How Kate and Anne in “Working Moms” Defy Emphasized Femininity and Embody Popular Feminist Ideals

By: Anya Mohan and Brooke Davey

Meaww

Introduction

The show Workin’ Moms is a breath of fresh air, with its depiction of realistic women going through the trials and tribulations of managing a family and a job. The show features a large variety of different personalities in its women, each with their own personal dilemmas. Two of the main characters, Anne and Kate, are best friends. Both Anne and Kate represent strong women who are more than capable of accomplishing all of their goals themselves. Kate is a goofy PR executive who is fiercely passionate about her work. Kate and her husband Nate, who is a successful lawyer, have a newborn son. Anne is a no-nonsense practicing psychologist with a doctorate in clinical psychology. Anne has a troubled pre-teen daughter, and a newborn son. She is married to Lionel, who is a bubbly man that often jumps between different careers. The whole premise of the show revolves around the two of them exploring their true identities and finding their sense of self. Together they defy the conventional perception of women and emphasized femininity and showcase popular feminism.  

Emphasized femininity is the idealized form of gender for women. Typically, it depicts women who are beautiful and passive, living their lives as if they are in need of help. The women who fall into this idealized form of gender allow for their femininity to be based upon their subordination (Mattsson 2015). Workin’ Moms’ characters, Anne and Kate revolt against this heteronormalized version of gender and present themselves as the protagonists, or rather heroes of their own stories. They depict women who are successful, accomplished professionals, all while raising their family (Mattsson 2015).

One major popular feminist ideal is that gender equality has not been established in the workforce and the fight for it is just beginning. Popular feminists believe that individuals need to be empowered in order to deal with gender inequality. The characterizations of Anne and Kate in Workin’ Moms falls in line with the feminist intervention that popular culture has demanded: showcasing ‘real images’ of women (Hollows & Moseley 2005). Anne and Kate aren’t perfect and have their fair share of problems, but it’s these problems that help to embrace the imperfections of real women.

Defying Emphasized Femininity

Society is set up in such a way where everyone and everything within it must be categorized, and therefore must operate accordingly. Pinning back to the point in history when these niches were created for people, deviation from them has always been frowned upon. All of these labels and categorizations gave birth to certain ways people must present themselves in order to avoid ostracization. One such composure for cis-gendered women has been coined “emphasized femininity.” In media, emphasized femininity is often portrayed as women whose identities align with straight, white, cis-gendered, middle-class, and able-bodied females. These women will have personality traits such as being passive, thin/small, caring, emotional, and/or in need of protection (McClearen 2018).

Often, women feel extremely suffocated and boxed-in by the traits expected of them by society. These expectations drastically affect every aspect of their lives. Huge barriers arise for women professionally and socially. For some women, defying those expectations becomes their anthem. Many women believe that the traits of emphasized femininity inherently empowers men, as they are all conceptually tied to the idea of weakness. Hegemonic masculinity includes the inverse of the traits of emphasized femininity. Hegemonic males carry personal traits that make men appear stronger mentally and physically: muscular, individualistic, anti-authoritarian, confident, and can physically dominate (McClearen 2018). Workin’ Moms shows examples of defying emphasized femininity.

Active Women who Voice their Opinions

The TV Junkies

Women are idealized as being passive and demure, not voicing their opinions and going along with societies’ conventions. The women from Workin’ Moms are anything but this inaccurate ideal. Both Anne and Kate, stand up for themselves in the show and aren’t afraid to give people a piece of their mind, but it’s Anne who truly shines at this. She is unapologetically frank and doesn’t hold back any punches. She does not hesitate to give the people in her life her genuine opinions. In the first episode of the show, Anne is informed that she is pregnant yet again, even though she just delivered a baby eight months ago. She is less than thrilled, to summarize it lightly, and makes sure that the people around her know it. Anne’s character provides a breath of fresh air, by having a female character defy the normalization of emphasized femininity by actively speaking her mind.

Playing the “Girl Card”

This episode begins with Kate and Anne casually discussing gender roles with their “Mommy and Me” support group. Anne explained to the group that the “Girl Card” is when a woman or girl will play dumb so that a man will do their work for them. This idea plays directly into the media emphasized femininity trope where women are portrayed as “in need of help.” Kate expressed her dislike for the use of the girl card. 

