For some reason (boredom, chronic illness, and an under-appreciation of how short life is) I’ve seen every episode of Everybody Loves Raymond at least once.
Contrary to the title, I was not a fan of our eponymous hero. Nor did I enjoy his overbearing parents. But his wife Debra, played by Patricia Heaton, was the worst.
I didn’t hate her for the reasons we were supposed to hate her: she couldn’t cook, was a mediocre housekeeper, and kept denying Ray his court-mandated sexytimes. What I despised was that she was the archetypal sitcom wife: a put-upon nag with a doofus for a spouse, who seemed hell-bent on resenting the life she’d chosen, acting out every sexist male sitcom writer’s fear of the independent ball and chain with an incomprehensible need for self-actualisation. There was actually an episode (in the ’00s!) where Debra decided to work outside the home but wasn’t
allowed able to because she had children.
So when I heard Heaton was starring in another network sitcom about a nuclear family, I didn’t rush to watch. On the surface, The Middle looks as conventional as Raymond. It’s about an average family and their wacky antics, and it’s been low on awards and acclaim, so I was sure it wouldn’t be much cop.
Boy, was I wrong. As the mom, Frankie Heck, Heaton is put-upon in a similar way to Debra, but here, she isn’t a martyr; she just gets on with her life. She bickers with her husband, Mike, but most of the time it seems like she actually cares about him and their three offbeat kids. Best of all, she’s an endearing mess who touches up her hair with felt tip pen and isn’t above petty outbursts and “borrowing” her neighbour’s car. (“Some people do meth,” is her justification.)
And while there are moments of gender disparity, such as her getting a dishwasher for Christmas (!), there are more that subvert traditional roles, where Frankie isn’t presented as automatically in charge of everything domestic just because she’s a woman. When she says she “cooked”, she usually means she picked up take-out, and her parenting style could best be described as “benign neglect”. (At one point she muses to Mike: “Name three times you’ve seen the kids since May. And not just in the house — I’ll even count around town.”)
The show’s also pretty ground-breaking in the way it’s taking on the recession while most other programmes gloss over it. The family shops at Frugal Hoosier, their holiday is an ill-fated camping trip, and at one point Frankie holds four jobs at once. Despite the title, the Hecks are actually (whisper it) working class, and their struggles are relatable, in an oddly uplifting “at least I didn’t get my tumble dryer when it blew into the front garden” kind of way.
It’s well-written, well-acted, with not a weak note in the cast, and it deserves all the awards and acclaim that have gone to more derivative, overrated and woman-hating shows like Modern Family. (Yeah, you can’t have a storyline about ladies’ periods synching up and it making them cray-cray without invoking my righteous indignation.)
Anyway, after rolling my eyes at Debra for so long, The Middle made me think that Patricia Heaton might be pretty cool IRL. But something was nagging at me, much as Debra used to nag poor, useless Ray: repressed memories from snippets of news stories I’d seen and that time almost a decade earlier when I read/was baffled by her book, Motherhood and Hollywood: How to Get a Job Like Mine.
Because I can’t leave good enough alone, I looked it up. Oops.
Not only is The Middle really popular with Republicans, not only is P-Heat a big Rush Limbaugh fan, not only is she apparently super into religion in that “God wants me to convert everyone” kinda way, but she’s a vocal member of a campaign group called Feminists for Life.
She’s even gone on record as saying (brace yourself):
“Women experiencing an unplanned pregnancy also deserve unplanned joy.”
Which — once I’d recovered from my unplanned nausea — got me thinking about a couple of things:
1. Does a star’s politics put you off their pop cultural product? And
2. Can you call yourself a feminist if you don’t support a woman’s right to choose?
Technically, you can call yourself what you want, of course, and feminism is under attack from so many sources that perhaps we should welcome everyone who identifies with the label.
What’s more, Feminists for Life have a point of view that isn’t entirely hateful. Yes, their protestors are doing the same thing as non-feminist campaigners: spreading misinformation and propaganda, and acting like a woman having a baby she never wanted isn’t a tragedy. But they do have a tiny point when they say that women who want to keep their pregnancies shouldn’t have to have abortions for social or financial reasons.
But I think women should always have agency over their own bodies and that human rights matter more than a tiny clump of cells with the potential to become a person, and that’s where The Hotster and I differ.
But does that mean I’m a better feminist than she is?
I wish it did. I would so like to wear a “top feminist” crown and ride around in a special chariot.
But I’m not sure I can. (And not just because I don’t know anyone who designs chariots.)
Brilliant Nora Ephron once said, “You can’t call yourself a feminist if you don’t believe in the right to abortion,” and reproductive freedom is a key issue for most feminists, especially as our rights are continually eroded, but is it so important that being pro-choice is a requirement for entry into the community?
Feminism can be alienating for women who don’t grow up with any experience of it, not least because it sometimes seems like we all espouse a certain way of thinking and being. If we want to encourage more people to embrace the movement, maybe we need to accept more dissenters on every issue, as long as they identify with the idea of equality.
There are feminists who hold other beliefs I’m not personally on board with: that sex work is empowering, that whatever a woman chooses is feminist because it’s her choice, that changing your name when you get married isn’t a form of subjugation. But I’m still happy to be in their gang, because we don’t all have to think the same. I’m tempted to say that it’s OK for a feminist campaigner to oppose abortion, as long as she doesn’t try to restrict other women’s access to it. Then again, I can’t help wondering if part of Feminists for Life’s agenda is to undermine feminism by associating it with their anti-choice campaign.
I’ve gone around in circles on these issues for hours (in my head) so I’d love to know what you think: should anyone who identifies as feminist be allowed into the fold, or should there be some kind of qualification for entry?
And can you watch The Middle regardless of Heaton’s views, see a Clint Eastwood film despite the fact he backs Mitt Romney, and look back on Frasier with fondness even though Kelsey Grammer thinks his right-wing politics have cost him an Emmy nom, or is that only encouraging them? Tell me! (Please.)