Published in University of Georgia infUSion Magazine, Fall 2015, Volume 13 Issue 1
(note: photos are different on web than the ones in the print magazine)
“There’s a lot more to being a women than being a mother, but there’s a hell of a lot more to being a mother than most people suspect,” says Roseanne Barr, one of TV’s most iconic mothers. She is one of hundreds of faces that represent the infinitely-faceted phenomenon that is motherhood and womanhood across the world by means of mainstream media.
In nearly every show there is a mother archetype that differs depending on the genre and time period. From the quintessential 1950s apple pie-making mother to the modern day, outspoken, independent mom, pop culture’s presentation of motherhood has reflected contemporaneous views of feminism and what it means to be a woman. But in the modern world of endless media consumption, how do these characters affect impressionable minds on the true meaning of womanhood?
One of the first classic TV moms was June Cleaver of “Leave it to Beaver,” one of America’s first widely-loved television programs. She did what one would expect a woman of the 1950s to do: clean the house, cook dinner every night, and participate in her child’s school bake sales. However, as time progressed, the ideas of women’s roles and motherhood and the idea of sexualized motherhood began. This is reflected today in characters like Gloria Pritchett of “Modern Family” and Lois Griffin of “Family Guy.” These women transformed the homemaker archetype into the modern-day MILF in the blink of an eye. Breasts used to feed children were suddenly pressed up and out in leather corsets and red lace. A night out with the girls transformed from a few glasses of tea in someone’s home to a wild night of clubbing.
This take on motherhood is the antithesis of Mrs. Cleaver, but it contributes to the dichotomy that has become all the more prevalent—that women have to be sweet but sexy, aggressive but not bossy. Although this move toward antithetical presences is progressive in how it shows more true experiences and personalities of women, it does not come without its problems.
While more aspects of womanhood have been shown, women in television can only exhibit one at a time, and the trait of the moment is often exaggerated to a point of ridiculousness in which no one takes them seriously. This portrayal displays how society’s view on women has changed with time, and it embraces—though oftentimes exploits—women’s sexuality within modern media.
The expectations of women serve as endless contradictions. Women need jobs to support their children but are condemned for not being full-time moms. If they try to stay at home and consequently must rely on government subsidy for income they are coined “welfare queens,” a term originally by Ronald Reagan that describes women as having children simply to reap federal benefits. Negatively-presenting nagging moms encourage women to be silent and never complain, while “trophy moms” teach women teach women to be subservient to their husbands and even their own children. They don’t want to be seen as mean or harsh, so they keep silent. For example, the women in the popular Lifetime series “Dance Moms” allow their daughters’ dance instructor to push themselves and their children around, staying silent to avoid antagonizing her. These ideas are poisonous to our youth. Girls that have strong beliefs are encouraged to remain silent, girls with incredible intelligence are discouraged from pursuing traditionally male professions in science and engineering, and girls with dreams of being a mother can have their hopes crushed by the mockery of female domesticity.
These images are viewed thousands of times a day by millions of people, and the way mothers are portrayed on television can corrupt the way young women and girls see motherhood, in turn influencing them to aspire to these one-dimensional representations.
Mass media outlets need to further address these issues and explain to young women that no matter their career path, passion or skill, every woman can be a mother if she wishes and being one thing does not mean she cannot be another. Girls need to see women in positions of power: as scientists, politicians, CEOs, and more. If we don’t see another person similar to ourselves doing something, we think that we can’t either. Women need to be shown as angry, sad, or horrified, and have their feelings validated, rather than ignored as a side effect of natural female body processes, such as the common male-associated excuses of menstruation or menopause. Girls need to know their voices are real, strong, and matter.
One [decent] example of proper female representation is the CBS series “The Big Bang Theory.” The cast is fairly divided, giving proper representation to both men and women. Some of the girls in the show are geniuses—neuroscientists and physicists—while another is not as intelligent and makes her living as a waitress and aspiring actress. Regardless of their cognitive standing, their words are valued, and they are insistent on being presented as equal to the men. They have power in their fields and are unafraid to assert themselves when they see injustices toward themselves or others.
Programs like this present the idea to women that they don’t have to subscribe to the standards set so long ago by a patriarchal society and can celebrate their diversity within themselves and their environments.