Tuning Into Housewifery :Women on the Screen From the 1950’s Through the 19
The boom of the television industry in 1941 resulted in the launch of many new inventions. Perhaps one of the most enduring of these creations in popular culture has been the situation comedy or “sitcom.
” This genre of comedy features a stable cast of characters who interact in a common environment such as a home, bar or workplace. Situational comedies are able to last several seasons due to the close-knit relationships the common environment fosters. Situation comedies, however, have proved to be far more than a humorous form of entertainment; they have also had a profound effect on the larger society, particularly on roles of women in the American workforce. Television sitcoms of the 1950’s through 1990’s limited women’s roles in the American workforce by reinforcing common gender stereotypes concerning women’s rightful sphere. Since television sets became mainstream and entered almost every American home, the content of American sitcoms has reflected the culture of the times.
Thus, as the popular American sitcoms of the 1950’s suggest, women living in the 1950’s had very little economic opportunity and almost no role in the American workforce outside of the home. In the decade following World War II, society experienced a return to normalcy. Traditional ideals, such as Republican Motherhood, quickly abandoned during the wartime, returned with newfound vigor. Thus, women who had assumed professions outside of the home such as working in a munitions factory or serving in the military, surrendered their jobs and newfound sense of independence to the thousands of American servicemen coming back from the war and returned back to the home. Without any external occupation, women’s chief responsibilities were to cook, clean and raise the children to be good citizens and future supporters of democracy.
Most women, however, found the role of the homemaker to be fully satiating and fulfilling. American women were excited to run clothes through a brand new Bendix Deluxe and make cookie dough in their Kenwood mixer (Walker). Furthermore, the young American women of the 1950’s were eager to marry and settle down and start a family. This was largely due to the 1950’s stigma associated with single women; a 1957 Gallup survey poll revealed that 80% of Americans believed single women were “sick, neurotic, and immoral” (Chafe). Thus, young women rushed to the altar in order to avoid acquiring this negative reputation. Moreover, the American public held an even worse opinion of single mothers and divorcees, keeping the percentage of both extremely low.
Part of the return to normalcy of the 1950’s was the massive television boom. By 1951 there were over ten million television sets in America and a great number of them were tuned in Monday night at nine o’clock for the premiere of I Love Lucy. Unfortunately, 1950’s sitcoms like I Love Lucy reinforced, even glorified the role of the submissive housewife, further limiting women’s economic opportunities for employment outside of the home into the 1960’s. Although one of the most powerful figures in Hollywood, revered actress Lucille Ball transformed on set into her submissive character Lucy. Each episode of I Love Lucy depicted Lucy, and by extension every perfect housewife, as a beautiful, submissive, and often quite ditzy woman who knew her proper place was the home.
Lucy is also shown to have a shopping addiction and inability to responsibly manage money, as exemplified in the episode “Ricky Loses His Temper” from season three. This often forces her husband Ricky to rescue her from the various messes she creates. For the thousands of women tuning in weekly to I Love Lucy it is inevitable that they felt pressure and a sense of obligation to be like Lucy. A perfect instance that exemplifies Lucille Ball’s immense influence on American women is that after Lucille Ball donned a Christian Dior, navy polka-dot dress on the show, “[her] celebrity influence appealed to fashion’s mainstream markets so much so that the polka dot dress became a must-have item in every woman’s wardrobe” (S. Davis).
Furthermore, beyond influencing women’s fashion trends, Lucy entered women’s homes as a weekly reminder to make the beds, iron their husband’s clothes, cook dinner, and above all find happiness in performing these monotonous household chores. Besides reminding women their proper sphere was the home, the episode “Job Switching,” the fourth episode from season two, convinced women they would fail if they attempted any career outside of housework. In this episode Ricky and Lucy have a quarrel over her excessive spending. While Ricky scolds Lucy, she plays innocent and denies over drawing her checking account. She also addresses her husband as sir in a girlish, high-pitch voice.
