Women in Television in the Late 1960s Essay

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Women in Television

In the late 1960s to early 1970s, as women burned their bras and took to the streets for equality, the female labor force grew three times more than that their male peers (Toossi), increasing numbers of educational opportunities made themselves available to the "fairer sex,"

and a cultural shift was taking place for women within the household and in society as a whole. As is frequently the case, television seized the moment and looked for ways to capitalize on this women's lib movement. As Fiske wrote, "Television often acts like a relay station: It rarely originates topics of public interest (though it may repress them); rather, what it does is give them high visibility, energize them, and direct or redirect their general orientation before relaying them out again into public circulation." Thus, Turner's MTM Enterprises introduced "That Girl" and followed it by the seven-year hit "Mary Tyler Moore Show," which showed that women, as Lou Grant told Mary, can "have spunk," too. Now, four decades later, have females "come a long way baby" in terms of their TV roles? Putting aside the reality shows, which make everyone, male and female, look like idiots, and focusing instead on the sitcoms, sometimes it is difficult to remember that 40 years has really passed from the "Dick Van Dyke Show."

In 1969, the newly established MTM Enterprises began to create so-named "quality" TV, which promised to aesthetically improve the television text (Lentz), and respond to the social and political milieu. MTM was recognized in both the industry and trade media as producing TV situation comedies (sitcoms) that were to make the genre more dignified and less hopelessly banal (Minow). The shows were said to be more "literate," stylistically complex, and offer more character development. Ironically, many women had been working and living on their own for decades, but had been given little or no praise for their efforts. As a result, on September 19, 1970, MTM's "That Girl" took a major turn as Mary's marriage engagement broke off, and she headed to Minneapolis to be on her own. The theme was crystallized as Mary and Mr. Grant face off at OK Corral and Mary, with a mixture of sweetness and finesse, asserted herself and her role as woman.

"The Mary Tyler Moore Show" quickly gained popularity with the TV audience. The main female character took off her apron and left the household environment, where she had been living since the beginning of television. The unique situation of a single working woman who had to make life choices resonated with the feminists. For the not so politically active viewers, Mary Tyler Moore was an attractive and likeable character who even doused the irascibility of Grant. The show also dealt with new topics of interest, such as marriage and relationships, the place of career in a woman's life, and the role of traditional values. Mary held high standards for both her male and female friends.

The show reflected what was taking place in society at the time. In the off-stage world, young women pushed through police barricades. Though not realized at the time, it "was the beginning of a war. It was a battle between sexual rebellion and sexual containment, between the old masculinity and the new androgyny, a fight about how more masquerading had to go on between men and women" (Douglas 138). As Douglas added, after playing the roles of rebel, sexual sophisticate, knowing girl bonded to other girls in a group, the pursuer and the witch, some females decided they no longer wanted to fantasize or pretend anymore. They were breaking down boundaries and were beginning to revolt.

The "Mary Tyler Moore Show" is "generally acknowledged as the first popular and long-running television series clearly to feature the influence of feminism" (Dow 24). Mary Richards was a "thirtyish, unmarried, working woman" who demonstrated women with a "reliance on the tenets of Second Wave liberal or equity feminism" (ibid 30). She is hired for a job in the all-male world of the WJM-TV newsroom, which her boss, Lou Grant, believed would be filled by a man. As many women did at the time, Mary fought for equal career opportunities, financial independence and freedom from marriage. The show's success arose from the dichotomy of a feminist woman who struggled in a male-oriented arena yet had a "girl-next-door sweetness and 'old fashioned' attachment to honesty and integrity" (ibid 25). Mary Richard's life clearly represented a contrast to earlier characters, such as June Cleaver in "Leave it to Beaver," who played the traditional role of mother and wife.

In the fourth episode, for instance, Mary and her friend Rhoda discover that the only way to get cheap charter airline tickets to Europe is by becoming a member of the "Better Luck Next Time" club, a social group for divorces. Neither Mary nor Rhoda has any interest in finding a partner among the divorcees, and the show portrays these members as a rather unfortunate and desperate group of individuals. Mary and Rhoda, representatives of new womanhood, are interested only in a cheap way to get to Europe, and feel ethically torn about pretending to be a divorcee in order to do so (Bodroghkozy).

Mary transitioned over her seven years, as the societal role of women matured and their expectations altered, as is evidenced by the lyrics of the theme song that changed from "You might just make it after all/You might just make it after all," in the first season to "You're gonna women in this field were not portrayed in movies and books as completely developed human beings (Born). As historian-journalist Ghiglione stated, "The contemporary newswoman, while regularly cast as a tough, talented pro, often bears the burden of being depicted as an emotionally empty Super Bitch or Super Whore" (33). In the 1930s, for example, female journalists were portrayed as masculine clones who adopted genderless names and dressed in attire that downplayed femininity to appear more like one of the guys. Women rarely filled the positions of editor or publisher, usually relegated to reporter and columnist (Saltzman).

In many ways, as depicted in television programming, today's woman has come a long way from the loveable Mary Tyler Moore. Now, many women, even well-known older actresses, are starring in serious dramatic roles and have successful shows that are picked up year to year. Most recently, the shows on air range from the antic-filled "Desperate Housewives" and "Weeds" to today's more typical fare as "The Good Wife," "The Closer," "Saving Grace" and "Damages." There are also the most recent sitcoms, such as "Hot in Cleveland," with female characters ranging from the young to the old -- Betty White at 88. Melanie, is a Los Angeles empty-nester who survived her husband's betrayal by writing a bestseller, 200 Things Every Woman Should Do Before She Dies. One of Melanie's friends is Victoria, an egotistical, has-been soap opera star whose most recent career opportunity was an invitation to audition a role as a grandmother. The other friend is Joy, the "Eyebrow Queen of Beverly Hills," who is coping with the betrayal of Oprah, who had her eyebrows done by another beauty specialist. Yet, when dissecting these shows, the women may be single and in male roles, but where is the feminist role of Mary Richards who was not interested in men but pursuing her career and equality?

In "The Closer," the woman chief of police has to often play to her Southern feminine wiles and somehow find a way to handle her very responsible job as well as her marriage and sex life. In the first show of "Hot in Cleveland," the three friends board a flight heading from Los Angeles to Paris to boost Melanie's spirits because of her upcoming divorce. By the time the first commercial comes, the jet is forced to make an emergency landing in Ohio, and these California women, shaken by the near-death experience, discover they are amidst interesting and interested men. The women realize that being 50 and "over the hill" in Los Angeles means "being hot" in Cleveland and decide to uproot and make a new home -- reminiscent of Mary Rogers' move to Minneapolis. Betty White, in her typical ornery role, alludes to these women as "prostitutes," "whores" and "hookers" before the first show comes to an end. The theme is indicative of what Bardo calls the double bind: Women can be all that they want to be, but try not to lose their femininity at the same time. It usually does not work.

Television acts as a mirror of what is taking place in the "real" world. The many reality shows that fill the air attest to this. Many of the shows actually display the tears, anger, physical fights, alcoholic binges, and, on the other end, the flirting, snuggling and lovemaking of actual people on the street, has-been movie stars or athletes or want-to-be actresses and actors. The drama and, especially the sitcoms, are no different. They may…[continue]

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