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How These 90s Sitcoms Disrupted The Patriarchal Family Structure

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Editorial Note:

Television has always found interesting way to push the envelope when it comes to depicting socially constructed identities. And one of the ways it does this is by imagining households that departed from expectations. For example ‘Modern Family’ walks us through gay parents and adoption. Similarly, ‘Transparent’ talks about dealing with an elder’s transition. Shows about families offer great insight into positive social changes, and the ‘90s had loads to offer in that department.

The willingness to experiment with family structures was very noticeable in ‘90s TV Programming. CBS’ 1993 show ‘The Nanny’ tackled class and cultural differences, female sexuality, sexist double standards and remarriage. Will Smith starrer ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,’ looked at intersections of race and class. Many of these shows were packaged specifically as ‘family shows’ (meaning they carried old or reworked cultural inscriptions about society). And why is this important? Well for that we have to understand the social phenomenon that is a family.

The Evolution Of A New Kind Of Family

Barring a few ‘pre-colonial’ societies, the traditional family unit has always been a sort of chariot for patriarchal power. The head of every house is the father, to whose authority the females and younger males must submit, and through whom property may be inherited. The hierarchies are a lot like another closely-related system – feudalism. In fact, Marxist-feminism notes how feudal society was defined by the ownership of property (both living and non-living), just as families are also defined by ownership and succession. And even when humans moved on from the feudal ages, this “patriarchal family,” as Sir Henry Sumner Maine called it, survived. And it was no happy accident that it bolstered (and was bolstered by) socio-economic structures around it.

So the traditional family unit effectively disempowers all ‘social inferiors’ of cisgender and able-bodied men. But it also boxes cis men into the role of the punishing or ‘benevolent’ patriarch, demanding from them a masculinity that may be the furthest thing from their natures. What would happen if you could reform the structure of the ‘family’, and challenge the ‘roles’ predetermined for its members? Would you have a more inclusive and equitable kind of family? In many ways, television set out to answer this question by imagining unconventional households.

Full House: This House Believes That Dads Are Also Good Parents

One of TV’s most beloved sitcoms of all time, ‘Full House’ follows Danny Tanner as he raises three daughters with the help of his friend Joey Gladstone, and his Elvis-loving brother-in-law Jesse Katsopolis. While Danny works mornings as an anchor, the two other men pursue careers that were out-of-the-ordinary – a comedian and a musician. And all three of them got together on our screens to debunk the myth that men don’t make good caregivers.

(Image Source: Tumblr)
(Image Source: Tumblr)

Full House’ also made the case for this alternative parenting through the Tanner sisters – DJ, Stephanie and Michelle. The girls grow up in a home where gender-roles were put down the garbage-disposal (possibly by Danny and his yellow kitchen gloves). In their home, it was the men who did the house-work, helped with school and taught them about acceptance, loss, gratitude, self-worth and more. Raising kids is tough work, and the show covers all the major speed-bumps – whether it’s addressing issues of peer-pressure (Stephanie vs. smoking in “Fast Friends”) or eating disorders (DJ’s crash diet in the episode “Shape-Up”) or big medical challenges (Michelle’s amnesia in “Michelle Rides Again”). But there was always a support system ready to handle all of this with love and sensitivity.

And even though they didn’t have their mom around to complete the ‘traditional’ family unit, they all turned out pretty great! Better, even, than most kids. Remember the episode “Silence is not Golden”? Child services had to rescue Stephanie’s classmate from an abusive father, the kind of father that the men of the Tanner household refused to be.

The show’s writers were obviously pushing for a new kind of masculinity with Danny, Jesse and Joey, who were the furthest thing from the gruff, authoritarian, emotionally-distant father-stereotype, while still acknowledging that oppressive patriarchs existed. And it sure didn’t hurt to have a strong, career-oriented female role model in Aunt Becky! Thanks to this sort of upbringing, there’s some pretty compelling evidence that Michelle Tanner would have grown up to be a feminist.

Now, while Full House was new in a lot of ways, it was still based on blood relations for the most part. But shows in the ‘90s were all about redrawing boundaries and watching them play out.

Living Single: When Friends Become Family

In 1993, before ‘Friends’ ever became a thing, and waaaay before ‘How I Met Your Mother’ was even thought of, Fox Studios produced ‘Living Single’, a show about four black professionals living together in New York. It starred hip-hop’s feminist icon Queen Latifah as Flavour Magazine editor Khadijah James, Kim Coles as Khadijah’s ditzy cousin Synclaire, Erika Alexander as a cut-throat lawyer, and Kim Fields as the outgoing boutique buyer Régine Hunter.

It’s clearly no ‘Full House,’ where some members are dependent on others. But the dynamics between these four women supports the idea that friends are the family you choose. The traditional family was a fixed unit – even if you happened to throw adoption into the mix. But shows like ‘Living Single’ took a crack at presenting a more fluid understanding of family, and in this case, a family that’s all about black-sisterhood.

Living Single,’ which won the NAACP Image Award for best comedy series, has unapologetic feminist overtones. There’s a Rosie the Riveter poster in Khadijah’s office. Maya Angelou and women’s rights find mention in the very first episode. And the writing hits out at beauty standards (“all this for men we don’t even have!” Synclaire observes), internalized misogyny and disrespectful men.

via GIPHY

It also does a pretty good job with the theme of female-bonding and looking out for your sisters. I mean, the refrain from the theme song is: “In a nineties kind of world, I’m glad I got my girls.” Sure all four women snipe at each other every now and then, but they care deeply for one another, especially where opportunistic men are concerned.

One of the most representative exchanges from the show has to be this one:

Régine: All I want is the best. I mean, all I want is a man that knows that fine wine doesn’t come with a twist off cap.

Khadijah : You know, I don’t know how you got to being so snooty. You ain’t but one generation out the Projects your damn self.

Régine: So what, I’m not supposed to want more?

Max: Of course. You can get it on your own. You can do anything, you’re a woman.

Synclaire: Hear you roar!

Max’s character must have been hugely cathartic to write, and even more cathartic to watch when actor Erika Alexander delivered unforgettably incisive lines like “Men are nothing but speedbumps on the road to happiness,” or “eventually we all get crushed by the male libido.”

While Max is most identifiable as the show’s womanist voice, Khadijah, Synclaire and Régine are equally valuable representations of it. Womanism, a term coined by Alice Walker, was an alternative to upper-middle-class and vanilla feminism of the ‘70s and ‘80s. ‘Living Single’ presented this new womanist family as a powerful alternative to the white-picket-fence-white-nuclear-family that the United States is supposedly built on. Though the show’s creator (and first African-American woman to develop her own show) Yvette Lee Bowser insists that “humor doesn’t really know colour,” using laughter to mainstream black lives and experiences was a pretty effective tactic, carving out a space in white-dominated pop culture.

Having bands of unrelated persons living under the same roof set the precedent for many things. Live in-relationships between unmarried men and women. Civil unions between queer partners. Young unattached women who are dedicated to their careers and to themselves. Watching these unconventional family sitcoms on our TV screens can certainly help us look more closely at the patriarchal family unit and imagine better systems of support. And it’s always nice to have a few good laughs thrown into the mix.

To read about how ‘Gilmore Girls’ broke stereotypes and Redefined female bonding, click here.

Read more stories from ‘The 90s Were Great Because’ here.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

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Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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