"Television and the Feminine Mystique"

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Editor: Cynthia Rose
Date: 2004
American Decades Primary Sources
From: American Decades Primary Sources(Vol. 7: 1960-1969. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Article; Excerpt; Topic overview
Pages: 4
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Page 396

"Television and the
Feminine Mystique"

Magazine article

By: Betty Friedan

Date: February 1–8, 1964

Source: Friedan, Betty. "Television and the Feminine Mystique." TV Guide, February 1–8, 1964, 273–275.

About the Author: Betty Friedan (1921–) was born Betty Goldstein. She graduated from Smith College in 1942 and married Carl Friedan in 1947. After publishing the revolutionary book The Feminine Mystique (1963) about American society's treatment of women, she became a leader of the women's liberation movement. She cofounded the National Organization for Women (NOW) and spearheaded the movement for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.

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When Betty Friedan's book The Feminine Mystique appeared in 1963, it exposed a cluster of myths about the American woman that had built up during the postwar years by social scientists, psychologists, educators, and marriage counselors. The "mystique" involved a definition of woman solely in terms of her roles as "wife, mother, love object, dishwasher, and general server of [her man's] physical needs." Friedan's book helped debunk the notion that women found fulfillment through "sexual passivity, loving service of husband and children, and dependence on men for all decisions in the world outside the home." Friedan was the first writer to show how the prevailing stereotype misrepresented the reality of women's lives in an America where by the 1960s 24 million women were working outside the home.

The success of the book led TV Guide to ask Friedan to examine the image of womanhood presented on television entertainment shows. Friedan's research involved scores of interviews with producers, writers, network decision makers, and advertising executives as well as viewing the shows that millions of American women watched each week. She found that on the one hand, television commercials, situation comedies, soap operas, and game shows were presenting an image of the American woman as a "stupid, unattractive, insecure little household drudge who spends her martyred, mindless, boring days dreaming of love and plotting nasty revenge against her husband. " On the other hand, dramas, documentaries, and news programs had no image of women upon which to comment because women were nonexistent in what they had to offer the viewing public.

Friedan also offered a thorough analysis of why situation comedies presented domestic married life as fundamentally a battle between the sexes. She suggested that American women resented their roles in life being automatically restricted to those of wife and mother and that it was as a result of this discontent that they spent all their time plotting revenge on their husbands. If television offerings reflected women's real-life achievements and accomplishments, then there would be a closer match between life on the small screen and the real life of America. This in turn would make it more likely that women would see themselves as fit for more than just domestic chores and service to their husbands.


While Friedan found that television left much to be desired in the way it portrayed the American woman, it was nevertheless true that by the mid-1960s some successful, intelligent, and disciplined female characters were to be seen on the small screen. In 1960, just five women had their own television shows: Shirley Temple
Barbara Feldon starred with Don Adams in the television series Get Smart from 1965 to 1970. Feldon played the role of the savvy Agent 99, in contrast to Adamss bumbling Agent 86.  BETTMANNCORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. Barbara Feldon starred with Don Adams in the television series Get Smart from 1965 to 1970. Feldon played the role of the savvy Agent 99, in contrast to Adams's bumbling Agent 86. © BETTMANN/CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. Black, Dinah Shore, Loretta Young, Barbara Stanwyck, and Donna Reed. But after Friedan's book hit the bestseller lists, television showed signs of gradual change. In fairly short order, Barbara Eden was to be seen giving Larry Hagman fits in I Dream of Genie, while Elizabeth Montgomery was doing the same to Dick York in Bewitched. Barbara Feldon appeared in Get Smart as the unforgettable Agent 99 who was an incomparably more efficient spy than the bumbling Agent 86 named "Max," played by Don Adams. Meanwhile Ann Francis played a female detective in Honey West, while the free-spirited Gidget appeared the next year, together with Tammy Grimes playing an offbeat kind of "gal pal." In 1967, Marlo Thomas debuted in That Girl and Sally Field became The Flying Nun, both of whose leading characters were role models for independent young women at the time. The year 1968 brought viewers Diahann Carroll as the single working mom of Julia, while Carol Burnett began her tremendously successful variety show during that same year. But the show that most classically portrayed a single professional woman who "makes it after all" was The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which debuted in 1970 and went on to be the signature situation comedy of that Page 398  |  Top of Article
A publicity shot for the TV show Mr. Novak, a 1960s drama set in a school. Betty Friedan questioned why programs like Mr. Novak did not feature stronger, female characters.  BETTMANNCORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. A publicity shot for the TV show Mr. Novak, a 1960s drama set in a school. Betty Friedan questioned why programs like Mr. Novak did not feature stronger, female characters. © BETTMANN/CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. decade. At the same time, both Moore and Burnett became the heads of successful production companies. Clearly the image of the American woman presented on television changed significantly during the 1960s. Perhaps this evolution was due in no small measure to the impact of Betty Friedan's book and the research that came out of it.

Primary Source: "Television and the Feminine Mystique" [excerpt]

SYNOPSIS: In this TV Guide article, feminist Betty Friedan examines the images of women on network television programming and issues a call for "some heroines," female characters who function in roles other than that of housewife.

Why is there no image at all on television of the millions and millions of self-respecting American women who are not only capable of cleaning the sink, without help, but of acting to solve more complex problems of their own lives and their society? That moronic housewife image denies the 24,000,000 women who work today outside the home, in every industry and skilled profession, most of them wives who take care of homes and children too. That image also insults the millions of real American housewives, with more and more education, who shape U.S. culture, politics, art and education, by their actions in PTA, League of Women Voters and local political parties, and who help to build libraries, art galleries and theaters, from Detroit to Seattle, and even strike for peace.

