Jean Stapleton, the great Edith Bunker from All in the Family, passed away last week and like many under-appreciated female characters she was a huge part of the early development of TV, and the TV sitcom family. While we so often pass over the sitcom as sort of the middle ground between reality TV and the more sophisticated drama, sitcoms appeal to a broad audience, have significant cultural influence, and are a staple of American television. Similarly, the familiar sitcom mom has always been denigrated as a particularly sexist trope, however the evolution of the sitcom mom is an interesting lens for the middle-class American woman.
All in the Family ran for a full eight years from 1971-1979 and topped the Nielson ratings for five years consecutively. All in The Family was a first for it basically dealt with the irascible Archie Bunker and his own intolerance in an increasingly changing world; at it’s core, All In the Family was a powerful satire about the conflict between older generations and the new. The show was one of the first to deal with themes of racism, homosexuality, and sexism and through it all, Edith Bunker was the poster for a beloved, yet naïve housewife attempting to soften her stoic husband.
But let’s start at one of the earliest sitcom moms, the great June Cleaver (Barbara Billingsley) of the 1950s Leave It To Beaver always get’s a bad rap as the epitome of the repressed housewife, but regardless, June was a hugely important figure in her family life. While we oftentimes push June Cleaver off the map, she was and still remains, in many ways, the perfect mother. She was a generous, patient, loving, and conscientious parent and while such a perfect mother has never existed, at least the 1950s were honest and straightforward about what that ideal was.
Continue to the end of the sixties where things started to change; the ideal was still there, but suddenly there was an allowance for different family situations. Consider The Brady Bunch, which featured a blended family and the mother, Carol (Florence Henderson), was a divorcee, although the fact was never specifically acknowledged on the show. she even began to work in a real estate office toward the final few season of the show. Or look at The Partridge Family where Shirley (Shirley Jones) was a single mother of a traveling musical family in a modern art bus. For the first time, the mother figure was the true center of the show and she got to be both mother and father for a time.
It’s interesting to interject here that the 1980s went back to an romanticized 1950-60s style of sitcom mom with Happy Days’ Marion (Marion Ross), who was a sort of kick back to June Cleaver.
But that’s when things really started to change; enter, All in the Family and its satirizing of the idealized family, showing the inequality that was hidden in so much perfection. Up crept The Cosby Show and Family Matters which portrayed middle-class African American families, both with sitcom moms who were feisty and made bad decisions and mistakes of their own, all with a big attitude and a pretty quirky sense of humor. Claire Huxtable (Phylicia Rashad) was also a powerful lawyer and I personally consider her to be one the most self-confident, educated, and poised sitcom characters, ever.
Of course during this period, sitcom moms also became brassier, bolder, with their own set of gender stereotypes: the wife always shopping and spending money, her lovable, but bumbling mischievous husband. In this way, TV sitcom moms haven’t changed much since the 1990s (though maybe we should also note Full House at this point, since when Shirley Jones showed up as a great single sitcom mom, Bob Saget and Co. could also be one.)
It’s interesting, but one of the real breaks from this formula was Roseanne Barr’s groundbreaking sitcom Roseanne; not only did the show portray blue-collar America with all of it’s financial worries, it also showed a more dysfunctional family life with back-talking teenagers, teenage pregnancy, poverty, alcoholism and a host of other real-life issues facing many families. It also portrayed, in my opinion, one of the most truly egalitarian television marriages; Roseanne is no wise, "Angel on the Hearth," but neither is Dan (John Goodman) her sweet yet clumsy inferior (this article by Roseanne Barr about her experiences with the show are fascinating).
However, at the end of the day, the majority of these well-known and beloved sitcoms were all centered on the father figure and more prominent male actor, (the main exceptions to this being The Partridge Family and Roesanne). The sitcom mom is wise and funny, hard working and busy; the dad is silly and immature, never quite as handy as he thinks, but ultimately, still the star. To whit: Confident Jill Taylor (Patricia Richardson) from Home Improvement was always there to fix all of Tim’s (Tim Allen) messes; frazzled and sarcastic Debrah Barone (Patricia Heaton) in Everybody Loves Raymond kept Ray (Ray Romano) on the right track; Sassy and smart Cheryl (Courtney Thorne-Smith) from According to Jim tricks and bullies and competes with Jim (Jim Belushi) by getting him to do pretty much anything. This is the perfect time to mention Marge Simpson as this is basically the format for The Simpsons and their own influential form of satire; as sitcom moms go, Marge Simpson is one of the most iconic (and patient) characters of all time.
As Jean Stapleton’s Edith Bunker was a brilliant satire in her sweet innocence it seems fitting to end with her modern-day successor, the next great satire sitcom mom, Lucille Bluth (Jessica Walter) of Arrested Development. In all the ways that Edith’s hilarity came from her unwittingly astute observations, Lucille’s comes from her own unwitting (mostly) self-absorption and prejudices. In many ways, Lucille is an Archie Bunker character: a hold-over from a different era of economic prosperity and selfishness trying to make it in a world that can no longer support (or tolerate) her lifestyle.
Anyway that these women are portrayed, it’s important that we recognize their place and their contributions to modern television. Jean Staplteton, you will be missed.