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How Gender Roles are Portrayed in the “The Honeymooners”

Introduction

The Honeymooners (1955-1956) is an American based television show created and directed by Jackie Gleason. The sitcom is based on the inveterate comedy sketch of a similar name which has been part of Gleason’s variety show from the 1950s. The Honeymooners happens to be among the various American television shows highlighting the plight of working-class married couples in a non-idyllic and gritty manner. The program is quite popular not only in the United States, but also in other parts of the world particularly in Sweden, Norway, Poland and Canada. The half-hour series which first debuted in October 1955 on CBS was instantly rated as a success and the #2 show in the U.S during its first season. This was amid stiff competition from similar shows such as “The Perry Como which was being aired on NBC. However, the show was finally dropped after running 39 episodes due to a significant drop in ratings. Its final one was aired on September 22, 1956, when the characters were intermittently revived until 1978. The show presents an example of a working-class sit-com whose issues and themes reflect the conflicts that followed the post- world war social milieu. The Honeymooners deviate from other shows of that time by portraying a changing gender role in the society.

Discussion

In many of the television shows that were running in the 1950s, the characters relayed the culture of that time. For instance, women were portrayed as the stay at home people and their basic role was that of a housewife. In other words, men were mandated with the role of providing for the family while it was necessary for women to work. In these shows, boys were instilled the idea that they are required to adhere to strict norms if they have to be real men. Furthermore, there were clear differences between women and men and in the majority of these cases, women were considered subordinates. In majority of television shows of 1950s, the boy child was reared in an environment where real men were perceived as people who adhered to rigid norms. These TV shows displayed clear demarcations on the roles of men and women, with women as subordinate (Amato 187). This is far much different in the current perspective where women can now work as doctors, teachers, lawyers or find any other job that they want.

Prior to World War 2, the spheres of influence for men and women were clearly distinct and well defined. Women were considered house-keepers, care-givers, and child-bearers. Meanwhile, the household domain was basically ruled by men who were considered to be more resilient and tougher. Nonetheless, with the onslaught of WW11, the standards significantly changed. Consequently, roles that were conventionally held by men were gradually filled by women. Therefore, women’s skills were no longer confined to domestic chores (Oppenheimer 67). Not only did women out step their customary roles, but they also performed very well on the jobs and they excelled at it (Oppenheimer 21). This is basically what the producer seeks to highlight in the Honeymooners.

During the mid-1950s, the American culture was filled with images of an authoritative patriarch, satisfied middle-class family, and subordinate wives. However, according to Fiske, Gilbert, Danile & Gardner (64), these remained a connotation of cultural tension pertaining to the dominance of the male figure in the society. Majority of sitcoms, though repressed or rather, ignored the images of gender conflicts. Nonetheless, the Honeymooners brought this gender conflict to the surface and hence; diluted the image of the patriarchal male.

In the “Honeymooners” the Kramden family, Alice the wife and Ralph the husband, lives in the lower section of New York City. They also have neighbors who are also one of their good friends living upstairs, Ed Norton and Trixie. The men are portrayed as the providers as Ed works in the sewer while Ralph is a bus driver while women are staying at home mothers.

Jackie Gleason was as well interested in showing the gullibility side of men. Despite men being regarded as tough and resilient during the 1950s, they were also losers and gullible. For instance, in the “Honeymooners” Ralph Kramden is portrayed as a loser and lovable. Instead of working hard to achieve his desires, he is always looking for shortcuts and getting into rich-quick schemes in order to live a good life. Although by engaging in this behavior he means well for himself and his family, this foolishness eventually throws him and his wife into a worse situation. On the other hand, Alice Kramden is portrayed as exceptionally intelligent and glamorous (Gibron 1). This is perhaps an emphasis by the producer of this show that men can also fall into vulnerabilities and that there are those who are weaker than even women. In other words, it is not true that all men are clever, resilient and tough as projected that popular culture at that time.

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During post-world war consumerism, masculinity was highly defined by both on what a man earned and how he spent that money. There were expectations of men to bring home pricey items such as refrigerators, televisions, freezers, houses among others (Newman, and Elana 33). However, in the “The Honeymooners” the male characters living among the working class population are depicted as people with no capability of meeting the expectation of the society as it regards the consumer man. Furthermore, the show does portray a working-class population for the majority of the society at that moment who were not able to afford most basic “necessities”.

The representation of Ralph as a man who fails to meet the masculinity ideals in the society is manifested in various ways. Particularly, this is meant to highlight the new version of the male figure as one who is a lonely failure and frustrated (Sheehan 88). In addition, the intent of the show was to highlight the common perspective in the American community whereby; when a man failed to meet his “manly duties” he could take such frustrations out in his home life. Consequently, Alice, his wife was the main target and hence; the victim of his attempts to regain power (Sheehan 77). Ralph occasionally threatens to “Pow — straight in the kisser!” and one of this fine days “throw her right into the moon” Despite this, Alice is depicted as a tough woman who is not easily submissive to every whim of his man. For instance, she never calls her husband “sir” as other women used to do in that time. This toughness in her is also depicted when she remains unmoved during occasions when Ralph would threaten, rave and rant her by failing to do what she was instructed to. It is also interesting to note that Alice decides to seek for a job upon learning that her husband Ralph was among those laid off from his place of work as a bus driver. This was a deviation from the expectations of female gender in that culture.

In most occasions, Ralph is seen despising his neighbor Ed Norton for resorting to buying expensive items using credit. He is also fond of talking about the burdensome nature of some material commodities (Sheehan17). This was a ploy for him to protect his ego that despite him failing, there were still some excuses to hold on.

The intelligent and resilient part of Alice is further manifested when she successfully settles the disputes between her husband and his best friend. For instance, in episode 1, she says “Please grow up and stop acting like children for heaven’s sake”. In episode 14, she is again seen as calming them down “You two need to break this right now”. On the other hand, the tough side of Alice is also seen in the same episode (14), when her commands become more demanding than before. For example, she tells her husband “to stop talking nonsense regarding the issue of renting costumes”. Furthermore, she opts to defend herself from her husband’s intimidations when she strongly argues with him in episode 23. When Ralph commands her to get him his suffer, she retorts back, “You can get it yourself” (Honeymooners episode 23).

The capability and resistance of Alice is depicted in episode 14 where she refuses to oblige to her husband’s command to plunder their savings to buy a costume. In this scene, Ralph requests Alice to lend him $10 from their savings so that he can buy a costume for a contest. However, seeing this as making no sense, she refuses but offers alternatives instead. “Let me tell you what you need to do, take this tin can and go as Billy, the goat” (Honeymooners, episode 14) this simply shows that it is not only Ralph who has every say in the household, but Alice is also a great contributor. This is also an example of resistance between a wife and her husband which further proofs that resistance was no longer a gender oriented matter but which was also moving to the female caliber.

Conclusion

The show Honeymooners presents a simple dynamic on the relationship between a wife and her husband as well as the man and his best friends. However, a closer analysis presents a different perspective on the role and standing of women in the society away from the common perception of the same during that time. For instance, while women were considered to be meek, submissive, lesser intelligent and stay at home, one of the women characters, Alice is highlighted as being tough, more resilient, intelligent, hardworking and ready to do men’s roles. It also shows that women had capabilities to undertake the roles previous perceived to be the men’s area. The problem was that they were not being accorded sufficient opportunities to do so. Furthermore, women can be more successful in their roles as well as influence the success of men if given chance. These presents interesting insights those are worth exploring by other researchers and analysts.

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