Anyone engaged with media knows the risk averse television industry recycles programming. From Lucy and Ethel to Laverne and Shirley to Two Broke Girls; the triad-plus-one in Gunsmoke, Seinfeld, and New Girl; and the working class buffoon in the Honeymooners, All in the Family, Simpsons, and King of Queens. My recombinant television research focuses on recycling four archetypal characters in Mary Tyler Moore, Designing Women, Golden Girls, Living Single and Sex and the City. Anyone who has watched these series can identify the four archetypes: Dorothy, the iron maiden, Blanche, the sex object, Rose, the child, and Sophia, the mother. Exploring how the archetypes function within the series is far more interesting.
The iron maiden is portrayed as masculine and career-oriented. When privileged within the series, the iron maiden can carry a feminist perspective, but if perceived as unsympathetic, the iron maiden serves as a cautionary tale about the cost of feminism.
The sex object unabashedly owns her sexuality, desires sex for her pleasure, and genuinely loves her body. Blanche revels in her beauty and broadcasts how much she enjoys sex. These are her most progressive qualities. She also shatters media portrayals of older women as sexless. However Blanche pits herself against the other women. As a function of the problem-solution sitcom formula, this is the least feminist aspect of the series.
The child archetype is naïve, optimistic, and dim-witted, but when given more narrative space, like Charlotte in Sex and the City, the child promotes more traditional and conservative values.
The mother archetype connects the characters in the series and serves as the dominant storyteller. Sophia, while teeming with stories of the old country, becomes more of the stereotypical ethnic mother.
In the clip presented here, Dorothy makes the personal political as she names and describes Blanche’s encounter as sexual harassment. Dorothy portrays herself as the feminist icon by raising the consciousness of those around her. See Dorothy scold Dr. Budd for his sexist treatment of her illness, put the plumber and the security salesman in their place. When Dorothy carries the narrative a feminist discourse is present; however when Rose is privileged, the narrative is trivial. In the "Break In" episode, Rose shoots a vase and harms a parking attendant out of fear and in "Letter to Gorbachev" Rose is mistaken for a 10-year-old for writing a letter to Gorbachev about nuclear disarmament. Had Dorothy been the character carrying these narratives, they would have had more political import.
Rose's Subversive Politics?
Great post, Deborah! However, I also wonder whether Rose might be more political than she might at first appear. Certainly, her political commentary is not as forthright as that of Dorothy, but I would argue that hers is a more subversive and less-obvious kind of politics. In the Gorbachev example, I read the child-like simplicity of her letter as the series' way of critiquing Reagan's hyper-masculine military agenda; Dorothy even goes so far as to say that the world might be a better place if more people thought so simplistically. Likewise, when Dorothy's friend Jean falls in love with her, Rose offers a hand of kindness and acceptance, rather than condemnation, fear, or abhorrence, which is a rather remarkable sentiment for a series aired in the Reagan/Bush era.
This clip really embodies the
This clip really embodies the three characters as the archetypes you describe. I wonder, though, if we might think of Dorothy/the iron maiden in a maternal role, in that she's the one who often helps the others out of jams, while Sophia usually remains on the periphery of the action. I love the series about women you've named here and grew up watching many of them ardently. I was always particularly intrigued, as I make vague reference to in my post, at how they create surrogate families. Your post helps clarify and delineate those familial roles. It's particularly interesting that these families lack a paternal figure - or, really, any male presence (though I suppose we could argue for different characters in the other series, like Anthony in Designing Women) - and thrive. Did Sophia just pull a banana out of her purse? :)
We appreciate this analysis because it accurately represents the genre of the sitcom, in particular, the constraint of its typical 30-minute conflict-resolution, which sometimes relies on the archetype. The clip that you chose is an excellent demonstration of the roles you assigned each woman. We actually had just watched this episode recently, and one of the things we found interesting is that at the end of the episode, Blanche takes on the characteristics of what is referred to in this post as the “Iron Woman,” because she studies, and does not rely on her looks to receive an A in the course. Thus, Blanche’s actions ultimately subvert the “sex object” archetype, and her accomplishment encourages her to see herself in a different light—and by extension, the audience sees Blanche in a different light as well. A 30-minute conflict-resolution requires dynamic shifts in character, often in Golden Girls each woman reflects on their actions and the situation of the given episode. We think that perhaps the archetype is both upheld and challenged because of sitcom conventions.
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