Feminism Ain’t Funny: Woman as “Fun-Killer,” Mother as Monster in the American Sitcom


Whether America has realized President Herbert Hoover’s 20th-century vision of a “chicken in every pot”, there is a television in nearly every home. Powerful and accessible, television programs, whether explicitly, convey values and messages to viewers and, thus, can play a role in reifying the status quo or affecting social change. Given comedy programming’s roots in radio and Vaudeville, it is no surprise that a recurrent theme in situational comedies is the “war between the sexes”. Despite a surfeit of studies examining specific programs, however, there exists no comprehensive project exploring how gender depictions have changed since television’s proliferation in post-WWII America. This time span is especially important because it is bisected by second wave feminism. Regarding gender, TV shows need not fortify traditional ideals. But how far has television come? Findings from a pilot study employing a Grounded Theory analysis of selected US sitcoms from 1952 to 2004 suggest that, regardless of the progressive nature of some programming, the most-watched sitcoms reaffirm mainstream stereotypes of women. What has changed, however, is the hierarchical relationship between the sexes. While sitcoms have modified roles of women in an effort to keep up with changing social norms, they have failed to meaningfully alter traditional masculine narratives. What has been won is a superficial role reversal: Where once television women were childlike subordinates to their male counterparts, now men are depicted as irresponsible children women must mother and discipline.

Share and Cite:

Simmons, J. & Rich, L. (2013). Feminism Ain’t Funny: Woman as “Fun-Killer,” Mother as Monster in the American Sitcom. Advances in Journalism and Communication, 1, 1-12. doi: 10.4236/ajc.2013.11001.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflicts of interest.


[1] Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
[2] Buzzard, K. (2002). The Peoplemeter wars: A case study of technological innovation and diffusion in the ratings industry. Journal of Media Economics, 15, 273-291. doi:10.1207/S15327736ME1504_4
[3] Clover, C. J. (1992). Men, women, and chain saws: Gender in the modern horror film. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
[4] Doane, M. A. (1991). Femme fatales: Feminism, film theory, psychoanalysis. New York: Routledge.
[5] Douglas, S. J. (1995). Where the girls are: Growing up female with the mass media. New York: Three Rivers Press.
[6] Frazier, J. M., & Frazer, T. C. (1993). “Father Knows Best” and “The Cosby Show”: Nostalgia and the sitcom tradition. Journal of Popular Culture, 27, 163-172. doi:10.1111/j.0022-3840.1993.00163.x`
[7] Friedan, B. (1997). The feminine mystique. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
[8] Gillespie, F. (2006). Major networks black out African American comedies. Crisis, 113, 57-58.
[9] Glaser, B. G. (1978). Theoretical sensitivity: Advances in the methodology of grounded theory. Mill Valley, CA: Sociology Press.
[10] Glaser, B. G., & Strauss, A. L. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory: Strategies for qualitative research. Chicago, IL: Aldine Transaction.
[11] Griffin, E. (2003). A first look at communication theory (5th ed.). Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.
[12] Horsburgh, S., & Wihlborg, U. (2002). Moxie lady. People, 58, 105.
[13] Landay, L. (1999). Millions “Love Lucy”: Commodification and the Lucy phenomenon. NWSA Journal, 11, 25-47. doi:10.1353/nwsa.1999.0013
[14] Marx, K. (1964). Economic and philosophical manuscripts of 1844. In D. J. Struik (Ed.), & M. Milligan (Trans.), New York: International Publishers.
[15] McEachern, C. (1999). Comic interventions: Passion and the men’s movement in the situation comedy, Home Improvement. Journal of Gender Studies, 8, 5-18. doi:10.1080/095892399102788
[16] McNeil, A. (1996). Total television: The comprehensive guide to programming from 1948 to the present (4th ed.). New York: Penguin Books.
[17] Moore, M. L. (2008). The demise of the black sitcom. Starpulse Entertainment News Blog. URL http://www.starpulse.com/news/index.php/2008/08/13/the_demise_of_the_black_sitcom
[18] Mulvey, L. (1992). Visual pleasure and narrative cinema. In G. Mast, M. Cohen, & L. Braudy (Eds.), Film theory and criticism: Introductory readings (pp. 746-757). New York: Oxford University Press.
[19] Napoli, P. M. (2005). Audience measurement and media policy: Audience economics, the diversity principle, and the local People Meter. Communication Law & Policy, 10, 349-382. doi:10.1207/s15326926clp1004_1
[20] Nielsen Media Research (n.d.). Measuring through representative samples. URL http://www.nielsenmedia.com/ethnicmeasure/sampling.html
[21] Nielsen Media Research (2007). Prime time top 20 programs [Data file]. The Nielsen Company Web Site, URL http://www.nielsenmedia.com
[22] Paglia, C. (1990). Sexual personae: Art and decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
[23] Parents Television Council (2007). The alarming Family Hour… no place for children: A content analysis of sex, foul language and violence during network television’s Family Hour (executive summary). URL http://www.parentstv.org/ptc/publications/reports/familyhour/familyhour-92007-finalPDF.pdf
[24] Pollock, G. (1992a). Degas/images/women; women/Degas/images: What difference does feminism make to art history? In R. Kendall, & G. Pollock (Eds.), Dealing with Degas: Representations of women and the politics of vision (pp. 22-39). New York: Universe.
[25] Pollock, G. (1992b). The gaze and the look: Women with binoculars— A question of difference. In R. Kendall, & G. Pollock (Eds.), Dealing with Degas: Representations of women and the politics of vision (pp. 106-130). New York: Universe.
[26] Poniewozik, J. (2002). Color crosses over. Time, 159, 64.
[27] Porter, M. J., Larson, D. L., Harthcock, A., & Nellis, K. B. (2002). Redefining narrative events: Examining television narrative structure. Journal of Popular Film and Television, 30, 23-30. doi:10.1080/01956050209605556
[28] Prior, M. (2009). The immensely inflated news audience: Assessing bias in self-reported news exposure. Public Opinion Quarterly, 73, 130-143. doi:10.1093/poq/nfp002
[29] Ruzek, S. B., Clarke, A. E., & Olesen, V. L. (1997). Social, biomedical, and feminist models of women’s health. In S. B. Ruzek, V. L. Olesen, & A. E. Clarke (Eds.), Women’s health: Complexities and differences (pp. 11-28). Columbus: Ohio State University Press.
[30] Sandelowski, M. J. (1990). Failures of volition: Female agency and infertility in historical perspective. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 15, 475-499. doi:10.1086/494606
[31] Smelik, A. (1999). Feminist film theory. In P. Cook, & M. Bernink (Eds.), The cinema book (pp. 353-365). London: British Film Institute.
[32] Stoddard Jr., L. (1987). The history of People Meters: How we got to where we are (and why). Journal of Advertising Research, 27, RC- 10-RC-12.
[33] Strauss, A. L., & Corbin, J. M. (1998). Basics of qualitative research: Techniques and procedures for developing grounded theory (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
[34] Stanley, A. (2008). Who says women aren’t funny? Vanity Fair, 251, 182-191.
[35] Studlar, G. (1988). In the realm of pleasure: Von Sternberg, Dietrich, and the masochistic aesthetic. Urbana and Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press.
[36] US Supreme Court (1908). Muller v. Oregon (208 US 412). Washington, DC.
[37] Wood, J. (1962). Leaders in marketing: Arthur C. Nielsen. Journal of Marketing, 26, 77-78. doi:10.2307/1248309

Copyright © 2023 by authors and Scientific Research Publishing Inc.

Creative Commons License

This work and the related PDF file are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.