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.

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

Share this: