The Magic Behind Housework on Television
A Texas Tech assistant professor is researching how television reflects gender roles by analyzing how women and housework are portrayed in sitcoms.
by Sally Logue Post
The answer is: “Bewitched,” “The Cosby Show” and “Roseanne.” The question: What are classic television situations comedies? That’s correct if you’re on “Jeopardy,” but the answer goes a lot deeper when you listen to Texas Tech’s Kristi Humphreys.
Humphreys, an assistant professor of critical studies and artistic practice in the School of Art, is looking at how television reflects gender roles in our society, especially through how housework is depicted.
Bewitched from the Beginning
Humphreys grew up on a ranch near a small Texas town. Without access to cable, her television viewing was limited to the three major networks. She recalls watching “Bewitched,” “I Dream of Jeannie” and “The Addams Family,” among other shows.
“As I got into my scholarship, I continued to watch those shows, as they were sort of a comfort for me during graduate school,” she said.
After she finished her dissertation on William Faulkner’s lifelong interests in theater, she resumed watching her favorite classic television shows–a lot.
“I told my husband I was watching way too much television, and he mentioned that maybe I should find a way to make that into my next research project. So I did,” she said.
Reality vs. Research
Humphreys recalls that the amount of housework that Samantha Stephens in “Bewitched” did was out of line with what she was reading in scholarly works.
“The research I was reading said that 1960s television represented this emerging sexual power and energy for females, and that just wasn’t what I was seeing,” she said. “Also, the shows did not match what I was doing as a working mom and didn’t match what my mom, also a working mom, was doing.
“It’s not that my mom kept a messy house, but she was busy. I was busy. And I didn’t see reality match the amount of housework the women in those ’60s shows were doing,” she added.
That disconnect made Humphreys begin to wonder if these shows were direct responses to Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique.” The 1963 book, which has been hailed as sparking a new wave of feminism, described the unhappiness of many American women despite having what were perceived as comfortable lives, prompting Friedan to christen the phenomenon as “the problem that has no name.”
“The shows were, for the most part, written by men,” said Humphreys. “In an effort to be ‘normal housewives,’ the female characters always tried to avoid using their magical powers by doing the housework themselves. I think, as Friedan says, that these women were doing the work themselves simply to fill the time. These bored housewife characters would expand the housework to fill time in order to combat the boredom; thus housework was the mechanism through which these shows furthered the feminine mystique.”
Humphreys recalls wondering why Samantha, a witch, didn’t just use her magic to do the housework when Darrin wasn’t home. It was a question that puzzled Samantha’s mother, Endora, as well.
“I think that Endora represented the internal voice that Friedan claimed many women of the era suppressed: the voice telling them to put the housework aside and do what they wanted to do. I think that’s what interested me about Samantha. If she had the ability to get the work done magically in an instant, why did she insist on doing it all herself, even when no one was around?”
Domesticity Through the Decades
Humphreys’ work does not focus only on the ’60s, she looks at every decade and notes that it wasn’t until “The Cosby Show” in the ’80s that television began to depict men as actively doing housework.
“You saw Bill Cosby take on those duties,” she said. “He did a lot of the cooking and some cleaning and was very engaged with raising the children.”
The ’80s also brought a change in how women were portrayed, explained Humphreys.
“Everyone was fascinated with ‘Dynasty’ and ‘Dallas,’” she said. “Those prime-time soap operas represented a very different dynamic in the family and were among the first to deal with women who had real power. I think that J.R. Ewing is one of the greatest characters of all time on TV. It’s interesting to see how he and his wife, Sue Ellen, evolved over the series, and evolved further in 2012 with the revival of the series.”
But she believes it was in the ‘90s and 2000s when viewers began to see a certain domestic reality in television shows, especially with series such as “Roseanne.”
