November 30, 2016
What does it mean for women to “have it all”? It sounds more appealing than the demanding reality: an exhausting, near-impossible balancing act wherein we seamlessly juggle a full-time career, a relationship, and parenthood. For the past 30 years, we’ve seen this fantasy reinforced in the culture, especially on 1980s sitcoms where working moms became the standard—we started seeing women like Claire Huxtable, who balanced five kids, a thriving law career, and her marriage with ease.
But sometime in the late 1990s and early aughts, we've seen this concept revert back to something more, as they say, conventional, and even TV’s quirkier, more independent sitcom women, like Friends’ Phoebe Buffay and Parks and Recreation’s Donna Meagle, become married off in the shows’ final season—despite the fact that they've shunned such tradition throughout the series. Why did we bother going on a ten-season journey with Rachel Green, who’d arguably evolved the most of the three women in Friends, who we met into Central Perk all ready to be a Real Housewife of Long Island, and watched as she reinvented herself as a successful businesswoman, only for her to give up her dream job at Louis Vuitton to stay with Ross (“We were on a break!”) Geller, without a so much as “what can we do to make this situation work for you, Rachel?” conversation.
And then there are the female characters who expressly demonstrated no interest in parenthood suddenly take a detour and become pregnant, as with Gilmore Girls’ Lane Kim whose burgeoning career as a drummer was cut short when she gave birth to twins—conceived the first time she had sex, while on her honeymoon. Or Parks and Rec’s April Ludgate, who’d always preferred animals to children—probably because she was already married to one. Even Ally McBeal ended up with a kid via a “whoopsie!” with her donated eggs.
What if we’d been given different examples by our pop-culture favorites? What if upon Big’s arrival in Paris in Sex and the City, Carrie Bradshaw insisted they meet with a couples counselor in Manhattan in two weeks to work on six seasons’ worth of issues instead of falling into his arms for merely showing up? What if she sent her girls a note saying “meet me in London” so she could take some meetings with the Paris, Italian, and British Vogue offices and get her unemployed ass some work and maybe have one of those very vanilla (especially for a sex columnist) rebound flings she favored with a handsome British gent?
Occasionally we’ve been given characters that choose their careers over men. Rory Gilmore was one such example—we thought. The original series wrapped with Rory having to make a choice between the job she’d invested so much of herself in and her rich, handsome fiancé. She opted for the former. So why did Netflix’s revival, Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, veer so off course?
In it, Rory not only becomes her former fiancé’s side-piece, but her intelligence appears to have evaporated: How does this smart, so-called writer lack a basic understanding of the tenets of journalism? And, adhering to the more recent television tradition—and following in her mother, Lorelei’s footsteps, now her story line now revolves around an unintended pregnancy. It’s become a veritable Gilmore Girls tradition: That brings the total unplanned pregnancy plotlines to seven. Either there is something in Stars Hollow’s water supply that causes a severe latex allergy, the town’s high school has an abstinence-only Sex Ed program, or show creators, the Palladinos, have a hard pro-life stance. Because abortion isn’t so much as whispered about in one of these seven situations—not even from Sookie, who already has two small children, a thriving career, and a husband who claimed to have had a vasectomy. With Sookie, the deception and the unplanned pregnancy are treated nonchalantly, almost fleetingly, eager for resolution following a brief pep talk with Lorelai.
Lorelai’s own story wraps with her finally marrying Luke—another traditional wrap for one of the few manic pixie dream moms to ever appear on screen. Was this in the cards all along?
If we want to find a satisfying feminist end for our female heroines, we have to rewind to the … The Mary Tyler Moore Show—Mary Richards manages to escape the marriage-and-baby series finale (she is among those on the news desk who gets fired, and ultimately decides to stay for an uncertain future in the Twin Cities). But for every Mary Richards who’s been given an ending that is true to her character, we’ve seen 20 Rachel Greens who haven’t.
Sometimes, as in the case of The Good Wife, the writers bequeath our female protagonists with a vague wrap-up—allowing the viewer to imagine how her life might unfold. Seinfeld’s Elaine Benes was always portrayed as “one of the guys,” and so we can assume she escaped marriage and children, after she and her three pals are incarcerated in the series finale.
It might come as a surprise to discover that the best feminist series finale was written by a man: Matt Weiner. Mad Men allowed us to see our heroines grow and become the women they were meant to be. Joan goes from playing the Boy’s Club games to beating them at it. After weighing her options carefully, Peggy forges ahead with an empowering career and relationship that makes sense for her character. And even Betty’s choice to die on her own terms reflects a character who’s grown enough to stand up for herself.
So it was incredibly disappointing to see the finale of 30 Rock, now celebrating its ten year anniversary, a show helmed by Tina Fey, a woman who appears to “have it all”—a thriving career, a marriage, two kids— not give the benefit of advancement to her creation the neurotic showrunner Liz Lemon. For six seasons Liz strives to do the same, and mostly fails. Until she doesn’t. Well, sort of. After years of failed relationships, she ultimately nabs a gorgeous nerdy husband who loves her. They adopt two school age children, and he wants nothing more to be a stay-at-home dad. But after toiling away at her job for 80 hours a week, managing childlike egos around the clock and enduring a bizarre mentorship with Jack Donaghy—whose career she saves on more than one occasion—she watches her next logical career position, as vice-president of NBC Television and Microwaves (a perfect position for her, as a devotee of both TV and ham) be handed to the painfully under-qualified man, Kenneth the Page.
It’s hard to understand why Fey wouldn’t have given her character the ending she deserved. Liz Lemon could have been the beacon that lit the way for better feminist endings to come.
Considering her expressed love of her life as a workaholic, the help she already had and that her staggeringly high new salary would allow (not to mention the fact that her predecessor seemed to spend countless hours a day gazing out a window in scotch-induced haze) Liz Lemon could have easily pulled off what Jack did in an eight-hour work day, with time to balance family and the career she would have excelled at—maybe, if she were feeling generous enough, she'd even have promoted dopey Kenneth to an assistant role, and then mentor him to be her eventual successor.
Though the 30 Rock finale may have been cringe-worthy to watch at the time, the presidential election results give reason to think it might have been a bit prescient. We need fantasy feminist endings to give us something to aspire to if we are ever going to change in our reality. Was there ever a moment when women could have it all, or were we just dreaming? After all, we’ve just witnessed one of the most qualified women in power win the popular vote but still lose the presidential election to the most inexperienced and incompetent candidates—a man—in the history of the US presidency. We need strong examples to change perceptions and the future's looking brighter, as we can find hope in new shows written by women. When you look at Pamela Adlon's Better Things, Issa Rae's Insecure, and Rachel Bloom's Crazy Ex-Girlfriend—all driven by complex female characters—the future looks encouraging.