October 20, 2017
Two episodes into the new season of Black-ish, Tracee Ellis Ross’s character, Rainbow Johnson, is struggling. She has just welcomed the family’s fifth child, a celebrated surprise from last season, and the household is abuzz. The younger siblings share baby proofing and caretaking responsibilities, albeit to varied success. Patriarch ’Dre (Anthony Anderson) brags about his new son to his co-workers. Live-in grandparents Ruby and Pops (Jenifer Lewis and Laurence Fishburne) impart their antiquated advice. It’s a household of selfish people, not unlike any sitcom family, but Rainbow is not fulfilling her role. She is typically the unyielding optimist who cheers up her gloomy son, reassures her insecure husband, or heart-talks her rebellious teenage daughter. Now we see her weepy, lethargic, and distant. She’s overwhelmed by the juggle of five children, stunned by the difficulties of breastfeeding over age 40, and questioning how she did it all those times before. To its credit, the show names her problem—postpartum depression—and spends an adequate amount of time addressing the topic. ’Dre confronts Rainbow and urges her to go to therapy, which leads to medication that is not a miracle cure, but an important step.
This particular episode was not the show’s most provocative by far—creator Kenya Barris has remarkably broached heavy topics such as slavery and police brutality within the framework of a family sitcom—but it’s critical nonetheless. In Rainbow’s struggles we see something resembling an accurate portrayal of motherhood, which, as any of us who have done it can attest, is filled with ridiculous moments ripe for comedy. But it’s also messy, imperfect, painful, and sometimes extremely sad and lonely.
Of all the issues modern sitcoms have tackled over the years—from war to LGBTQ rights—few have managed to construct a realistic modern mother. Even as more women are seeing themselves represented on TV—black women, Hispanic women, East-Indian women, transgender women—many mothers tuning into comedies find themselves asking, Is this supposed to be us?
TV sitcom moms have experienced a slow evolution. The wholesome prototypes of the 1950s and '60s (Leave It To Beaver, Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show) put them in corsets, aprons, and separate beds from their husbands. Sometimes the women were allowed to be funnier than the men (notably, Lucille Ball in I Love Lucy and Mary Tyler Moore in The Dick Van Dyke Show), but their pratfalls took center stage, with the work of motherhood being swept to the sidelines. When Ball was pregnant, the show had to pass the moral test of religious leaders who reviewed each episode before it aired (Lucy was “expecting,” never “pregnant”), and once the baby came, the kid was rarely seen. The mixture of physical comedy and practical motherhood was not yet ready for prime time.
The 1970s and ’80s pushed hard the idea of the supermom—a woman who can have relationships (maybe even sex), children, and sometimes her own career (The Brady Bunch, Who’s The Boss, Family Ties, The Cosby Show). But most episodes of these sitcoms wrapped up with a neat-and-tidy conclusion projecting the illusion that a good heart-to-heart can cure anything from teen rebellion to a death in the family. Tell that to a mother who must simultaneously explain and protect her children from the current world.
The ’90s and 2000s glorified the doofus dad–hot wife dynamic with Home Improvement, Everybody Loves Raymond, According to Jim, The King of Queens, and countless knock-offs. This mom is always put upon. She’s a stay-at-home parent by choice, and always hauling around a basket of laundry or yelling at some child to slow down or shut up. Taken at face value, these are realistic mom moments. There is always laundry, and the children are never quiet. And women, whether working outside of the home or not, disproportionately shoulder the burden of domestic labor. In each of these cases, however, the mother characters were never the stars. The narratives tended to focus on the children or the eponymous male star embodying childlike antics. The person who took care of them all was downgraded to a supporting character.
Of course there have also been important motherhood milestones. Single parenthood was historically reflected on One Day at a Time, Julia, and Murphy Brown, revolutionary in their time, but still tinged with an element of “nontraditional” taboo. Murphy Brown’s single motherhood caused then-Vice President Dan Quayle to declare a state of moral emergency, stating that Murphy’s single-parent-by-choice character was “mocking the importance of fathers” and disgracing “family values.” These characters paved the way for Lorelai Gilmore (Gilmore Girls), Jane Villanueva (Jane the Virgin), and Miranda Hobbes (Sex and the City), all working single mothers figuring it out along the way.
Women of color were given genre-busting characters in Clair Huxtable and Vivian Banks (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air), upper-class working Black mothers who were rarely the butt of the husband’s joke. But representation of non-white, non-domestic mothers on television today is reflective of Hollywood’s racial bias in general. They’re simply not there. Rainbow Johnson remains the sole woman of color holding the flawed parent torch on a modern sitcom—and, in fact, one of the few African-American mothers anywhere in prime time.
Unapologetic parental failure was on glorious display in Roseanne and Married… with Children. But today there are scant examples of complete, flawed mothers on sitcoms, save for a couple on the fringe networks—most notably, truTV’s I’m Sorry, which hooks its entire premise on Andrea Savage taking a Bad Moms approach to parenting, and FX’s Better Things, a spectacular, layered portrait of motherhood by creator-star Pamela Adlon, who is basically taking her best ideas from her time writing for Louie, and using them for herself. They work better for her.
The rest of today’s TV sitcom moms are a throwback to the cookie-cutter past: Hot domestics verbally sparring with men and creating slapstick chaos. Comedic television was built on a strict formula that balances frequency of jokes with mainstream appeal, and characters that fit neatly into archetypical character boxes. These shows are vapid, redundant, and frankly quite boring, yet they appeal to mass audiences seeking comfort in the familiar. The stability of a white, nuclear family with Dad as the breadwinner, and Mom as the solid-yet-sexy rock of the family is the hard sell of American popular culture; it’s “traditional values” that anyone can laugh to. The recycling has become so rampant that networks aren’t even bothering to find interesting names for their reductive sitcoms anymore. There is a new show called American Housewife starring—you guessed it!—a white stay-at-home mother who does all the same things every character just like her has done before, only with updated cultural references. Dan Quayle would love it.
Anytime we ask the question, Where is the representation of my life?, the answer, of course, can be found in the TV writer’s room (and in the executive offices). Female-run dramas like Grey’s Anatomy and The Good Wife give us complicated mother characters like Dr. Miranda Bailey and Alicia Florrick. But only a male-heavy writer’s room would keep churning out jokes about laundry as a way to reflect modern motherhood. Like everything else in Hollywood, it’s time this trope is burned to the ground and built back up by women actually living the lives they want their characters to represent.