Women in American popular culture

Popular culture may seem all vapid and superficial, but it is undeniable that the most significant ideological battles of the Twentieth Century seep into popular forms of entertainment. Civil Rights spawned very special episodes on Little House on the Prairie, and Women’s Liberation opened the door to Mary Tyler Moore. The problem is, though, that when popular culture reflects upon contemporary social issues, the schizophrenia often ensues. Conflicting value systems and interests make for representations of daily life that have little resemblance to actual daily life. This is the main point of Susan Douglas’ book, Where the Girls Are.

Chapter Two of Douglas’ book (Mama Said) deals with images of motherhood in popular culture. Douglas states that these images are far removed from reality, and that they cause frustrations upon those who consume them. In other words, they imposed impossible ideals upon real women. They were expected to be perfect housekeepers:

No wonder so many of our mothers were pissed. They worked all the time with little or no acknowledgement, while their ingrate kids watched TV shows that insisted that good mothers, like true princesses, never complained, smiled a real lot, were constantly good-natured, and never expected anything from anyone. when our mothers sat back to relax in front of the TV after twelve- to fifteen-hour day, they were surrounded by allegories about masculine heroism and the sanctity of male gonads. Rarely, if ever, did they see any suggestion that the incessant, mundane, and often painful contortions of a woman’s daily life might, in fact, be heroic too (Douglas, 1995, p. ).

Television in the 1950s limited women’s role to the domestic sphere; women were expected to keep an immaculate house, while the men went out into the real world to earn a paycheck. In American culture, this idea was expressed as the separate spheres ideology. According to it, men and women were biologically, morally and spiritually different, and these differences were ordained by god. Men were aggressive, rational, independent, and strong, whereas women were passive, irrational, submissive, nurturing and weak. Because of their natural characteristics, men and women were destined to function in separate spheres of influence; the men would rule the public sphere, and the women would reign over the domestic sphere (Lavender, 1998).

Catherine Beecher was an influential, albeit contradictory, advocate of the separate spheres ideology. Beecher, who was a member of a prominent New England family, believed that women should be educated, but only because of their role as mothers, caretakers, and educators. Catherine thought, therefore, that the most significant contribution that a woman could make to the democratic process was bringing up the men to be upstanding citizens:

The success of democratic institutions, as is conceded by all, depends upon the intellectual and moral character of the mass of people. If they are intelligent and virtuous, democracy is a blessing; but if they are ignorant and wicked, it is only a curse, and as much more dreadful than any other form of civil government, as a thousand tyrants are more to be dreaded than one. It is equally conceded that the formation of the moral and intellectual character of the young is committed mainly to the female hand. The mother forms the character of the future man; the sister bends the fibres that are to be hereafter the forest tree; the wife sways the heart, whose energies may turn for good or for evil the destinies of the nation. Let the women of this country be virtuous and intelligent, and the men will certainly be the same. The proper education of a man decides the welfare of an individual; but educate a woman, and the interests of a whole family are secured (Beecher, 1849, 36-37)

The separate spheres argument is a patriarchal one. Patriarchy is a belief system that sustains that men are superior to women, and are thus entitled to privileges that women should not aspire to, or enjoy. In patriarchal systems there is a clear distinction between roles and spheres, with men dominating the public sphere, and women restricted to the domestic one.

In the 1960s, Betty Friedan would re-introduced the separate spheres argument; however, she would call it  the feminine mystique, and would argue that it kept women from reaching their full potential:

The feminine mystique says that the highest value and only commitment for women is the fulfillment of their own femininity. It says that the great mistake of Western culture, through most of its history, has been the undervaluation of this femininity. It says this femininity is so mysterious and intuitive and close to the creation and origin of life that man-made science may never be able to understand it. But however special and different, it is in no way inferior to the nature of man; it may even in certain respects be superior. The mistake, says the mystique, the root of women’s troubles in the past is that women envied men, women tried to be like men, instead of accepting their own nature, which can find fulfillment only in sexual passivity, male domination, and nurturing maternal love (Friedan, 1963, p. 43).

According to Douglas, the feminine mystique ideology did not take hold of American society until the late 1950s. However, once it did, the feminine mystique confronted American women with conflicting expectations. On the one hand, they were expected to be consumers, but were depicted as irrational, childlike, and incapable of logical judgment. On the other hand, they were also expected to reign supreme in the domestic sphere, even though the domestic economy often requires both parents to work outside the home.

For Empey, the problem with motherhood is about incompatible institutions. The public sphere, that of government, schools, and the economy, place impossible demands upon the domestic sphere, and thus individuals can participate fully in one, but not both:

When institutions are coordinated individuals can participate in the activities of one institution without being prevented from participating in the activities of other institutions. When individuals cannot participate in more than one institution, we have good reason to think that something has gone wrong – that our institutions aren’t allowing us the freedom they should (Empey, 69).

But, how much freedom do our institutions really allow for? According to French theorist Louis Althusser, institutions serve the interests of a ruling class, and no ruling class can “hold state power over a long period without at the same time exercising its hegemony over and in the State Ideological Apparatuses.” (2006, p. 81). These Ideological State Apparatuses (ISA) include churches, educational systems, families, trade unions, and the media. ISAs “function primarily through ideology,” not repression, that is individuals are not coerced to accept a belief system; they are, in fact, free to choose what they believe in. They do not, however, have equal influence over which ideas become mainstream, or how they are presented. Furthermore, ISAs actively discourage dissent because they instill expectations about behavior, rituals, and practices that signal acceptance.

When we think of popular culture in ideological terms, we must ask: which ideology/ideologies are being captured and reproduced through its manifestations? In the case of the representation of women, especially that described by Douglas, patriarchy is clearly evident. However, Douglas also states that not every woman bought into the patriarchal argument, which indicates that ideologies may be pervasive, but they are, by no means uncontested or unchangeable.


  • What is the image of motherhood depicted in contemporary TV? (please provide examples). How does it compare with the image of television mothers of the 1950s, like Donna Reed or June Cleaver?
  • Can we think of all forms of popular culture in terms of ideology? Why/why not?
  • What are the advantages and/or disadvantages of using ideology as a concept to analyze popular culture?



  • Beecher, C. (1849). A treatise on domestic economy, for the use of young ladies at home and at school. New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers.
  • Douglas, S. (1995). Mama said. In S. Douglas Where the Girls Are: Growing up Female with the Mass Media. New York: Times Books.
  • Friedan, B. (1963). The feminine mystique. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
  • Lavender, C. (1998). The Cult of Domesticity and True Womanhood. Accessed on 9/29/09 from http://www.library.csi.cuny.edu/dept/history/lavender/386/truewoman.html
  • Empey, S. (). Lois: Portrait of a Mother