in-
cluding “The Couch”, in which Elaine’s stance in favor of abor-
tion rights ruins not only an evening at a popular restaurant but
also Jerry’s couch and Elaine’s own relationship with a very
attractive delivery man (Oct. 29, 1994, episode 605).
Women seem to fare the best as part of an ensemble cast
such as Friends, where stories are told from the perspectives of
all six of the main characters. Moreover, the women, while still
predominantly in charge, are allowed to have fun. Two story
arcs from the season Friends earned the highest Nielsen ratings
focus on the women (although, again, in the more traditional,
domestic spheres): Monica’s marriage to Chandler and Ra-
chel’s unplanned pregnancy with Ross. Friends offers perhaps
the most agreeable depictions of modern marriage and parent-
hood of this sample of sitcoms: Chandler honestly tries to de-
cline having a bachelor party or patronizing a strip club with his
boss; newlywed Monica happily buys her husband porn for
Valentine’s Day; Ross looks forward to being a hands-on father
to his second child out of wedlock; and Rachel could not be
more of an idealized pregnant woman—thin, fashionable, and
desirable for most of the season regardless of her growing belly.
Although more nuanced (and at times more outlandish) in terms
of gender roles than earlier sitcoms, Friends still falls prey to
common sitcom themes. Joey, an actor man-child who cannot
manage much of his own life, beds the most women, while
Chandler and Ross often are emasculated (by Monica and Ra-
chel, among others) despite successful, respectable careers.
(Because of Monica, for example, Chandler knows the names
of several varieties of ribbon. As he offers Phoebe “lace, satin,
sateen, raffia, gingham, [or] felt” to decorate a present, Chan-
dler adds, “and I think my testicles may be in here, too” [“The
One in Massapequa”, March 28, 2002, episode 818].) A female
version of Joey may be found in Phoebe, an adventurous, free-
spirited masseuse who is more sexually aggressive than the
other women. In “The One Where Rachel Has the Baby: Part 1”
(May 16, 2002, episode 823), for instance, Phoebe meets a man
in the hospital where Rachel is about to give birth. Wanting to
find out more before she makes a move, Phoebe asks Joey to
question him. When Joey reports to Phoebe that the man is “not
into anything weird sexually”, Phoebe replies, “Enter Pheebs”.
(Unlike Joey, however, Phoebe, having grown up on the streets,
can take care of herself.) Rachel at times resembles Phoebe
(carefree and sexually forward, as when she hits on Ross prior
to the pregnancy or is overly lustful in her fourth month due to
the hormones) but at times is more like Monica (neurotic and
needing to be in control, such as harping at Ross for his infidel-
ity when they “were on a break” or irritably bossing him around
in the last days of her pregnancy [“The One Where Rachel Is
Late”, May 9, 2002, episode 822]). Ironically, although Ra-
chel’s pregnancy as a single woman is depicted as rather idyllic,
Ross emerges as the most capable parent in the room (at Ra-
chel’s traditional, all-female baby shower). As Rachel frets
about whether she will make a good mother and Rachel’s
mother offers live-in help for the first two months, Ross con-
vinces both women that no assistance is needed: “Look, um,
you know what, even if she [Rachel] doesn’t know anything, I
do. And I’ll be there to show her… The point is, when the baby
comes, I will be there to, to feed her [the baby] and bathe her
and change her. And more than that, I want to do all those
things” (“The One with the Baby Shower”, April 25, 2002,
episode 820).
