Introduction

Through the use of clips from I Love Lucy (1951-1957), Bewitched (1964-1972), All in the Family (1971-1979), Married With Children (1987-1997), Roseanne (1988-1997) and Desperate Housewives (2004-2007) the pages that follow aim to deconstruct the media’s construction of gender roles in marriage in pre-feminist and ‘post’-feminist contexts. My hope is to simultaneously document the gradual shift of socially acceptable roles for women from housewives and mothers into the workforce and the static portrayals of men as breadwinners and familial protectors. My intention is to demonstrate that feminism’s failure to deconstruct masculinity and femininity has resulted in a failure to achieve equality to the detriment of both men and women. 

I chose television programs over movies because they are produced on a weekly basis and tend to highlight current events and cultural shifts.  [1] I ultimately had a rigid set of criteria that the shows had to meet to be considered for inclusion in this project. The first criteria was that they depict marriage, because I wanted to specifically examine what constructions of a “good husband” (and father) and a “good wife” (and mother) look like at different points in time. My second criteria was that the television shows be from the sit-com genre. I chose comedies over dramas because it was my observation that comedies were often able use the double meanings and safety of jokes to expose contradictions and social tensions. [2] My third criteria is that they had to have been popular. There were three reasons for this. First, popularity shows that there is something about what is being discussed in the shows that is resonating with the audience. Secondly, it was necessary that the shows were popular enough to be available on DVD. Lastly, popular television shows tended to remain on the air for a sustained period of time, allowing me to better document more subtle cultural shifts. 

I am aware that all of the shows I have chosen depict white families. This was not an intentional choice, and I recognize that this limits my project. This reflects not only an institutional bias, as many of the past television shows featuring racialized families, such as Julia (1968), are not readily available on DVD, but also quite possibly a personal bias, as I am white and may have unconsciously chose shows that reflected my own life experiences. This may be doubly true, as many of the families occupy the space between working class and middle class, as does my own family. The shows also reflect a heteronormative world view. This is partially a reflection of my research question, and also a reflection of the lack of non-nuclear family representation in the media, especially in the past. It is also important to know that I am coming to many of these shows with fairly fresh eyes; I have never been a television fan and my previous viewings of all of the shows I have chosen has been casual at best. As a result, I am reading them primarily through a feminist lens. 

The representations of femininity and masculinity that I am examining in this project are not intended to represent a realistic view of what women’s experiences and men’s experiences were in those social-historical moments. [3]  Instead, the represent gendered ideologies that produce and reproduce hegemonic or subversive representations of masculinity and femininity. [4]  These ideologies are shaped in many ways before even getting to the viewer, first by the writers, then by producers and network executives, and again by advertisers, and in some cases television censors. [5] These ideologies function to construct a series of separate but connected set of “truths” that viewers identify, or dis-identify with. [6] The idea of multiple readings is key here. Viewers may view a hegemonic script and adopt it unquestioningly, but they may also negotiate what is being “said” by comparing it to their real life and either adopting it conditionally, or rejecting it completely. [7] Although I have made an attempt to see as many possible readings as I can, I am aware that my interpretations may be limited by the personal and political lenses through which I have viewed the shows. 

 

 

[1] Taylor, Ella. 1989. Prime-Time Families: Television Culture in Postwar America. Los Angeles: CA: University of California Press.

[2] Taylor, Ella. 1989. Prime-Time Families: Television Culture in Postwar America. Los Angeles: CA: University of California Press.

[3] Macdonald, Myra. 1995.  Representing Women: Myths of Femininity in Popular Culture. New York, NY: Edward Arnold.

[4] Kellner, Douglas. 1995. “Cultural Studies, Multiculturalism and Media Culture.” Pp. 5-17 in Gender, race and class in media: A text-reader, edited by Gail Dines and Jean M. Humez. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications, Inc.

[5] Taylor, Ella. 1989. Prime-Time Families: Television Culture in Postwar America. Los Angeles: CA: University of California Press.

[6] Hall, Stuart. 1995. The Whites of Their Eyes: Racist Ideologies and the Media.” Pp. 18-27 in Gender, race and class in media: A text-reader, edited by Gail Dines and Jean M. Humez. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications, Inc.

[7] Craig, Steven, ed. 1992. Men, Masculinity and the Media. Newbury Park, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.

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