Feminism in the 1990's: A Full View Through Full House

By Amanda Cartigiano

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The media is surely to blame for many representations of sex and gender. We were taught through television and advertising for decades that sex and gender were synonymous, a construct that is only starting to be dismantled thanks (in part) to sociological research and informed pop media. Candace West and Don H. Zimmerman’s 1987 article, Doing Gender, was formative in the sociological idea that gender is not something we are, but rather something we do.  What I understand from this concept is that the idea of gender is strongly linked to behavior, skill, & ability in the social world. At the end of their empirical research, West and Zimmerman concluded that the interactions between the two children they studied clearly demonstrated a psychological understanding of discernable girl and boy identities, and when those ideas become instilled at early ages, we continue to live them, unless social changes come into effect without our daily lives.

Modern gender roles that we typically associate with either men or women were initially constructed in the 1950s, when industrialization and war were a formative part of society. Women cleaned, cooked, and took care of children, and men went to work with a briefcase and a metal lunch box. Now, unless you’re watching a rerun of Leave it to Beaver, it’s rare to see these behavioral patterns anymore. Many roles have changed, and many people are now subverting traditionally-gendered activities. For instance, many men now participate in domesticity, and many women have infiltrated professional spheres that were traditionally deemed “masculine”. These subversive behaviors are just some of the ways in which we adapt to a shifting  everyday life.

 The sociological framework of doing gender comes from symbolic interactionism, a phrase coined by George Herbert Mead, where our social expectations are determined by our gender; we perform certain roles because we’re taught that we need to in order to avoid social ostracism and fit in with the rest of society. Perhaps the 1990s was a decade to test these shifts in cultural and social atmosphere, which we can see in many popular culture references of the time.

Consider a 1992 episode of Full House titled, Girls Will Be Boys, where a six-year-old Michelle feels that her gender is to blame when she is excluded by her male friends. She temporarily goes through a “gender change”, which includes swapping her wardrobe, script, and toys (she once played with a doll, but switches to a toy gun). We see her adapting to the socially-constructed role and behaviors of a boy; pulling up her pants, wearing a leather jacket and deepening the tone of her voice. When one of the boys is injured, Michelle returns as nurse to the rescue, quickly changing back to a more nurturing tendency.  The boys do not know how to react to this sudden change, so they avoid her friendship. At such a young age, they don’t seem to know how to respond to gendered behavioral roles, because they are used to performing them instead of thinking about what they entail. While this show and episode are purely fictitious, it still brings about possible messages in relation to gender.

Thinking back to my childhood toys, I don’t recall any experience I had with gendered toys or sex segregation (Barrie Thorne 1995). The toys I received were chosen by my family, which I didn’t necessarily have to learn to like, it was just what came naturally to me. Speaking of toys, if you consider the store Build-A-Bear, especially the design and colors of the building and character options, it’s inviting for both girls and boys, making cross-sex play easier for children. It involves more gender neutral indicators and less segregation.

While gender equality seems to be a theme throughout Full House, the ages of the characters it effects is not. In one episode, Becky, a hard-working talk show host, comes home from work and expects to enjoy some alone with her husband, Jesse. But, he’s about to go out and attempt to find a job, so Becky replies with a response that makes the invisible steam expel from his ears; “Well, honey, I make more than enough money to support our family.” Jesse responds with, “Thanks for reminding me.” At this point Jesse feels belittled, shameful, and worthless that his wife is the breadwinner and he’s not. The real problem here has less to do with his unemployment and more to do with his internalized ideas of the masculine role. He believes in a certain pattern of male behaviors, or as Becky calls it, “stubborn macho pride.” Jesse believes he is the one who should be the primary financial provider , but Becky insists that what she’s doing is just as good as what a man can do.Though it’s not clearly visible, there are some instances where Becky identifies as a feminist, and this is one of them. What seems like a commonplace thing to say today would have been radical in the early 1990’s. This is a complete turn around of the gender roles from the industrialization age; perhaps Jesse finds it difficult to get on board because of his status as a “man’s man”. He’s taught that men have certain responsibilities, such as providing for his wife and kids, but when he’s told it’s not necessary, it diminishes his authority. In this example, Becky acts as a subversive force against traditionally constructed ideas of masculinity and femininity, setting up a pattern that Full House stuck with for the rest of its tenure.