The fact that “girl” is in the title of an act involving weakness, inability, helplessness and laziness, is a huge indication that society expects women to not be able to do, or want to accomplish anything by themselves. A man is expected to push women in the right direction. This expectation runs so deep into the psyche that it is often romanticized by both men and women. There are a plethora of movies that exist where the love interests are introduced by the girl being clumsy, or failing to accomplish a task, and the man shows up as her savior for the situation. 

The women in the Mommy and Me group discussed the fact that this romanticization and expectation is within most men they meet, so they could pull out this “card” whenever they want, and it would work. Kate’s expression of dislike for this card is a clear pushback against emphasized femininity.

Accepting the Beauty in Changing Bodies

Having children changes the way women’s bodies look with stretch marks, left over baby weight, and droopy breasts. Gone are the days of perky breasts. Workin’ Moms opens with Anne and Kate sitting topless in their Mommy and Me class discussing their ever-changing bodies. They decide that although their breasts no longer reside where they used to, they are still beautiful and add to their beauty in the way that only being a mom can. Throughout the show both women discuss different insecurities, but it doesn’t retract their beauty. Neither woman falls into the conventional beauty standards presented through emphasized femininity; instead, they showcase the real beauty held by real women and more specifically real mothers.

Femininity and Sexuality are Antagonistic

In the entirety of season 1, Anne struggled with framing her 11-year-old daughter’s freedom to express her sexuality. Anne, herself was always very sexually liberal, but she feels that her daughter is taking it too far at a very young age. It is not acceptable for minors to be sexualized by the public, so Anne’s discipline at this point is valid. However, given her background in psychology, Anne worries that her child’s early sexual aggression will mean something much worse later on. Anne does not want her daughter to be openly sexual or express her sexuality this much in the future.

 Emphasized femininity is intertwined with purity, and Anne has an instinct to protect her daughter from the ramifications that come from society when a girl deviates from this standard. Anne vents to Kate about how she is jealous that Kate only has a boy and does not have to deal with this specific worry regarding her daughter. All of Anne’s friends try to explain to her that she is worrying too much, but she cannot help herself. 

This conflict also ties into popular feminism, as openly sexual women are treated badly by society whereas openly sexual men are celebrated for their charm and masculinity.

Embodying Popular Feminism Ideals

People who believe that women are not equal in society because of these vastly different perceptions of men and women are called “popular feminists.”Popular feminism encompasses an endless number of ideals, including its ideas regarding sexuality, economics, and race. The challenge for women nowadays is how to navigate a complex competitive working environment with balancing the image of a loving mother and caregiver, while maintaining their femininity and sexuality. Although at times, these themes may appear at odds with one another, women prove time after time, that they are able to balance their lives and be successful while doing it.

Stereotypes of Working Moms

The women of Workin’ Moms show that you are able to be a career woman and a mother. Women have been viewed as the caregiver of their family unit for decades. In the past, women typically held a career until they got married and had kids, but this is becoming less and less prevalent in society. No longer are women relying on men to support them, but rather themselves. These women show that they are the ones actively making choices in their lives because they are more than able. Although these women are viewed as strong and capable, they are often seen struggling to find the balance between being a working professional and being someone’s mom. Kate is shown to have battled with this in many ways, demonstrating how it is a truly give and take process. Now that she has a son, she must decide what work she is willing to push aside to cherish those special memories with her child. She manages these two roles by compartmentalizing them into their separate boxes. When she is at work, she makes it her top priority, but when she arrives at home she transforms back into her role as a mother. Popular feminism states that women should be able to have it all: work and a family, just like men.

Womanhood vs. The Workplace

In this episode, Kate is working on improving the PR firm for a talk show host who sent an unsolicited sexual picture to a woman. While Kate was trying to explain to the client that he needs to stay out of the public eye for a while, he kept cutting her off and bringing his attention to her male subordinate colleague. When she tried once again to get a word in, the client asked her if she had a bunch of tampons in. We see a lot of discourse about men thinking that a woman’s menstrual cycle will highly affect her judgement. This concept is particularly pervasive in the world of politics and high-stakes business. In this case, the outcome of Gaze’s PR help will be drastically different depending on whether the client listens to Kate or not. Kate’s reputation and job are on the line simply because a client will not take her word as a woman who menstruates.