Interestingly in Friends, mothers are not very maternal. Even
though Rachel’s mom (Marlo Thomas from That Girl) wants to
help with the new baby, she admits that she relied on nannies,
housekeepers, and alimony when her children were young, and
Chandler’s mom (played by Morgan Fairchild) spends most of
Monica and Chandler’s wedding having sex with her date in
one of the hotel bathroom stalls. Throughout the sitcom, more-
over, Monica’s relationship with her mother is marked by the
latter’s unceasing critical disapproval, despite the fact that
Monica is a successful chef, friend, sister, and wife. Like Sein-
feld, Friends tries to paint a more modern picture of the sexes
while poking fun at them simultaneously, but its jokes are bit-
tersweet. For instance, after the gang regretfully watches a
video of an actual birth, Monica exclaims, “Oh, my God! No
wonder my mother hates me!” (“The One with the Birthing
Video”, Feb. 7, 2002, episode 815)
Role Reversal
There are certainly several ways to interpret this data, and an
optimist might argue that shifting mothers from the clownish
housewife in I Love Lucy to the earnest disciplinarian in Home
Improvement represents at least a change and perhaps an im-
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
provement. We contend that this role reversal demonstrates
only a superficial transformation in the communal notions of
femininity and motherhood and, ironically, maintains the long-
standing form of masculine visual pleasure first identified in
Laura Mulvey’s 1975 paper, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative
Cinema”. Mulvey famously argued that visual pleasure in
popular film involves a masculine narrative and that, to date,
this appears to be the only narrative available to cinema-goers,
even if they are women.11 Because the narrative is fundamen-
tally masculine and ultimately concerned with man’s work, his
adventure, and his consumption of objects, women on-screen
represent either a distraction from or a threat to the masculine
narrative. To alleviate this “anti-male” threat, which Mulvey
links to Freudian castration anxiety, the woman must be dis-
armed and either reduced to an object—which has no narrative
of its own—or absorbed into the masculine narrative. Conse-
quently, the masculine narrative presents women with only two
possible roles: that of “The Perfect Product”, the traditional role
of sex object existing on-screen for the sake of the audience’s
(masculine) visual pleasure, or “The Bearer of Guilt”, the ob-
stacle thwarting masculine pleasure that must justifiably be
punished, rescued, or subdued. In the role of “anti-male”, the
woman symbolizes castration and reminds viewers that while
she may be the bearer of children, the bearer of culture, and the
bearer of meaning in a narrative, she is not the maker of any-
As the traditional sex object, the woman’s visual presence
on-screen “tends to work against the development of a story
line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contem-
plation” (Mulvey, 1992: p. 750). “In herself the woman has not
the slightest importance” (Budd Boetticher quoted in Mulvey,
1992: p. 750). Instead, she is, as Mulvey describes her, the
“perfect product” for man’s consumption, like the “Tool Time”
girl in Home Improvement who plays a part no more substan-
tive than boxing’s bikini-clad ring card girls. In this role the
woman is outside of the narrative; for narrative cohesion, then,
the perfect product may be brought into the story as a fetish that
inspires desire, love, fear, etc., and hence action in the on-
screen hero. While characters such as Chrissy Snow and Elly
May enjoy larger roles than the “Tool Time” girl, it is only for
the sake of the masculine gaze and does not change these
women’s function as the male’s sex-object-to-be-looked-at. In
The Beverly Hillbillies, for example, Mrs. Drysdale’s Ivy Lea-
gue son, Sonny, courts Elly May, openly telling her he is going
to mold the perfect woman, worthy of the perfect man (him-
SONNY: Oh you woodland spirit. You forest little bird.
You are so refreshing after all those intellectual types at
Vassar and Wellesley. You make me feel superior.
ELLY MAY: Is that good?
SONNY: Good? It’s divine. (“Elly’s First Date”, Nov. 21,
1962, episode 9)
Of course, as sex-object-to-be-looked-at, Elly May’s ro-
mance ends immediately so that the primary masculine narra-
tive—the Clampett family’s enjoyment of capitalist consump-
tion in Beverly Hills—may continue.
On the other hand, allowing the woman to be a part the nar-
rative does not bode well for her, either. When not the tradi-
tional sex object, woman must be the “bearer of guilt”, whether
as a loveable Lucy who needs to be rescued and controlled or a
not-so-loveable Jill Taylor who, like Lisa in Alfred Hitchcock’s
Rear Window, is “a drag” (Mulvey, 1992: p. 755). This is ex-
actly what George Costanza discovers in Seinfeld after he in-
tentionally hires a secretary who will not distract him sexually.
