‘Tis the season to be a woman on TV comedies. If you’ve spent the last few months living in a television-less cave, you might be surprised to discover that we’ve reached a bit of a renaissance of female-driven network sitcoms. (Also, you might be surprised to be back in society! In that case, hello! Hope your time in the cave was okay!) The latest primetime trend is usually a pretty boring and inconsequential thing to discuss, but we’re now at a moment in which a significant portion of the surviving and debatably thriving fall sitcoms have women as their comedic leads (See: New Girl, 2 Broke Girls, Whitney, etc.). If you ask us, that’s a pretty neat thing!
Still, while we love that these funny ladies are dismantling the boys club of primetime TV while simultaneously getting a shot to spice up the comedy scene, we can’t help but wonder if these shows themselves are doing all that we proclaim they are. If you ask us, it’s not even about feminism, per se; it’s more about pushing the envelope by including female-specific perspectives in humor. (A little less banal period jokes, a little more Bridesmaids, you know?) After the jump, we’re taking a look at some of the great females of sitcom history. Consider it our attempt to remind Zooey that fabulous bangs does not an instant comedic legend make.
When Roseanne hit the small screen, so, too, did one of the most unapologetic women in cultural memory. Roseanne was working-class, overweight, and outspoken — everything a sitcom mom wasn’t supposed to be up until that point — and challenged the unrealistic images of womanhood and motherhood in the media that had become aggressively normative, all without becoming a caricature of herself. Her comedy followed suit, too: Roseanne anchored the show’s humor with her biting one-liners and affinity for telling it like it is. We didn’t spend our time wishing Roseanne was our mom; in so many ways, she embodied the one we already had and that was far a cooler thing to finally see on TV.
Take five steps and you’ll undoubtedly find some girl comparing herself to Liz Lemon because she’s wearing mom jeans or binging on junk food and feeling generally hopeless. Wacky, ungraceful, and nerdy Liz is the anti-man magnet whose ridiculousness plays on her feminist TV counterparts by showing just how undesirable a woman who is completely uninhibited can be. The thing is, though, that Liz is completely okay with herself and has become a voice for the unladylike in all of us, making her the deliverer of some of the best female-driven comedy today.
Ellen’s Ellen (before the short-lived Ellen Show and currently-airing The Ellen DeGeneres Show, you see) was a ringer in the mid-90s and sent shockwaves around the nation when its main character (Ellen, of course) came out on national TV. In response to the pioneering move, ABC placed a parental advisory note before every aired episodes — so parents knew to shield their children from the shifty, TV lesbians, maybe? In spite of that, Ellen-the-comedian’s tremendous wit got the show another renewal, before ratings eventually slid and it was cancelled in 1998. DeGeneres struggled to get gigs as an outed comedienne, but finally found a place for herself on her hilarious talk show. And, boy, are we glad she’s still around.
The Cosby Show
The Cosby Show garnered constant praise for putting the cultural spotlight on an African American family that was not blatantly or latently racist, paving the way for more diverse sitcom fare in the years to come. Less obvious is the effect the Cosby women — particularly Clair Huxtable, an attorney, and her elder daughters Sondra and Denise, who were self-proclaimed feminists like their mother — had on the ’80s girls who grew up with them as role models. But they did more than just preach; on the show, Clair was strong, composed, and amicable. Each episode, she actively elicited the respect and love of her family and, with them, her viewers.
Bea Arthur’s Maude was one of TV’s most direct feminists when it aired for six seasons in the ’70s, with a show theme song that likened her to Joan of Arc and the bra burners. Oh, and did we mention that Maude had an abortion on TV, pre Roe v. Wade? It was the first on TV, but the show — an All in the Family spin-off — wasn’t just some feminist mouthpiece. Maude was funny and the show, humanizing, which was a big win for feminism at a crucial time.
I Love Lucy
The mother of all funny TV ladies, Lucy Ricardo was equal parts silly, naive, and scheming. Constantly, she subverted her husband Ricky’s dominance with her resistance to back down no matter the circumstances. It’s starting to get difficult to imagine that, prior to Lucy’s premiere in 1951, women were never enlisted as comedic anchors on sitcoms, let alone the central focus on a TV show. Oh, and did we mention the tiny fact that Lucille Ball was the first woman in television to be head of a production company? But beyond the way it broke barriers in this revolutionary way, the show itself is notable for featuring all the love and insanity that comes with female friendship in Lucy’s relationship with best friend Ethyl in a way that’s rarely paralleled even today.
And who was more of a badass than Murphy Brown, the crack reporter who was determined, sharp, ambitious, and not afraid to step on a few toes as she got her job done (and done well)? Murphy was a pioneering character in that the problems she faced were distinctly universal — about the workplace and her own life, rather than whatever abstracted “lady issues” people tend to throw at women characters. The show, of course, was a good sitcom, too, with Murphy as a deadpan master and a strong ensemble cast for her to play against for the show’s seven seasons. Remember Murphy’s revolving door of secretaries, whom she couldn’t ever keep for more than an episode? Remember when it was Bette Middler? Ah, the good old days.
“Sexy grandmas” may not seem like a TV pitch that screams, “Yes! Green-light that immediately!,” but Golden Girls proved it may just be one of the greatest ideas to date. The late-80s/early-90s sitcom featured four older women sharing a home in Miami, Florida, as well as pretty much every sex story in their repertoire. It never ceased to be funny and, more importantly, was a trailblazer in that mainstream media rarely showed women speaking so freely about sex until Blanche and the gang hit the scene. The girls paved the way for Sex and the City and many other modern shows invested equally in the bonds of sisterhood and good, frank sex talks.
Ask any comedy nerd and he or she will tell you that The Simpsons is the greatest show of all time, if not the greatest comedy of all time, if not the greatest anything of any amount of time, ever. Notably, The Simpsons, which depicts a raucous but loving family amid a sea of goonish characters, gave rise to TV favorite Lisa Simpson, a musically gifted, well-read, and extremely articulate vegetarian. Lisa’s especially celebrated (have you seen her book club?) for those very reasons: she’s a thoughtful female character in a male-dominated landscape and precisely the type of character who will make a little sister watching the show with her brother make a knowing smile.
Mary Tyler Moore
In the midst of second wave feminism, Mary Richards found instantaneous critical and popular acclaim in 1970s. Though Mary was hardly a revolutionary in her ways, she was a single working woman who was attractive and entirely likable at 30, yet unmarried. The horror! The show portrayed her as equally preoccupied with her career and her love life, which really pushed forth the cultural image of the successful, independent woman in its most approachable terms up until that point. Besides, can you say “greatest intro ever?” We dare you to watch it and decide to grow up to be someone other than Mary Richards. (Hint: It’s impossible.)