This voice differs considerably from her usual pitch; almost in the way a young girl would react when being punished by a parent. Outside of the screen, Lucy’s girlish actions while being reprimanded reinforce the idea that husband’s should have absolute power over their wives. Moreover, husbands watching the episode might be influenced to accuse their own wives of frivolously spending money. Lucy’s friend Ethel and her husband come over just as the argument escalates. They quickly become involved. As expected, Fred joins Ricky’s side and Ethel Lucy’s.
At one heated moment, Ethel’s husband, Fred, says bluntly, “when it comes to money there are two kinds of people the earners and the spenders: as they are more popularly known husbands and wives” (M. Davis). Fred’s statement clearly reinforced the status quo that women were not supposed to work. It gets worse, however, when Lucy and her best friend Ethel challenge their husbands Ricky and Fred to switch roles. Both sides prove unable to assume the other’s job.
Lucy and Ethel first prove incapable when they visit the employment office. When asked what they know how to do Lucy stupidly and repeatedly answers with the question, “what jobs do you have?” Moreover, Lucy’s countenance becomes more dumbfounded as the employer reads the long list of positions. This scene in the employer’s office especially, would intimidate women seeking positions outside the home. Since 1950’s women were primarily housewives, they would not have any experience at an employment office. Thus, they would not be able to contrast the way I Love Lucy portrayed it and the reality of the employment office.
Furthermore, because women of the 1950’s strongly identified with Lucy they would fear that they too would be unqualified for any open positions. Or even worse, they might fear that they would not understand any of the job titles. Moreover, the intense fear this episode provoked may have prevented women from seeking employment outside of the home entirely. Finally Lucy lies that she has experience making candy and Lucy and Ethel are given positions in a candy factory. Although when viewed as one isolated instance, Lucy’s lie seems harmless, Lucy is portrayed as a liar on many different episodes. Since Lucy is a symbol for 1950’s women, one could argue I Love Lucy perpetuated the stereotype that all women are liars.
It’s even possible that male employers watching this episode would be influenced to not employ women for fear of their irresponsible ways and tendency to lie. This would increase the gender discrimination practiced in hiring, thereby reducing women’s chances of achieving employment outside of the home. “Job Switching” continues to negatively portray women and as a consequence, limit their opportunities in the workforce. As expected, Lucy and Ethel prove to be clueless and get fired after attempting four different candy-making positions. Both sides ultimately decide to return back to the former state where the men earn the money and the women frivolously spend it. Thus, stereotypes of both women’s and men’s roles were enforced in this episode and any hope of changing the status quo destroyed.
Another popular 1950’s sitcom that reinforced and glorified the role of the housewife, therefore limiting 1950’s women’s opportunities in the American workforce was Leave it To Beaver. Similar to I Love Lucy, the mother character, June Cleaver, is a homemaker who has little authority over anything other than the cooking and cleaning. June doesn’t even have the power to reprimand her children-the final say is always Ward’s. The family dynamics of Leave it to Beaver place women in the subservient role. This is true even in the home, which Ward claims “is a woman’s place” (Mosher, Connelly).
In episode six of Leave it to Beaver, Ward explains the fragile nature of women to Beaver. Ward proclaims that all women are born too weak to handle the masculine task of grilling, which is best left to the men. Ward’s statement implicitly deems women incapable of anything other than baking Apple tarts and scrubbing floors, certainly, discouraging women from seeking work outside of the home. Moreover, while June makes the beds and does the ironing, Ward is off at his 9-5 engineering job, a job that was impossible for a 1950’s woman to attain due to universities’, such as the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, refusal to admit female engineering students until the mid 1960’s (Bix).
Thus, the producer’s decision to cast Ward as an engineer, a job seen as both masculine and technical, further distanced women’s and men’s spheres in the American workforce. The definite common thread connecting all 1950’s sitcoms was that they each clearly reflected the return to normalcy following World War II. The sitcoms of the 1950’s centered on the daily activities of the nuclear family and placed women in their traditional role as housewives. Female characters were shown to have no ambition or desire to tap into their intellectual potential. It was almost as if the majority of them had forgotten World War II and the jobs they assumed to support the war effort in the previous decade. The sitcoms of the 1950’s captured women’s role in society in a way unparalleled by the sitcoms of any other decade.
