Work, Family, and Social Class in Television Images of Women: Prime-Time Television and the Construction of Postfeminism

By Press, Andrea; Strathman, Terry | Women and Language, Fall 1993 | Go to article overview

Work, Family, and Social Class in Television Images of Women: Prime-Time Television and the Construction of Postfeminism


Press, Andrea, Strathman, Terry, Women and Language


Fictional television's presentation of women has changed considerably over the course of its history, particularly in the relationship of television women to family and work. The shape of the American family has also changed and as more women have entered the paid labor force, television's depiction of the workplace and the family, and of women's relationship to each, has altered significantly as well.

Alterations in television images have not always paralleled actual shifts in society. Particularly with regard to depictions of women, we can see how social ideologies mediate changes in the real world, the images which become available on television, and viewers' choices of television images to watch. Many assume that viewers' choices reflect their desire for more "realistic" portrayals of a real world, but this is not always the case as shown by discrepancies between real-world changes and television images at corresponding moments in history.

Like other forms both of art and mass culture, popular television images systematically position social groups, issues and institutions within an hierarchical social structure. In the case of women, popular television narratives minimize the problems of contemporary American women as they attempt to carve out new identities for themselves during rapidly changing social realities and expectations. The National Commission on Working Women reported that current television portrayals of women fail to represent the pressures of balancing work with family, finding child care, and stretching family budgets. The study notes that on television, all single mothers are middle-class (or wealthier) and almost half of all families are at least upper middle-class; there are no poor families. In reality, 69% of all homes headed by women are poor, and the annual median income for a family with two working parents in 1990 was just over $30,000. Also, more than half of all television children live with their fathers, who normally experience fewer financial difficulties in single parenthood. Realistically, 90% of all children in single-parent families live with their mothers, whose average annual income is under $9,000.

Popular television reflects a desire to simplify terrains of ideological confusion and contradiction within our society. Some argue (Taylor 1989) that television provides us with fantasy level solutions to pressing social problems, particularly those relating to the disintegration of families and instability of private lives. Other commentators stress the ways in which television misrepresents common social and personal problems, proliferating representations of lives systematically distorted to reflect cultural ideologies (Gitlin 1980; 1983).

In this paper, we discuss some of the changes in television images representing women, work, family, and their interrelationships, placing the discussion in the context of actual changes women's lives have undergone in the television age. Though necessarily abbreviated, this discussion illuminates television's articulation with issues raised in our culture by the feminist movement.

Prefeminist Family Television

Prefeminist fiction television had no shortage of women who were active, insightful and personally courageous; indeed it frequently suggested that women's lives were colored by sex role injustices. At this time, unlike later television narratives, women's social roles as women were dichotomous with the very divergent path they would have to traverse to escape stereotypical destinies as women. Rarely (if ever) were early television women shown to be mature, independent individuals. Extremes, particularly of women, were closely bound up with, and by, others in their family group, mainly their male partners. Family women on early television were pictured almost exclusively in the domestic, or private, realm; rarely did they legitimately venture into the male, public, world of work. Unlike the men in these shows, early television women were often depicted in inextricable solidarity with one another. …

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