Claire Dunphy and the Serious, High-Strung, Sexless Moms on TV
Ever since ABC's Modern Family first aired back in 2009, I've had a soft spot for Claire Dunphy, the high-strung wife and mother of three who seems to constantly be looking around, thinking, Is this really happening? Is this my life? I'm not a wife or a mom, but I get Claire. Maybe it's because I've been described by a former boss and more than one former boyfriend as a little too type A. (To which I give a resounding what-the-hell-ever. Shaming a woman for being too on top of her life is like getting mad at somebody for being too nice to you.) Maybe it's that now, as a women in my 30s who's getting closer to (maybe) having kids, I notice more and more that women who also happen to be mothers are often stripped of their sexuality in popular culture, and this equal parts freaks me out and annoys me. Or maybe I just don't like seeing the stereotype of the "crazy" "neurotic" woman perpetuated further. Claire has plenty of reason to be stressed out. Her husband still practices magic tricks, for goodness sake.
Despite the fact that Claire (who is expertly played by actress Julie Bowen) is thin and blond—two desirable traits, at least in our culture—the character is largely desexualized. In one of the rare moments we see Claire as a sexual being and not pulling her hair out like a maniac, she is pretending to be someone else. The unoriginal plotline goes like this: To spice things up, Claire and her husband, Phil, meet at a hotel bar and take on alter egos, leading to the kind of satisfying sex the show's creators hint long-term couples can't have without faking it. Claire not only has to leave her home, she has to actually turn into someone else to express herself sexually. In an episode of the show that aired for Valentine's Day last month, Claire finally gets upset over the fact that Phil seems to desire the fake her more than the real thing.
Before you think I'm totally humorless, let me say that I get it—this is a fictional show, and more than that, it's a comedy. We are supposed to laugh as Claire pretends to be Juliana, a sexy, markedly childless woman who wants Phil to take her up to her hotel room and do bad things to her. The kind of things you apparently can't do to the mother of your children, or at least that's what the show's creators seem to suggest. But that doesn't make much sense: In real life, happily married couples are not just doing it missionary, in the dark, totally silent. Twenty-two percent of women in their 30s report having had anal sex in the past year, one percent more than women in their mid- to late 20s, according to The Kinsey Institute. As far as oral sex is concerned, the data suggests that perhaps those who giveth also receive: While women in their late 20s were more likely to have given oral sex to a partner in the past year (76 percent, compared to 59 percent for women in their 30s and 53 percent for women in their 40s), they were also more likely to have had a partner perform oral sex on them. Women ages 30 to 49 were almost exactly as likely to have given oral as they were to have received it. I don't know about you, but I just call that smart math.
Many female characters on television who are also married and/or mothers would lead us to believe that married women aren't interested in sex, or if they are, it's only on occasion—an anniversary, his birthday, celebrating a promotion. But that's also an inaccurate portrayal. Data published by the Kinsey Institute suggests that married couples sustain active sex lives well beyond the first few years. Eighty-five percent of married women in their late 20s reported having sex several times a month or weekly, and 37 percent have sex two or three times per week or more. The numbers drop for women in their 30s and 40s, but not by as much as we've been made to think: 77 percent of married women in their 30s have sex roughly once a week or more, with 27 percent reporting a frequency of two or three times per week or more. For women in their 40s, those numbers dip ever so slightly, with 71 percent saying they have sex about one a week, and 24 percent engaging in sex more than twice a week.
So then why all the sexless moms on TV? For every unmarried, sans child Olivia Pope—and there are plenty of strong female characters on the small screen these days—there's a Claire reminding us that the grass is so not greener. She's hardly alone. In recent years, we watched Debra Barone (played by Patricia Heaton) of Everybody Loves Raymond complain about her mother-in-law in between stints of vacuuming. (Nagging plus cleaning does not equal foreplay.) It's possible we were never meant to see Lily Aldrin (Alyson Hannigan) of How I Met Your Mother as attractive; in contrast to her struggles as a wife and new mom, the prettier, more desired Robin Scherbatsky (Cobie Smulders) found out she was unable to have children and pours herself into her career. Even the cartoon wives and moms—Lois Griffin of Family Guy, Linda Belcher of Bob's Burgers—seemed to have had the estrogen sucked out of them. For characters who could have been created wearing anything, their makers chose dated haircuts, high-neck blouses, and the kind of pants that make you realize where the term "mom jeans" stems from. Adding insult to animated injury, the character most infatuated with Lois is Brian, the family dog.
I want to see a female character who's married with children, but who's not like Peggy Bundy from Married...with Children. I want her talk about the fact that she masturbates, like Elaine from Seinfeld did. I want her to crave sex even in her—shock!—40s, like Samantha Jones in Sex and the City. I want to see that with characters who also have a family, because women should be able to see their own desire and desirability played out in the shows they watch—and so should their partners. It's bad enough that women make up just 43 percent of speaking and major roles on broadcast network programs, and that only 14 percent of those women are in their 40s, according to a report by the Women's Media Center.
And that brings us back to Claire. Perhaps the Modern Family creators thought that they had balanced her out with Gloria Pritchett (Sofia Vergara), the most highly sexualized "mom" character on recent network television. Gloria is in many ways the anti Claire: For every button-down top and messy ponytail donned by Claire's character, Gloria has blown-out waves and dresses so formfitting, she puts men—particularly Phil—into a tizzy. But she also regularly asks her son to explain things to her and relies entirely on her husband for financial support. Gloria is a damsel in distress, albeit with a sassy, sexy bite that makes us almost forget it.
Why can't a woman who doesn't have a high-powered career but does have a job, who can fend for herself but loves her partner, who has kids but hasn't lost her sense of self, be a character we laugh with? Why do female characters always have to be buried under bed sheets, dirty laundry, or work memos, as if we can be sexy, domestic, or successful, but not all three? There has to be some room for the in between where women's lives actually exist, including realistic portrayals of the way women—particularly women over 40, who might be married with kids—have sex. Poor Claire is just not cutting it.
Can you think of other TV characters where women are desexualized? Are there any portrayals of women's sexuality in TV or film that you think really nailed it?