Although women covered some ground in the quest for equal rights in the 1960’s, women’s opportunities in the American workforce were still very limited throughout the decade. Moreover, as in the 1950’s, the female characters of popular television sitcoms reflected women’s current economic position as housewives or low-level workers. The statement, throughout the 1960’s the women who worked outside of the home were highly concentrated in low-level professions, would be a massive understatement. Rather, of the few women working outside the home, “nearly 90%” of them “were employed in clerical, sales, service, factory or plant jobs” (Stewart). Part of the reason women were so highly concentrated in lower level professions was the sex discrimination practiced while hiring. Most companies considered positions exclusively for women or men.
More frequently seen, instead of the generic “Help Wanted” ad, was “Help Women” or “Help Men.” Thus, when women dared apply for traditionally “Help Men” positions they were immediately turned down on the basis of sex. Moreover, even women who stuck to traditional “women’s work” found themselves unable to move up the corporate ladder. Skilled or unskilled, women remained in the same remedial positions year after year due to the widespread belief that men were overall more capable and intelligent than women and thus would perform better in high level positions. According to the Official Dept.
of Labor, in 1960 only 15.6% of women held managerial or administrative positions across all industries except farming (“Catalyst”). Following women’s inability to rise from lower level positions, even in specialized women’s professions, in the beginning of the decade women were also unable to attain equal wages. Up until 1963, women were paid 60% less than men or approximately 58 cents for every dollar earned by a man in the same position (Chafe). Furthermore, the 1963 Equal Pay Act failed to bridge the wage gap leading to widespread discontent among female workers and housewives alike.
Suddenly, “Most young women, at least in the middle class, expected to have access to the same careers and to receive the same compensation as men” (Isserman). Female workers and homemakers vocalized their growing discontent, workers demanding equal pay and homemakers demanding equal opportunity. Throughout the 1960’s women’s discontent mounted and a 1962 poll revealed that 40% of women desired radical change (Chafe). The television sitcoms of the 1960’s, however, did not reflect women’s mounting discontent. Instead, the sitcoms of this decade continued to enforce the 1950’s idealistic view of women.
This further perpetuated the role of the housewife in the American psyche and prevented women from achieving progress in the workforce. As Betty Friedan once quipped, “In the television … the pretty housewives still beamed over their foaming dishpans,” (22).
In reality, however, the novelty of “their foaming dishpans” had long worn off along with the joys of being a subservient housewife. Sitcom writer’s continued portrayal of women as docile housewives proves that they felt the majority of viewers were not ready to handle a truthful depiction of radical nature of the 1960’s. Thus, while women’s rights protests were broadcast on every prime time news station, American television sitcoms completely ignored the Women’s Rights Movement and avoided defying traditional gender roles throughout the decade. With the whole American television industry stuck in the 1950’s, female characters of 1960’s American sitcoms, often clearly resembled their 1950’s counterparts; there were several Lucy Ricardo’s of the 1960’s, most notably Samantha Stephens of Bewitched. Though the sitcom Bewitched is often credited with breaking common gender stereotypes of the 1960’s, Bewitched enforced gender stereotypes more than it defied them.
Analyzing the plot line quickly reveals Bewitched true sexist nature. Bewitched enforces the home as the women’s sphere when Samantha, an all-powerful witch, decides to attempt life as a suburban housewife. On their wedding night Darrin tells Samantha, “you’re going to have to learn to be a suburban housewife… You’ll have to learn to cook, and keep house, and go to my mother’s house for dinner every Friday night” (DeLyria).
