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Feminism ain’t funny

Woman as “fun-killer,” mother as monster in the American sitcom

By Jack Simmons and Leigh E. Rich

Whether America has realized President Herbert Hoover’s 20th-century vision of a “chicken in every pot,” there is a television in nearly every home. Powerful and accessible, television programs, whether explicitly, convey values and messages to viewers and, thus, can play a role in reifying the status quo or affecting social change. Given comedy programming’s roots in radio and Vaudeville, it is no surprise that a recurrent theme in situational comedies is the “war between the sexes.” Despite a surfeit of studies examining specific programs, however, there exists no comprehensive project exploring how gender depictions have changed since television’s proliferation in post-WWII America. This time span is especially important because it is bisected by second wave feminism. Regarding gender, TV shows need not fortify traditional ideals. But how far has television come? Findings from a pilot study employing a Grounded Theory analysis of selected US sitcoms from 1952 to 2004 suggest that, regardless of the progressive nature of some programming, the most-watched sitcoms reaffirm mainstream stereotypes of women. What has changed, however, is the hierarchical relationship between the sexes. While sitcoms have modified roles of women in an effort to keep up with changing social norms, they have failed to meaningfully alter traditional masculine narratives. What has been won is a superficial role reversal: Where once television women were childlike subordinates to their male counterparts, now men are depicted as irresponsible children women must mother and discipline. 

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Simmons, Jack, and Leigh E. Rich. 2013. Feminism ain’t funny: Woman as “fun-killer,” mother as monster in the American sitcom. Advances in Journalism and Communication 1(1): 1–12.

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