Contemporary film and television criticism is littered with gender discourse. While women’s roles are now less traditional, certain characteristics and structures pertaining to tradition still are often times reflected on television. A prominent characteristic includes women having to choose between their career and their family. If they choose family, then they will play the assigned role. This, added by the encouragement of the male characters, contributes to the confines of tradition.
Cases in point include two top sitcoms of our time. “Friends” and “How I Met Your Mother” brought us two memorable and beloved couples: Monica Geller (Courteney Cox) with Chandler Bing (Matthew Perry) and Lily Aldrin (Alyson Hannigan) with Marshall Eriksen (Jason Segal). The shows’ other couples included Rachel Green (Jennifer Aniston) with Ross Geller (David Schwimmer) and Robin Scherbatsky (Cobie Smulders) with Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris). Unlike their respective counterparts, the formerly mentioned couples got married and were always looked upon as having the more stable, long-term and ideal relationships among their friends. Why their relationships were more successful than the latter might equate to the fact that their gender roles were very much traditional ones. As much as we love these couples, it is an important observation to note that the women had to choose between their careers and their families, without the support of their male counterparts.
Monica’s long-term boyfriends, Pete Becker (Jon Favreau) and Richard Burke (Tom Selleck), were candidates for marriage and children. She expected a proposal from Pete, who elected to participate in a boxing championship instead, whereas she broke up with Richard when he confessed that he was too old to have any more children. Then came long-time friend Chandler, who proposed to Monica shortly after telling her that marriage is for pigs – only to throw her off before the surprise proposal. All the respective men shared a common denominator: they were all financially stable. Pete was rich, Richard a doctor and Chandler, although it was a joke that none of the friends knew his profession, worked as a company manager. Also established were Monica’s defining character traits, namely her obsessive-compulsive behavior with cleaning along with her role as the chef. The traditional roles had their placeholders, Monica ultimately the homemaker and Chandler bringing home the bacon, illustrating that pigs and marriage may in fact coincide.
On the other hand, the show portrayed Rachel and Ross’s relationship as a rocky one. At first, Rachel refused to accept Ross’s one-sided plan for their future and didn’t want him to plan her life. However, the instability really took its course when Rachel began her career in fashion. Ross became impatient because she wasn’t paying him any attention and jealous because of Rachel’s attractive co-worker who elected to attend work events with her when Ross would not. Additionally, Rachel was portrayed as the opposite of Monica. She was more impulsive and irresponsible – whether it was with men or lost earrings. The traditional placeholders were not present, at least for Rachel, and resulted in nonlinear (in the traditional sense) choices and events, such as the birth of her baby girl. When Ross and Rachel finally did end up together, she abandoned her flight to Paris and as far as we know, her new job, in order to be with Ross.
The same placeholders were satisfied by the parallel roles of Lily and Marshall. Similarly, Lily was the cook and shopaholic who knew that she wanted to get married and have children. She did just that even through the doubts that came her way. She also was a kindergarten teacher, while Marshall a lawyer who took a corrupt corporate job to support their future family and Lily’s debt.
In season one, Lily took off in order to discover who she was without her fiance and to pursue her art ambitions. Marshall did not support the idea of her leaving to California to do that because of the wedding plans, when that could have been delayed in support of Lily’s choice. She came back and, after a while of exploring different options, returned to being a school teacher. In season 8, Lily snagged a job as an art consultant with the “Captain” (Kyle MacLachlan), and committed most of her time to the same. Marshall showed nothing but support for Lily, all the while embodying the same character traits portrayed in Ross when Rachel started her career. He became needy because Lily didn’t have enough time for him due to her work. When Lily’s job moved to Rome, Marshall was again the supportive husband but changed track when he was offered the judgeship. The show did well, making the final decision in Lily’s favor, provided only for one year. In the last episodes, Lily was pregnant with their third child and Marshall was eventually offered the judgeship again. Although the writers didn’t mention Lily’s career after Rome, the couple seemed to have reverted to the way things were regardless.
On the other hand, Robin took on a different persona than her female friend. She personified a career-oriented woman who refused to allow relationships to stand in the way of her career choices. When she decided to choose Don Frank (Benjamin Koldyke) over her career for once, Don accepted the same job offer that Robin turned down for him and packed his bags without a thought. She also was relentlessly opposed to getting married and having children. Although initially upset and contemplative when finding out about her infertility, Robin confronted Kevin (Kal Penn) about the same after his proposal, deciding that even adoption was not an option she wanted. Regardless of Robin’s relationship history, she married Barney in the ninth season after a whirlwind of events. Barney accepted the fact that he wouldn’t have kids with Robin, even if he had always wanted them. Yet the show veered their relationship towards divorce anyways due to Robin’s career and the traveling involved. The show indicated that unconventional family choices, an irregular lifestyle and career demands couldn’t support a stable marriage.
It might be an easier task for writers to tackle stable, married couples by following a traditional equation. It might be that the writers elected to diversify the shows by representing different types of couples or portraying realistically traditional ones. The writers obviously did include characters with nonlinear choices and non-traditional personalities, those couples just didn’t get married and have children as smoothly. Robin and Barney’s marriage didn’t work because of her career and Rachel and Ross finally came together but in turn, Rachel gave up moving for her career. Monica’s career accompanied a traditionally female role of cooking and Lily’s art career only took off for a very short time in the running of the show and ultimately went back to focus on Marshall’s judgeship and later, his political career.
Although high-powered female characters are growing in number and maintain more high status jobs on television, this fact is often accompanied by a suffering family life such as with Dr. Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson) on “Grey’s Anatomy” and Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) on “30 Rock.” Television being the influential medium that it is and “Friends” and “How I Met Your Mother” being pop culture icons, it would be a more progressive approach to address the changing role of women without having them give up family for a career or vice versa. It also would be served best if accompanied by more progressively portrayed male characters in this respect who would support this notion. There are plenty of working moms out there who have the best of both worlds.