Feminism in "The Dick Van Dyke Show"

Finding the Feminism in 1960s Sitcoms

Van Dyke and Moore on the set
Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore as Rob and Laura Petrie (Photo credit: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images).

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, but also broke ground in its own way.

About The Show

Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore played Rob and Laura Petrie, a happily married couple in suburbia with one child. The series was Van Dyke's big break, and although Moore already had an established film and television career, her role as Laura was the one that cemented her as a TV legend. The show ran for five seasons, from 1961 to 1966, and was popular with audiences and critics alike. It remains a beloved example of the classic work/home sitcom.

Gender Politics of Its Time

In many ways, The Dick Van Dyke Show did not rock the boat when it came to portrayals of women and ideas about gender. Rob and Laura are shown to sleep in separate beds, as many sitcoms of the era portrayed married couples due to the heavy "decency" restrictions of the Hays Code. This code, which was in effect from approximately 1930 until 1966, severely limited the content in American film and television in the interest of "morals." While some aspects of the code were timelessly reasonable - it banned animal cruelty on sets, for one thing - others were decidedly tied to the restrictive morals of the 1930s.

The central couple fulfill extremely traditional gender roles. Rob is a comedy writer who banters with "the boys" at the office, while Laura is a former dancer turned housewife. For the most part, both are depicted as quite happy with this arrangement.

There is one "career woman," Sally, who is writes for the same show Rob does and is also the office typist - a stereotypically female role. Although she does have a job in a male-oriented field, Sally represents the other stock female sitcom character of the era: the man-hungry one. She often talks about hunting for a husband and "scares" men with her strong personality.

Hints of Feminism

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

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 and the related gender stereotypes.

Moore's Laura Petrie was a spirited presence and a far-from-typical housewife. She even caused a small controversy by wearing capri pants in an era when the standard sitcom housewife wardrobe was heavy on dresses and pearls. Television executives were in no hurry to deviate from that, but 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 very much of its time. 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. Meanwhile, 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.

Feminism in The Dick Van Dyke Show

  • 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? To a degree. The sitcom's ethos seemed to be: let people act like real people in real situations, and viewers will learn truths about men and women as human beings.