It’s not that Samantha’s powers frighten Darrin, rather they insult his ego; her powers give Darrin reason to believe Samantha could survive without him, meaning Samantha is capable and independent-both impossible characteristics of a 1960’s woman. So she follows his orders and restrains from using her magic in order to “conform to the gender boundary expectations of society” and avoid “decentering his masculinity” (Artman, Lippard, Sansom). Without her powers, Samantha spends her days doing average household chores, even without the convenience of magic, instead of performing witchy tasks such as flying around on a broomstick or concocting potions in a cauldron. Even her own mother finds this pathetic and calls Samantha “a fallen woman” for being “married to a mortal, doing the most menial tasks” (“Dispelling”). Furthermore, when Samantha does use her magic, she always gets Darrin in complicated messes. She is usually able to problem solve with a twitch of her nose but each time she does, Darrin shames Samantha for using her magic and forces her to apologize.
Thereby restoring the power balance characteristic of the 1950’s, which people sought to maintain throughout the 1960’s. A perfect example of Samantha’s meddling is in episode four from season one, “It Shouldn’t Happen to a Dog.” In this episode one of Darrin’s drunken clients, cleverly named Rex Barker hits on Samantha. Fed up, she uses magic to turn Rex into a dog and later loses him (“Plot Summary for Bewitched”). Despite her claims, Darrin refuses to believe Rex was interested in Samantha and scolds her for using her magic. This connects directly to the 1950’s sitcom I Love Lucy in which Lucy was frequently portrayed as a liar.
Although Samantha was speaking the truth, Darrin, like Ricky, finds reason not to trust anything Samantha says. This reinforces the stereotype that women are manipulative and never to be trusted. Furthermore, although Samantha eventually finds Rex and converts him back to human form, she is primarily portrayed as a foolish, lying wife with almost no self-control. After all, it was her inability to control her anger towards Rex for flirting with her that almost caused Darrin’s ad agency to lose the new account. In essence, this particular episode and the whole Bewitched series taught their female viewers many valuable lessons. Primarily, if, as a woman, they were in any way more powerful, intelligent or skilled than their husband, they should hide their abilities.
And secondly, when they disobey their husbands, which as “naive women” they inevitably would, and display even the slightest bit of their potential power/intellect they should apologize profusely and submit to their husband’s authority. Needless to say, a woman could not work in a high level position without displaying her abilities and thus such activities would not be permitted. Another supernatural themed 1960’s sitcom taught American women similar lessons about their rightful place in the family and the workplace. The time warped television sitcom, I Dream of Jeannie, premiered in 1965 and focused on a genie named Jeannie who, when summoned out of her bottle, would perform whatever tasks her master ordered her to. Both Samantha and Jeannie “had enormous powers” and while Jeannie did not suppress hers “they were both absolutely dependent on the love of their dorky male counterparts'” (Norris).
In fact, Jeannie is even more dependent on her husband than Samantha. She’s trapped in a lamp until her “master” calls upon her to grant his wishes. Clearly, Jeannie does not convince her viewers to explore their potential or enter the workforce. She actually conveys the polar opposite message, that women should become their husband’s slave. Each time Jeannie folds her arms and nods her head; she reminds viewers their only job is to ensure their husband’s absolute happiness.
Thus, the 1960’s were a tumultuous decade for women due to mixed signals about women’s sphere. Internally, many housewives were growing frustrated; the housewife remained prominent but the content housewife had become a rare commodity. On television, however, Samantha and Jennie still played the role of Lucy, cooking gourmet dinners, meticulously polishing floors, all with a smile. As in the 1950’s, the female sitcom characters of the 1960’s rarely showed any ambition to get a career or pursue higher education although the real women of the 1960’s desired the education that would permit them to enter higher-level positions in the American workforce. Television and societal reality would continue to contradict one another into the next decade, although sitcoms began to reflect more societal realities in the mid 1970’s.
Despite the fact that the women’s discontent about unequal economic opportunities that sprouted in the 1960’s peaked in the 1970’s, American sitcoms rarely addressed this. Rather, they depicted women entering nontraditional fields but not the struggle to get there. Women’s discontent is best exemplified by comparing a 1960 survey, in which 40% of women desired radical change, with the results of the same survey taken again in 1974. By 1974, 60% of women desired radical change (Chafe). Thus, another 20% of women were unhappy with their current lifestyle and perhaps only 2% of sitcom characters reflected this overwhelming sentiment. A second testament to the soaring levels of discontent that were not reflected in American sitcoms is that by 1970, 70% of female college students agreed with the statement “the idea that a woman’s place is in the home is nonsense” (Chafe).
