To Work or Not to Work

In contrast to Samantha in Bewitched (1964-1972), who was perfectly happy as a wife and mother, and Lucy in I Love Lucy (1951-1957) who was actively discouraged from being anything other than a housewife, the ‘post’-feminist women on television have choices. The beginnings of the challenge to traditional gender roles are evident in an early episode of All in the Family (1971-1979) when Archie discovers that Edith has been selected for Jury duty.


When Archie realizes that this means that Edith could potentially be away from the house for quite a while, he suddenly begins convincing Edith that he has fallen ill, and that she must stay home to take care of him. When Edith challenges him, saying that she was already selected, he becomes even more manipulative and reminds her that he chose her first. He instructs Edith to call the court and cancel, then heads upstairs to the bedroom while dictating a long list of things that Edith will have to do in order to nurse him back to health. After he is upstairs, Gloria asks her mother if she really is going to stay home and serve him meals in bed, to which Edith replies “oh no, I guess you will have to—I’ll be on jury duty.” Although this does not directly challenge the abusive undertones of Archie’s behaviour, Gloria is still expected to care for his clearly fake illness, but it does show that Edith is beginning to recognize that she has the opportunity to make her own choices when she disagrees with Archie. Edith’s strength to resist Archie’s wishes seems to grow as the show progresses through the 1970s, although her subversion often portrayed in more subtle ways, such as when she blurts out the truth of Archie’s latest scam or falsehood. [1] 


Even Peggy Bundy gets a job, at least for part of one episode. She is convinced by her neighbour, Marcy, that if she wants to buy a VCR, and Al won’t buy one for her, she should get a job and earn her own money so that she can buy what she wants. This is one of the few times when Peggy’s lack of a job is constructed as contributing to the apparent poverty that the Bundys constantly complain about. However, it turns out that as much as she wants a VCR, she really doesn’t want a job. Marcy tells her that as a modern woman, that is her choice, but Peggy worries that if she tries to quit Al will know that she knows that work is hard, and then she will no longer be able to maintain her lazy life. In a parallel scene later in the episode, Al is talking to Steve, Marcy’s husband, and complaining that having Peggy working all the time is not making him happy. Steve suggests that he tell Peggy that he likes having her at home, but Al says that if he does that, Peggy will never let him forget it. Things appear to be at a stalemate, until the Bundy children appear, claiming that they are “hungry and dirty” and unable to take care of themselves, and beg their mother to quit her job. She professes that they come first, and she and Al smile and hug because Peggy is a good mother for staying home. Al asks Peggy if she is going shopping tomorrow and she says “if I have time…” but acquiesces after Al points out that she does not do anything else. It is then revealed that both Al and Peggy bribed the kids to ask Peggy to quit. There is an interesting tension here between Peggy being a “good mother,” or a “bad mother.” She is not constructed as a “good mother” in other episodes, and it seems as though the children of a “good mother” would be able to take care of themselves by the time they are the ages of Bud and Kelly. However, staying home with them is shown to be a “good mother” set of behaviours—but only if she fulfills her other household duties as well. 


For Roseanne, her class position means that having a job is not an option. At the end of the first season she is desperately unhappy at work because her boss is setting unreasonably high quotas and is disrespectful to her and her coworkers, while simultaneous manipulating Roseanne into showing respect for him so that her friends will follow. She tells this to Dan, who suggests that if she is so stressed out she should quit. She is concerned that this will put them in a precarious financial position, and that they will no longer have emergency medical insurance or be able to give their children the things that they desire. Dan teasingly tells her that they will just have to tell them “honey, you could have had those [things] if you mom hadn’t been a big baby and quit her job.” Dan and Roseanne laugh, and the next day at her job Roseanne tells her boss he will not be able to make his quota because she is quitting. Although Roseanne admits that finding a new job will be hard, she has the support of her husband, and together they show that being able to laugh, and being together will get them through the tough times.


The choice that Lynette Scavo made to give up her well-paying job at the advertising agency in order to stay home and raise her children is constructed in Desperate Housewives as not really a choice. It is actually her husband’s suggestion, and he describes it as being both better for the children and “less stressful” for her. Three pregnancies and four hyperactive children later, Lynette is anything but less stressed.


When Lynette runs into an ex-coworker in the supermarket, she is asked “don’t you just love being a mom?” The voice-over recognizes that when people ask this question they really only want one answer, and so, clearly lying through her teeth while her twin boys terrorize other customers in the supermarket she lies and says “it’s the best job I’ve ever had.” Adding another layer of complexity to the story is the fact that Lynette is shown to have not only loved her old job, but was clearly good at it, and her ex-coworker reports that if Lynette had not quit she would “be running the place by now.” Lynette is clearly caught between her desire to be a good wife and mother and her desire to live the life she had set out for herself. Her husband does not seem to notice that she is unhappy and struggling, and even suggests that they risk having unprotected sex—a suggestion which earns him a slap on the face from Lynette. As the show goes on, Lynette comes to recognize that maybe being a full-time mother is not for her, and works with her husband to make her desire to go back to work come true. 


[1] Adler, Richard P, ed. 1979. All in the Family: A Critical Appraisal. New York, NY: Praeger.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s