Despite her mousy looks, George ends up having sex with her
—in part because of her great organizational skills—and in the
process promises her a raise. He complains to his boss, however,
when he learns that she now makes more than him: “But, Mr.
Steinbrenner, how can I be expected to perform my job prop-
erly knowing that my subordinate is making more than I am?
With all due respect, sir, it’s out of whack” (“The Secretary”,
Dec. 8, 1994, episode 609). There is little difference, then, be-
tween Ms. Hathaway from The Beverly Hillbillies and Geo-
rge’s secretary, who are allowed to transgress conventional
gender roles only at the expense of their fun and/or their femi-
After second and during third wave feminism, television
women acquire enough power beyond the private sphere and no
longer require punishment, rescue, or submission. The “bearer
of guilt” or “anti-male” woman, then, as Mulvey has described
her, accrues characteristics that are also “anti-female”, thus
transforming her into something “unnatural”. As a stand-up
comedienne, for example, actress Roseanne Barr became infa-
mous for grabbing her crotch while singing the national anthem.
Failing to meet the culture’s overblown qualifications for sex
object, she is forced to act like a man in order to participate in
the masculine narrative. But acting like a man produces indi-
vidual and cultural consequences for women. Rejecting tradi-
tional marriage roles may result in divorce or spinsterhood (or
even institutionalization!);12 delayed childbearing may lead to
infertility;13 and unchecked sexuality can turn mothers into
monsters. Hence, the fun-loving Phoebe in Friends enters into
motherhood in a nontraditional way, as a surrogate for her
childishly naïve brother and his much older wife. In this same
sitcom, Chandler Bing’s parents represent the “monstrous con-
sequences” of the sexual and gender freedom that feminism has
long sought. Chandler’s mother is depicted as a traditional sex
object but also, because of her active and thus “out of control”
sexual appetite, an absent mother. Chandler’s father, moreover,
is a drag queen, and there is something humorous, yet some-
thing sexist and scandalous, about the attractive and sultry
11This visual pleasure that Mulvey identifies in film with regard to looking
or gazing also is similar in other media, including art and television (Pol-
lock, 1992a, 1992b). In fact, the effect may be more pronounced in televi-
sion, as TV is a more intimate medium that more closely mimics reality:
“The more interesting television characters grow and change over time,
creating layers of depth in their metamorphoses. We may even come to
know these characters better than our own co-workers”. Moreover, the “use
of the story arc in television series helps to create a sense of realism…
Story arcs help create an illusion that the characters have existed before and
continue living between and after episodes” (Porter, Larson, Harthcock, &
ellis, 2002: pp. 23-24). It also may be argued that television shows such as
sitcoms linger in the popular culture longer as many are repeatedly broad-
cast via syndication.
12After Diane leaves Sam at the altar in Cheers, she ends up in a mental
asylum, where she meets Frasier Crane, whom she also later leaves at the
altar. During the course of Seinfeld, moreover, Jerry never seriously asks
Elaine to marry him, and in the series finale, Elaine is sentenced to a year in
prison with her three male partners-in-crime, Jerry, George, and Kramer.
13Monica, one of the more traditional Friends, faces infertility issues in the
final season of the show, although the sitcom makes clear in an even-
handed way that both she and husband Chandler are equally at “fault”.
Since the 19th century, however, American medical literature has linked
“women’s emancipation with their fertility status”, and infertility is often
couched in moral discussions as the “reproductive price of women’s ex-
panded freedoms” (Sandelowski, 1990: p. 476).
