by Allison Klein
Seal Press, 2006
This is a fun little book. Basically, Allison Klein writes about the roles of women in sitcoms in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. She focuses on a handful of shows to illustrate the metamorphosis of women's roles from the typical 50's sitcom mom (June Cleaver, etc.) to the independent women that came with and after Mary Tyler Moore. She addresses women's relationships with men, children, careers, and their own bodies. Though there has been linear progression of women's roles by no means, Klein argues, women have in each decade been able to push a bit farther on television, in one arena or another.
Parts of the book were a bit lost on me, as a result of having never or rarely seen the shows Klein analyzes. Though she talks about a lot of shows, she focuses heavily on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Maude,
Roseanne, Golden Girls, Murphy Brown, Friends, and Sex in the City. Of these, the only one I ever watched often was Roseanne (though I am, of course, aware of the premises of the other shows and have seen a few episodes of Golden Girls and Friends). Her points seem well argued, though, even for someone who isn't familiar with all of the characters about who she writes. She views certain things a bit optimistically, I think, but the claims she makes are generally well-founded.
Though she also talks about examples of non-beautiful TV women (Roseanne, Maude) and women aging on TV (Maude, everyone on The Golden Girls), Klein focuses the bulk of her book on TV women moving from a single type (married upper-middle class housewives with children) to multiple types (married or single, mothers or non, various careers, various classes, etc.). The title character, Murphy Brown, illustrates single career womanhood and single motherhood. Roseanne and Grace from Grace Under Fire illustrate two types (married and unmarried) of working-class motherhood (and both work, at least in part of the shows' runs, in traditionally masculine occupations). The women on Friends and Sex in the City show sexual liberation and updated attitudes towards dating. And so on. While many of these arguments leave me with a feeling of "well, duh," they are still interesting to read.
There are issues I think Klein could have addressed that she does not. In particular, I would have liked to see a chapter on younger women on TV. Not only is Roseanne interesting, but so are Becky and Darlene. How does having these newly feminist TV moms change TV daughters? She alludes briefly to My So-Called Life and The Gilmore Girls, but doesn't go into any detail. But perhaps that would be another book. I also found her treatment of body image (particularly weight) and aging on TV to be more cursory than I would have liked.
All in all, this book is worth reading. Klein draws on some good books for her background and theory, and she has obviously done her homework in terms of watching countless hours of sitcoms. It's nothing revolutionary, but if you are a TV-lover, it is fascinating.