“This wasn’t the first time we had a working-class family who was struggling,” said Humphreys. “But contrary to earlier sitcoms, ‘Roseanne’ presented a household with two working parents, a woman who preferred to run all areas of the household, and a family with problems that often went unresolved. The father didn’t have an executive-type job. He was a working-class guy who moved from job to job. Roseanne ran the house, not the man. Previously in the ’80s we had primarily shows such as ‘Growing Pains’ and ‘Family Ties’ that depicted upper-middle class families who shared household duties, but still mirrored some of the models established in the ’50s, where women did the housework but ultimately left the important familial decisions to the men. I think all of these shows are fascinating in how we see the family interact and respond to each other.”
It’s Dad’s Turn
Recently Humphreys is seeing a change in the way men are portrayed in advertisements. For the past few decades we’ve seen men portrayed as what Humphreys calls “doofus dads”–men who are inept at child care and housework.
“I guess marketers thought women wanted to see their husbands hold up the baby while the diaper falls off,” she said. “Recently though, we’re seeing lots of commercials showing real emotional connections between men and their children.”
Humphreys believes the change is a result of men being more vocal about the active role they play in child-rearing and of the rise in the number of stay-at-home dads.
“I think men are tired of seeing dads portrayed as inept. There is a rise in the number of dad blogs out there, and men are really offended at these ‘doofus dad’ commercials,” she said. “They are voicing their concerns and marketers are starting to listen. That is redefining how we see fatherhood in our visual culture.”
Pregnancy on TV
Humphreys’ newest research looks at how pregnancy is treated in television shows.
Pregnancy is a subject that is top of mind right now, as Humphreys had her second child, Lawson, just after the fall semester began.
Humphreys said that being pregnant when class started was a very different experience. “The students were terrific, but I’m sure they walked in on that first day and thought ‘wow, are we going to get a lot of time off?’”
Humphreys was back in class in a little over a week, a necessity since she had just started her position at Texas Tech. It’s an experience that gave her a deeper understanding of how pregnancy is reflected on television.
“Surprisingly there has been very little representation of pregnancy in TV and pop culture,” she said. “I’m interested in recent theory that talks about women living in excess, whether by wearing too much make up, or being too overweight or being ‘too’ pregnant; society tends to treat them differently and wants them not to make a spectacle of themselves.”
She notes that there have always been pregnant women on TV, but believes the representation has not been realistic. “The time women are pregnant on television is nowhere near the actual gestational period, of course, which begs consideration regarding television’s relationship with pregnancy,” she said.
She’s looking at how women are portrayed when they are pregnant versus when they are not.
“Even back in the days of ‘Bewitched,’ when Samantha was pregnant, Darrin wanted her just to sit on the couch,” she said. “So even though Darrin disapproved of the magic, pregnancy caused her to use her magic to get the housework done, because he certainly wasn’t going to do it. I find it interesting this is one area where we haven’t seen a realistic portrayal. I would love to see a domestic series with a pregnant working woman.”
In the Classroom
The School of Art at Texas Tech places a premium on combining theory and practice. Typically, Humphreys has her students read scholarly research and theory of the era, watch specific television shows, and then discuss what they’re seeing and reading.
“It is amazing to me that my students can take a bit of theory and run with it,” she said. “We have great discussions about how roles are constantly evolving and changing and how we can see it on television and in advertisements. I learn as much from them as they do from me.”
Humphreys’ fall 2013 graduate class focused on how televised roles within the domestic sphere changed each decade, what the men and women are doing, and how they are responding to their children. In the spring she’ll teach visual culture-oriented classes again, but with a slightly different twist.
“We’re looking not just at housework, but domesticity in general,” she said. “We are very much looking at what the men and children are doing, and we don’t just focus on situation comedies, we expand to all types of television shows and advertisements, visual culture in general.”
School of Art
The School of Art is part of the College of Visual & Performing Arts at Texas Tech. The mission of the School of Art is to provide a stimulating and challenging environment in which students develop creative and scholarly potential, to support faculty members in the pursuit of excellence in teaching and research, to serve public and professional constituencies, and to promote intercultural understanding through art.
The school, which is accredited by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design, offers undergraduate degrees in art history, communication design, studio art and visual studies, as well as graduate programs in art history, art education and fine arts.
Sally Logue Post is Director of Research & Academic Communications for the Office of the Vice President for Research at Texas Tech University. Main image courtesy of Neal Hinkle.