Motherhood vs. The Workplace

In the pilot episode, Kate tackles a huge issue regarding gender inequality in the workplace. After Kate comes back to her position as an executive at the PR company Gaze, she finds out that two more people were hired on for her projects in her absence and will be staying. This makes Kate question whether Richard, her boss, thinks that she is incapable of doing her job simply because she gave birth a few months prior. Kate was a huge player in the success of Gaze previously, so there is no reason to doubt her abilities. Richard made many negative comments about Kate having to do anything regarding her post-delivery care and her need to take care of her son. Kate was tired but was still performing at a very high level at Gaze. 

An important aspect of popular feminism is the idea that men and women are not yet equal in society, even though they can do/accomplish a lot of the same things on a surface level. However, women have been ostracized in the workplace for being mothers or getting pregnant, since women started working alongside men in companies. Even in 2020, women who are mothers have degrading biases surrounding them in the workplace. Many people think that women will inevitably have to leave work to take care of things at home. Many also think a mother’s mind cannot be focused enough at work, as they have to take care of everyone and everything at home as well. In fact, a recent study shows that mothers were three times more likely to get laid off during the COVID-19 pandemic than fathers were (Henderson 2020). A clear implication of the study is that employers think that fathers are more committed to their work than mothers are, especially amidst a pandemic. 

Working mothers who are still breast-feeding their children are required to pump breast milk at different intervals throughout the day. Ideally, women should be provided with a room that would accommodate all of their needs: privacy, comfort, and quiet. Kate is not provided with these things when she returns from her maternity leave. Her office is floor-to-ceiling, see-through glass walls with no way of closing them off for privacy. Instead, she is forced to pump in a bathroom stall in the women’s restroom. It is clearly uncomfortable, noisy, and lacking privacy. She is unable to conduct a simple business call due to the flushing of toilets. Sadly, this is not uncommon for working mothers, and many suffer through the same conditions. Workin’ Moms isn’t afraid to showcase gender inequality with seemingly small things, like providing women a place to pump their breast milk in adequate conditions.

Conclusion

Workin’ Moms excels in its depiction of real working mothers and what the lives that they truly lead are like. The show’s two main protagonists, Anne and Kate, bring a fresh take on balancing their family with their career. Together they defy the emphasized femininity, which is found so prevalently throughout society. They are unapologetically the heroes of their own stories and prove that there is not one standard definition of what a woman should be. Both Anne and Kate are very successful in their chosen career fields but still have to face the gender inequality that is so prevalent in society with their work. They showcase popular feminist ideals with their individual empowerment and strive for change. Workin’ Moms provides a way for different feminist elements to be articulated within popular culture through the use of television (Hollows & Moseley 2005).  Defying emphasized femininity and emphasizing popular feminist ideals allows for real world women to be showcased, just as Anne and Kate are in Workin’ Moms.

Bibliography

Henderson, T. (2020, September 28). Mothers Are 3 Times More Likely Than Fathers to Have Lost Jobs in Pandemic. The Pew Charitable Trusts. https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2020/09/28/mothers-are-3-times-more-likely-than-fathers-to-have-lost-jobs-in-pandemic

Hollows, J., & Moseley, R. (2005). Popularity Contests: The Meanings of Popular Feminism. In J. Hollows & R. Moseley (Eds.), Feminism in Popular Culture (pp. 1–21). Berg Publishers.

Mattsson, T. (2015). “Good girls”: Emphasised Femininity as Cloning Culture in Academia. Gender and Education27(6), (pp.685–699). Berg Publishers.

McClearen, J. (2018). Don’t Be a Do-Nothing Bitch: Popular Feminism and Women’s Empowerment in the UFC. In H. Thorpe, K. Toffoletti, & J. Francombe-Webb (Eds.), New Sporting Femininities: Embodied Politics in Postfeminist Times (New Femininities in Digital, Physical and Sporting Cultures) (pp. 43–62). Palgrave Macmillan.

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