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 9
Kathleen Turner playing a man playing a woman. Friends in-
dicts Chandler’s “improperly gendered” parents—a masculine
mother and, thus, an emasculated father—as responsible for his
neuroses, which marry nicely with wife Monica’s obsessive,
controlling demeanor (stemming from once having been fat,
which in current American culture is equated with the mon-
strous). The ultimate example, however, is Carla from Cheers.
As “one of the guys”, this unmarried but permanently pregnant
waitress pays a price, personally, for emulating the sexual
promiscuity of her boss Sam Malone and, culturally, for joining
the bar’s patrons in harassing and bullying other women (par-
ticularly Diane Chambers and her successor Rebecca Howe).14
Carla, like Roseanne, bears little resemblance to a typical on-
screen sex object. Instead, while raising her children as a work-
ing single mom, she is a misogynist who literally and figura-
tively serves men.
Women in today’s sitcoms, defined by these newer, more
masculine notions of femininity and maternity, threaten to end
men’s adventure and power. By casting and castigating TV
females as anti-male/anti-female abominations, they make lou-
sy role models for women and men (during what is supposed to
be the “family hour”) and ultimately reify patriarchal forms of
viewing pleasure.15
Since the 2001-2002 season of Friends, publicly broadcast
television has yet to produce a sitcom earning the highest Niel-
sen ratings, and some of this may be attributed to the rise of
reality TV. Nonetheless, the notion of women/wives/mothers as
fun-killers has thoroughly infiltrated the collective sitcom con-
sciousness in the 21st century. Shows such as Everybody Loves
Raymond, til Death, How I Met Your Mother, Gary Unmar-
ried, and Two and a Half Men play upon this new trope—
woman as man’s worst enemy.16 From this perspective, the role
reversal in 60 years of popular television sitcoms has reversed
neither of the visual dilemmas Mulvey identifies, except that
the bearer of guilt is, like a monster, no longer funny. The sit-
com narrative continues to revolve around masculine pleasure,
and the woman/wife/mother is relegated to serving as either a
sadistic obstacle to or a fetishistic object of this pleasure. Fe-
male characters openly acknowledged this in the 1970s and
1980s. In Threes Company, Janet abhors being the only re-
sponsible member of the household. “Reliable is dull and dull is
boring and boring’s no fun”, she tells herself. To solve this
problem, however, she and her sex-starved landlady, Mrs.
Roper, decide to join a nude protest on a nearby beach. Appar-
ently, modern women, to avoid being taken for granted and to
recoup their humor and humanity, must turn themselves (back)
into sex objects. As Janet notes, “Let’s go down to that beach
and prove that we’re people, too” (“Good Old Reliable Janet”,
Sept. 19, 1978, episode 301).17
Other feminist theorists have argued for alternatives to Mul-
vey’s framework for spectatorship or that the role of sex object
bestows significant power to the woman. Mary Ann Doane
(1991) suggests that a woman can view rather than be viewed
by deliberately wearing a mask of femininity and assuming a
destabilizing distance between herself and the images on-
screen. This masquerade, Doane maintains, allows the woman
to avoid both masochistically over-identifying with the female
images and narcissistically becoming her “own object of de-
sire”, leaving her in a position to hide from the male gaze (by
deflecting it onto the manufactured identity) and to manipulate
the masquerade for her own gains (Doane, 1991). “[I]n flaunt-
ing femininity” and understanding womanliness as “a mask
which can be worn or removed”, female spectators can “disar-
ticulat[e] male systems of viewing” (Doane, 1991: pp. 25-26).
Carol J. Clover (1992) sees feminine visual pleasure in the “fi-
nal girl” of horror films, where both male and female viewers
identify with the last-standing heroine who overpowers the
serial killer and ends the narrative threat. Doane’s and Clover’s
roles, however, offer viewers fairly bleak options for feminine
or maternal pleasure: hiding from the male gaze (as behind a
veil) or successfully avoiding horrific murder (through a com-
14Elaine from Seinfeld pays a similar price for being one of the guys—and
not just with her incarceration in the series finale. In “The Soup Nazi”, for
example, she is banned from the Soup Nazi’s restaurant for an entire year
after vocally expressing her opinions in public about her soup likes and
dislikes and impersonating Al Pacino’s character from Scent of a Woman
(complete with renditions of the lieutenant colonel’s guttural “hoo-ahs”).
