Archetypal Characters and their Narrative Function: Iron Maiden, the Consciousness Raising Character

Curator's Note

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.


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.

Absolutely! I have commented in previous articles about the idea of children sometimes saying the most profound things and Rose certainly does that in the series. For me one of the most profound statements she makes is when the women are talking about how they will always have each other and then Rose asks, but what about when there is only one of us? It is the moment where they have to acknowledge their mortality. Also interesting that Betty White is only living actor from the series. Another reason I argue her politics are discounted in the series is the fact that Rose is ridiculed in the series and often silenced as the women repeatedly tell her to shut up. I love all of these characters and find their roles and narratives fascinating. I agree with your comments, but I think the overall impact of her archetype is dismissed; and therefore her potential political import reduced.

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? :)

Yes, I believe Sophia did just pull a banana out of her purse. I agree Dorothy could be and sometimes falls into the maternal role and she is the connecting character, which is generally associated with the mother. The archetypes aren't perfect and where their is slippage, I argue that those differences say something about age, race, class, historical time, etc. In general and in most circumstances, Dorothy is the iron maiden. I would argue that when she fulfills the mother role that says something about age and the relationship between adult daughters and their aging mothers. I also mentioned that Sophia's role actually becomes the ethnic mother stereotype and in other articles speak to how she occasionally becomes the outspoken iron maiden and I attribute that to her age. As an older woman she is not as bound to compulsory femininity and her one-liners are just brilliant! Now if we would look at Living Single, which I am completing a book chapter on currently, there are two main male characters. I find this interesting as this series focuses on the lives of young Black urban professionals and would argue that the male roles are significant in understanding how Black women have to "fight against" Black men about feminism and with Black men to challenge racism. In addition the iron maiden and mother archetypes in Living Single are also more fluid. This is something I attribute to race. The strong female mother role is, as bell hooks would say is deified in Black culture. Just for fun you should view how the archetypes play out in Sex and the City in this hilarious cab scene. but alas I could not address all of these things and it is difficult to unpack all of these arguments in 350 words!

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.

Yes. The archetypes aren't perfectly static and that's what makes the analysis interesting. I probably wouldn't go so far to say that Blanche "subverts" the sex object, but she does embody characteristics of the iron maiden in that moment. I've argued that these archetypes can limit broader understandings of women as individuals if people put real women into these categories as I do with the archetypes. I believe it was Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants where the narrator said that actually each character embodied parts of all the archetypes, of course they didn't use that language and in some of the psychology research I looked at scholars suggested the same thing. The archetype is fluid, the stereotyped is more rigid.

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