The Way We Were: Iconic Women In The Age Of TV
The visionary poet William Blake believed that we understand our relationship with the world in two ways. One is through the reality we perceive. The other is how we see ourselves. He saw them as closely related: “They became what they beheld.”
In a long career in advertising, my focus was trendspotting — seeing what’s happening, predicting what happens next. So for me, the best way to chart the status of women is through media. Until recently that meant mass media; in other words: television.
We can track the status of women from 1970, when the women’s movement was just beginning, to 2000 by looking at the underlying messages of a few popular and influential TV shows. Those positive female role models — sassy, bold, real and complicated characters who broke the mold, stood up for their rights and helped inspire women like me to believe that anything is possible whatever your dreams — were, I think, as influential and inspiring as anything that Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Angela Davis and those other “serious” feminists wrote.
Start with “Bewitched,” a sitcom that aired from 1964 to 1972. Witches were demonic in popular culture: think of “The Wizard of Oz” and the Wicked Witch of the West. “Bewitched” subverted the stereotype by casting a witch with supernatural powers as a suburban mom, running her household — and husband — with brilliant efficiency. Samantha came up with the best ideas for her husband’s advertising campaigns (allowing him to think he originated them, of course). When one of her husband’s clients groped her, she turned him into a dog. Samantha wasn’t a great cook, she was a failure at gardening, she found housework challenging — in no way did she meet male expectations. And yet … we loved her.
The “Mary Tyler Moore Show” ran from 1970 to 1977. Mary Richards wasn’t “the woman behind” anyone. She was badass: a successful news producer who was defiantly single. This was clear from the first episode. Her discarded boyfriend shows up at her apartment, hoping she’ll take him back. She doesn’t. As he leaves, he says, “Take care of yourself.” Her reply: “I think I just did.”
The show explored themes of workplace sexism, birth control and pay equality. Mary had sexual dalliances, on her own terms. And she was cool — she drove a beat-up Mustang, wore white go-go boots and a suede jacket. Why was Mary Tyler Moore an inspiration for generations of girls? Maybe it’s because 25 out of its 75 writers in 1973 were women, unprecedented in that era.
You could be forgiven for thinking that by the ’90s the political establishment might have accepted the notions of gender equality, or the idea of single motherhood. You would be mistaken. In many respects this was the decade that saw the conservative backlash, with arguments raging over whether women could “have it all.”
“Murphy Brown,” which first aired from 1988 to 1998, gave us an up-to-date version of Mary Tyler Moore: a divorced successful anchorwoman in her 40s who’d battled addictions to alcohol and — ahem — cigarettes. Vice President Dan Quayle criticized her for choosing to have a child alone, as if it were a “lifestyle choice.” Women voted with their channel changers — 70 million Americans tuned in for the birth. And Bill Clinton thanked series creator Diane English for helping to elect him.
Murphy was sharp-tongued. Abrasive. Unafraid to stand up for herself in a male-dominated workplace. And determined to find stories that mattered, like misuse of power by politicians and sleazy captains of industry. As we watched the show for entertainment, we saw a feminist icon in action — and were inspired.
“Sex and the City” ran from 1998 to 2004. Because it was on HBO, it could go further — and it did. Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda, all white and all privileged, didn’t conform to any feminist ideal. They were walking advertisements for guilty pleasures: alcohol, Manolo Blahnik heels, and sex sex sex. And they were walking ads for end-of-the-century virtues: career advancement, supporting your friends, finding a trophy husband. Yes, many, if not most, of their aspirations were shallow, but they seemed credible, even familiar.
Talk about “appointment viewing.” My clients never figured out why I was always “in a meeting” during broadcast times. “Sex and the City” delivered like no series before it. It represented the limit of character-and-story possibility.
Until, that is, streaming came along.