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From Lucy to Tami: The Evolution of the TV Mother

By on May 13, 2012

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz on I Love Lucy (Image © CBS)

The role of wife and mother, along with the expectations of a woman’s life in society, has changed much in the last 70 years, but that change has not always been reflected in the way motherhood is portrayed on television. I Love Lucy’s Lucy Ricardo, played by comedic legend Lucille Ball, was one of the first characters to give birth on TV, though not, as many assume, the very first—that honor goes to Mary Kay of Mary Kay and Johnny (a little something to keep in mind should you ever end up on Jeopardy). Lucille Ball was actually pregnant when the pilot episode of the series was filmed, but it was never alluded to, and the decision was made to avoid showing the character Lucy as pregnant—based on some backwards advice given to Desi Arnaz by an advertising executive. But when Lucy got pregnant again during the second season, by which time the show was a smash hit, the decision was made to write the pregnancy into the series, and Lucy became TV’s most celebrated mother. The character of Little Ricky even grew in real time, as Lucy juggled her responsibility as a mother with her dreams of stardom.

But, Lucy aside, the next several decades of television would be filled with mothers who never questioned their roles as housewives. The sitcoms of the 50’s and 60’s were filled with beautiful and beatific mothers like Donna Stone (Donna Reed), June Cleaver (Barbara Billingsley), and Carol Brady (Florence Henderson). These women seemed to live only to keep their house clean and their husbands happy, while dispensing sage advice to their beloved and polite children. These were women without an interior life, who may as well not have existed during the hours that their husbands or children were not at home.

Paul Petersen, Carl Betz, and Donna Reed on The Donna Reed Show (Image © ABC)

But during those years the world outside the glowing tube was changing. The feminist movement had empowered women to expect more from life, and to make their voices heard, and harsh economic realities drove more mothers into the workplace. The television mother of the 70’s reflected that change. Ann Romano (Bonnie Franklin), the lead character of the long-running sitcom One Day at a Time, was a single mother raising two headstrong teenage girls on her own and, significantly, Ann was a divorcee—not a widower like Carol Brady. She had made the decision to leave her husband and leave town in search of a better life. Ann was among the first mothers on television to be empowered in this way, but many more would follow, as television became more a mirror of society than an idealized version of a two parent, three child suburbia.

Phylicia Rashad and Keshia Knight Pulliam on The Cosby Show (Image © NBC)

The trend would continue into the 80’s and 90’s. As women began to climb the corporate ladder, television again reflected the change with strong mothers such as The Cosby Show’s Clair Huxtable. Clair was at once a goofy sidekick to her husband Cliff (Bill Cosby), a loving parent to her five children, and a partner at a successful law firm. She was also stern with her children in ways that had not been seen on television comedy before, for fear that the characters would seem shrill or unsympathetic. Her righteous dressing down of her daughter Vanessa for sneaking out to a rock concert remains one of the greatest parental freakouts in television history (“Here we think you’re lying in the floor of some burning building dying of asphyxia and you’re down in Baltimore, having big fun!”). Clair and Cliff’s down-to-earth parenting was a far cry from the easy resolutions of previous sitcom plots, and rang true to the experience of mothers and children everywhere.

In 1992 the character Murphy Brown (Candice Bergen), on the sitcom of the same name, found herself pregnant and chose (after much deliberation) to keep the baby and raise it alone. This led real-life Vice-President Dan Quayle to opine that Murphy’s choice was emblematic of the media’s mockery of fatherhood. The show seized on the speech, integrating it into the series and using the character’s career as a newswoman to respond directly to Quayle and showcase the ever-evolving types of families in America. Quayle looked like a fool, and found himself out a job soon after.

By the turn of the century television was changing, with series built around ever more complex and dualistic characters. The Sopranos was, in large part, built on the dysfunctional relationship between Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) and his mother Livia (Nancy Marchand)—though “dysfunctional” might not quite be the right term for a mother than puts a mob hit out on her son. But just as important to the series, especially after Marchand (and Livia) passed away, was Tony’s wife, Carmela Soprano (Edie Falco). Carmela looked the other way at her gangster husband’s activities as long as the money it generated was able to support her and their two children. Carmela may not have been a role model, but at least she was a fully realized character with a rich interior life—far removed from June Cleaver.

Connie Britton and Aimee Teegarden on Friday Night Lights (Image © NBC)

Now television reflects the realities of society and today’s motherhood—an often thankless role in which women must sacrifice, or at least balance, their aspirations against the good of the family unit. Tami Taylor (Connie Britton) on Friday Night Lights is a brilliant example of those twin urges. Tami is a loyal partner to her husband, Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler), and supports him in his career decisions. But Tami is also a superwoman blowing through both sides of Dillon, Texas like a hurricane. During the five seasons of the series Tami works as a guidance counselor, then as a principal, then again as a guidance counselor in an inner-city district after being pushed out of her position as principal for sticking to her beliefs. In a sense, Tami is as daunting a role model to the mother of today as Donna Stone was in her time—she’s just too perfect. But because Tami, unlike Donna, is a multi-dimensional character, we admire her struggle for respect. By the end of the series we see how those lessons have shaped her daughter Julie (Aimee Teegarden) into the same smart, strong woman as her mother—as great a tribute to the role of mother as has ever been featured on television. Lucy would have been proud.


  1. RTR

    May 14, 2012 at 5:15 pm

    Great article, but I’m not sure I agree with your initial premise that Lucy was somehow a role model for women. I thought the show was ridiculously sexist and her dreams of fame were treated like a punchline, rather than a true goal. Admittedly, I just hate that kind of comedy so I’m probably not the best person to ask.
    Also, technically Carol Brady was the first TV divorcee, at least in Sherwood Schwartz’s mind. The network wouldn’t let him confirm that on the show, but Sherwood said he wanted her to be divorced and made certain no reference was ever made to her being a widow, unlike Mike’s wife who was referred to as dead a couple times.
    I know way too much about the world’s worst successful sitcom.

  2. Matthew Guerruckey

    May 14, 2012 at 10:06 pm

    For my purposes I’m really just offering Lucy as context for the history of mothers in TV, as the first, but also as a character who was trying to go beyond her role – even if she was consistently knocked down to earth.

    I actually agree with your point. I don’t think Lucy was a viewed as a role model in the same way that Donna Reed or June Cleaver were. I think society’s expectations (and the expectations of the advertisers that were controlling content at the time) were for women to be happy with the stay at home role – which Lucy certainly wasn’t. I wouldn’t go quite as far as to say the show was sexist, but I certainly agree that it’s not particularly funny.

    Good catch on the Brady Bunch thing – I knew at least one of them referred to their dead spouse, and I’d always thought it was Carol.

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