Core Response - Week 4: “I Dream of Early Sitcoms”
by Bobby Sevenich
Gertrude Berg suggested that her television character, Molly Goldberg, resonated with so many viewers because the character lived in the world of today but kept many of the values of yesterday” (Lipsitz, 99). Initially, after reading Mellencamp’s assessment of comedic female roles in early sitcoms, I was tempted to say that popular sitcoms today do not construct central female character in the spirit of bygone paradigms. It seems that current female characterizations – and the scenarios that engulf them – reject past traditions in order to prove that the audiences no longer believe women/mothers/daughters/wives function best in a domestic setting. The most appealing and enduring females in sitcoms now dominate the workplace. While female protagonists in sitcoms like The Goldbergs, The Burns & Allen Show, and I Love Lucy embody humorous absentmindedness or endearing naivety; nevertheless, these characters displayed “unintentional insight” (Lipsitz, 90). That seems contradictory to present sitcoms as female characters often display more pragmatism and wit than their male counterparts. We admire Liz Lemon and Leslie Knope for their keen talents in trumping the idiocy around them.
At the same time, however, perhaps shows like 30 Rock and Parks & Recreation are indeed doing just what Berg suggested – evoking cultural practices displayed in past sitcoms to legitimize current societal tenets. These current characters my not be upholding “values of yesterday” in the same way Molly Goldberg did, but they still are the comedic centers of the shows. Mellencamp suggests that although female characters functioned in domestic spaces, like Lucy, they possessed introspective desires to transcend that household sphere; that cultural anxiety has endured. The show Weeds is emblematic of (or perhaps satirizes) this concern. In the show, recently widowed suburban housewife Nancy Botwin takes up selling marijuana in order to support her family. She negotiates the tension between occupying “the home” and harvesting entrepreneurial success.
Additionally, the male attitude that women “have too much power” (Lipsitz, 86) in the home (in shows like The Honeymooners) is has now relocated to a new space; the threats that male characters once observed in the familial setting are redirected to the workplace. Instead of women being “betrayed by irresponsible and incompetent husbands,” (87) they battle ineffectual male colleagues or bosses in an (inappropriately) alleged “post-feminist” era.
So, is it fair to argue that today’s TV comedies embody traditions of early sitcoms or cultural values to legitimize “fundamentally new social relations in the present” as Lipsitz considers? Do our memories of the past still shape the present state of entertainment?