Women and Television: What Roseanne and Sex and the City Say About Women
As a pop-culture medium, television has the ability to make instantaneous commentary on the role of women in society, and to acquire immediate feedback about how society views that portrayal of women. That is not to say that successful television will necessarily depict an accurate portrayal of women, but that successful television will depict a portrayal of women that is somehow appealing to its audience. This is particularly true when a television show is marketed to women, which was certainly the case with Sex in the City and, to a lesser degree, with Roseanne. That is not to suggest that television has only focused on a single type of woman, even at isolated points in time. Moreover, television shows have shied away from a direct confrontation of feminist issues; the author can only think of a single mainstream series, Maude, which addressed a then-controversial women’s rights issue, which was when Maude had an abortion. However, one does not have to directly address “feminist” issues in order to be making a commentary on feminism and the perception of women in society. Instead, simply by showing the lives of female characters, television shows make statements about gender.
One of the unfortunate things about television is that it has consistently given viewers an unrealistic expectation of life. Unless the show has intentionally depicted poverty, like Good Times, television shows have always tended to focus on upwardly-mobile, predominantly white, good-looking audiences. At first blush, this might seem little more than an oversight, but, from a feminist perspective, this idea can be damaging. One of the more enduring and salient criticisms of feminism, regardless of which wave of feminism is being discussed, it that feminists can be somewhat elitist. Therefore, when looking at a comparison of Sex and the City and Roseanne, the viewer might initially be more likely to identify the Sex and the City women as feminists because they are upwardly mobile, single (at least initially) career women living in New York City. However, the reality is that Roseanne, with its depiction of a far-less physically attractive woman with financial struggles actually comes much close to depicting the average woman.
According to Diane Negra, Sex and the City is vulnerable to some of the most enduring critiques about women in television. It engages in the patholigization of single women, where single women have a social problem because they are unmarried (Negra, 2004). Moreover, the series is actively engaged in postfeminism, which suggests that feminism is no longer desirable or viable, despite the portrayal of the characters as focused primarily on men and other stereotypically female issues, like shopping (Negra, 2004). Finally, the series is incredibly upwardly mobile, portraying women living in New York City, in what appears to be an intentional contrast with suburban domesticity (Negra, 2004). This is prototypical of postfeminism that is characterized as feminism co-opted by capitalism. It sets up a choice to be feminist or feminine, which is a false dichotomy, but one that is embraced by the series (Lecture Notes, Dec. 4, 2011)
The episode of Sex and the City screened in class, “A Woman’s Right to Shoes” shows Carrie at a baby shower, where the hostess makes everyone take off their shoes. Carrie’s expensive Manolos get lost, and, when she is offered compensation for the shoes, she is told that her expenditure on the shoes was irresponsible, so she is only given part of the value of the shoes. Miranda falls in love with her wealthy upstairs neighbor, a doctor. Harry moves in with Charlotte and she is troubled by his habits of leaving dripping teabags lying around and walking around stark naked. Finally, Samantha is challenged by a group of children. Focusing on the incident that gives the show its title, one must consider Carrie’s right to shoes. The author is not sure whether she agrees with the idea of a guest being compensated because a personal belonging inadvertently went missing at a party. However, if someone feels like compensation is appropriate in those scenarios, then it seems like compensation should be based on the value of the item missing, not the judgment as to what the appropriate value of such an item should have been. The fact that Kyra feels comfortable denigrating Carrie’s shopping habits is an example of acting as if a woman must make a choice between being logical, a characteristic long associated with feminists, and being emotionally driven enough to buy a $500 pair of shoes. There is no real dichotomy here; there is no reason that a self-supporting woman cannot choose to purchase a $500 pair of shoes with her own money, and such a purchase should not invite judgment from someone else. The fact that the series depicts that judgment highlights its own knowledge that its portrayal of these women is that they are self-indulgent, and that they are not like regular women.
In contrast, Roseanne was seen as a ground-breaking series at the time of its introduction because of its conscious effort not to represent an idealized version of life. The Connors were a lower-middle-class couple, overweight, not ugly but not unusually attractive, with three children living in a somewhat run-down house. They had a strong marriage, with clear struggles but a good foundation. In, “It was Twenty Years Ago Today,” Dan and Roseanne are celebrating their twentieth wedding anniversary, but are having problems determining what gifts to give one another. Like the above-mentioned Sex in the City episode, this episode features a gift, but the conspicuous consumption of capitalism is non-existent in the episode. The Connors do not have the disposable income to buy one another frivolous, expensive gifts, so Dan takes a temporary sales job to pay for Roseanne’s gift.
There are two competing theories about the role of political critique in television: that it is propaganda, or that it is a venue for expressing cultural criticism (Lecture Notes, Dec. 4, 2011). However, one does not need to choose on theory over the other. Different shows can serve different purposes. Roseanne was meant as a form of social commentary, because she challenged the portrayal of women, not only in television, but throughout pop culture expressions. She tackled the “problem of representing a fat woman who is sexually ‘normal;’ a sloppy housewife who is also a good mother; a loose woman who is tidy; who hates matrimony but loves her husband; who can mock the ideology of true womanhood yet consider herself a Domestic Goddess” (Rowe, 1995). To see the truth in this statement, one need only look at the heart of the episode in question. Dan was worried about purchasing an expensive gift because Roseanne was buying an expensive gift. The gift in question was a portrait of Roseanne. There was no self-mocking or humiliation in the fat woman buying a portrait of herself for her husband for their anniversary. The show made no apologies that Dan found Roseanne sexy, or that Roseanne knew herself to be sexy. This is a stark contrast to the way that women are usually portrayed in television, which is either with an overt focus on appearance or with such a meticulously maintained appearance that the audience understands appearance to be a cornerstone of that character’s femininity.
What is fascinating is Barr’s commentary about how Roseanne almost was not Roseanne. Behind-the-scenes there was a tremendous effort to significantly change the tone of the show. When Barr speaks about the Sears and Roebuck outfits purchased for her character that made her feel like a show pony rather than a real working class mom, that statement may seem ludicrous to the upwardly mobile women who would never consider shopping at Sears, but will resonate with those moms who would never be able to afford new clothes for their daily activities (Barr, 2011). Even more interesting is how Roseanne was treated as if she were somehow an anti-feminist because she wished to push her own agenda on the show, creating conflict with one of the producers. Interestingly enough, Barr observed, “I made the mistake of thinking Marcy was a powerful woman in her own right. I’ve come to learn that there are none in TV. There aren’t powerful men, for that matter, either- unless they work for an ad company or a market-study group. Those are the people who decide what gets on the air and what doesn’t” (Barr, 2011). What her comment makes clear is that, even while perceived as social commentary by others, Roseanne perceives her show as commercial, leading one to wonder if it is possible to have a truly feminist television series in a society that struggles for post-feminism and worships capitalism.
Barr, R. (2011, May 15). “And I should know.” New York Magazine. Retrieved September 20,
2011 from NYmag.com website: http://nymag.com/arts/tv/upfronts/2011/roseanne-barr-2011-5/
Negra, D. (2004). “Quality postfeminism? Sex and the single girl on HBO.” Genders OnLine
Journal, 39. Retrieved December 4, 2011 from http://www.genders.org/g39/g39_negra.html
Rowe, K. (1995). “Roseanne: the unruly woman as domestic goddess.” In The unruly woman:
Gender and the genres of laughter (pp.50-91 ). Austin: The University of Texas Press.