Brothers & Sisters: Seeing the big picture

I really feel like Brothers & Sisters managed to start on a feminist high note with this year’s season premiere. The ‘mother’ and ‘wife’ status issues, and the identity questions women have with respect to family roles, have always been a theme on the show, though I’ve felt that they haven’t always been the best at dealing with them thoughtfully. But this episode highlights each of the women feeling torn and constrained by roles, and the ways the identities are forced upon them, rather than naturally chosen. To wit:

Sarah: At the park with her kids, listening to another mother condescendingly tell her she doesn’t give her own daughter processed foods, though that she understands why Sarah does, since (she sneers), ‘we know you work’.

Julia: Described by Tommy (who knows he is putting up a front to protect her) as ‘happy to be nesting’, when what she looks is depressed and exhausted, not long after giving birth to twins and having one of them die. Tommy distractedly hands her the baby and switches easily into thinking about his work day.

Kitty: Being interviewed alongside Robert as part of his campaign. Robert is asked about the Iraq war and Kitty’s family connection; the (female) interviewer then bubbles to Kitty ‘Have you picked out a wedding dress?’ Later, watching that interview on television, Kitty explicitly complains that the world has a ‘high-powered career woman box’ and a ‘fiancée and wife’ box, and she doesn’t know how to fit into both boxes at once.

Nora: A lot of the episode revolves around her grief and concern about Justin. Her guilt-trip-inducing self-image as a mother has often grated on me, and the show’s awareness that she’s crossing boundaries has not always been enough to push me to being okay with it, but in this episode, it was powerful. Maybe Sally Field’s Emmy speech helped, but the way her worry is wrapped up in her sense of self as nurturing, protective mother figure is right there on the surface.

There are more nuances in the reactions of the men to these roles being thrust upon the women, and in the contrast between public and private reactions by each person (Kitty’s situation is a neat way of exposing ‘the personal is political’, because she has to balance the ways her personal choices/attitudes have a direct political impact as well as the ways Robert’s politics and politicking affect their personal partnership). The show is pointing out the traps and competing pressures women face, and the constant attempts to define and identify and label them via relationship roles in ways that most television contributes to, rather than interrogates. It’s nice to see a show, even for one episode, looking at the gendered roles within the big picture.

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