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Photos: Women on TV

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  1. 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show'

    Mary Richards (Mary Tyler Moore) was unlike any female on television. She was single, never-married, career oriented, and not looking for a man to support her. (Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. 'Maude'

    Bea Arthur played the title character, Maude Findlay, who was a liberal, married to her fourth husband. She not only supported abortion she also had one. This was revolutionary. (CBS via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. 'The Jeffersons'

    The “All in the Family” spinoff starred Sherman Hemsley and Isabel Sanford, center, tackled race, but was not overly political. Louise Jefferson (Sanford) helped her husband build his dry cleaning business and was an equal partner with him. (CBS via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. 'The Brady Bunch'

    Florence Henderson’s Carol Brady, right, split the parenting duties with her husband, and not much of the housework. She also had a lot of help from housekeeper Alice (Ann B. Davis) in handling her brood of six, including daughter Jan (Eve Plumb). (Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. 'All In the Family'

    Jean Stapleton gave life to Edith Bunker, a sweet, but stereotypically deferential wife who was married to the bigoted Archie (Carroll OConnor). (CBS via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. 'Laverne and Shirley'

    Shirley Feeney (Cindy Williams, left) and Laverne DeFazio (Penny Marshall) were working women in search of a husband, not a career. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. 'Cagney & Lacey'

    Christine Cagney (Sharon Gless, left) was a single, career-minded police officer while her partner, Mary Beth Lacey (Tyne Daly), was a devoted wife and mother. The drama was among the first to show women trying to strike a balance between their professional and personal lives. (CBS via Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. 'Kate & Allie'

    Allie Lowell (Jane Curtain, second from right) and Kate McArdle (Susan Saint James) played divorced women who shared a brownstone and raised their children together. They were street-smart career women, and therefore groundbreaking characters in the 1980s. (Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. 'Murder, She Wrote'

    Jessica Fletcher (Angela Lansbury) was a mystery writer and amateur detective on the series that ran for 12 seasons. Lansbury holds the record for the most Golden Globe nominations for Best Actress in a TV drama series and the most Emmy nominations for outstanding lead actress in a drama series for her work in the show. (Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. 'Family Ties'

    Elyse Keaton (Meredith Baxter) was a liberal woman who came of age in 1960s counterculture. She struggled to connect with her children of the Reagan era, including daughter Mallory (Justine Bateman). The show sought to explore the cultural shift of the two generations. (Frank Carroll / NBC) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. 'Murphy Brown'

    Murphy Brown (Candice Bergen) played a tough network news journalist who constantly came up against the glass ceiling. The character famously got into an all-too-real cultural fight with then-Vice President Dan Quayle when she elected to become a single mother. (CBS via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. 'The Cosby Show'

    Clair Hanks Huxtable (Phylicia Rashad) was a successful lawyer and mother of five who was an equal match for her obstetrician husband, Dr. Heathcliff 'Cliff' Huxtable (Bill Cosby). Their roles, while criticized for being unrealistic, are still considered groundbreaking. (NBC) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. 'Growing Pains'

    Maggie Malone (Joanna Kerns) was a working mom who ceded primary child-rearing duty to her husband Jason Seaver (Alan Thicke). The show had particular relevance in the last '80s and early '90s as many mothers entered the work force and stay-at-home dads became more common. (Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. 'Roseanne'

    Roseanne Conner (Roseanne Barr) was a working-class woman, struggling with her husband Dan (John Goodman) to raise their children and keep a roof over their heads. It was among the first shows to depict two working parents. The groundbreaking show, which ran from 1988-1997, won a Peabody Award in 1992. (Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. 'Who's the Boss'

    Angela Bower (Judith Light, left) played a divorced advertising executive who hires Tony Micelli (Tony Danza) to be her live-in housekeeper and babysitter. Mona Robinson (Katherine Helmond), Angela's feisty, on-the-prowl mom, also lived in the house. The show ran from 1984-92. (Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. 'Law & Order: Special Victims Unit"

    Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) is a New York police detective who joined the special unit because was conceived when her mother was raped. (Will Hart / NBC) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. 'Saving Grace'

    Grace Hanadarko (Holly Hunter) is a hard-drinking, chain-smoking, promiscuous Oklahoma City detective who is visited by an emissary of God named Earl after she runs over and kills a pedestrian after a night of binge drinking. The fantasy-crime drama focuses on the struggle to find and keep faith in an imperfect world. (TNT) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. 'Sex and the City'

    Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker, right), Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall, second from right), Charlotte York (Kristin Davis, second from left) and Miranda Hobbs (Cynthia Nixon) portrayed sexually liberated, hardworking and independent women who struggled to find love and personal and professional fulfillment. The show was among the first to show the family-like relationship between women friends. (HBO via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. 'Judging Amy'

    Amy Gray (Amy Brenneman) is a divorced mom and family court judge who, along with her daughter Lauren (Karle Warren) moves back home with her mother Maxine (Tyle Daly, not pictured). The series was one of the most female-centric shows of its time (1999-2005), featuring three generations of women living together. (Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. 'The Sopranos'

    Carmela Soprano (Edie Falco, second from right), wife of mob boss Tony (James Gandolfini), was not your typical housewife, but she struggled with similar issues of identity. (HBO) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. 'Grey's Anatomy'

    Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) is a surgeon who struggles with her past and assorted other inner demons while trying to make her relationship with Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey) work. When she implored Derek to “pick me, choose me, love me,” some argued the women’s movement was put in reverse. (ABC) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. '30 Rock'

    Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) has reached career success, but her low self-esteem outside of work has affected her ability to find a love match. (NBC) Back to slideshow navigation
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updated 10/20/2009 8:16:21 AM ET 2009-10-20T12:16:21

Within the first seven minutes of the pilot episode of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” Moore’s character, Mary Richards, encounters the following questions in the course of her job interview at WJM-TV:

How old are you?

What religion are you?

Would you think I was violating your civil rights if I asked if you were married?


Never married?


Do you type?

That was 1970, and miraculously, Richards landed the job of associate producer, “for $10 less a week than a secretarial job.”

Fast forward nearly four decades and turn on the TV. The female lead is probably not an ambitious professional woman working her way up a ladder, dealing with a boss who openly drinks on the job and asks phenomenally inappropriate, and in some cases, illegal questions. Nope, she’s either already there or within reach of the top rung, and she’s got it all. Look at “Grey’s Anatomy” heroine Meredith Grey: in the course of a day, she’s assisting in the O.R., attending to her cancer-stricken best friend and managing the demands of a new marriage. Or there’s Dr. Lisa Cuddy on “House,” who is juggling the responsibility of being Dean of Medicine and hospital administrator at the fictional Princeton-Plainsboro Hospital, all while mothering a baby she recently adopted.

Are we better off now, having DVRs stockpiled with shows that portray powerful women pulling off what used to be considered impossible?

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According to the findings of a major report on the status of women by Maria Shriver and the Center for American Progress, not really. We went from Mary Richards to Meredith Grey at top speed, and along the way, forgot about Roseanne Conner, who really represented the female head of household in America.

“Women’s professional success and financial status are significantly overrepresented in the mainstream media, suggesting that women indeed ‘have it all,’” the study says. What we see on television then are characters who “overrepresent how far women have in fact come in the workplace, underrepresent the kind of work most women do, and misrepresent how women can, and do, comport themselves on the job,” according to the report.

Looking at the disconnect
If you spend anywhere near the 153 hours per month watching TV the average American does, according to A.C. Nielsen, you’re probably tuning in to a woman who holds one of five jobs: surgeon, lawyer, police lieutenant, district attorney or cable news pundit. The real top five jobs for women were, in first place, secretaries and administrative assistants, followed by registered nurses, elementary and middle school teachers, cashiers and retail salespersons, according to the Department of Labor’s 2008 statistics on women workers.

Much has been made of the idea that women’s physical images are driven toward unrealistic goals by the media, but Susan Douglas, author of the chapter of the Shriver report titled “Where have you gone, Roseanne Barr,” affirms the point made by the labor statistics and argues that the image of women’s success is misrepresented.

“It’s really about the media being funhouse mirrors, the wavy kind where you walk in and certain parts of your body are exaggerated and other parts disappear, that’s what’s happening here,” Douglas said. “The success of women, that they’ve made it to the top has been wildly magnified and exaggerated and the extent to which millions of women are still struggling to make ends meet, juggle work and family and doing so even with some sarcasm, the way ‘Roseanne’ did, that’s gone. When it’s not there on the screens of America, it’s easy to say, what do you mean, women, they’ve got it knocked?”

When television got women right
Roseanne Barr didn’t just play Roseanne Conner on “Roseanne,” she conceived of and wrote for the character during the series’ nine-year run, and used her own personal experience to create a program that resonated with the type of women Douglas contends are left out now.

“The idea for ‘Roseanne’ was forged in that Hamburger Helper, no-frills reality I lived in from day one. Roseanne Connor rang true for so many people because she spoke their language and faced their same fears and disappointments,” Barr said. “It didn't take a ton of imagination or guesswork to think and talk and act like a struggling, working-class woman in America because I was a struggling, working-class woman in America.”

The same year “Roseanne” premiered — 1988 — the first flat-screen television debuted, Anna Wintour was named Editor in Chief of Vogue, and Rush Limbaugh’s radio show went national. It seemed change was afoot that pilot season. But if Douglas is right, the needle hasn’t moved and to this day, “Roseanne” remains the most accurate depiction of women. That comes as no surprise to Barr.

“Is it possible to be proud and sad at the same time?” Barr said. “Working people have really lost ground since ‘Roseanne’ first hit and then ruled the airwaves in its time slot. As I often say, and I'm not the only one, that show is more ahead of its time now than it was almost two decades ago. The average person continues to face powerful forces that never let up on the ripping off and the dumbing down.”