She exacts her revenge, however, when she finds the Soup Nazi’s recipes
and threatens to expose his culinary secrets. Like the modern sitcom woman
she is, her retaliation threatens to end her male pals’ fun. As George ex-
lains: “Elaine’s down there causing all kinds of commotion. Somehow she
got a hold of his reci
es and she says she’s gonna drive him out of business.
The Soup Nazi said that now that his reci
es are out, he’s not gonna make
any more soup. He’s moving out of the country, moving to Argentina! No
more soup, Jerry! No more soup for any of us!” (Nov. 2 1995, episode 706).
15The 1971-1972 season finale of All in the Family, for example, launched
the pilot episode of Maude, a sitcom about a brash, liberated matriarch who
lives with her fourth husband, Walter, and her divorced daughter, Carol, a
single mom (“Maude”, March 11, 1972, episode 224). This episode centers
around Carol’s second wedding—an atypical affair where the mother of the
bride and the bride-to-
e cast marriage and even women in a poor light. As
they discuss how many bridal showers each has thrown for the other, hus-
bands and children emerge as the disposable objects of modern mothers and
MAUDE: I eloped with your father and with Fred, not Albert.
CAROL: I threw you a shower, and it wasn’t Albert.
MAUDE: Listen to me, in 12 years we have had three showers,
right? So that means you threw me either Albert or Walter because I
threw you Peter and David.
CAROL: I threw you Walter, but you did not throw me Peter and
David, just David.
MAUDE: Four days before you married Peter I threw you a shower.
CAROL: Mother, that’s impossible. Pete and I were living together.
People thought we were already married.
MAUDE: [realizing their calculation mistake] That’s it—it was a
baby shower.
bination of wielding chastity and phallic weaponry).
Gaylyn Studlar (1988) and Camille Paglia (1990) claim that
16Characters in sitcoms about non-Caucasian families seem to fare a little
better, at least in terms of gender portrayals. African-American sitcoms in
the 1990s and beyond may not pigeonhole fathers as incompetent boobs to
the same degree as their Caucasian counterparts, but future research is
needed in this area. Unfortunately, since the turn of the millennium, there
has been a decline in the number of African-American sitcoms and most are
often relegated to Fox, CW (formerly UPN and WB), or cable networks
(Moore, 2008; see also Gillespie, 2006). There are even fewer choices for
Latino, Asian, and other viewers, and these programs do not seem to offer
new forms of viewing pleasure, either. ABC’s The George Lopez Showwas
one option, although its father figure is at times childish and disobedient
and, based in part on Lopez’s life, has a contentious relationship with an
unloving mother. NBC’s Will and Grace, moreover, which depicted non-
heterosexual relationships and ranked in the top 20 during its run, portrayed
Will, a gay man, as the responsible nag (who is repeatedly accused of being
oth fat and a girl) and Grace, a heterosexual woman, as the masculine,
flat-chested, irresponsible slob.
