Sunday, June 6, 2010

Superwoman Is His Mom (Boy Meets World)

I love the sitcom Boy Meets World, its characters, jokes, and sometimes quite wacky storylines. I do have to note, however, that its moral messages can be a bit immoral by my standards. One example is the sexism in the first season episode “On the Fence”, about 11-year-old Cory coming to appreciate the work his father, Alan, does to take care of the family. While a nice sentiment, it blatantly ignores the equal work put in by his mother, Amy, whose contributions are accepted as the default of housewives and therefore not as special as the breadwinning father.

The episode opens with Cory and his friends discussing superheroes they want for fathers. While Shawn wants Batman for a dad, Cory points to Superman as the most desirable father. The conversation turns to a water gun fight planned later, and Minkus demonstrates his expensive new water gun. Cory wants to join with the latest model, costing $30, and to pay for it he gets a job from Mr. Feeny to paint his window shutters. Cory goofs, though, and gets paint on the fence, which he has to repaint and miss the water fight. Alan decides that he should go be a kid and play with his friends, and Alan repaints the fence. Later, older brother Eric talks about how difficult being a box boy is and how he can’t imagine how Alan is able to be the manager on top of helping out at home fixing pipes, unclogging toilets, and now painting the fence.
Eric: “It’s like he’s not human. It’s like—”
Cory: “It’s like he’s Superman.”
Eric: “What?”
Cory: “Superman’s my dad.”
Now that he’s appreciative of Alan’s efforts, he decides to repay him by letting Alan be a kid with him. So, he trades in his $30 water gun for two $15 ones. At the dinner table, he stands up with the gun and challenges Alan to a fight, instructing him to feel for something taped under the table. Alan pulls out the other gun and happily engages Cory in water combat. Amy tells them no water gun fights at the table, to which Cory indicates she should find something taped under her side of the table too. She gropes around for a third gun and can’t find anything there. “What do you think, I’m made of money?!” Cory shouts, restarting the fight. Amy shoots water at them from the faucet, and they run outside to play in the backyard. The end.
It’s a nice story with the kid coming to appreciate his dad’s efforts, but, seriously, what about the mom? In the earlier seasons, Amy’s both a homemaker and a working mother. She is said to be a real estate salesperson in one episode, but then she works at an art gallery in another episode – continuity was never this show’s strength. Either way, that’s a full professional job in addition to taking care of three kids on a daily basis. She takes care of the house, makes meals, makes sure Morgan gets to class, in one episode makes Morgan a princess outfit for a play, etc., and somehow finds time for a career off-screen. Alan works at the grocery store in the day, comes home at night and works on a few extra things, and he’s Superman for it.
Not to minimize what I’m sure is a difficult job as manager, in addition to various household tasks, but it’s not any more inhuman to accomplish than his wife’s work. Boy Meets World keeps with the traditional model of the family with the father as breadwinner and mother as homemaker and with it the show keeps the sexist understanding of the father’s work as more important. As Amy is the wife, she is just assumed to be doing basic household tasks and taking care of the kids because that is considered to be the default of women and mothers. This is further illustrated in another episode where Cory mocks Topanga’s family because her father performs household chores that would traditionally be considered women’s work. The message seems to be that fathers are supposed to work professionally and it’s admirable that they do it and do things at home, just so long as the things are manly enough, while mothers are supposed to do things at home, which isn’t all that admirable because it’s just the status quo, and it’s cool and admirable if they want to work professionally as well. So, in the end result Cory’s dad is Superman, while his mom is just a woman.
In conclusion, “On the Fence” and other episodes of the first season of Boy Meets World have elements of sexism where the mother’s work is valued less than the father’s. Boy Meets World’s problems aren’t limited to the first season, but discontinuity changes the characters enough that I consider the first season practically a different show entirely and it should generally be addressed on its own. Now, I’m sure the writers were trying to be progressive by having Amy have a professional career in addition to working as a homemaker, so I don’t think they’re completely sexist; however, the character is ultimately disrespected by having Alan’s work valued higher than hers.
P.S. I would like to make a plug for the Boy Meets World message board community here. It’s mostly dead, which is a real shame, as it was a great board once. Liven it up, please?

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