Working Moms in Prime Time.
Lately, we've been thinking about role models – not the kind for our children or the super serious kind held up as ideals for us to emulate. No, we’re thinking of those images of working mothers who have formed the backdrop of our lives by living on our television screens, decade in, decade out. We are a generation brought up in front of the televison. Even today, exhausted after a long day at work and an overstuffed evening full of activities and bedtime battles with the kids, we all collapse in front of the television. Maybe that really isn’t such a bad thing after all.
While pundits have long pondered the “shifting roles of women in contemporary society,” a parade of working mother characters has marched before us during prime time. Long before we had Drs Miranda Bailey of Grey’s Anatomy, Abigail Bartlett of The West Wing, desperate housewife, ad exec Lynette Scavo, and Geena Davis as Commander in Chief Mackensie Allen, Shirley Partridge was singing with her family and managing the group, divorced Ann Romano was working to support her two teenage daughters on One Day At A Time, Kate and Allie were single working mothers sharing a house and bringing up their kids, and Carla Tortelli was making wise cracks and wiping the bar at Cheers. Indeed, one of the longest running jokes on Cheers had to do with Carla’s seven kids. But no matter how many she spawned and how many husbands she went through, without explanation or apology, she still kept working. And while Carla cleaned up and mouthed off, mother of two Roseanne quit her factory job to run her own diner.
Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that television, that most popular of mediums, should give us images that crossed all economic, class, and professional lines. What all these characters have in common is that their work, like their maternity, was presented as a matter of fact part of their lives. Sometimes neither their work nor their status as working parents was the point of the show. Did anyone actually watch architect Elise Keaton of Family Ties design a building or see attorney Claire Huxtable try a case on the Cosby Show? But often times the frustration and guilt as well as the compromise and humor of working parenthood was the very point of the program. We did see Mary Beth Cagney struggle with the demands of being a good cop and a good mother to three kids on Cagney and Lacey. Though it was only the early eighties, Mary Beth happened to have a husband willing to share domestic duties and, most of the time, only mildly resentful of her inconvenient work hours. Patricia Arquette’s character on Medium is often negotiating with her husband over child-care issues and making time for themselves as a couple. And let’s not leave out journalist Murphy Brown, the birth of whose child, without courtesy of husband or even named co-conspirator, caused Vice President Dan Quayle to sputter about cultural immorality while the rest of us cheered her on. And though it’s gone now, perhaps the most notable of all was Judging Amy, not just because we became as familiar with Amy Brenneman’s character’s courtroom as with her kitchen, not just because her young daughter was as significant a character as her legal assistant, but also because this was the first, and to our knowledge still the only show to feature Amy’s mother, herself a committed social worker, as a strong working mother character in her own right as well as an active participant in their family’s lives. Not nearly as sharp on the radar screen, since it’s buried on Friday nights, Close to Home features Annabeth Chase, prosecuting attorney and mother of an infant daughter who appears at least at the closing of each show.
As commentators continue constructing an easy (and false) contrast between the supposedly hard hearted, blue-suit wearing, briefcase toting working mothers and those one-dimensional cookie-baking, apron wearing images of Harriet Nelson and June Cleaver, real life has never been that simple. Neither, it turns out, has television. Indeed, as time has gone on, television has portrayed the struggles of working mothers in an increasingly thoughtful, complex and realistic fashion. Last season on Grey’s Anatomy, after returning from maternity leave, we saw Dr. Miranda Bailey passionately insist that she would not be mommy tracked. On Close to Home, we saw prosecutor Annabeth Chase awkwardly use a breast pump in a tiny stall at work and we watched Lynette Scavo regretfully videoconference from the office into her son’s first day of kindergarten.
As Felicity Huffman has said about television’s seeming emphasis on working moms, “[the shows are] reflecting what’s going on. . . they’re showing women in their entirety with real trials and tribulations.” Desperate Housewives pulls directly from the experiences of real life working moms. Housewives writer and working mom Julia Sweeney says that much of the material for Huffman’s harried working mom character springs from the writers’ lives. Sweeney is not the only working mom writing for the show. This fall’s much anticipated season should be no different. We expect Chandra Wilson (Grey’s Anatomy), Felicity Huffman (Desperate Housewives) and Rachel Griffiths (Brothers & Sisters), all real-life working moms, to masterfully play them on TV.
After all this time, it seems that whether the world at large has encouraged us or tried to hold us back, if we’ve frittered away our time carefully in front of the tube, we’ve gotten to see images of the women we could be.
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