Why for instance, isn't one of the leads in a program like Mr. Novaka woman teacher? I asked MGM executive producer Norman Felton. He explained: "If you have a woman lead in a television series, she has to be either married or unmarried. If she's unmarried, what's wrong with her? After all, it's housewives we're appealing to, and marriage is their whole life. If she's married, what's her husband doing in the background? He must not be very effective. He should be making the decisions. For drama, there has to be action, conflict. If the action is led by a woman, she has to be in conflict—with men or women or something. She has to make decisions; she has to triumph over opposition. For a woman to make decisions, to triumph over anything, would be unpleasant, dominant, masculine. After all, most women are housewives, at home with children; most women are dominated by men, and they would react against a woman who succeeded at anything."

But that housewife in the family situation comedies in only too unpleasant, dominant and masculine. She is always triumphing, not over forces in the outside world, but in that endless warfare against her own husband or children. "In comedy it's all right," Felton said. "You're not supposed to take her seriously; you laugh at her." Could there be a serious drama about a woman in the home, a housewife? "We couldn't make it dramatic—and honest," he said. "Most of a housewife's life is too humdrum. If you showed it honestly, it would be too dull to watch. Maybe you can get away with it in a hospital. After all, how many dramatic cases does a doctor or lawyer have in a year? But if you tried to do it with a housewife, no one would believe it. Everyone knows how dull the life of a housewife really is."

Thus, if television's only image of women is such a "dull" housewife, there is, in the end, no action or dramatic conflict she can engage in except that warfare with her own husband or children. Unless she gets sick and goes to the hospital, where she can die nobly of a brain tumor. "It makes sense that women are only figures of comedy," said Madelyn Martin, writer of Lucy. "When you think of traditional figures of comedy—the short guy, the ugly one, the Page 399  |  Top of Article man with the big nose, the Negro or Jew or member of any minority group—comedy is a way of turning their misfortune into a joke. It's a way of being accepted—'Look at me, I'm funny' and 'Don't anybody laugh at me, I'll laugh first.'"

If women are the one majority in America that resembles an oppressed minority, it's not because of actual deprivation of right, or opportunity, or human dignity, but simply because of that self-ridiculing image—the mystique of the mindless female, the passive housewife, which keeps girls and women from using their rights and opportunities and taking their own lives seriously, in time. In an examination scene in a Mr. Novak episode, a high school girl takes the blame for her boy friend's crib sheet to protect his future as a would-be physicist. "It's all right," she says, "let them blame it on me. I'm not going to college or anything. it won't matter to me." Why doesn't it matter to her, her own life and future? Why, in high school, does she already play the martyred, passive wife? No need to work or study in school herself, or plan her own future, the image says. All she has to do is get that boy to marry her—the sooner, the better—and he'll take care of her life.

Do anything you can to hook that man, all those images of women on television say, because you aren't or can't be a person yourself. But without studying, or working, or doing anything yourself, you can be a "housewife" at 18. And get all those expensive things for wedding presents, just like Queen for a Day—a lounge chair, a dishwasher, a whole set of china, baby furniture, even a free trip to the beauty parlor every week.

Is it a coincidence that millions of real girls who have grown up watching television—and seeing only that emptily "glamorous" housewife image of women—do not, in high school, have any goal of their own future except being such a passive housewife? Is it partly from lack of any self-respecting image of a woman as a person herself that so many stop their own growth in junior high to start that frantic race to "trap" a man, get pregnant in high school, or quit college to take a "housework" job in industry, to put their husbands through medical or engineering school. By seducing real girls into evading the choices, efforts, goals, which would enable them to grow to maturity and full human identity in our society, television's image of women is creatingmillions of unnecessarily mindless, martyred housewives, for whom there may never be a thrill or challenge greater than the dirty kitchen sink.

These new teen-age housewives—the growth-stunted young mothers who quit school to marry and become mothers before they grow out of bobby socks themselves—are the female Frankenstein monsters television helped create. And they may writhe forever in that tedious limbo between the kitchen sink and the television game show, living out their century-long life ahead, in a complex world which requires human purposes, commitment and efforts they never ever glimpsed. How long can even television channel their pent-up energies into vicarious love affairs with Dr. Kildare, vicarious revenge against that husband who is surely not their real enemy?

How long will boys and men love women, if this nasty, vengeful martyr is their only public image of woman, and becomes an increasingly vengeful private image? The female Frankenstein monsters, after all, are created by the minds of men. Does the new plethora of widowers, bachelor fathers, and unmarried mature men on television, who pay a maid or house-boy, or soon perhaps, a robot to get the household drudgery done, signify unconscious rebellion against that "housewife" altogether? Do they really want her for a wife? One suddenly realizes that there are no real love stories on the television screen—in the sense of the love stories that one can still see in the old movies with Ingrid Bergman, Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Claudette Colbert and all the rest. No love stories, no heroines—only those housewife drudges, the comic ogres who man the war between the sexes.

Television badly needs some heroines. It needs more images of real women to help girls and women take themselves seriously and grow and love and be loved by men again. And television decision-makers need to take real women more seriously—not for women's sake but for their own. Must women only be used as diaper-and-pot-holders for the male news commentators? Must they be shown only as paid or underpaid dishwashers for fear of making real housewives uncomfortable?

Further Resources


Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: Dell, 1983.

——. It Changed My Life: Writings on the Women's Movement. New York: Random House, 1976.

Haralovitch, Mary Beth, and Lauren Rabinowitz, eds. Television, History and American Culture: Feminist Essays. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1999.


Garber, Amy. A Bibliography of Women on Television. Available online at http://hoover.mcdaniel.edu/studentlist/garber.htm ; website home page: http://hoover.mcdaniel.edu (accessed March 24, 2003).

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3490201355