The Changing Role of Women in Sitcoms.


Since the 1950s, sitcoms have gone through a lot of changes, especially regarding the role of women. There also have been shifts in the relationship between men and women in sitcoms. In the 50s sitcom, women almost always portrayed particular stereotypes. They were the other-half to their husbands: the quiet housewife or the one who had to clean up her husband’s messes (literally and figuratively). She was there to emphasize the husband’s role as the head of the family. The husband, also the father figure, was the voice of reason and the one who made the rules. The classic example of this is June Cleaver and her husband, Ward Cleaver from “Leave it to Beaver.” June was the typical housewife. She cooked, baked, cleaned, and gardened. She was the mother and wife. Ward, on the other hand, had a good job that earned enough money to support the family.

There were shows like “I Love Lucy,” though, that portrayed women as more of the clown or fool. “I Love Lucy” was also one of the first shows to have the lead woman as the protagonist. Lucy Ricardo is a different type of housewife. She’s tired of her tedious life and is always trying to join Ricky, her husband, in performing. Either she’s trying to perform or she’s trying to work out of the house in other odd jobs. Her schemes never work, though, which provides the comedic elements of the show. Lucy is always getting herself into trouble and Ethel, her best friend, always has to get her out of it. Lucy doesn’t want to be the typical housewife, she wants her own career, but she can never fully achieve her goal, placing her back in the domestic role.

In the 70s, however, the role of women in sitcoms started to shift. In 1970, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” first aired. Unlike June Cleaver and Lucy Ricardo, Mary was an independent woman who had broken off her engagement (and is therefore—obviously–a single woman) and moved to Minneapolis in order to make it on her own. Not only is the female role different in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” but the setting is also different. The setting has shifted from the family space, the home, to the workplace. The sitcom aims to show that a woman doesn’t need to find a husband and take on the role of dutiful wife and mother. Women have more options. They could get a job and be single, forming familial bonds with friends and co-workers who become like a surrogate family.

In the 80s, the sitcom shifted back to the family space but with more independent female characters. Then in the 90s and 2000s, there was more of a variety of female characters (a variety that started in the 80s). Shows like “Friends” and “Sex and the City” portray a bunch of different female roles. The promiscuous one, the quirky one, the perpetual bachelorette, the high-powered workaholic, and more. Men become more like accessories on these shows, only there to help enhance the female role. There has been a shift in the role of women in sitcoms since the 50s: the domestic space to the workplace, the wife and mother to the single career woman.


4 Responses to “The Changing Role of Women in Sitcoms.”

  1. daniellelevy Says:

    While I agree that the female character has become more significant and more autonomous on television, I feel that there is a continuing and distinct inequality between women and men. Women represent a larger portion of the world’s population than men, and yet there are still more men and male centric shows than women and women centric shows. Some statistics show that the ratios are as skewed as 3:1 (men:women) and even 4:1 on some networks.

    Females, as they are represented on TV, are almost always preoccupied with familial and personal issues and the “woman neurotic” is ever present on television (think Monica from Friends). Women are portrayed as more emotional than men in a way which takes away from other facets of their complex characters. The volatile female character, whether she is a main character or a secondary one, thus perpetuates the stereotype of the woman as a victim of her emotions, thereby lacking strength, independence, and complexity. In this way women are still stereotyped by the television.

    Also, the way that women are cast, all of a specific type, the type of the sex object, contributes to the continuation of sexism on TV. There is no room for overweight, imperfect women in prime time television, and even characters who are portrayed as “ugly” are eventually revealed as beautiful by mainstream standards (Ugly Betty and America Fererra). Those female characters who are granted sexual independence are in actuality still ever dependent on men. The women of Sex and the City may be presented as sexually ambitious and independent women, but are actually perpetuating the stereotype that women need a male partner to achieve happiness, and that sexual exploits must eventually lead to some sort of life of domestic bliss (Carrie eventually does marry Big).

    I suppose the point I am trying to make is that we are mislead if we believe that women have the same independence and are equals on television. Stereotypes still saturate TV programming, they are just more subversive because we have reached a point where we think that they have been abolished.

  2. jess4tv Says:

    “Stereotypes still saturate TV programming, they are just more subversive because we have reached a point where we think that they have been abolished.”

    What this makes me think of, regarding the changing roles of women on television, is the trope of the tortured genius, the shows that feature said genius, and the fact that none of those geniuses are women. House MD, Lie to Me, and Royal Pains all feature male leads with some form of preternatural intelligence. While these shows also showcase their strong, smart female leads, these women are always portrayed as trying to catch up to the genius-level thought process of the male lead.

    I think that the stereotype here is not so much in the portrayal of the female characters on these shows, but rather the fact that the role of the genius lead has always gone to a man. What if Dr. House was a crotchety genius with a limp and a woman? Or Dr. Lightman, the human lie detector, cast as a woman? Or Divya, Hank’s skilled physician’s assistant on Royal Pains, cast as the lead instead of him? Even in the show, Divya is the character who works hardest to make HankMed a reality — why isn’t a woman genius doctor lead one those realities?

    It’s true that the role of women on television has expanded to some extent, allowing for the smart, single, working woman to be a common sight on prime-time. However, it is the stereotypes that still go unrecognized which remain the harshest.

    This reminded me of Linda Nochlin’s essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”

  3. emp299 Says:

    Danielle’s comment reminds me of what Sally Fields talked about in her Albert Gallatin Lecture a couple years back. She was saying that, even though there are more types of women on TV in terms of character (quirky, promiscuous, career-driven), it is still incredibly hard for “women of a certain age” to be cast in roles unless they take steps to keep themselves looking remarkably youthful (a la Demi Moore).

    Also, according to Fields, Nielsen ratings show women are less likely to jump on board with new shows/movies than men are. Women-oriented shows tend to be growers, which makes it difficult to get advertisers initially, which makes producers/directors less likely to take on the project.

  4. abibock Says:

    Last week I found a snippet in the Metro paper about a study done on “Why Women Nag” and it reminded me of the changing roles of women over the years.

    “Women who are the main breadwinners are hard-wired to criticize the domestic efforts of their stay-at-home husbands because it protects their sense of femininity, a study claims.
    Researcher at the University of Missouri quizzed 15,000 American women who are their family’s main earners. The study found that however well the stay-at-home men actually perform domestic chores, the women will never be satisfied.”

    While I’m a little bit confused about what they mean by “sense of femininity” I think it’s showing how women in the past have always been the stay-at-home moms, like in these TV shows, and have started to identify with it. Maybe now women are still identifying with it even though they are trying and beginning to steer away from such stereotypes.

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