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The Insidious Messaging Behind All those Male Housekeeper Sitcoms in the 1980s

By Dustin Rowles | TV | September 21, 2020 |

By Dustin Rowles | TV | September 21, 2020 |


I woke up with the Charles in Charge theme song stuck in my head this morning, which is a really unfortunate way to wake up because it also means waking up to mental images of Scott Baio and Willie Aames. In an effort to exorcise the theme from my head, I decided to watch it on YouTube.

Watching it led me to the realization that the mother in Charles in Charge was played by Sandra Kerns, which naturally led me to wonder if she was related to Joanna Kerns, who played the mother in Growing Pains, and who also bears a lot of resemblance to Judith Light, the “Boss” on “Who’s the Boss.” In fact, all three of them also bear a strong resemblance to Ilene Graff, the mother on Mr. Belvedere. (Joanna and Sandra, by the way, are not related, although Joanna Kerns’ sister was an Olympic swimmer).

Now, if you’re like me and you were very young when Charles in Charge, Mr. Belvedere, and Who’s the Boss (which is being revived) were on, you probably have little but fond recollections for those cheesy sitcoms of your youth (all three of which lived in syndication for years after their original runs in the ’80s).

You might even think, notwithstanding Scott Baio’s public life, “Oh, how progressive! Those sitcoms featured men in domestic roles!” But if you think about it, really, it’s just the opposite. I never really put it all together, but I asked my wife, “Why did they have all these sitcoms with male housekeepers in the ’80s? What were they trying to say? And why were the mothers all of the same mold?” My wife, in turn, pointed me toward Susan Faludi’s book, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, and while I didn’t read the book in its entirety this morning, I got the gist, and yeah: It makes perfect sense.

I’m sure this is super obvious to a lot of women, but for some of us who have been living in ignorance for the last several decades, this is brand new information. Basically, Charles in Charge, Mr. Belvedere, and Who’s the Boss were conservative reactions to the feminist movement, and they functioned in two ways. First, they were designed to illustrate that all of these women, by virtue of gaining positions of authority in the workplace, necessarily were bad mothers. They are always depicted as harried and flustered and too busy to cook, or clean, or raise their kids properly. Feminist = bad mom.

Meanwhile, when these professional women failed at raising their kids, who did they bring in to solve all of their problems? Men, of course. Given the opportunity, men could do it all: They could raise the kids, make the meals, and offer the sage advice. They were better mothers than mothers. When the title of the ABC sitcom asks, for instance, Who’s the Boss?, it’s clear that Angela Robinson Bower, the advertising executive with all the money and the two last names, decidedly is not the boss. The man is the boss, even if he is the housekeeper, and the same goes for Charles and Mr. Belvedere. They ran the house, because society insisted on coddling men, and reinforcing their beliefs that women were ill-equipped to simultaneously handle professional and domestic duties, and the only way to square it was to hire a man to take care of them.

The ’80s were super f**ked up, y’all.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

Header Image Source: ABC