The Curse of the Scary Shoulder Pads Lady

From 1980s to the early 1990s, women wearing jackets with large shoulder pads was a fashion that was hard to miss. This fed into the empowered woman/feminist architype of the time and can be seen in a number of films and television shows including Mr. Mom, Working Girl, Mrs. Doubtfire, Die Hard, Home Improvement and even Top Gun. I am only scratching the surface here as there are plenty more examples I could find if I was inclined to look. In all of these you have variations of a woman trying to break into the corporate sector or a mum working some office job (likely of questionable utility). When a husband is present, the woman always rules the roost. Most of these films/shows are now painfully out of date and indeed some of them would now be criticised by the same sort of people who would have lauded them for their forward thinking at the time. It is worth noting that this is also around the same time you saw more films with men dressing as women beginning with TootsieMrs. Doubtfire had both!

This post will cover three of these.

Home Improvement was a long-running television show my family watched regularly for most of its run. From what I remember, it started out more as a vehicle from Tim Allen’s stand-up and he did become a fairly successful film star though the last one I saw him in was Wild Hogs which I don’t remember liking. His exaggerated masculinity and obsession with machines, engines and “more power” had the opposite effect from what I believe the writers intended and made him more endearing to the audience. And if you look past the implied mockery, you have an attentive working father who is wealthy and modestly famous (he hosted Tool Time, a show within the show). He certainly has income enough to live in a nice house in a pleasant and safe neighborhood. He is also shown to be loving of his three boys and makes time to spend with them.

His wife Jill still somehow wears the pants and from what I can remember nearly every episode has him wandering into his garden to get some parenting or marital advice from his sage-like neighbour, Wilson. I’m not sure Wilson even had a family himself but always seemed to have the right answer or at least the one that would please Jill. His wife often wore shoulder pads and had short hair though the show ran long enough for fashions to change and she had a few different looks. All I remember is she was often shrill and spent a lot of time glaring at her husband with her arms crossed. Though she was still affectionate at times.

Around the same time the movie Mrs. Doubfire was a big hit. Given the world we now live in, the premise of this film has gone from outrageous to downright creepy and is a good example of how evil ideas get a foot in the door. The late Robin Williams plays Daniel, a father who is unjustly deprived of access to his children in a divorce. Sally Field plays his shoulder pads wearing wife and looks much older than Robin Williams in the film (she was around five years his senior at the time). What makes her character even more absurd is that after divorcing her husband she begins dating Pierce Brosnan.  This scowling, wrinkled divorcee with three children implausibly snares a handsome middle-aged British man who shortly went on to play James Bond!

The audience is generally inclined to be more sympathetic to Daniel though in hindsight, his cross-dressing indicates the judge was right to deny him access to his children. In looking up some details for this post, I noticed that this was based at a book for young adults which makes the film’s origins even creepier. The film is creepy enough though with Daniel continuing to cross-dress as an old woman for a children’s television show at the end where he gives a monologue about how divorce is just so normal and mummy and daddy still love them.

Probably the most out of date of these is Mr. Mom starring a youthful Michael Keaton (who is also younger than the woman he shares the screen with). Remembering this had me go and checked about Home Improvement and unsurprisingly, all three of these women are older than their on-screen husbands. Jerry Garr plays Caroline who goes back to work when her husband Jack (Keaton) loses his job. He then becomes “Mr. Mom” as in the title.

The most surreal aspect of this film is looking at Detroit when it was still a nice, prosperous city. Garr’s character is a lot more pleasant than the previous two examples though she still has some big shoulder pads. Another interesting aspect to this film is the implication that stay-at-home mothers have a lot of time on their hands. Jack has enough time in his day to get obsessed with daytime soap operas and generally gets to laze about after dropping the kids off and finishing the housework. I’m not sure many mothers would appreciate this implication but it is there. Meanwhile, his wife becomes successful in advertising using her knowledge as a mother to devise a winning advertisement for her company’s big client. I can’t remember exactly how the film ends except that Jack gets his job back as part of a subplot and things generally return to normal. Watching it today is like opening a time capsule given how different the United States is now.

With how much worse society has gotten since, these three seem rather tame today but they do show the general emptiness of the idea of female empowerment. In all three the husbands come off more likeable and relatable and the audience is generally more sympathetic. That’s the point if there is one. I just wanted to write something about how much I hate women wearing jackets with big shoulder pads.

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