From May 30-June 3, the 7th World Meetings of Families will be held in Milan. At a symposium this week to prepare for the meeting, entitled “Such a Family for Such a Society,” Bishop Enrico Dal Covlo drew attention to the role of the media in shaping the family:
“By way of a concrete example, what is the image of woman that emerges from the media today? The image of an ‘aggressive’ woman, who desperately pursues her personal fulfillment, at the cost of drastically reducing her presence and irreplaceable role in the family,” lamented the rector. “I am convinced that the conversion of our society, must pass through the conversion of women: It is necessary and urgent that women abandon this pernicious image of themselves, furnished and fueled by much of the media.”
I am not sure which particular portrayals of women the Bishop had in mind, but I hope we was not just referring to the fact that more and more women in movies and on television are portrayed as career-women, and successful ones at that, rather than domestic-goddesses and stay-at-home moms. Nor am I sure that the Bishop is aware that this “domestic-goddess” image of women sacrificing everything to take care of her family can be just as pernicious as the “aggressive” woman pursuing her personal fulfillment at all costs. The Bishop is surely right to highlight how the media shapes our societal views of women and the family, but I look around and see a variety of examples that show women in partnerships with their husbands as they try and help their family flourish without sacrificing their personal and professional ambitions.
My husband and I watch the show Up All Night, for example, which depicts a family where the woman, Reagan, is a high-powered producer of an Oprah-like talk show, while her husband Chris stays at home raising their baby daughter Amy after leaving a successful and lucrative job as an attorney. Reagan is by no means depicted as an “aggressive” career woman willing to sacrifice anything for the sake of her work. Her daughter Amy is often on the set of the show while Reagan (and the rest of the staff) keep an eye on her, and Reagan is constantly shown trying to balance her tendency to be a “helicopter mom” with the demands of her job. Her husband’s active involvement in raising Amy is what makes both possible. In a recent episode, Chris meets up with some old work buddies and begins to wonder if he should go back to work. He ends up deciding that while he loved his job and was good at it, he also loves being at home with his daughter during these formative years, and he’s even more successful as a dad. “This is what I do now,” he tells Reagan. It’s a beautiful alternative depiction of family life where marriage and parenting are both depicted as “partnerships.” Emily Spivey created the show after giving birth to a baby boy and having to balance also her desire to be a good mother with the demands of working at Saturday Night Live.
In the series Parenthood, Julia Braverman-Graham is a lawyer at a powerful corporate firm while her husband Joel also stays at home with their 7-year old daughter Sydney. Julia is depicted as incredibly committed to family, both immediate and extended, while also balancing the demands of her career. Once again, the “aggressive” career woman referenced in the Bishop’s statements is absent. Instead, we see a young couple willing to try alternative family roles in order to make both family and career work.
A recent episode of Parenthood (“Missing”) followed the decision of another woman, Kristina, to go back to work soon after the birth of her third daughter. Her job working on a political campaign is also demanding, and the whole family has to adjust to having two working parents. As she is preparing to leave her daughter with her sister-in-law before she heads off to her first day, she tries to express how she feels about the moment: “I do feel a little guilty,” she sighs. “Actually, I’m lying. I feel great. I got dressed up and I feel great.” Kristina thrives at work but unfortunately, her guilt builds after her son Max, who has Asperger Syndrome, disappears for the day. That night, she tries to come to terms with how she can keep her family together while she works. “We’re partners,” her husband tells her. “We just have to do better. We have to communicate better.”
Finally, Tina Fey’s relatively recent memoir Bossypants takes head-on the question of women in the workplace, refusing to accept either extreme of the “aggressive career woman” or the “stay-at-home mom.” She writes, “The moment most emblematic of how things have changed for women in America was nine-months-pregnant Amy Poehler rapping as Sarah Palin and tearing the roof off the place.” She also talks poignantly about the birth of her daughter Alice during the first season of 30 Rock:
After each fourteen-hour acting class was over, I would meet up with five or six writers at my apartment to catch up on what they had written during the day. During those early days we’d order food and work until one or two in the morning. My husband, Jeff, sat in what was meant to be a pantry and wrote music to score the show. We kept a video baby monitor next to the computer screen, and I could watch my daughter sleeping while we worked. I would excuse myself occasionally to change a diaper in the night. Usually for the baby. These will definitely be my happiest memories of this time, because everything I cared about was within ten feet of me.
This is not to say that women do not still struggle to balance personal ambitions with family life. But it is reassuring to see popular media slowly presenting alternative paradigms for womanhood which combine the possibility of a successful career and social life with a functioning and flourishing family. What is also important about all of these examples is the role of the husband who is never depicted as the hapless buffoon, unable to change a diaper or cook a meal, but usually as wildly successful professionally and socially. This image of men as utterly helpless in domestic affairs (along with the Don Draper-type man who is utterly absent from the domestic sphere) is just as hurtful to women as either of the extremes of womanhood presented above.
It is good that the Pontifical Council for the Family is attending to the portrayal of the family, and especially woman, in popular media and there is still a lot of work left to be done in this area. But part of social reform entails celebrating success, and I am heartened by how many positive signs I see for women in popular media today. I hope the members of the Pontifical Council can celebrate with me.