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Feminism Not Funny? Women In American Sitcoms

Feminism Not Funny? Women In American Sitcoms

Research analyses the changing role of women in American sitcomsunited states, motherhood, role reversal, feminism, gender, television, sitcoms, stereotype

There seems to be nothing more American than the sitcom. As a non-American, I suspect that most of my knowledge of everyday American life is based on sitcoms. Of course, I know that not all Americans are that quick witted, good looking, have that ridiculous amount of free time, or are that stupid, but this depiction of everyday life seems to have hatched itself into my brain. I cannot help it, but subconsciously I sort every American I meet into a Phoebe, Carrie, Roseanne, Leslie Knope, Ross, Dwight, J.D. or Elaine.

Now, researchers J. Simmons and L. Rich from Armstrong Atlantic State University wonder  how sitcoms reaffirm mainstream stereotypes of women. They conducted a pilot study, where they analyzed sitcoms from the United States from 1952 to 2004. Of course this period is important because it spans the rise of the sitcom, but also because it spans the second wave of feminism.

In their article, they distinguish three types of gender roles for women: the traditional woman, the liberated woman, and the modern woman.

  • The traditional woman is driven by emotions rather than reason, and her irrational behavior always leads to blunders. Luckily, there is always the “straight man” to fix their problems and clean up the mess. Women must be managed by their men. I Love Lucy depicts a good example of this kind of traditional woman in a TV series.
  • The liberated woman came forward in the 1970’s and challenged earlier female roles, in line with second wave feminism. Sitcoms portray single women and characters that reject feminine stereotypes. These women have jobs, are independent, funny, and not primarily a sex object. Examples of TV series with liberated women are Laverne & Shirley and Three’s Company.
  • The modern woman came up in the 1980’s and saw, for the first time, the position of man and woman more or less equal. Both in Roseanne and The Cosby Show, husband and wife have a similar job and position in the family. Sitcoms in the post-second wave feminism area have men that are the ninnies and the suckers, like Joey Tribbiani in Friends, Sam Malone in Cheers, and Kramer in Seinfeld. Roles are reversed.

This list seems to paint a positive picture for the role of the woman in sitcoms. Sitcoms from the 1980’s on address feminist issues and don’t present mothers as really maternal, or women as really feminine. Compared to the beginning of the sitcom-area, in the 1950’s/1960’s, the roles of women and men sometimes even seem to be reversed. However, in every sitcom, the woman is still portrayed as a sex object, the researchers state. “The woman who wants to be funny must return to the status of the sex object”, as they say, or choose to take on a masculine role and let go of their femininity.

This six-decade analysis of the American sitcoms shows that American television has not yet been able to free the women of their gender roles. They can swap their roles with men, they can be single, fabulous and ambitious, or they can sit at home and rule the kitchen, but women in sitcoms always have to go back to their gender.

Do you think contemporary sitcoms portray women rightfully? And what are the sitcoms that actually moved women forward?

Photo: Flickr, notionscapital

Simmons, J., & Rich, L. (2013). Feminism Ain’t Funny: Woman as “Fun-Killer,” Mother as Monster in the American Sitcom Advances in Journalism and Communication, 01 (01), 1-12 DOI: 10.4236/ajc.2013.11001

united states, motherhood, role reversal, feminism, gender, television, sitcoms, stereotype

This post was written by Nura Rutten:
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  • Roy
    August 28, 2014, 19:45

    Women are strong and awesome. They shouldn’t worry about these small issues. Think of how men are portrayed in sitcoms. It’s not favorably. But, they are just tv shows and you shouldn’t care. Also, these networks are trying to make money. So, they make sitcoms that relate to people.

    Last thing, this is a scientific website so I don’t think denying biology makes sense. Women tend to be more emotional than men based on their endocrine system and larger limbic system.

  • Billy Plante
    August 28, 2014, 21:53

    Here is the big question I want to hear an answer for. Are you meaning to tell me that women are incapable of creating, directing, writing, staring in, funding, marketing, and selling their own forms of entertainment?

    This all comes down to men bad, women victims, only last I checked Oprah could make a couple…. hundred sitcoms and still have money left over for tea.

    So if things are so bad and so unfair for women, where are the women who will show the rest of us how it’s done?

  • mm
    Jeffrey Daniels
    August 29, 2014, 19:31

    Distinct gender roles in humans appear to have both nature and nurture components. Studies on humans and other primates have generally found that female young tend towards domestic and nurturing toys and actions while male young tend towards active and warring toys and actions. This occurs without any prior coaching or the like by parents or other members of the group.



    I see gender roles as analogous to, say, a pencil and an eraser. I see big-box mainstream Feminism thus as, depending on the movement in question, wanting to make the pencil erase so the eraser can write, wanting to make the eraser both write and erase thus making the pencil obsolete, or making the pencil do everything the eraser doesn’t want to do so that the eraser can do only what it wants to do. The result is always the same: the job of erasing and writing both suffer enormously from it.

    Of course there are exceptions to the rule of the roles, but as the saying goes the exceptions help strengthen the rule. I say stop trying to force women (forget the men) into any sort of lifestyle or lifestyles, and just let individual human beings do whatever they want to do. Thus, I think it would be impossible for any one sitcom to portray any one woman as ‘rightfully’, unless it portrays them as doing whatever it is they truly want to do in life – and also portrays men as doing the same thing – and therefore any sitcom that would ‘move women forward’ would be one that showed women (as well as men) in this way.

    Definitely an interesting post.