Now equipped with a radically different perspective, women were ready to launch the feminist movement. Women campaigned for equal rights through the National Organization for Women, commonly known as NOW, led by Betty Friedan. Women also formed several other important organizations to lobby for equal rights including: the National Women’s Political Caucus, established in 1971, The Equal Rights Amendment Ratification Council, created in 1973, and the Coalition of Labor Union Women also formed in 1973. These women’s rights organizations were extremely popular; NOW’s members reached 550,000 by 1970 (“A Brief History”). Despite their massive popularity, the female characters of 1970’s sitcoms were rarely members of these organizations.
Rather, female characters through in the occasional feminist allusion but never fully breached the subject of female empowerment. The writers of sitcoms choose to keep the conversation light as to avoid offending any conservatives who did not support the women’s right movement. In this way, writers chose to sacrifice potential women’s progress for the profit earned by reaching a large audience with a wide range of political beliefs. As mentioned previously, the 1970’s sitcoms did, however, begin to reflect one reality of the 1970’s, women’s entry into nontraditional fields. Both on and off screen, women entered the careers of law, medicine, and engineering in record numbers. By the mid 1970’s applications into law school had risen 500%.
Although not a lawyer, doctor or engineer, Mary from the Mary Tyler Moore Show exemplified the new generation of urban professional women. The sitcom focused not on her quest for love, but on her experiences working as an associate producer at WJM-TV, a television news station. But as Ula Neda put it “women on television was a mixed bag at best.” As progressive as the Mary Tyler Moore Show was for depicting a woman’s entry into a traditionally male dominated field, the show was still quite sexist in other regards. While the show empowered women in the workforce, the Mary Tyler Moore Show reinforced common stereotypes dating back to the 1940’s and 1950’s concerning single and divorced women. Mary Tyler Moore was originally supposed to be divorced but the writers changed the plot of the sitcom for fear that Mary would be viewed as a lesbian.
So instead of portraying Mary as a divorcee, the writers decided to portray her as the victim. The revised plot line of the Mary Tyler Moore Show focused on a young woman abandoned at the altar. The fact that she was abandoned instead of divorced portrays a sense of dependence. Mary wanted to get married and live the traditional family life but she was given no choice. The mixed messages of the Mary Tyler Moore Show accurately reflect women’s complicated position in the 1970’s.
While women began to enter new fields they were far from being respected as equals in the workforce or as capable individuals in society. The 1970’s sitcom Charlie’s Angels also displayed women entering traditionally male dominated careers but stunted this progress by holding women back in the workforce in other regards. The female characters of Charlie’s Angel’s, which centers on three women’s mission to fight crime, serve as both positive and negative role models for American female viewers. Jill, Sabrina and Kelly’s serve as positive role models for female viewers because they are accomplished career women. Each “angel” is a graduate of the Los Angeles Police Academy.
The premise of the show is after graduating the academy, the women were only assigned menial tasks “such as filing and answering phones” so they quit to work for the Charles Townsend Agency as private investigators (“Charlie’s Angels”). Thus, the “angels” not only proved it possible to enter a male dominated profession, one especially associated with masculinity, but they also convinced women of their self worth. Women now knew it was okay to expect more from a job or relationship and to make changes if they were dissatisfied. However, Charlie’s Angels limited women’s opportunities in the workforce by characterizing them as sex symbols. The “angels” are often provocatively dressed, especially when they assume undercover roles in a host of stereotypical “women’s work” positions such as clerks, secretaries and waitresses.
