Tuesday, September 18, 2012

TV Moms, Part Three: "What Doesn't Kill Us is Making Us Stronger."

In the late 1980s, the United States experienced a stock collapse even greater than the famous one of 1929 that is recognized as the spark of The Great Depression. Families in the middle and lower classes found it harder and harder to make ends meet.

There was, in this time, no place in the world for the likes of June Cleaver.  She and the Cleavers were no longer representations of the average American family, and their quaint life was viewed less as the striven-for ideal.

Many American TV viewers of this time sought a fictional family that reflected their lives; they wanted to see people like themselves, struggling to make ends meet, dealing with rowdy kids and a dirty house, and trying to keep the delicate balance between busy lives and loving families.

And so, in October of 1988, ABC introduced Americans to the Conners.

Roseanne, which premiered on October 18, 1988, was arguably the first time that a blue-collar family was the focus of a sitcom. And, while the Conners themselves may have had less money to burn and more mess and chaos in their home than the Cleavers did, they saw far more success in terms of ratings, hitting number one on the Nielsen rankings, and staying in the top twenty for eight of nine seasons (and anyone familiar with the show can probably guess which season didn't do so well).

While Roseanne wasn't the first sitcom presented from a female's perspective, but it's safe to say that no television family has had a matriarch quite like Roseanne Conner.

In the tradition of comedians who are given sitcoms, Roseanne (Barr Pentland Arnold Thomas) herself played the title character.

Roseanne Conner was as flawed as June Cleaver was perfect. She was loud and bossy; she wasn't a traditional beauty, and, though she kept her house running, it was almost constantly a mess and the Conner children got up to shenanigans that would astonish even Wally Cleaver's friend Eddie Haskell.

In spite of her imperfection, Roseanne was strong. Until the last season (oh, that last season), Roseanne worked outside the home in a number of less-than glamorous jobs. In eight seasons, she worked as a line worker in a plastics factory, selling magazines over the phone, a secretary for her husband's boss, a bartender, a cashier at a fast food restaurant, a floor sweeper/shampoo girl at a hair salon, a waitress at a restaurant in a department store, part-time worker at the Conner's bike shop, and as a waitress and co-owner of the the Lanford Lunchbox. She struggled to make time to get to parent-teacher conferences--and there were a lot of them, between younger daughter Darlene barking in class, older daughter Becky allegedly flipping the bird during class pictures, and son DJ bringing "obscene reading material" to school.  She provided emotional, and sometimes financial, support to her sister, Jackie.

And Roseanne struggled with her and Dan's relationships to their parents--both of them promising to provide their kids with a more loving home than either of them grew up in.

Though it often seemed that Roseanne held the reigns in the Conner family, and, in fact, Dan is sometimes shown to rail against Roseanne's apparent authority, at the heart of their relationship, Dan and Roseanne are partners. Their combined income keeps the family afloat, true, but more than that, they are shown to share parenting duties and take equal part in the lives of their children.

Roseanne and the Conners, over-the-top as they often were, worked through problems that their viewers were able to relate to, which is probably no small part of why Roseanne was, and still is, such a popular show. While Roseanne may not have perfectly reflected the life of the average mother in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the ins and outs of her daily life were something to which everyday American families could relate in a way that they no longer could with the Cleavers. Shows like Roseanne provided not the escapism that Leave It To Beaver offered, but a reflection of life in art.

Roseanne, of course, was hardly the only major television mother in the 1980s and 90s. In the next several posts, we'll take a look at other television families of this time and their particular representations of motherhood.

Part One
Part Two


  1. Digging these. I figure June Cleaver may be the only foray into black and white, but I'd love to see one on Aunt Bee, who served as mom to Andy and Opie.

    -Matt Clark

  2. Thanks, Matt!

    I do plan to cover some surrogate mothers and non-mother mother figures. Aunt Bee was one I'd overlooked, but that's a great suggestion; I'll have to outline a post for her, too.