Stay-at-Home Parents, Working Women, & TV’s ‘Modern Families’
Claire Dunphy is thinking about going back to work. Note: The Modern Family character is thinking about it, weighing her options, and getting into scrapes week after week that teach her that her best job is as mother to her three kids. She tries to get a job with her husband’s arch nemesis, only to learn that he’s a sexist pig and has only hired her to get back at Phil. It’s been said before, but is there anything “modern” about this family? The show has a pile of Emmys, and the ratings to match, so maybe I’m the idiot here, and not the writing staff that thinks three stay-at-home parents reflects “modern” family life.
Then again, I have an ex-president in my corner: Geena Davis, founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media (and the actress who played the president on Commander in Chief) has conducted a new study on gender roles in popular media. The results are pretty bleak. Only about one-third of characters on television are female. That number is lower for family films and children’s programming than it is for primetime TV. Family films, apparently, are even worse than TV at showing women in leadership roles. But, out of all the procedurals on TV right now, the study found not one female chief justice or district attorney. Not one. The vast majority of fictional doctors, politicians and CEOs are also male.
Jobs on TV certainly feel more gendered than they used to. Twenty years ago, in the 1991-1992 TV season, Murphy Brown, Designing Women and Roseanne, all three about working women, were among the 10 most popular shows. Cheers and Murder She Wrote, which featured strong female leads, were also in the Top 10. Today, only two shows with female leads are even in the Top 20: 2 Broke Girls and New Girl.
When I was a kid, I remember watching The Cosby Show, on which attorney Clair Huxtable managed to raise her kids with a doctor husband. No one had to stay at home, no one had to decide being a mommy was more important than being a career woman. I’ll grant you that very few people in the real world would be able to handle all that work with the same grace and upbeat charm Clair Huxtable radiated in every episode. But if you like your sitcoms grittier, Roseanne Conner offered a different point of view as part of a working couple struggling to make ends meet. As a youngster, I saw a variety of families on TV; granted, there were no gay parents or interracial couples, but sitcom families in the ‘90s included a wider variety of roles for women.
I don’t want to do a time warp back to 1992. I do, however, want networks to stop making excuses that a show about a working woman can’t be funny and popular. Yes, Parks and Recreation and the late 30 Rock have lower ratings than the networks would have liked, but don’t let the quirkiness of those shows stop the production of other mainstream shows that feature female leads — female leads with real, powerful jobs.
Most of all, I hope Claire Dunphy starts working again. She’s tough, she’s smart, her kids are growing up — and she deserves to use her skills for something other than badgering them night and day. Claire could go back to the corporate world, pick up a failing institution and turn it around the way she flipped that suburban house. Gloria, too, has gifts other than her body and her funny accent. She could work as a counselor (she’s certainly a master at getting the seemingly unfeeling to express themselves). There is so much more that these characters could do on screen. It would just take creativity, and a belief that modern women do, in fact, go to work.