How Much Have TV Moms Really Changed?

She doesn't do housework in an apron and pearls, but Sharon Osbourne may just be the modern incarnation of June Cleaver.

Wait a minute, you say: June Cleaver's conversation never got bleeped by censors, and she certainly never chucked a ham and bagels over the neighbors' fence.

But when it comes to the traditional television image of the mom, Sharon's got what it takes, says Robert Thompson, a professor of media and culture at Syracuse University.

Ozzy's wife may be a lot hipper and a lot weirder than the Leave It to Beaver matron, but Sharon is really the "moral and emotional" center of her foulmouthed family, says Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse.

"In many ways she's a lot like June Cleaver," he says. "She's the nurturing one."

After all, who called in the pet therapist to cope with the family's unruly animals? Not Ozzy. Here, it's clearly a case of Mother Knows Best.

Modern Moms and Dippy Dads

But as Sharon Osbourne illustrates, TV moms have moved from suburban perfection to a much more complicated world.

"The thing about Donna Reed and Father Knows Best and those types of mothers is that they all presented a consistent picture of what motherhood was," says Robert Billingham, a professor of human development and family studies at Indiana University at Bloomington.

And those mothers, in between baking brownies and deferring to dad, could always solve their kids' problems, no matter how daunting, in just one episode.

TV moms no longer have all the answers. In fact, some have become considerably dumber than their kids.

In the past, says Billingham, the mother might have played a secondary role to the father, but "both fathers and mothers were presented as very confident, very capable."

"Now, it's almost like the battle of the sexes is used as a kind of framework," he says.

He points to Malcolm in the Middle, where dad Hal (Bryan Cranston) is undeniably dippy. "The father is not real bright, and the more buffoonish he becomes, the funnier it is," says Billingham.

But of course Hal doesn't have to be on the ball, because wife Lois (Jane Kaczmarek) is all too aware that her four sons are up to something, and soon they'll be cowering at the sound of her enraged screams.

Groovy Moms

The TV mother has evolved considerably over the decades. "In the 1950s, we get the kind of mom epitomized by Leave It to Beaver, Father Knows Best, Ozzie and Harriet," says Thompson.

In the 1960s, he says, that model prevailed. "Shirley Partridge and Carol Brady were the closest thing we had to counterculture moms."

Carol Brady (Florence Henderson) was "a lot more groovy" than some of her predecessors, Thompson says. She wore mod prints and sported that snazzy shag 'do. And, she and Mike (Robert Reed) presided over a blended family.

But at the same time, Mike was the undisputed head of the household. Carol didn't work, and Alice handled all the domestic duties. Carol's job was to look pretty and dispense words of wisdom to the kids.

The Partridge Family mom was a little more daring. "It was an interesting show in that you had a widow, a family without a father figure, the closest you had was Reuben the agent," says Thompson.

Shirley Partridge (Shirley Jones) took her kids on the road in their converted school bus (with the sign: "Caution: Nervous mother driving") and was part of the band, but beneath those hip touches, "she also was kind of a standard mother," says Thompson.

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.

"Lorelei Gilmore, she's certainly a flawed person. She's not just sitting around," he says.

From Murphy Brown to Rachel Green

For Pieraccini, the acceptance of unwed mothers on TV shows how much things have changed.

When single newswoman Murphy Brown (Candice Bergen) gave birth out of wedlock back in 1992, then-Vice President Dan Quayle accused the character of "mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice."

A brouhaha over unwed mothers and family values ensued. But a little over a decade later, no one batted an eye when single Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) gave birth to baby Emma on Friends.

"When Murphy Brown did that, remember, all hell broke lose," says Pieraccini. But for Rachel, the reaction seems to be "it's her decision. If she wants to be a single mom and she can do it, sure."

Today, television mothers run the gamut from the passive to the dominating, says Billingham.

Malcolm in the Middle's Lois is unquestionably the primary force in that family. In According to Jim, Courtney Thorne-Smith's character seems to exist to look pretty and feed lines to hubby Jim Belushi.

"We have that really wide variety," says Billingham. "We're trying to figure out what is family."

And as for one of television's most colorful families, the Osbournes, Sharon is indeed the nurturer, but she plays the role with a lot more flair than Barbara Billingsley was allowed to instill in June Cleaver.

The Osbournes, Pieraccini points out, was structured around rock-star dad Ozzy, but Sharon, by dint of the force of her own personality, has become a breakout star.

"As the program has evolved, people have become enamored of Sharon," she says.

Reality shows like The Osbournes are really something of a separate beast, says Pieraccini, since the shows aren't scripted. But maybe that only illustrates Sharon's natural star power.

"Her appeal did evolve from her own personality."