Families living in the United States under the Reagan administration faced falling wages and an increased cost of living, an economy turning from union-supported manufacturing jobs to precarious service-sector employment, and a political and cultural scene increasingly obsessed with bootstraps striving and individual responsibility. In the wake of second wave feminism and in response to rising financial struggles, more and more women moved into paid work outside of the home, with 64% of mothers working by late 1980s. In the meantime, Reagan blamed working women for many of society’s ills while waxing nostalgic about family values. On network television, images of highly successful career women with supportive husbands and families abounded. Alice Leppert’s richly researched, highly readable exploration of 1980s TV sitcoms demonstrates how TV navigated this complex discursive and material arena, relying on these “liberal feminist fantasies of gender equality” to appeal to the highly desirable demographic of 18-49 year old women.1
Leppert’s introduction offers an incisive critique of the large body of literature that diagnoses sitcoms as hegemonic texts that narratively and generically resolve anxieties and contradictions of the day. Leppert deems this scholarship “predictable,” leading “toward foregone conclusions” about the sitcoms’ participation in generating consent. In its place, she offers a Foucauldian framework that considers “sitcoms as a cultural technology” that furnish models for family life. In other words, for Leppert, sitcoms play a pedagogical role, presenting “guidelines for family governance” in a time when the daily lives of families were the subject of much cultural anxiety and change.2 This approach is refreshing and can serve as a useful model for future scholarship. What might we discover as we think about what television teaches its audiences about living through the demands and contradictions of the day?
Of course, the television industry is not, for the most part, setting out to teach but instead to attract the right demographics. The industry was floundering in the early 1980s, weathering strikes, public outcry over television’s supposed morality problems, and long-running programming that was losing its luster, and it was facing the rise of narrowcasting and splintering demographics. Leppert’s first chapter illustrates how 1980s family sitcoms served as a strategy to attract the highly desirable working women demographic and their kids - a business decision meant to garner both prime time ratings and lucrative earnings on the syndication market. Market research at the time suggested that women, regardless of their working status, responded negatively to traditional images of housewives but did enjoy seeing men performing domestic tasks. I was left wondering how the (and if) the trades talked about race during this era, especially considering the success of the “relevance” programming of the 1970s. Ultimately, the industry determined that aspirational images of working mothers well-supported by loving husbands and families were likely to earn high ratings.
The following three chapters unpack how network sitcoms offered up various models of families negotiating the twinned demands of career and domestic life. Chapter two offers a rich analysis of the “two stock protagonists” of these programs, “the career woman and the ‘domesticated’ dad.” As Leppert contends, “These programs present pedagogies of masculinity that help renegotiate domestic life in order to maintain the family unit despite its slightly altered form,” encouraging viewers to identify with these new TV dads rather than mock them.3 Leppert complicates critics’ assertions that domesticated dads simply recuperated the nuclear family form and reinscribed patriarchal dominance, noting how images counter long standing assumptions about mothers as the primary caretaker and offer new models of supportive fathers.
These sitcoms played against a backdrop of panic about the availability, affordability, and safety of daycare in the U.S. As chapter three details, the public in the 1980s was desperate for daycare solutions, and “both nonfictional and fictional media operated as a governing strategy that instructed families of the 1980s to seek private solutions to their childcare needs.”4 Among the many solutions floated, assistance from the state was never presented as a meaningful possibility; indeed, Reagan was blasting so-called “welfare queens,” while TV families explored non-nuclear childcare arrangements in their private homes. As Leppert demonstrates, while these shows present families with a range of options for managing childcare (live-in housekeepers, friends living together, extended families), it is clear that they must meet their own needs rather than seeking help from the state.
Sitcoms also suggested male domestic workers as a potential solution to childcare needs, and Leppert shows in chapter four that hired masculine caretakers offered new versions of masculine subjectivity and legitimized domestic labors so often dismissed as merely “women’s work.” Indeed, television’s male caretakers represent their labor as both financially and emotionally fulfilling, choosing to stay with the families even when other opportunities present themselves. By demonstrating men rewarded by domestic work, Leppert suggests, these shows “raise the literal and figurative value of household labor.”5
While most of these programs centered on middle and upper-middle class domestic scenes, Gimme a Break! and Roseanne both emphasized working class sensibilities and grappled more directly with the socioeconomic conditions of the day. These two programs, Leppert argues in chapter five, centered powerful female protagonists with feminist sensibilities. Gimme a Break!’ represents its protagonist as a chauvinist and bigot who, Leppert astutely notes, presents as the “seamy underbelly” of Reagan’s “nostalgic, white-washed” vision of 1950s America.6 Nell, the family’s African American housekeeper, on the other hand, is the smart moral center of the family, who offers emotional support to the Chief’s two daughters and joins with them in an alliance of women. Roseanne, of course, centered much of its narrative on the realities of a working class family trying to manage low-paying jobs while balancing domestic responsibilities. Roseanne Barr’s explicitly working-class feminist approach to the show cut through the fantasies presented by the many middle-class sitcoms of the day. The fantasy the show does offer, though, is one where the exhausted and frustrated mother can express her anger without fearing being marked as a bad mother. Indeed, while Roseanne and Dan frequently exchange sarcastic jabs and Roseanne calls out Dan’s domestic failures, the show also shows Dan validating Roseanne’s feelings and stepping up to help.
TV Family Values is a model of astute and extensive close analysis; the book delves deeply into many sitcoms of the day and weaves this analysis expertly with careful consideration of the trade press and marketing considerations. Leppert concludes her analysis by considering how these sitcoms appealed to what we now call “tweens,” both in response to their aging child stars and as a strategy to sell themselves as family-friendly fare appropriate for marketing as after-school programming in syndication. The rich consideration of text, historical context, and industry makes this book a fantastic example of media analysis that instructors might find useful for undergraduate methods classes. And its fresh approach, centering the pedagogical potential of media texts, opens up important new questions about our televisual worlds. Throughout, the book considers the various ways these shows represent paid work and relationships between workers and their bosses: what else might we discover with a focused analysis of pedagogies of labor relations? What might we find about the childhood audiences of these shows? TV Family Values ultimately fills a critical gap in television studies, demonstrating the cultural power of television and helping to make sense of critical shifts in gender and domesticity in the vexed decade of the 1980s.
Emily Chivers Yochim is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication, Film, and Theatre at Allegheny College in Meadville, PA, where she teaches courses in media and cultural studies. She is the author of Skate Life: Re-Imagining White Masculinity (University of Michigan Press) and, with Julie Wilson, Mothering Through Precarity: Women’s Work and Digital Media (Duke University Press). She has also published in various anthologies and journals, including Cultural Studies and Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies.