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Gender in 1980s America

Gender in 1980s America

The General Social Survey, an ongoing survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Centre at the University of Chicago, gives an insight into how gender roles have changed in the United States. For many years, researchers have asked those surveyed whether they approve or disapprove of a married woman earning money in business or industry if she has a husband capable of supporting her. The results, which are illustrated on the diagram below, illustrate a clear change in values towards gender roles in the two decades between 1972 and 1993. In 1972, only 67.2% of those surveyed agreed that it was fine for a married woman to have a job if she had a husband capable of supporting her.

Gender in the 1980s


In the 1980s, magazines and advertisements increasingly started representing women working alongside men in business and industry, reflecting dominant values towards equality during this period. The magazine Working Mother is a good example of a publication that prominently featured these sort of representations. Although the magazine is filled with representations of women making macaroni and administering lice treatment, there are there are also a high proportion showing them taking an active role in business and industry. Articles such as ‘Surefire ways to wreck your own career’ and ‘C’mon kids, let me study!’ are a reflection of changing attitudes towards the role of women in society. Indeed, so too is the existence of a magazine titled Working Mother.

Below are several advertisements taken from New York Magazine and Working Mother. Describe each of these representations and what they suggest about gender roles in 1980s America.


Bill Cosby making dinner in ‘The Cosby Show’.

Bill Cosby making dinner in ‘The Cosby Show’.

The top rating television programs in the United States between 1985 and 1986 were The Cosby Show and Family Ties. Both sitcoms featured episodes which dealt directly with gender roles. In the 1985 episode of The Cosby Show called “Clair’s Case’, lawyer Clair Huxtable (Phylicia Rashād) defends her daughter in a case against a dishonest mechanic. During the episode, as Clair is fighting the case, Dr Cliff Huxtable (Bill Cosby) spends time at home looking after their children. Cliff, who is adept at housework and cooking, unsuccessfully tries to teach his children how to do housework.

In the opening sequence of the episode, Clair returns home from court, wearing a business suit and carrying a briefcase. She smiles at Cliff who is asleep on the couch with their daughter, Rudy (Keshia Knight Pulliam), is asleep on top of him. Cliff reveals that he’s been looking after their daughter most of the day. “Earlier today, Rudy and I had a disagreement about a cookie,” he explains, “she became enraged and attacked me.”

“I’m sorry I’ve been late the past few days but that case if finished now so things should be getting back to normal,” she tells her husband. Cliff offers to put Rudy to bed, telling his wife that he’s prepared a “lovely dinner” that’s waiting for her in the kitchen. In preceding decades, gender roles were far more defined. Men were expected to be breadwinners and women were expected to take care of domestic duties. A 1962 survey later published in the American Sociological Review found that 54.2% of those surveyed agreed that a wife shouldn’t expect her husband to help around the house after he’s come home from a hard day’s work. The representations in this episode, however, reflect a family unit where the responsibilities of looking after the house and children are shared by both husband and wife. Both Cliff and Clair are professionals who manage to balance their professional and home lives. “Cliff, you’ve made dinner three nights in a row,” Clair says. “And every meal’s been an adventure.” Cliff, who is almost a little too good in the kitchen and has been experimenting with rare dishes that involve “sliced turtle feet”, tells her to prepare for some exciting cuisine from Trinidad.

Clair answers a telephone call a case her daughter’s involved in against a dishonest mechanic. “Frank, you promised to take this to trial, I feel very strongly about this!” she says. “If you have to drop the case, I would appreciate it if you could send the work that you’ve done so far to me.” Her voice is authoritative and firm.  Clair decides to take the case on herself. “Somebody ought to nail his hide to the wall,” she says. “I mean, settlement out of court…that’s the easy way out. We’re talking about a guilty man here. And it’s not just that it’s our daughter. This man’s probably ripping people off night and day.”

In the following scene, Clair gives Sondra (Sabrina Le Beauf) a practice run through what is going to happen in the courtroom. Clair’s line of questioning is authoritative and aggressive, demonstrating her comfort and professionalism in the courtroom. Meanwhile, Cliff demonstrates his parenting skills by convincing Rudy that they should go to the museum.

“Don’t be afraid of sheets,” he says to Theodore, attempting to teach him how to make a bed. Cliff also explains how to mop the kitchen floor to his daughters. In the following scene, Cliff is in the kitchen wearing an apron and preparing dinner, parodying a television cooking show by putting on a falsetto and explaining the steps. The use of acting, mise-en-scene and dialogue throughout this episode reflect the values that men and women can both help around the house. “Cow’s tongue,” he declares gleefully, serving up his latest culinary creation.

The next scene opens with a shot of Clair sitting in the foreground wearing a business shirt and pouring over a pile of law books and papers. Asleep in the background, Cliff wakes up and they talk about the case. Clair has stayed up until two in the morning because she wants to go after the mechanics with “both barrels”.

During the court case the following day, acting contributes significantly to the representation of Clair as she prosecutes the case. “Have you ever made an unnecessary repair?” she asks, striding confidently towards the witness box. Clair’s professionalism as a lawyer is highlighted when the episode cuts to a shot of Cliff and another man sitting in the public gallery and make comments like, “She’s setting him up” and “She just drew blood.” The man sitting next to Cliff says that Clair is “sharp” after she tenders a piece of evidence.


The 1986 episode of Family Ties titled ‘Engine Trouble’ reflects dominant values towards gender equality in the mid-1980s. After their car breaks down on the side of the road, Elyse (Meredith Baxter-Birney) and Alex (Michael J Fox) decide to take a basic automotive course at a community college. “Mom? In an auto mechanics class?” Alex asks incredulously. “That’d be like you taking a class in embroidery.” Throughout the episode, Alex is a subject of ridicule because he doesn’t accept that his mother is capable of repairing cars. “Women don’t belong in an automotive class,” he tells his mother. “Men are just naturally superior in that field.” Elyse retorts with, “Maybe you can tell me why you couldn’t fix the car.”  The audience laughs and Alex is speechless for a moment. This laughter reflects the dominant value that women are equal to men by ridiculing Alex’s outdated opinions.

Alex takes the course to prove to his mother that he’ll be “twice the mechanic” that she is. When they arrive, Alex is asked to identify part of the engine. He stutters and stalls. “Uh, it’s name is derived…from the Latin root…carparicus,” he says.

When the teacher calls on Elyse, Alex tries to explain that she’s been “recently released from the kitchen” and wouldn’t be able to identify anything. Of course, Elyse steps forward and correctly identifies the carburettor. The teacher gets excited and says, “This lady is hot, she knows her way around the engine here!”

Later in the episode, one of Mallory’s friends ask Elyse for advice about his car. “Maybe the plugs are fouled or the injection system’s too rich,” she says. “Let’s go take a look.” Alex’s ineptitude is highlighted when he can’t reassemble a starter motor – the audience laughs as the camera pans across a table of parts, eventually revealing his puzzled face. “Women can do anything men can do,” he admits grudgingly at the end of the episode. “And should never be prejudged on the basis of sexual stereotypes.”