Looking in the Mirror Essay
June 1st 2014
Mothers in US Media
The role of the mother has changed drastically in our culture in the few last decades, especially in media. For the last fifty years parental roles are evolving to take on more equal division of labor between men and women. Our media is a great way to track these societal changes. Looking into several sources, sitcoms, and movies are great representation of the evolution of the working mother and how this role has increased especially in the last two to three decades.
Looking back at old television shows and movies like Leave it to Beaver (1957-1963) the mother June Cleaver mentions having a job in the past but her main duties are caring for the children, making meals, and tending to the house. June has a very nuclear family, and seemingly enjoys the home life. She is very ladylike and partakes in activities like needlepoint, attending weddings, and participating in school events with her children.
In the sitcom Happy Days (1974-1984) the mother Marion Cunningham was also part of a nuclear family tending to the household while the male parental unit was the main source of income for the family. She has a very nurturing demeanor with her children and is often looked upon to help solve issues and problems. She is very calm and seen as a positive role model in media during the 70s-80s.
Norma Arnold, the infamous mother of Kevin Arnold in The Wonder Years (1988-1993) can also be compared with several other mother characters in media. Even in the late 80s and early 90s mothers were still displayed to be the main caregivers for children in a family. Norma’s character can also be compared with June Cleaver and Marion Cunningham.
Fifty years ago mothers were limited to archetypal roles in media. They simply stayed home to care for the children and the household. These women were often seen as nurturing, caring, soft spoken, and mostly subservient to the men in the household.
Now mothers are presented in more dynamic roles. They are shown as more complicated in depth characters with pivotal roles in day to day family life. They are more likely to work, have strong opinions, and showcased in much more dramatic situations than ever before. This may also be a change with our culture directly as what is acceptable for television and the big screen has also drastically changed over the last few decades. But media changes aside looking at sitcoms and film is a great way to view the changes in gender roles, especially with women who decided to enter the workforce.
In Modern Family (2009-Present) Claire Dunphy is a strong women with various opinions especially when addressing her husband. She does not work in early episodes, but does gain a job in later seasons when she accepts a position at her father’s company. Her character is extremely different than any other source information that was seen in the early 90s. In a mere 15 years the role of the mother changed drastically in several ways in media. Now women are strong and willing to take on several challenges. The nuclear lifestyle is almost diminished and media is jumping on this bandwagon to create sitcoms and films that showcase this change in roles within our society.
In the film The Devil Wears Prada (2006) a strong female character Miranda Priestly is a highly successful business woman who is so dedicated to her work that her marriage is ending and her family life is merely a shadow of existence during the film. This is a very different view of women in media. This character is seen as extremely strong with her career. The issue that is often in several movies and sitcoms are now the issues that come along with such a strong female character. Miranda’s marriage and home life are suffering because of her dedication to her demanding career. It is indicated in the film that she is going through a divorce and while it is implied that she does several things for her children, a nanny is caring for them. It almost seems like this movie is showing that this character just cannot have both a successful career and a balanced home life.
Working mothers can also be shown in a triumphant way like in the film Erin Brockovich (2000) where a woman does whatever it takes to care for her family by any means possible. Erin obtains a job by convincing her boss that she merely deserves it. She shows many important values as a single working mother, but also uses sexuality in her favor. This may be seen a negative way but many also see this as empowering and uplifting for women to be embracing sexuality and showcasing it in a way to is raw and new for working mothers in media.
In the sitcom Weeds (2005-2012) the main character completes several illegal activities as a newly widowed mother to care for the needs of her family. This is a much more bold way to show a mother. The sitcom definitely pushed the envelope with the term “working single mother.” It was sexier and was introducing a new twist into the television world, not to mention the illegal activity. Could you imagine this show being pitched in the era along with Leave it to Beaver or even The Wonder Years? It would have been so over the top it would have been cancelled after one episode. Even though I am sure drug trafficking was present during that time it was not addressed in the media. This is a characteristic of how mothers and overall roles are presented and it has drastically changed over the last few decades.
Media is evolving with the working mother and this raises quite a few questions with the role. Is media today an accurate portrayal of the working mother? Which era’s I have mentioned are more accurate? I believe that older media styles often would mask true day to day activities and almost represent a utopia in family life, especially revolving around tasks of the mother. Now more realistic issues are being addressed and revealed to be able to connect on the intended audience.
In an article about women in US Media the author Alicia Siler contributes the entire change to World War II and the need for women to enter the workforce. “At first, women were motivated to join the workforces because they believed that it would help get their husbands, brothers, and fathers home faster. This was a way women could effectively help with the war effort. The media was responsible for this idea and promoted it accordingly.” (Siler) She places high emphasis on media during this time, driving women into the workforce due to necessity.
I agree that this notion was probably supported highly by media but was not the sole factor for women returning to work. Siler felt this campaign was wildly successful, and even so successful that the movement stuck and women started returning to work for self-validation and challenge instead of need. I believe women have entered the workforce at a much higher rate due to the constant evolving of the family life and roles within them. Now it is simply more common for men and women to split duties and financial responsibilities. I believe the role of women and mothers in the family will continue to change and evolve over time.
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