Giving Mothers a Human Side
The '70s still had a lot of standard supportive mothers, but there were some breakthroughs. In 1976, Alice debuted, with Linda Lavin playing a widow working as a waitress to support her son.
"In Alice, here was a mother who had to work, and we saw it," says Thompson.
In fact, the show focused more on Alice's interaction with "Kiss-My-Grits" Flo and the other denizens of Mel's Diner than it did on her parenting.
One Day at a Time, which premiered in December 1975, was about a divorced woman (Ann Romano, played by Bonnie Franklin) trying to bring up two headstrong daughters, pursue her own career and have a romantic life, too.
Ann was liberated, hot-tempered, and she didn't have all the answers (remember when older daughter Julie ran off with her boyfriend?).
"She was flawed in her parenting skills, she had her own personality and she didn't erase who she was for the sake of her kids," says Thompson.
But in the '80s, maternal perfection was back in vogue, as embodied by The Cosby Show's Clair Huxtable (Phylicia Rashad) — loving wife, attractive lawyer and supermom.
"Clair Huxtable is a throwback to Father Knows Best. In this case, it was 'Father and Mother Knows Best,' " says Thompson. "Clair Huxtable made Mrs. Brady look like chopped liver."
There were exceptions, as in the protagonists of Kate & Allie. Jane Curtin and Susan St. James played divorced moms who pooled their resources, sharing a home to make ends meet.
But for the most part, moms still fit a very conventional pattern, as evidenced by Maggie Seaver (Joanna Kerns) on Growing Pains and Elyse Keaton (Meredith Baxter Birney) on Family Ties.
"For all their modernity, these shows were incredibly old-fashioned in their presentation of the American family as heaven on earth and the American mother as angel," says Thompson.
Rosie the Riveting
The mom who broke the mold came swaggering on to the scene in 1988. Roseanne changed everything, says Mediaweek's Marc Berman, author of The Programming Insider, a daily newsletter.
"Roseanne was an ordinary housewife-slash-mother-slash-woman who's trying to make a living," says Berman. "She's very real."
Roseanne presided over a blue-collar family. Although she was happily married to Dan, she did not defer to him — in fact, the reverse was often true. She was loud, opinionated, but, as Thompson points out, "when all was said and done, she was a pretty decent parent."
Some of Roseanne's Domestic Goddess powers may have filtered down to Debra Barone (Patricia Heaton). While Everybody Loves Raymond, Debra isn't just a soothing background figure. "She's the glue that keeps that family together," says Berman.
Most television mothers now work outside the house, and that has done a lot to shake up TV family dynamics, says Cristina Pieraccini, professor of communication studies at the State University of New York at Oswego.
"I think the biggest change is that it's skewed toward the career woman much more so than it was in previous decades," she says.
And now, says Pieraccini, "Career women are not presented as they were in the '70s, as superwomen, but as women who have to try to balance [work, home and family] and sometimes have trouble balancing."
Berman sees Gilmore Girls as a good example. Fast-quipping, unconventional Lorelei (Lauren Graham) became pregnant at 16 and brought up daughter Rory (Alexis Bledel) alone.