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Frankie v. Debra, Roe v. Wade: Patricia Heaton’s two famous moms, and can you still be a feminist if you’re anti-abortion?

(2016 update: After reading this excellent Shakesville post about valid reasons straight women might change their name when they get married, I completely changed my mind on that issue. It’s not necessarily anti-feminist, it’s none of my business, and who cares. I’m also now pro sex-worker and sorry I used the “e” word.)

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.)

Images via: 1, 2, 3.


About Diane Shipley

Freelance journalist (TV, books, health, tech) and tweeter (@dianeshipley). Loves reading, cats, podcasts, and photos of miniature dachshunds.

200 comments on “Frankie v. Debra, Roe v. Wade: Patricia Heaton’s two famous moms, and can you still be a feminist if you’re anti-abortion?

  1. Pingback: To Post or Not to Post? | Singing Underwater

  2. roughseasinthemed
    August 30, 2012

    Hi, this is the first Freshly Pressed post I’ve read all the way through down to the comments that I actually thought was decent. And I totally admire the effort and the way you have conducted the replies. Seriously, great job.
    OK, onto the rest. I don’t watch television so hadn’t a clue what you were talking about, but thought it was interestingly written. Had you not mentioned Wade v Roe or the feminist debate in the title I wouldn’t have even clicked on it.

    I read a similar post some time back which came to the same conclusion as you. It’s not a new debate but it will continue whilever anti-abortionists continue to try to impose their views on all women.
    Here’s a brief blog post I wrote, three years ago:
    Posted on 11 July, 2009 by roughseasinthemed
    For some reason this seems to be a controversial issue. The only reason I consider it to be controversial is that someone else wants to tell ME what to do with MY body. Don’t.

    Many of us try to be responsible, avoid conception, and mistakes still happen.
    I see no reason why a woman should carry to term because of legislation that she has to have a baby. I loved Rick’s (I think) quote about happiness and life etc. I seriously thought pregnancy would have ruined my education, my career – and my life. And no I don’t have children. So there is no unplanned unjoyful ending there fortunately.

    In terms of the anti-abortion views, I think it is interesting that in the case of rape, or dangers to the mother’s health that some people admit the odd abortion can be sanctioned. That strikes me as being flawed logic. If life from conception is so inviolable, why make exceptions? And if the mother’s health is at risk, presumably God will make the decision.

    Because that is the other issue. How many of the anti-abortion comments on here, and members of the anti-abortion movement as a whole are motivated by religion? Not only are women having control over their own body taken away, they are being subjected to someone else’s religion by default. Very naughty.

    To me feminism involves a lot of issues. I happen to think the smaller things are important too because whilever we conform to societal and patriarchal stereotypes they will continue to be perpetuated. I wear no wedding ring, kept my own name on marriage, don’t shave my legs, wear high heels blah blah.

    But the crux of feminism is the intertwined two key issues. Women need economic independence and the right to abortion, if we so choose. Without those two, we will never achieve equality. Forced to have unwanted kids? Where is economic independence then? Forever relying on someone else.

    I should have said. No, I don’t think women who are anti-abortion are remotely feminist. There is more to feminism than playing at equality gestures over who does the washing up.

    And saying that sex workers/prostitutes have made their own choice is missing the point totally. Once I thought like that too, but as you so rightly said, we travel the journey, and, in my case, realise our previous thinking was ill-informed.

    Appreciate the supportive male comments you have received on here. But in my small corner of the feminist world, they are called feminist allies. Not feminists. Welcome their support, but there is a fine distinction.

    I noticed another commenter had added a link, so here’s one to one of mine, involving abortion/family planning and a comment on US politics (even though I’m from the UK).


    I’ll end with a comparison. I’m vegetarian. People who do not eat meat and eat fish/chicken are not vegetarian, even if they think they are. I know, because I thought I was, when I was still eating fish. And then, I found out I was wrong. Vegetarians don’t eat fish. Feminists don’t deny women the right to control their own body.

    • diane
      August 30, 2012

      Thank you! I appreciate that.

      I think this is very well said: “For some reason this seems to be a controversial issue. The only reason I consider it to be controversial is that someone else wants to tell ME what to do with MY body. Don’t.”

      I also thought the vegetarian comparison was interesting — fish eaters who claim to be veggie do make it harder for the people who really are, don’t they?

  3. Pingback: Unethical Mindsets: “You Can’t Be A Feminist If You’re Anti-Abortion” | Ethics Alarms

  4. brian
    August 30, 2012

    Two points come to my mind. First is the idea that woman have a right too absolute control over their body. Arguments here were along the lines of the right to happiness must include the right to private property and what private property is more essential then your body. While this is fine as far as it goes, it ignores the fact that our rights are not absolute. Speech can and has been restricted (incitement, fighting words), private property rights are not absolute (eminent domain), etc. These restrictions to rights often arise from the intersection of two competing rights where strict adherence to absolute rights leads to contradiction, and I think it adds to veracity and depth of discussion to recognize the possibility of conflict between rights instead of holding them as absolute.

    The second point that comes to mind, and if your head has not blown off yet just wait, is the difference between equality and equivalent. The argument that woman should be able to control their bodies to the same extent as men will encounter some inherent problems because woman and men are not equivalent. Equality between men and woman does not get the argument from a man does not have to bring to term an unwanted pregnancy to a woman does not have to bring to term an unwanted pregnancy. That argument works for equivalence, but men and woman are not equivalent.

    • diane
      August 30, 2012

      My head’s still on, but thanks for commenting!

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