Morris Wolfe - Essays, New & Selected

MTM TV (continued)

Although many commercials suggest, however obnoxiously, that people do have sex lives, the sexual feelings of evening TV characters (male and female) are almost never explored seriously. Instead sex continues to be the subject of an endless stream of double entendres and other kinds of sophomoric jokes. What kids learn about sex from watching evening TV is that it ’s something dirty, something to be snickered at. As Michael J. Arlen put it last year in The New Yorker: “Sex is presumed to exist as an important human activity but what it is or means — a subject that men and women are now endlessly exploring in their private and semi-private lives — apparently may never be explored on television.... Sex for Rhoda or Phyllis or Mary Tyler Moore or Archie Bunker or Kojak or Colombo, etc., either doesn’t exist or is a joke or a ‘plot development’ out of pulp fiction.” Only day-time soap operas come even close to dealing in a serious way with sexual feelings.

Three of the most popular shows this season are Wonder Woman, The Bionic Woman, and Charlie’s Angels. All three are calculated to appeal to both women and men. Women like to see strong, attractive female leads who are able to solve difficult problems. Men like to see lots of female skin; the women in these programmes go through situation after situation designed to show off their bodies. “Investigative legwork by the best in the business,” reads a newspaper ad for Charlie’s Angels. At the same time, men don’t feel threatened by the powers of the Wonder Woman and the Bionic Woman because they know those women aren ’t real; like the heroines of earlier shows like Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, and The Flying Nun, they have magical powers. And the women in Charlie’s Angels aren’t all that threatening either because they get their instructions from a male boss who is so superior to them that they (and we) never actually see him.

Why haven’t things changed? It’s not that the voices raised against sexism on television haven’t been heard. They have been. Things haven’t changed because the voices — though loud — still represent only a small minority of viewers. Network and advertising executives know that. Why else would fifty-nine per cent of all television sets in the U.S. be tuned to Charlie’s Angels every Wednesday night? And the fact is, most viewers aren’t offended by sexist advertising. Studies have been done — by the Journal of Marketing, for instance — that prove it. Hell, there are even advertisers who are upset by how slowly things are changing. Jerry Goodis, president of Goodis, Goldberg, Soren, complained in a recent speech that the housewife continues to be regarded as a “shrewish, paranoid, one-dimensional” vehicle to whom one peddles merchandise. When she goes shopping,” he said, she is portrayed “as a borderline defective being cajoled by father-figure store managers and discussing her deodorant problems with every woman she meets.”

Which brings me to a fascinating news item. It appeared on November 18, 1976, in the Globe and Mail. “LONDON (Reuters) — Kojak is to stop sucking lollipops on television. A spokesman for the British Dental Association told reporters yesterday: ‘We made representations and have been assured that the lollipops will be dropped.’” The point? Everyone is opposed to tooth decay. Men. Women. Children. Even dentists. A simple representation to the producers of Kojak and presto — no more lollipops. If most people felt that way about violence on Kojak, it would be gone too. If most people wanted Kojak to wear a hairpiece, he’d wear one. It really is as simple as that. Television does listen. It’s the most democratic medium we have. And if most people wanted the treatment of women on TV to change, it would change.

While you’re thinking about that, may I suggest you take a peek at Mary Tyler Moore in the next two or three months, because there will be no new episodes of the show next season. After seven years, TV’s Nora is tired. The programme is going into reruns. That means a whole new generation of TV viewers will be able to watch Mary get a job and try to find a man and become an associate producer, etc. At the rate things are going, seven years from now Mary will once again be the undisputed Nora of TV.

Hail Mary.

— Saturday Night, January/February 1977

Postscript: It’s now almost four times seven years since MTM went off the air, and it still seems that not much has changed.

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