By portraying the three women as sex symbols, it completely discredits their formal training at the police academy. The viewer’s are led to believe the angels are only successful in solving crimes because of their attractive physical appearances; their scantily clad bodies rather than their brains serve as distractions and enable them to uncover mysteries. This furthers the conception that women are manipulative and discredits any growing notion that women can be successful based on their intellect and hard work. By reflecting women’s new economic reality, the female characters of 1970’s sitcoms somewhat empowered women in the American workforce. However, this empowerment was almost cancelled out completely by the sitcom’s continued portrayal of women as dependent on men and as sex symbols. Again, women received mixed messages from the sitcoms and new political advances.
For instance, while the 1972 Title IX of the Educational Amendments Act prohibited any college or university that received federal aid from discriminating against women, American sitcoms may have convinced women they did not need to attain a higher education unless they were suddenly abandoned at the alter and forced to get a career or not blessed with good looks. Thus, women might have embraced their newfound opportunities in the workforce had the sitcoms of the day given them a reason to. This trend of sitcoms granting both reasons to dismiss career women’s accomplishments and reasons for women to not pursue careers at all continued well on into the next two decades. On the popular 1990’s sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, the female lead, Hilary Banks, is characterized as an extremely ditzy UCLA dropout who manages to land a job as a weather girl out of sheer luck. In a brief synopsis of the sitcom, Hilary is referred to as “Airhead Hilary” (Larkin). Furthermore, Hilary Banks is akin to Lucy in that she too is shown to have an extreme shopping addiction.
She is constantly spending frivolously on designer clothing and other luxury items because she knows her Dad will foot the bill. As one viewer explained, “Hilary is … a wannabee career woman and shopaholic by day with Uncle Phil’s credit card at hand” (Estrada). Moreover, Hilary finds herself heavily dependent on her parent’s to support her despite her weather girl salary. Female viewers watching The Fresh Prince of Bel Air would certainly be influenced by Hilary’s persona. When considering the effect of this sitcom, it is of upmost importance to also consider is target audience: teenagers. Teenagers are extremely impressionable.
Thus, teenage girls planning their future may have been influenced to act ditzy and clueless like Hillary even if they were intellectual. It’s also very likely that young American women and teenagers were less motivated to pursue a career because Hillary makes it look so simple to borrow money from her parents. Most of all, this sitcom disillusioned its’ young female viewers. While Hillary dropped out of college and still attained this high-level career, the majority of American women did not fall into careers so easily. They had to work hard to actually graduate from college, and then work their way up the corporate ladder. Furthermore, as opposed to earlier decades where gender discrimination played a major factor in women’s limited opportunities in the work force, by the 1990’s competition for available jobs was a predominant factor.
Over 74% of women had entered the workforce, making the chances of a college dropout receiving a job from a prestigious news broadcasting company, without having any other qualifications or special talents nearly impossible (Covert). In tracing popular American sitcoms from the 1950’s through the 1990’s, it has become clear that television sitcoms have had a profound influence on American society. These sitcoms have specifically limited women’s role in the American workforce by reinforcing common gender stereotypes about a woman’s proper sphere. But looking forward, what is not exactly clear is how modern American television sitcoms should portray women in order to give them the greatest amount of opportunity in the workforce. A few pertinent conclusions can be drawn; however, from an analysis of past sitcom’s effect on society that can help modern day sitcoms achieve this goal.
Sitcoms, at the very least, must adapt to and accurately reflect the changes in American society. Not only will viewers become bored if sitcoms portray an outdated and inaccurate version of modern day society, like the sitcoms of the 1960’s did, but also the chance to use this medium’s power to help American women achieve greater opportunity in the workforce will be wasted. Furthermore, American television sitcoms cannot continue to just skim the surface of important political issues. In order to harness the full potential of television sitcoms, sitcom scripts must face discontent and protest movements head on. Finally, American sitcoms must stop glorifying the role of the dutiful housewife and feature more independent working women to serve as positive role models for American women aspiring to attain high-level careers. It may be a slow process but hopefully one day, television sitcoms will positively portray the spirit of the American workingwoman and thereby drastically increase their opportunities in the workforce.
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