In my latest reading of Susan Faludi’s 1991 book, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, Faludi critiques sexism in television shows, which persists notwithstanding the decline in women watching television. According to Faludi, television shows present the mother as absent (Full House), give women a salient domestic role while not emphasizing their independence (Family Ties, Cosby Show), objectify women, or focus on women who have non-threatening roles “in a strictly all-female world” (Golden Girls, Designing Women). Shows with strong autonomous women, such as Kate and Alley and Roseanne, have to fight to survive or (in the case of Roseanne) are lambasted. According to Faludi, television shows and movies also stigmatize abortion and female sexuality outside of marriage, even as they champion men sleeping with a number of women.
It was challenging to read Faludi talk about entertainment because she was criticizing many of the shows and movies that I happen to like. Why do I like them? Is it because I’m a sexist? I don’t think that I am against watching women succeed in the professional world. One of my favorite shows is Star Trek: Voyager, and that has a female captain. C.J. Cregg on The West Wing is independent, and I admire her.
I do admit that I have liked for shows to stigmatize abortion, for that has confirmed my own pro-life stance (in my own mind): I can say that even the liberal entertainment industry thinks that there’s something wrong about abortion, so abortion must be wrong! I also confess that there are shows that focus on independent women that I do not like—-such as the Mary Tyler Moore show. While I enjoyed watching Murphy Brown, I wouldn’t be comfortable dating Murphy Brown. I’d be more comfortable dating Corky Sherwood. When it comes to shows depicting single independent women, what that usually brings to my mind is how hard the dating scene is. But, for some reason, I’m comfortable watching family sitcoms, even though I’m not married. I think a big part of that is because I was a kid when those sitcoms were on, and so I could identify with them at the time, and I experience nostalgia whenever I watch them. Did my childhood match what was on the sitcoms? In a sense, yes. My Mom stayed at home for a significant part of my childhood. Even when she owned a health food store and went back to school, she was still around for us kids.
Personally, I don’t think that it’s wrong for shows to depict women in the domestic sphere, as long as they acknowledge that women also may have needs outside of the home—-needs for self-fulfillment, for expression of their creativity, etc. Faludi acknowledges in places of her book that women can work outside of the home while still maintaining their family lives. But she also appears to criticize movies and shows that depict women within the domestic sphere. She would probably say that these shows emphasize the women within their domestic sphere, and that this is part of the backlash of encouraging women to stay at home rather than being independent. Perhaps her critique is valid. I still enjoy the shows that I watch, though. And yet, I also like shows that acknowledge women’s search for self-fulfillment, for that adds depths to characters. But I usually like to see men and women working something out to make everyone in the family happy, rather than for the woman to ditch her family. According to Faludi, there was a time when movies focused on men and women working things out, without belittling women’s aspirations.