In prime-time TV and in real life, America's working-class mothers find it tough to keep their heads above water while juggling their professional and personal lives.
Two current shows—Switched at Birth and The New Normal—show the paternalistic attitudes working mothers often face.
For Switched at Birth's working class single mom Regina Vasquez (Constance Marie), money is a particularly fraught issue. As the show's title suggests, her daughter was switched at birth with another. So though she has been raising teenage Daphne (who is deaf), her biological daughter Bay is being raised by the much wealthier Kathryn and John Kennish. Regina and Daphne had been scraping by for years, but once they accept help from the upper middle class Kennishes (including their guest home and a job opportunity for Daphne), they both start to bristle.
TV shows House of Cards and Parks and Recreation both point important real-world dynamics. While young men have a wealth of male mentors to choose from—as well as so-called old boy networks—young women have few gender-specific examples of what success looks like.
On these shows, we see two examples of young women looking up to a singular older, female role model: House of Card's cub reporter Zoe (Kate Mara) admires rich nonprofit chief Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) and Parks and Rec's city hall staffer April (Aubrey Plaza) has Councilwoman Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) to thank for much advice and career help.
On television and in real life, home health aides are an underpaid, overworked, and invisible workforce. Like Elisa (Salma Hayek) on season three of 30 Rock, they feed, bathe, cook, and clean for the nation's elderly folks and people with disabilities in their homes. Yet these workers struggle to make ends meet; on average, they make less than $10 an hour. They receive no overtime pay, and their work can often be physically demanding. Moreover, home health aides work in private residences where their labor receives little oversight and where they lack a support network to help them advocate for better compensation. And these injustices to home health aides matter now more than ever because—guess what?—with a growing elderly population, it's the fastest growing occupation in the U.S.
So while Elisa's plight is played for laughs against Jack's one-percenter lifestyle, the sitcom offers a surprisingly frank glimpse of an undervalued workforce, one that's comprised overwhelmingly of women and women of color—and one that hides in plain sight in homes all across America.
Onscreen, young women of color with immigrant parents are often far from traditional. Consider All-American Girl's Margaret Kim (Margaret Cho), Grey's Anatomy's Callie Torres (Sara Ramirez), The Office's Kelly Kapoor (Mindy Kaling), and Elementary's Joan Watson (Lucy Liu). Though these characters' parents are from various socioeconomic backgrounds and countries of origin, these young women all strive to balance their parents' expectations with their own expectations against the backdrop of society's often sexist and racist assumptions. And though these are some of my favorite characters on television, their experiences often veer from those of real-life second-generation immigrant women.
On the New Girl episode "Table 34," Cece (Hannah Simone) attends an Indian marriage convention hoping to meet an Indian guy for a long-term relationship. She had been with lovable douchebag Schmidt (Max Greenfield) but wants to date someone whom her Indian-born parents will approve of. When her friends hear about the convention, they decide that they want to check it out, too—though only Schmidt dresses like, in Winston's words, "the fortune teller in Big." At the convention, she has to fill out an application including her resume. The event hostess seats her at Table 34, which is clearly the losers' table. Has there been some mistake? The event organizer says, "Over 30 [years old], no advanced degrees, part-time employment. Table 34." Cece replies that she's a professional model, "I was in Lil Wayne's last video. I was the girl he was throwing strawberries at in slow motion?" The woman says, "Definitely Table 34."
Fashion model Cece is downwardly mobile compared to her parents, but she hopes that landing an Indian man will help her gain their approval.
Ever since The Mary Tyler Moore Show debuted in 1970, young, independent single women on TV have flocked to the cities to pursue their careers. But Mary Tyler Moore made it big in Minneapolis. In more recent single lady sitcoms—Cagney & Lacey, Living Single, Friends, Felicity, Sex and the City, 30 Rock, Ugly Betty, Don't Trust the B----- in Apt. 23, Girls, and The Carrie Diaries— storylines emphasizes that, for young, unattached, career-minded women, New York City is the only place to be. These shows suggest that, if you take your career seriously, you simply must move to Manhattan.
But conflating ambition, glamor, and New York City is has a major drawback: Living in New York is a lot easier for people who come from money. For working class girls like the title character of Ugly Betty, the dream will, more often than not, remain out of reach. If you have no trust fund, it will be hard to pay tuition to earn the "University of New York" diploma seen on Felicity's wall. If you need to support your family, there will be no hanging out at Indochine, like in The Carrie Diaries. If you need to pay off over $25,000 in student debt, Sex in the City's Fifth Avenue professional-outfit shopping sprees will remain a Manhattan myth.
On TV and in real life, there's a dearth of young women in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. While a few bygone shows exposed the barriers against geeks in general (think My So-Called Life's Brian Krakow, Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Willow, and Freaks and Geeks's Lindsay Weir), contemporary television shows fail to portray the bumpy path that exist specfically for young women male-dominated science and math career tracks. I say we need more characters like Willow.
Last week's episode of Parks and Recreation, "Women in Garbage", is fairly unique then, in showing women at work in a male-dominated career: takin' out the city's trash. In their own hilarious way, Parks & Rec focused on the fraught fight that needs to happen in order to undo a city's institutional sexism. In the episode, City Commissioner Leslie (Amy Poehler) discovers that very few women occupy jobs in Pawnee's public sector. She attempts to create a gender equality commission, but finds she's presiding over an all-male group—in April's (Aubrey Plaza) words, a "sausagefest."
In AMC's wildly popular Mad Men, administrative assistants are sexy secretaries in a male-dominated world. Sue in Veep and April in recent seasons of Parks and Recreation portray a slightly more empowering though still-tired trope: the sassy secretary. In real life, the role of administrative assistant is, statistically speaking, woman's work. But at a time when four out of ten recession-era postgrads are working whatever jobs they can, the reality is that assistant work has recently transformed from a job young women approach with ambivalance to a job that feels reliable in an uncertain economy.
It's surprising that we currently have so few female entrepreneurs on TV. In real life, women-owned businesses grew by 20 percent from 1997 and 2002. Sadly, the jump in female entrepreneurs hasn't been reflected on TV, which sends a dangerously inaccurate message to young female viewers. The lack of female entrepreneurs on television now suggests that men, not women, take care of business.
Onscreen, women struggle as unpaid interns but are saved by, in April's case, a surprise job opportunity in season two of Parks and Recreation. But in real life, about one in six 18-24 year-olds are unemployed and those who land coveted internships often go unpaid.