17A similar theme about the nature of “fun” women also can be found in
The Andy Griffith Show. So-called “fun girls” Skippy and Daphne, recur-
ring bit characters who appear in similarly titled episodes such as “Fun
Girls” (April 13, 1964, episode 427) and “The Arrest of the Fun Girls”
(April 5, 1965, episode 528), create trouble for Sheriff Andy Taylor and
Deputy Barney Fife, who must juggle the pleasurable advances of these two
free-spirited women and the not-so-
leasurable dating demands of their
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
female sexuality sometimes gets the upper hand, as in the case
of the femme fatale (e.g., Marlene Dietrich in the 1930 film
Morocco). We remain dubious of theories that rationalize or
glorify the objectification of women. At best, the femme fatale
suggests to the viewer that some obstacles, or in this case sex
objects, cannot be overcome. In this A Bridge Too Far motif (or
perhaps we should say, “A Woman Too Far”), the woman’s
power manifests as a sex object that resists the male narrative
of conquest—a plot element necessary to maintain the suspense
and realism of the masculine narrative of pleasure—while pre-
serving the sadistic voyeurism of the femme spectacle. At worst,
the femme fatale finds that only by playing the masculine role,
as Dietrich does in Morocco when she puts on a man’s top hat,
ogles a woman in a bar, and then kisses her full on the lips, can
she participate in the narrative of visual pleasure (Smelik,
The role reversal evident in America’s top sitcoms has left
intact the masculine visual pleasure described by Mulvey
(woman/wife/mother as either perfect product or bearer of
guilt), revealing the mysterious power of capital identified by
Karl Marx that transcends superficial gender roles. As Marx
notes in The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844,
money has the power to transform “fidelity into infidelity, love
into hate, hate into love, virtue into vice, vice into virtue, ser-
vant into master, master into servant, idiocy into intelligence
and intelligence into idiocy” (1964: p. 169). In other words,
both power and the masculine narrative of visual pleasure do
not reside with the man. “The major cultural apparatuses are
not patriarchal, therefore, because they are dominated by men”,
art historian and feminist Griselda Pollock explains; “it is rather
that they service masculine fantasies and needs in the conflicts
that human subjectivity and its predominant forms of sexual
difference generate” (1992a: p. 33). These “cultural appara-
tuses” include the structure of visual pleasure operative in tele-
vision’s most-popular sitcoms. For this reason, capital can turn
the hierarchical relationship between men and women on its
head without dismantling oppressive narratives that model the
conditions of capitalist consumption.18
In reversing the roles of intellectual and idiot, women con-
tinue to bear the guilt and now also the responsibility of derail-
ing male pleasure. Men, concomitantly, have been reduced to
the intellectual equivalents of children, seeking gratification in
games and toys (objects of consumption like power tools or
women). When women attempt to escape their role as bearers
of guilt and acquire pleasure, they must do so either by becom-
ing “men” or turning themselves back into sex objects. Like
The Cosby Show, Roseanne represented a small window of
opportunity at the intersection of these role transitions in which
women might have maintained both the humor of Lucy and the
maturity of Home Improvement’s Jill. But in the end, comedi-
enne Roseanne, who successfully doffs the shackles of sex
object, must appropriate masculine behavior (grabbing her cro-
tch on stage and generally representing “macho-feminist feroc-
ity” [Stanley, 2008: p. 190]), thus repeating a patriarchal ten-
dency that Pollock identifies in Degas’ Woman with a Lor-
gnette (1866) and other similar paintings—“[t]he collapse of
the feminine into the monstrous” (1992b: p. 106). So too with
the third possibility in sitcoms: A funny feminism that offers a
more dynamic view of woman/wife/mother stopped being
funny. The fact that female stand-up pioneers such as Roseanne
Barr and Joan Rivers “are now almost as well known for drastic
cosmetic surgery as for comedy is either a cautionary tale or a
very sad punch line” (Stanley, 2008: p. 190).
It seems the woman who wants to be fun and funny must re-
turn to the status of sex object. As Alessandra Stanley argues in
an April 2008 issue of Vanity Fair, the television “industry
demands that they [comedic women] keep growing prettier”, an
assertion bolstered by America’s new funny girls: Sarah Sil-
verman, Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, and Tina
Fey. “With television, it’s just expected that every person be
better-looking”, admits Tina Fey when confronted with her own
beauty (Stanley, 2008: p. 185). Poehler agrees: “For funny la-
dies, we’re attractive” (Stanley, 2008: p. 190). This trend may
help explain why the Parents Television Council (2007) con-
tinues to object to the overt sexuality of sitcoms aired during
the family hour.
