Cooking, Cleaning and Childcare

The transformative effect that feminism has had on changing the social expecations of women is striking. In the pre-feminist television shows I am examining, I Love Lucy (1951-1957) and Bewitched (1964-1972), the gendered division of labour is clear: women are responsible for cooking, cleaning and childcare, while men are responsible for going to work and earning an income. 

 

 In this clip, Lucy is so caught up in throwing a shower for their soon-to-arrive baby that she forgets to cook Ricky his dinner. Their neighbour Fred interrupts the scene to announce that Ricky is in the paper. Ricky is disappointed because the article reads as if he is simply a footnote to Lucy’s pregnancy. Interestingly, as Lucille Ball was actually pregnant at the time this was filmed it is quite possible that this was based on an actual occurrence in Lucille and Desi’s marriage. There often conflict between Desi and Lucille when Lucille’s career threatened to overshadow Desi’s own. In fact, CBS had to be pressured by Lucille to hire Desi to play her husband because she was concerned that if they did not work together their marriage would fail. [1] As Lucy and Ethel get once again caught up in planning for the baby, Ricky has a conversation with himself depicting how he would prefer the conversation would go—if Lucy was paying attention—in which he says he would like a “nice juicy steak” and ‘Lucy’ asks him how exactly he would like her to prepare it. Lucy agrees to go get something organized, but then discovers that not only did she forget to pre-cook the meat, but she also forgot to pick up Ricky’s clothes from the cleaners. Ricky is quite put out, and dramatically exits, claiming he’ll find something to eat “somehow… somewhere…” This illustrates quite well the way in which men in the pre-feminist television shows were depicted as the moral authority that kept women from shirking their household duties. This theme is repeated again in Bewitched, when Darrin scolds Samantha for using her magic to interfere with his job, and in All in the Family when Archie demands Edith wait on him hand and foot.

 

In this clip, Samantha is shown preparing breakfast for Darrin before he goes off to work. The clip is being narrated documentary style, talking about the “modern conveniences” that the “normal suburban housewife” uses to prepare breakfast for her husband. Unfortunately, Samantha does not seem to be having such an easy job, as she proceeds to burn or spill everything she is trying to make. Clearly Samantha is not a “normal suburban housewife.” The narrative notes this saying that mistakes are no problem, if you are a witch. Samantha ‘magics’ breakfast together perfectly, just in time for Darrin to enter the kitchen. The gender roles are clear here, Samantha’s job as Darrin’s wife is to prepare him breakfast, and Darrin’s job is to go to work. However the subtext is disturbing: women without magic up their sleeves (that is, all of them) who do burn the toast or spill the milk, and do not have their husband’s breakfast ready on time are failing to be “normal suburban housewives.” 

 

In All in the Family (1971-1979) the expectations placed upon women are beginning to be questioned. This clip shows what happened when Gloria encouraged Edith to be creative, and enjoy cooking Archie his breakfast for a change. Archie discovers that breakfast was not what he was expecting, and asks Edith what he has had for his Sunday breakfast every Sunday of his life. With a sigh, she recites a long list in a monotone voice. Gloria becomes angry at her father for being so demanding of Edith, and rants at him until he stops her and asks where she is getting “all that” from. Edith and Gloria explain that Gloria has been reading books on “women’s lib”—and making Michael read them too. Archie scoffs and insults Michael’s masculinity. When Michael comes downstairs, Archie instructs him to tell “his wife” (Gloria) to stop telling Edith about what she has been reading. When Gloria challenges Edith to stand up to Archie, saying that she is lying down so that Archie can step on her, Edith says “well I’m not lying down, and I don’t feel like I’m being stepped on. Archie, I’ll get your eggs.” Although feminism does not prevail in this clip, Edith is constructed as having a choice, even if she does not choose what Gloria’s books suggests she ought to. As the show progresses however, even Archie, for all the conservatism he portrays in that clip, eventually accepts that his wife has the right to have a job if she so chooses, signaling some success for feminism by the late 1970s. 

 

By the 1980s and 90s expectations of motherhood and housework became far more relaxed. Peggy Bundy can barely cook, and Roseanne’s house is always shown to be everywhere from extremely messy to just slightly untidy (but never quite spotless). The character of Peggy Bundy is a very interesting representation of modern femininity. She is a stay at home mom, but is shown to spend most of her day sitting on the sofa watching television. She is quoted as saying “there are two things Peggy Bundy doesn’t do: 1. cook, clean, sew, vacuum, iron, and parent.” 

 

In this clip from the pilot episode, Peggy and Al bicker because Peggy has forgotten to buy juice. Peggy apologizes, and Al sarcastically accepts her apology saying “I understand, you don’t have a job or anything do you?” Peggy points out that there is a store on his way home, and that he is just as capable as she is of going shopping. He complains that now she is expecting him to work and do the shopping. Their bickering continues, and Peggy is shown giving leftover food do the dog, even though Al has professed his hunger, implying that she loves the dog more than she loves Al. Al informs the dog that he expects juice when he gets home, but it appears as though this is intended to have a double meaning, directly do the dog: don’t drink the juice before I get home, and to Peggy off-screen: I expect there to be juice when I get home. This appears to be the type of portrayal of women on television that Roseanne Barr discussed, where men’s words come out of women’s mouths. Perhaps it is not surprising that Barr turned down the role of Peggy Bundy.  [2] 

 

 

 Roseanne and Dan are not immune from the same fued. Roseanne returns from work to find that despite the fact Dan had the day off, he spent it drinking beer with his friends, and has neither prepared dinner or fixed the sink as he had promised to do. She becomes quite angry, and he quite defensive. Roseanne says she will fix the sink, and challenges Dan when he says “fixing the sink is a husband’s job” saying “does that mean everything else is my job then?” They continue bickering about the last time he did the dishes, or made dinner. Although nothing is resolved in this clip, the underlying message is clear: even when both partners have jobs, the burden of housework still falls to the woman. Contrast this clip with the similar situation in a similar social-historical moment in Married With Children and the gendered viewpoint of each is clear. 

 

Desperate Housewives (2004-2007) articulates excellently that despite how far we have come, there are still huge pressures for women, especially as mothers. In this clip, Lynette is found by her two friends in tears after she becomes so stressed with trying to juggle the pressures of taking care of her hyperactive children and making costumes for the school play that she begins taking her kid’s ADD medication in order to have enough energy to do everything. Lynette is wracked with guilt about not being a ‘good enough’ mother. Her friends share their own stories of stress and frustration when raising their children. The women agree that it is important that these difficulties are acknowledged so that the fact that mothering is not an easy, 100% fulfilling, intuitive job for women. This ‘sisterhood is powerful’ moment is potentially subversive, at least in the land of sitcoms. It is also important because Lynette is then able to articulate to her husband that she is not happy being a full-time mother, and would like to return to her career in the ad agency without feeling as if she is a bad mother for not being fulfilled as a woman by being a mother. 

 

[1] Andrews, Bart. 1976. Lucy & Ricky & Fred & Ethel: The Story of I Love Lucy. New York, NY: E.P. Dutton & Co, Inc.

[2] Brunsdon, Chartlotte and John Caughie, eds. 1997. Feminist Television: A Reader. New York, NY: Oxford University Press Inc.

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