This is a guest post by Ashley Lauren. When she’s not watching television, Ashley Lauren teaches high school English in the suburbs of Chicago. She writes at Small Strokes, and is also a senior editor at Gender Across Borders where she writes about global feminist issues. You can find out more about her and read more of her writing at http://ashleysamsa.com.
One year ago, I got married. As a heterosexual woman who has identified as a feminist for her entire life, the idea of marriage posed many philosophical issues for me, mostly because marriage has historically been an institution into which women have been placed, often against their will, and subsequently erased. However, knowing that I wanted to spend my life with this man and always being open to a challenge, I decided to take the plunge. And, believe it or not, fighting against patriarchal norms that come with the idea of marriage has been a piece of (wedding) cake compared to what it has taken for me to define myself as a wife in the face of what pop culture tells us wives in heterosexual relationships are supposed to be.
Of course, there are a wide variety of problems with portrayals of marriage on television. Where are positive images of same-sex marriage? Interracial marriage? Romantic cohabitation? The list goes on.
When it comes to pop culture – television shows, specifically – gone are the days of June Cleaver vacuuming her home in high heels and pearls and making sure dinner is on the table for her husband when he gets home from work. Gone also are the days of positive images of marriage across race and class lines. We rarely see independent, successful women in mutually respectful relationships with men – the marriage model in Mad About You, a great example of a married couple living in the city and working out the day-to-day issues of marriage with humor and equity, is a rarity on contemporary television. Nor do we have many examples of successful, Black couples working together to raise families – partners like the Huxtables of The Cosby Show and the Winslows of Family Matters are sadly absent on television today.
Now, when we tune in to family sitcoms, we’re greeted by a mostly white, heterosexual landscape of nagging wives and useless husbands. Family sitcoms have come to imitate the likes of Everybody Loves Raymond, where the golden boy who can never seem to let go of his mother marries a hot woman who immediately turns into a nag. We then watch the husband bumble around, making serious but always-forgiven errors as the wife tries to get him to help with the kids, or around the house, or understand that something he did was hurtful. There are, of course, variations on this theme, but for the most part, we see a doofy husband and a wife who can’t seem to stop telling her husband how awful he is. Even in shows depicting better marriages where wives are respected, like The Simpsons or Home Improvement, we still find husbands who can’t seem to get anything right. And don’t even get me started on TV melodramas like Desperate Housewives or Grey’s Anatomy.
Sitcoms like Friends or the more modern How I Met Your Mother show marginally more positive images of marriage, with Monica /Chandler and Lily / Marshall functioning as independent adults in a loving and committed relationship. But while those characters have good marriages,, both shows are fundamentally about how great it is to be single in New York City. The take-away is, “When you get married, your fun single life is over” The solution, according to popular sitcoms, is to marry within the group.
Many of the other shows on television celebrate seriously damaged single protagonists. In The New Girl, we see a female lead who is single and seriously emotionally stunted either because of a bad breakup a demanding job that renders them incapable of having a functioning. In Whitney, we finally see romantic cohabitation without marriage, but “relationship boredom” soon drives her to clichéd measures to keep the romantic fires burning. While it’s great to see leading ladies on television, single women with positive views of relationships and healthy commitments to their work would be a lot better than these lackluster characters..
If sitcoms leave something to be desired in the way of positive images of marriage on television, reality TV marriages leave us completely lost. When we watch the likes of Nick and Jessica, Tori and Dean, or the Kardashian sisters and their husbands try to make a life together, we see very clearly how women become wives for “real.” Judging from reality TV, wives are apparently supposed to be pretty, needy, and a little bit dumb. After the couples fight, we’re graced with a scene in which the wife apologizes for being “hysterical” or “over reacting.”.
Where are we, as feminist partners, to turn for decent relationships on television? More recently, there have been several television dramas that have done a good job of depicting committed relationships in a positive light. The Bartlets of The West Wing and the Taylors of Friday Night Lights portray relationships where both partners are not only career-driven but also dedicated to their lives together. Of course, these shows are no longer on the air. Modern Family is a decent pop culture example of functioning couples – we are finally seeing a gay couple raise a child in primetime television! – but in the marriage of homemaker, Claire, and husband, Phil, stereotypes abound. Three stereotypical, teenage children with the “cool dad” and stay-at-home mom do not show what it is to be married and have children in the modern world.
Why does this matter? Because finding positive images of relationships in which women are independent without being nags is not only important in garnering tips on how to make a modern marriage work, but also sets the cultural tone for gender equality in marriage. Unfortunately, if we’re looking to pop culture for examples of successful partnerships and gender-egalitarian marriage, television isn’t the place