Yearning “Beyond the Frame”
While the proliferation of channels has provided room for
alternative modes of visual expression, and no doubt some have
succeeded, mainstream sitcoms have interpreted second and
third wave feminism by portraying women with access to re-
sources such as education, meaningful employment, and power
—within as well as beyond the household—as “fun-killers”. An
increase in civil rights and participation in all forms of capital,
then, has come at a price for television’s woman, simultane-
ously demonized for encroaching into traditionally masculine
roles and held responsible for the childish antics of their male
Today’s top-rated television sitcoms demonstrate a general
failure to transcend oppressive forms of visual pleasure or pro-
duce a third possibility for feminine or maternal pleasure—a
form of pleasure that might also threaten our culture of con-
sumption maintained primarily through advertising. Though
television sitcoms made a clear and distinct effort to transform
the roles of women in the 1970s and 1980s, women in general
and mothers in particular have been left to seek positive ex-
pressions of the feminine and maternal outside of the family
hour. This is nothing new. Simple role reversals do not change
the hierarchies of looking and pleasure. Pollock points out the
woeful inadequacy of similar transformative efforts in art in the
1800s. Pollock finds that Mary Cassatt’s proto-feminist Woman
at the Opera (1879/1880), who gazes from her loge to the stage
off-canvas, is merely left to yearn “beyond the frame” and is
not much of an improvement over Degas’ bug-eyed Woman
with a Lorgnette (1866) and similar pieces. Moreover, Cassatt’s
“imageries of mother and child” such as Marie Looking Up at
the Mother (1897) “are often embarrassingly dismissed, even
by feminist critics, for banality and sentimentality” (Pollock,
18The situational comedy, whether on the radio or television, is, in part,
nothing more than a vehicle for advertising and, at times, an extended
commercial in itself. See Landay (1999) for a discussion of I Love Lucyas a
portrayal of America’s mass consumer culture ideology and the “good life”
understood as the acquisition of commodities. In fact, in “Never Do Busi-
ness with Friends” (June 29, 1953, episode 67), Lucy begs Ricky for a new
washing machine and, in turn, Lucy and Ethel convince Ricky to sell Fred
the old washing machine. When the characters individually discover how
valuable the used washing machine is, each couple surreptitiously attempts
to sell the machine for a profit, regardless of the strife this causes in their
relationships. I Love Lucy, in this episode and others, absolves our capitalist
and consumerist priorities by hiding them behind a morality tale of friend-
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 11
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
1992b: pp. 124-125). It is not surprising that second wave femi-
nism continued this abjection of such maternal notions and
instead opted to concentrate on sexual freedoms: Leaders of the
second wave movement were predominantly middle-class Cau-
casian women who already enjoyed access to prenatal and ob-
stetrical care (Ruzek, Clarke, & Olesen, 1997). Moreover, fo-
cusing on the maternal risks essentialism—womanhood being
equated with deterministic ideas that “woman’s physical struc-
ture and the performance of maternal functions place her at a
disadvantage” (and that “a proper discharge of her maternal
functions” involves “not merely her own health, but the well-
being of the race”), as the US Supreme Court case Muller v.
Oregon (1908: pp. 421-422) concluded. Our six-decade review
of America’s highest-ranked sitcoms underscores the power-
lessness of mainstream television to “conceive a new language
of desire” (Mulvey, 1992: p. 748), leaving woman yearning,
“suspecting that there is more than the social world envisages
for her” (Pollock, 1992b: pp. 123-124).
The pilot project that forms the basis of this paper, written in
April 2009, was funded by a 2006 Armstrong Atlantic State
University faculty development award. Final revisions of the
paper were completed as part of a Brocher Foundation visiting
researcher residency in Hermance, Switzerland, in 2011. The
authors also would like to thank all peer reviewers as well as
several colleagues who have provided feedback on multiple
versions of this manuscript.
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