Feminism in "The Dick Van Dyke Show"

Finding the Feminism in 1960s Sitcoms

Dick Van Dyke Show
Dick Van Dyke Show. Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

Sitcom Title: The Dick Van Dyke Show

Years Aired: 1961-1966

Stars: Dick van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore, Rose Marie, Morey Amsterdam, Richard Deacon, Larry Matthews, Ann Morgan Guilbert, Jerry Paris

Feminist Focus? Let people be real people in real situations, and viewers will learn truths about men and women as human beings.

Where exactly do we find feminism in The Dick Van Dyke Show? Like many television shows of the 1960s, The Dick Van Dyke Show accepted some of society’s stereotypes largely without question. Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore played Rob and Laura Petrie, a happily married couple in suburbia with one child. They sleep in separate beds. She is a housewife while he works at a glamorous television job outside of the home. His one female co-worker often talks about her desire to get married and offers dry, sarcastic humor about going home to her cat.

On the other hand, some groundbreaking aspects offered viewers a hint of feminism in The Dick Van Dyke Show. Here are a few examples:

  • It was one of the first sitcoms to depict the characters’ workplace in addition to the home. Dick Van Dyke, Morey Amsterdam, and Rose Marie played a team of writers for a comedy program; Carl Reiner based The Dick Van Dyke Show on his real-life experience writing for television during the 1950s. Instead of watching a husband and his briefcase come home from a mysterious unseen job in corporate U.S.A., viewers watched the action in Rob Petrie's office as well as at home. The characters from work and home mingled in both places. The realism drawn from Carl Reiner's life experience contributed to breaking down the cliche images of fake TV sitcom suburbia.
  • Mary Tyler Moore as Laura Petrie was a spirited presence and a far-from-typical housewife. She even caused a small controversy by wearing Capri pants. The standard sitcom housewife wardrobe was heavy on dresses and pearls. Television executives were in no hurry to deviate from that, but Mary Tyler Moore rightfully insisted that it was an unrealistic, fabricated TV image; nobody wore a dress and pearls to do housework. Despite initial resistance, the tight pants that showed off her dancer's figure made it into the show, and this apparently helped popularize them for many women who watched. She wasn't the first woman to wear pants on television, but she was a lasting, iconic image, and the decision was based on depicting reality instead of glorifying a non-existent "happy homemaker" look. 
  • Sure, the professional television writer Sally Rogers, played by Rose Marie, was single. It was hard to escape the false dichotomy of housewife vs. career woman, with “perfect housewife” depicted as the ultimate goal for every woman. There were the obligatory story lines about Sally’s trying to get a date, or wondering why Sally had never been married – “the poor girl.”  Then again, here was a whip-smart, sassy professional woman who could deliver the comedic goods and out-wisecrack most of the men around her. When Rob and Laura set Sally up on a date with Laura’s shy, nerdy scientist cousin, they are afraid he will be intimidated by Sally’s non-stop jokes and teasing. He surprises everyone by thinking she’s the greatest, funniest woman he’s ever met. He proves a stereotype wrong and vindicates Sally for being herself.
  • In one episode, Laura dances for a week on the television show where Rob works. She was a professional dancer before marrying Rob, and now she contemplates reviving that career and becoming a regular on his show. The usual incompetent-house-husband jokes ensue, with Rob unable to prepare a frozen dinner or run the washing machine correctly. The talk about choosing to “be a wife” instead of a professional – a professional anything – is cringe-worthy. On the other hand, there is a decent amount of mockery of the way the men see it as Rob's place to "control" Laura. Also, the sarcastic dialogue about the glamour of show business compared to a life of pots and pans subtly undermines the notion that being a wife is the only goal for any woman.

There isn’t a lot of overt feminism in The Dick Van Dyke Show. Its run ended in 1966, the same year NOW was founded and just as the radical feminism of the women’s liberation movement was getting started. However, the main problem lies less in the show’s treatment of the “wife and mother vs. career” dichotomy than in the fact that the dichotomy was the prevailing myth of the time - and it hasn't completely gone away. The best way to look for hints of up-and-coming feminism in The Dick Van Dyke Show is to read between the one-liners.