Article first published as Sixties Sitcoms: The Battle of the Sexes Stalls Out on Technorati.
I’ve done a little research on whether there have been any specific American women’s studies conducted as reflected by the sitcoms. There have been some, but as I was watching an episode of ‘I Dream of Jeannie’ today, (it’s summer; I have time on my hands) I started noticing how that show, and ‘Bewitched’, were on the cusp of history. If you watch closely enough, you can see the push-me, pull-you skirmishes of the battle of the sexes fought during the era of the sixties, when the term ‘Battle of the Sexes’ was coined.
Women who stayed at home in the sixties felt guilty most of the time. It was a free-floating guilt, composed partially of self-inflicted complexes, which blended neatly with real ones imposed by their children and husbands. Men couldn’t understand why housework and childrearing weren’t fulfilling enough, and women felt guilty because it just wasn’t, and still isn’t. Children were behaving the way children always do, and expecting their mothers to be the self-sacrificing paragons of virtue that the fifties and sixties sitcoms portrayed them to be. Mothers should always be cheerful, groomed, up-to-date on current events, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, while baking brownies for the school bake sale.
Sitcoms that had a beautiful blonde genie, or a beautiful blonde witch running a house, were no accident. It was Hollywood’s way to try to span the widening gulf between what everyone thought they wanted in a woman, and what different genders really did want. Hollywood didn’t know what women wanted, any more than men did; Hollywood was composed almost entirely of male producers and writers. They did, however, know that their viewing public was made up of as many women as men, so they’d better try to throw their female viewers a bone, too.
Jeannie and Samantha were powerful women. With the blink of an eye, a wiggle of the nose, houses could be fixed and cleaned; enemies could be silenced; dinner could be made. Their power was always a secret though; Samantha and Jeannie conspired with their men (one was a ‘master’, one was a husband) to keep their power in check. They should only use it in cases of dire emergency, and don’t tell the men about it. In the midst of that, these wives, mothers, and ‘bottled’ blondes could still maintain a sexy, well-groomed image, and remain chaste. If a woman wanted fulfillment, she still had the enjoyment of catering to her husband and family, and fulfilling their every need. It was effortless, though fraught with imminent exposure of her powers. It was a ‘Wink, wink, we’ll let them have their little fantasies, but we know where the power really lies, don’t we ladies? No need to go outside the home to find more’.
By the time these shows aired of course, the rising tide was already carrying women out of their homes and into the workforce. They would soon find out that outside employment held no great charm at the best of times, but they felt more powerful just being able to contribute financially to the family. Men discovered that they liked that extra income coming in, too; their own salaries and paychecks could not keep up with inflation.