In the aftermath of Harvard’s exam season I have finally spent some quality time with family at home. Not my own family of course but all the families I’ve neglected throughout the year: the Griffins, the Simpsons, and the Dunphys, among many others. All this family time has given me pause to consider the evolution of family dynamics in comedy. The American family has come a long way. Importantly, the TV family is a means to examine gender dynamics through the interaction of husband and wife. The dynamic between husband and wife undergoes some tremendous stages along its public evolution. Breadwinner becomes bumbling husband and the happy house wife gives way to the family foil.
Americans love their family sitcoms. “Sitcom” stands for “situation comedy,” and what better situation to portray than the universal “family situation”? Since everyone can relate, everyone can watch. With the baby boom of the early 1950’s and the widespread popularity of home TV sets, the family sitcom was born.
How Dumb is She?
The sitcoms of the 1950’s frequently came from adaptations of preexisting radio programs. Most of these shows did not feature women. If they did, women often played the ‘dumb Dora,’ a vaudeville epithet. The source of the humor comes from her comedic mistakes while the husband plays a straight man or the ‘foil.’
Honey I’m Home!
Around the mid-fifties, however, the focus shifted from dumb wife to protagonist father. Simply from the titles of programs like, Father Knows Best, Make Room for Daddy and The Trouble with Father, the central action clearly revolves around the father figure. This iconic Leave it to Beaver generation involved a power hierarchy where mother was a step above children but a step below father.
Then the American TV family underwent Growing Pains. Starting with the revival of the ‘dumb Dora’ in I Love Lucy, the fulcrum of comedy slid back to the wife. The allusion to the vaudeville era of comedy was manifest in the neighbors, Fred and Ethel, former Vaudeville actors. This however was a new take on the dumb Dora. Lucy is naïve but ambitious and imaginative. Additionally, Ricky Ricardo, the husband, is no straight man. When exasperated with Lucy’s antics he reverts to rapid-fire Spanish. The Brady Bunch, often satirized for its wholesome appeal, features a “blended family,” actually quite a novel concept. Yet since the network would not allow Carol Brady to be a divorcée, no mention was made of her background.
But Wait, There’s More!
Yet ratings drooped as the baby boom aged and the trope wore out. Network executives sought fantastical twists to familiar storylines with shows like I Dream of Jeanie, Bewitched, and The Addams Family. Fledgling technological development in the field of animation gave way to even more fantastical slants with The Flintstones and The Jetsons. In the 1970s the popularity of the civil rights movement manifested itself in several black family sitcoms: The Jeffersons, The Cosby Show, and Good Times. Some producers satirized the well worn genre with dysfunctional TV families like those of Married with Children and Roseanne. Yet even these new takes on the family sitcom did little to change the dynamic and the industry was in need of a comedic innovation.
Father Knows Less
Then, starting in the 1990’s, a trend turned the tide on this genre; the father became a child. Starting with The Simpsons, the father, Homer, is the fat, dumb, immature goofball we all know and love. The wife is far more attractive and generally well-spoken. Her exasperation is a foil to his immaturity. The initial popularity of the genre proved so successful that only the names and locations really changed. Everybody Loves Raymond, Home Improvement, King of Queens, According to Jim, and Family Guy all feature the same comically bumbling patriarch with his continually exasperated wife. As the titles indicate, the main source of comedy comes from the father. Even Modern Family, which claims to promote a new type of family dynamic, exploits this tired TV trope. Phil Dunphy is just a trim Homer Simpson with hair. The success of the genre spilled over into advertising. Advertisements promoting everything from phones to fiber feature a mistaken husband and the wife who knows better.
Some might consider this the long sought after gender equality on screen. However, this ‘dumb man with levelheaded wife’ theme overcompensates, paying undue reparations for the Leave it to Beaver generation. Moreover, the trope is detrimental on two fronts. Firstly, it provides a poor model for aspiring fathers and husbands. It shows men acting like children not only without incurring repercussion but receiving absolution by the forgiving and levelheaded wife. Secondly, men still hog the spotlight. After all, who wants to be the foil?
“Women aren’t Funny,”
said one of the most eminent intellectuals of the twentieth century, John Belushi. Also, Christopher Hitchens.
The family sitcom is a mutually reinforcing system of gender dynamics. It both reflects and encourages gender norms. Family sitcoms won’t go away but gender dynamics within the family will evolve. The tautology of gender equality in sitcoms leaves us where we began: the dumb Dora. Only when women are secure enough in their social standing can they satirize themselves. Humor is the ultimate signal of equality. So when Melissa Mccarthy projectile vomits onto the head of her fellow colleague in Bridesmaids, I laugh proudly, reminded of the progress of a woman’s right to be funny.