From June Cleaver to Cougar Town: The Progression of Feminism in TV

JuneCleaverFrom Mary Kassian’s Leadership Session at True Woman 2010

I’m a pop-culture enthusiast to the nth degree! I love reality TV, classic movies, any music on iTunes’ top singles charts; you name it, I keep up with it. But I had never really paid attention to TV throughout the years and the development of female characters in sitcoms. During Mary Kassian’s challenge to women’s ministry leaders at the True Woman conference, one of her examples of the impact of feminism in TV spoke to my heart. Believe it or not, but in the 1950’s June Cleaver, of the show “Leave it to Believer,” was the ideal woman. She was the quintessential happy, chocolate-chip-cookie-making housewife. All she wanted in the world was a husband, a white-picket fence, beautiful children, and the best appliances. June defined her own happiness.

Fast-forward 30 years and a few doses of feminism and what’s on TV? Mary Tyler-Moore. This was the first show to feature a single, 30-something woman, living in the city with a career. As Geoff Hammill (The Museum of Broadcast Communications) describes, “She was not widowed or divorced or seeking a man to support her. Rather, the character had just emerged from a live-in situation with a man whom she had helped through medical school. He left her upon receiving his degree and she relocated to Minneapolis determined to ‘make it on her own.’ This now-common concept was rarely depicted on television in the early 1970s, despite some visible successes of the women’s movement.” Mary defined herself and only she could make herself happy.

Feminism was becoming main-stream and it was becoming popular to the household woman. In the 80’s Murphy Brown (played by Candice Bergen) was the new example of the “ideal” woman. She was a power-suit wearing, briefcase carrying, former alcoholic, TV journalist. She was a tough, no-nonsense woman and she could “make it on her own.” She didn’t need a man, even when she became pregnant. She kept the baby (thankfully) but not the man. Husbands were thrown out the window and so were fathers, women could now do it all themselves. Murphy didn’t let men get in the way and she was the one in charge of her own happiness.

The 90’s brought on an even more progressive sitcom character: Ellen Degeneres. This new character didn’t need a man for ANYTHING. She was self-employed and…a lesbian. Ellen defined who she was and what made her happy. This was a whole new ball-game, at least you would think. But yet again, the world accepted another infiltration of feminism into homes. Women, everywhere, now believed that they were the ones to define their lives and what happiness was. Their feelings and experiences were the only authority they could trust.

So where are we today? Is it any better? Unfortunately, it is not. With shows like Cougar Town, featuring Courtney Cox, the new “ideal” woman is single, experiments sexually, has a baby-daddy and a “friend-with-benefits” neighbor on speed-dial, a career, and she defines her own happiness. And yet, she’s still unhappy. All these characters were still unhappy and searching for that “something” that would complete them, whether it was a better career, a baby, a man, or in Ellen’s case, a woman. Normal, everyday women are no different than they are. All women want to find true happiness but they will only find it with Christ (John 15:10-12). Any woman who defines herself will be left empty. But every woman who lets God define her will be filled. If God defines you, then teach others to let Him be their all-in-all and let’s all help start a quiet, counter-revolution! Who defines YOU?

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3 thoughts on “From June Cleaver to Cougar Town: The Progression of Feminism in TV

  1. Belated as this response is, I think it’s important to point out that June Cleaver (a character portrayed as smart and capable by the way) was not the only woman that existed on TV in the 1950s. Throughout that decade, from Eve Arden to Lucy to Ann Sothern to many (unfortunately) lesser known names, all sorts of female characters populated the TV universe. Many were single (long before Mary Richards) and many were successful career women (long before Murphy Brown). Then the 1960s brought us “Honey West,” “The Avengers,” and Barbara Stanwyck in “The Big Valley” to name just a few. TV and its history is far wider than just one or two series.

  2. Even more belated is this response, but I’d like to point out something new, I believe, with the advent of cougar mania. It seems to me women have made a transition from being the objects of desire to being subjects of desire. And that is HUGE. True!, Cougartown features an unhappy and desperate Courtney Cox, but at least she is ALIVE and longing. Here is a blog I wrote about “cougars” but it’s really about Women’s lib.

    http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/ideals-in-question/201306/thought-about-cougars

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