A couple weeks ago, we read several pieces about the progress of traditional gender roles in marriage. Andrew Cherlin talked about how marriage in the 21st century has changed from its past. A lot of stuff were things that I had already noticed, but it was interesting to get statistics and data comparing the developments. Jaris Tichenor wrote of gender and power in marriage, which appealed to the realistic side of me in demonstrating the economics and politics of marriage, and not just an outcome of “love.” Scott Coltrane, Ross Parke and Michele Adams even went across cultures to demonstrate the differences in family structure across national and ethnic borders.
These discussions made me think about some of my favorite TV shows and the family structure that they demonstrated. Three current favorites (yes, they actually do make my week better on some occasions) are 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, and Modern Family.
I love Tina Fey. I love Liz Lemon. 30 Rock follows a writer of a comedy show and her constant struggle to balance a demanding work life with her own personal issues. There’s always a tension between the male figures around her workplace and her own dating woes, from the likes of Jon Hamm to Matt Damon, to her ultimate husband, played by James Marsden. I love that this show demonstrates, in a comical way, the outrageous experiences of a woman who rejects the traditional ideas of romantic love and feminine gender roles.
However, that’s not to say that Liz is perfect (I mean have you even seen the show). There does come a point where she begins to question gender roles in a relationship even if it isn’t necessarily clear whether marriage is in the future. The last man to sweep Liz Lemon off her feet and eventually marry her is Criss, who starts off as a hopeful entrepreneur who sells hotdogs out of a van. However, his earnings aren’t enough to support the two of them, and Liz for a brief while feels that she is emasculating Criss by being the breadwinner of the relationship. She does eventually overcome this bump in the relationship, however, with the help of other strong men in her life.
One of the huge ongoing plots that ends series (spoiler alert) culminates in the marriage of Liz and Criss, and the show finally concludes after they have successfully adopted children of their own. Even in this show about a progressive woman who is largely independent, albeit kind of lost, the highlight that caps off the storyline are two traditional things that women face: marriage and children. However, Liz does do things her way, as is evident in the ceremony of her quirky wedding.
I also love Amy Poehler, as I love her ambitious and strong-willed character Leslie Knope. Though still quirky, Leslie also holds her own in a predominantly boy’s club, in this case within city government. A huge part of the past three seasons has been about her relationship with her eventual husband, Ben Wyatt. There comes a point where she is in a higher position than he, and I don’t believe there was any conflict in that regard. Another huge build-up, aside from their rocky relationship start, has been their engagement and wedding, which happened in the current season. In this example, both are in pretty high positions of power, and Leslie is more so a public figure whereas Ben was in the past, whether he likes to admit his failings as a teenage mayor or not. So far, there hasn’t been much mention about their own gender roles within the marriage, or even in the workplace, and I wonder if that will ever come up. At this point, it’s a non-issue, but will it stay that way for the remainder of the show?
I will say that even other relationships and marriages generally show women in powerful, albeit sometimes overly assertive, roles (I’m looking at you Donna, April and however number of Tammy’s there are).
Modern Family is an interesting example of the rejection of traditional gender and family roles. In this comedy, there are several narratives interwoven into one — a “traditional” mom and dad pairing with children, a gay couple with an adopted daughter, and an older man whose second wife is Colombian and has a son of her own. The characters do fall along stereotypes of their own (sexual orientation, race, class, etc.), but it does at least include these different family dynamics into the model of what a household even looks like. One thing that they don’t really push, however, is the role of the woman in the household. Both Claire, the mother in the “traditional” household, and Gloria, the Colombian in her second marriage with an older man, are homemakers. The families live comfortably in what I believe is the Los Angeles area, but they and their families are solely supported on the single income of the man of the house. What’s up with that?
There is a subplot that addresses Claire’s feelings of emptiness for not working, and we learn that she used to be a career woman but opted to be a stay-at-home mother after a while. She channels that motivation to do something by purchasing and flipping a house with the help of her brother-in-law. She also does run for local office, but loses to a man and that subplot just kind of ends there. But for the most part, the two mothers are generally portrayed as homemakers who spend their days chauffeuring kids to activities, shopping and going to the gym.
That’s not to say that being a mother isn’t a worthy job in and of itself, but the lack of representation of women in careers is a little misrepresentative considering the show is called “Modern” Family, and the readings and discussions we’ve had have shown the change in what a modern woman looks like.
These are only a handful of popular shows on today, and I would say a few are fairly inclusive and progressive, but that might not actually be the norm. Two of these shows are written by and star proclaimed feminists, and the other Are media representations of what women and families look like getting any better?