Insomnia is a rotten thing but it did grant me the opportunity to watch a ridiculous show that I otherwise would never have seen. According to Jim is an ABC sitcom that has evidently been on the air for over 8 years. As sitcoms go, it seems pretty typical and unremarkable but the episode that I caught from the first season entitled "Blow Up" seemed a little too familiar for comfort. I realized about halfway through the episode that it was an almost exact copy of the storyline from an episode of Roseanne that aired almost ten years earlier. There were a few little changes to the storyline that made a huge difference in the representation of gender roles.
I think that this summary from Wikipedia really explains the feel of the show pretty well:
"Jim and Cheryl are the perfect middle class American couple. Happily married, living in a suburban house with two adorable (but loud) little girls and a baby boy, they really can't complain much about life – except for those couple fights that neither one can ever let go."
"Blow Up" was about the way that Jim and Cheryl chose to celebrate Valentine's Day. Jim got Cheryl a car safety kit (ever the practical thinker) and Cheryl, at the pushing of her sister, decided to get a sexy photo taken. The fight in this episode (I am going to assume there is one in every episode, as I said, this is not a remarkable sitcom) happened when Jim decided to show his friends, coworkers, and the Kinkos employees the intimate picture, thus humiliating his wife. She tried to explain her humiliation and he just didn't understand. The episode ended hilariously with Jim begging Cheryl to take down the giant portrait of herself that was in the shop window where she had the picture taken. Now that she wanted to show off her body on her own terms he get extremely possessive, even getting down on one knee to beg her to take it down. The show ends with Jim presenting Cheryl with a hilarious sexy portrait of his own.
Before I go into an analysis of why this show was sexist and awful, I'd like to share the synopsis for an episode of Roseanne entitled "It Was 20 Years Ago Today" from season 5. In this episode, Roseanne, at the pushing of her sister, decided to take a sexy photo for Dan for their anniversary. He decides to alter her wedding ring to include all of their childrens' birthstones without telling her. Hilarity ensues as she goes on a mad search for her ring and tries to keep the picture a secret. In the photo shoot, she is shy and embarrassed but realizes that Dan loves her and loves looking at her so she gains the confidence to take the pictures. In the end Dan loves the picture and respectfully keeps it between the two of them. The show ends with a montage of images of Dan's own sexy pictures.
I don't think I need to tell you why I was reminded of this episode of Roseanne after watching According to Jim. What I do want to share is the remarkable difference that a few subtle changes can make in a storyline like this one. The According to Jim episode was about betrayal and objectification. Jim decided that since his wife is his property, there is really no harm in sharing her sexualized body with everyone he knows. He really didn't think that there was one thing wrong with that. When Cheryl expressed her betrayal and feelings of violation, it was all set up for laughs. Because it is hilarious when a woman is stripped of her autonomy and is exposed in a provocative way AGAINST HER WILL. She makes Jim promise not to show the image to anyone else and all is well. Until her brother spots the picture of her blown up and hanging in a window display at the photographer's studio. Cheryl's body is presented in these scenes as being the property first of her brother who hangs his coat over the picture for the entire scene and then of her husband who throws a temper tantrum on the street begging Cheryl to take the picture down. In this scene, Cheryl decides that she kind of likes the picture being out and gains a certain confidence from knowing that other women were inspired by her (that could be another post in and of its self). The only indication of Cheryl owning her own body is undermined by Jim's demand that the picture be removed. Cheryl "teaches him a lesson" by telling him that this is exactly how she felt when he was showing the picture off to their friends. Of course, it is not the same thing because the picture is still one of her.
In the Roseanne episode, the sexy photo is an opportunity for Roseanne to explore her sexuality and to be intimate with her husband. The image is not the focus of the episode, the relationships between Dan and Roseanne and Roseanne and her body are the focus of the episode. There is not one second in this episode in which Roseanne is not in control of her own body or her own sexuality and as pathetic as it might be, that is a pretty remarkable thing to see on broadcast television. Dan and Roseanne, like Jim and Cheryl, have three children, have been married for awhile, and their trials and tribulations are the focus of the episodes. Dan and Roseanne had a fight in "It Was 20 Years Ago Today" and the arc of the stories were really almost identical. Yet those subtle differences go a long way to make a show either a piece of misogynist tripe or a story informed by feminist ideals. (It might also be notable that the Roseanne episode was written by a woman while the According to Jim episode was written and directed by two men.)