Monday, 28 January 2013

Gender and Television

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Gender and Television

Gender and Television

Something Old

live paper help

Something New

By Vernon L. Bigelow

Idaho State University

In the article “All in the Formula” by Emily Nelson we learn that sitcoms are, “The financial backbone of network TV. NBC’s ‘Friends’ brings in several hundred million dollars a year in advertising and it pulls viewers into other NBC shows, driving up overall advertising rates. The studio producing the show also gets mote than $1 billion for selling repeats” (Nelson, 00). So the success or failure of a new sitcom is big money for lots of people.

The problem is that all sitcoms must follow tried and true conventions while somehow making it all appear new. In the article Ms. Nelson says, “Writers must balance TV’s hunger for something new against a rigid set of conventions laid down in the 150s and honed to a science in the decades since” (Nelson, 00). An example of this the arrangement of the sitcoms set. The convention of a living room with a sofa in the center and a staircase behind it has been established as a successful convention since the early days of TV. Ms. Nelson mentions “Father Knows Best” as the earliest use of this convention but I believe it predates even that. I can remember in the earliest episodes of “I Love Lucy” that they used the sofa in the center of the living room from the very beginning. They also use a stairway to get back and forth from their landlord’s, Fred and Ethel Mertz apartment. In the new sitcom “Happy Family” the writers added an alcove off the living room with a dining table. This is not really as new as it had been used in “The Bill Cosby Show”, “All in the Family”, and is used in “That 70s Show”. One thing I have noticed that is different today than in the 150’s is bedrooms. I don’t remember ever seeing a bedroom in “I Love Lucy”, or the “The Honeymooners”. It’s as if all the houses and apartments were built without bedrooms. You never saw the adult in a bedroom or in bed together. You might see the children in their bedroom and in bed but never the adults. In the late 50’s and in the 60’s you began to see adult bedrooms but not in the early 50’s. Today the scenes in the adult’s bedrooms are an integral part of any sitcom. So even though most conventions of past successful sitcoms are carried on in today’s sitcoms the unrealistic self-censorship of not showing parents and adults in bedrooms has been eradicated. In fact if anything it has gone too much to the other extreme. Today sitcoms do not show parents and adults actually having sex but they do everything but that. Sex and all the situations that can arise from sexual relationships are now one of the big areas dealt with in modern sitcoms. Some modern sitcoms even have come be almost all about sex and sexual relationships.

Two other areas that convention and innovation have to walk a tightrope are the plot line and the roles played. The conventional plot line is loving parents or adults battling with their children or youths. In the earlier sitcoms you usually saw only one child (“I Love Lucy”, “The Dick Van Dyke Show”), two children (“Leave it to Beaver”, “The Ozzie and Harriet Show”), or in the rare case three children (“My Three Sons”). Today we see families with more children (“The Cosby Show”) or multiple children from several families within the main family’s domain (“That 70’s Show”). The convention is to have a main cast large enough to supply plenty of situations and jokes but not so large as to be unwieldy (somewhere between 4 and 7). Some sitcoms have used this convention with the innovation of either a larger rotating cast of regulars or guests such as you would see in a variety show or a drama so as to create more situations and jokes. Some conventional plot line formulas but by far not all of the formulas used in sitcoms are weddings gone wrong, misunderstandings, incongruity, immaturity, stupidity, and the happy ending.

Gender is also an area in which convention and innovation have struggled. Lucille Ball set the standard for leading female actresses in sitcoms. In the “I Love Lucy” show she’s the main focus of the whole situation comedy but her role was cast as a costar of Desi Arnaz. The star was Desi Arnaz. He was the “I” in “I Love Lucy” and the plot line was the situations that arose in his relationship with his wife Lucy. At the time the sitcom was made Lucille Ball had established herself as a leading lady and top comedian in the movies and the “I Love Lucy” series was based upon her already very successful radio program, ”My Favorite Husband”. However when the series was made into a TV sitcom, it was named the “I Love Lucy” not “My Favorite Husband.” The speaker of the radio program was Lucy Ricardo, whereas the speaker of the TV sitcom was Ricky Ricardo. The shows were the same; yet the radio program starred Lucille Ball and the TV sitcom starred Desi Arnaz. Lucille Ball’s/Lucy Ricardo’s subservience to Desi Arnaz/Ricky Ricardo is further demonstrated when Lucille Ball bought out the very successful RKO studios. Using her accumulated wealth and her substantial business acumen she made the new company the leading studio of the times, and yet named it Desilu Studios rather than Ludesi Studios. When the “I Love Lucy” show became a big success Lucille Ball gradually became the star until finally she became the lead and in some episodes she even starred entirely on her own with out Desi.

Consider just two of what are now considered some her best and most famous scenes, the chocolate factory, and the vegevitamin commercial. In both she established women as important members of the American work force (recall she was working with another woman who was a very capable worker) and she carried them totally on own. This established that woman could be the leading star of a successful TV program. This led to the eventual break up and divorce of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz and the end of the “I Love Lucy” series. After a short hiatus from TV she struck out on her own though with the very successful TV sitcom “The Lucy Show” which lasted for six years and then followed that with the “Here’s Lucy” for another additional six years. She established herself as a star on the level of Bob Hope and the Leading Lady of TV. When you see a Phyllisa Rashad in “The Bill Cosby Show”, a Jean Stapleton in “All in the Family”. Or a Roseanna Barr in “The Roseanna Barr Show” you are seeing women follow in the footsteps of Lucille Ball. She set the pattern, the standard, and a whole new genre for women in entertain and TV. When you see a woman play the part of second fiddle in a sitcom you are seeing the Lucy of the sitcom, “I Love Lucy”. When you see a woman playing the leading star of a sitcom you are seeing the Lucy of “The Lucy Show, and “Here’s Lucy”. Before her women were just costars to the leading men. But after her success with “The Lucy Show”, and “Here’s Lucy” she established a new convention a woman as the lead and star of the show. Without her precedent setting shows it is very doubtful we would ever have had the “Carol Burnett Show” or “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”. Today they a lot less subservient to the male lead than in the past and usually get at least equal billing with the their male costars. We now see women in all types of roles, and all kinds of situations as stars and leads on TV. On TV a woman can even be President of the United States. In the early 50’s women played a secondary role to men on TV. Today they can and do play anything their imagination leads them too.


1. Nelson, Emily. (00). “All in the Formula, For New Comedies Old Rules Are Serious Business”; Wall Street Journal, Vol. CCXLII, No. 66, pp. A1 & A10, October , 00

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