Morris Wolfe - Essays, New & Selected


Some of my television columns examined particular themes — the treatment of old people on TV, for instance. The following column looked at the treatment of women.

“As Mary Tyler Moore goes, so goes the nation.” —Maude

Back in 1970 Mary Tyler Moore took a job at a television station because she’d been jilted by her boyfriend. A television station seemed an ideal place to find a new candidate for a husband, and many of the early episodes of the programme revolved around her desperate attempts to fulfil that wish. While all that was going on, she was such a bumbling idiot on the job that it’s a wonder she wasn’t fired.

By 1973 things had changed. Mary wasn’t necessarily looking for a husband any more. She’d become a career woman, an associate producer; part of what she was producing was coffee for her boss, Lou Grant, but still she was an associate producer. As TV women went, that represented progress.

Sometime in 1975, Mary was promoted to producer. However, in an episode last fall, one of Mary’s colleagues, Murray, was offered a job at another station. Rather than see him go, Lou made him Mary’s co-producer (although the station had room for only one producer), and Mary reluctantly accepted the situation. But predictably, Murray and Mary couldn’t work together. Lou solved that problem by demoting Mary. This time, Mary didn’t make nice. She was unhappy and showed it. Murray decided that since the producer’s job meant more to her than it did to him, she could have it back. End of episode. Mary is still producer.

What’s happened, as in so many episodes of the programme, is a cop-out. But in the world of TV women Mary is nonetheless a significant figure. She is, after all, a producer. She’s not making coffee or taking letters any more. The sad fact is that however silly, ambiguous, and compromised her development has been, Mary Tyler Moore is to evening television what Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House was to theatre.

Despite the women's movement, little seems to have changed. All the studies dealing with the treatment of women on television, all the petitions to the networks, to advertisers, to regulatory bodies, all the magazine and newspaper articles on the subject, have had almost no effect on what we see. Television’s Nora may be a terribly muted and disappointing role model but she’s still way ahead of the pack.

Edith Bunker is a nit with a heart of gold. Laverne and Shirley are dummies. Phyllis is a busybody. Nancy is a loudmouth. Maude is neurotic. Alice’s ambition is to become a cocktail waitress. The Fonz’s girlfriends are pneumatic twerps. Phyllis Diller comes on and despairs that her Living Bra “died of starvation.” Rhoda’s career exists almost entirely off-screen; it’s her domestic life that counts. The contestants on TV game shows are mostly women who look and act as if they’ve just wet their pants.

Meanwhile, Wayne and Shuster have a wife-joke contest. The Friendly Giant’s castle continues to be an all-male preserve. Male characters still outnumber female characters almost two to one on the American segments of Sesame Street (the Canadian segments are much better balanced).

Although there are a few more men doing housework in TV commercials than there were three or four years ago, and although some of the most grossly sexist commercials have disappeared (Volvo ads with women who can’t park station-wagons, for instance), the pace at which things have changed has been slow, to say the least. It seemed wonderfully appropriate, therefore, that Shoulder to Shoulder, the story of the British suffragette movement, should be interrupted by a Turtle commercial. “Are you getting yours?” asks a male voice. On other commercials, we still get women awaiting a Mr. Clean or a White Knight to rescue them from dirt. (Lucy Komisar, an American feminist, calls this the traditional “quest for the holy male.”)

There is no women’s equivalent to commercials in which someone says, “Every Saturday now for seventeen years, Ulysses and the boys have been getting together to bend their elbows.” We still get mostly male voices telling us things like, “To millions of women Butterball is more than just a turkey. It’s peace of mind.” Women buy products; men tell them which ones to get. And in those rare cases where women do the telling it’s usually not women as authority figures but women as sex objects. “He didn ’t get shaved. He got stroked today,” purrs the BIC woman. “Manly, yes, but I like it too,” says the Irish Spring woman, while the chic Schick woman provocatively waves her phallic styling stick around.

Mary Tyler Moore, continued > 

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