That “dumbing down” might just be the key to which shows often make it through their pilot seasons, albeit at the expense of portraying women — and men — accurately, according to Barry Levinson, who has been writing, directing and producing films and television series since the 1970s.

“What does TV portray that is real? Real male problems? Teenagers? No, and certainly not problems of females in our society, no matter what they are doing,” Levinson said. “It (what you see on TV) is all very light, unrealistic portraits of our society on every level. Silly is good. Stupid is better.”

Why the disconnect matters
Non-news, scripted programming on television is not meant to be taken literally. “Private Practice” doesn’t air with a warning label that reminds women that most obstetricians don’t wear Manolos and the only thing standing in the way of a perfect life is remembering to try to have a life, because it shouldn’t have to. It’s pretend, and actors are people who are paid to put on costumes and play make believe, to put it all in really simple terms.

So why does the media bear some responsibility to right the ship, or at least, massage the message?

“There’s a powerful interaction between the media and everyday life,” Douglas said. “One of the things that we’ll learn by reminding ourselves that these are fantasies (on television) and these are magnified misrepresentations of success is that we’ll help women who aren’t there not feel so alone and so out of it.”

In other words, women do subscribe to the fantasy images they see on television, at least on some level. Tyne Daly, who played Mary Beth Lacey on “Cagney and Lacey,” one of the first genuine working mothers on television, remembers seeing the lines blurred. “We weren’t real cops, we were fantasy cops. It was a terrifying thing when young women would write in and say they decided to go into the work force because of ‘Cagney and Lacey.’ I’d think, ‘Oh honey, slow down now. You’re 14 years old, I know it’s fun to watch this thing with your mom, but you know ….’ That can weigh heavily on a person’s soul,” Daly said.

Can’t the fantasy work in our favor?
Even though Daly is quick to point out that Cagney and Lacey were fictional, she does believe that the aspirational image isn’t necessarily all bad in a broad sense. If you focus not on the flaws of the character, but on the fact there is a female character who’s juggling, it can be good.

“Everyone wants to see themselves in some way on television,” Daly said. “So I think the relief for women in America to see an hour television show that was mostly about women every week, well, the sigh of relief was fairly national.”

Douglas agrees, and says there’s a way to look at the current state of women on television that allows for flawed characters.

“One of the things that we think is you have to say the media are all bad or all good. That’s completely unsophisticated,” Douglas said. “Even within the same program you can have images or messages that are progressive and regressive at exactly the same time. On the one hand, is it great to have aspirational figures that suggest that women can do whatever men can do and do it well? You bet it is.”

Making changes
To think that the tectonic plates of television will suddenly shift to rearrange the balance between real woman and the one that’s bounced from satellites and into your home is unrealistic. But Barr thinks the first step in enacting any sort of change is to at least do away with the “have it all” attitude.

“Who ‘has it all?’ It is simply not possible to do or to have that. The more engrossed you are in career, the stronger the chances that your kids are being raised by a nanny. That is not having it all, it’s faking it all and I am tired of hearing about it,” said Barr, who also readily admits she was complicit in the fantasy. “I've always admitted and had to live with the fact that my family lived through some serious downside while I plugged away on my show and all but ignored everything else at times. For the last 10 years, I have sought to repair the damage that having a high profile career did to my family.”

And women are probably as complicit as men when it comes to the discrepancy, across many mediums.

“Women disconnect from the ideas as much as men and the disconnect is pretty complete,” Daly said. “Women say, this stuff is literature and then there is chick lit. Here are plays that are fascinating to all people — plays about men — and here’s theater that’s for women, and then we think it’s really amazing that a few men show up to look at it.”

Barry Adelman, who has worked as a writer and producer in television for nearly four decades and is currently senior vice president of Dick Clark Productions, explains that gender aside, storytelling on TV requires sacrifice.

“The entertainment shows on television rarely capture the true job situation for women or men. It’s mainly about telling a compelling story that will draw viewers in,” Adelman said. “An extension of a child saying, ‘Tell me a story.’ When you create a story that you hope will fascinate, often reality is sacrificed for fantasy.”

Douglas makes a very simple request: let’s just ask that there are options on television that more appropriately mirror what’s really going on in American living rooms.

“Let’s get news organizations to pay attention to this huge revolution in American life,” Douglas said. “That’s another change. To say we want to see more of what’s happening with everyday families and all of these kinds of negotiations around work and gender and kids because that’s our lives.”

That doesn’t mean that we haven’t moved the needle.

“Have we come far? My God, yes, you bet,” Douglas said. “But at the same time there’s a lot of unfinished business and there’s a whole other segment of the population out there that aren’t represented in the media, nor are they told that they can do anything they want, in their families or elsewhere.

“It’s kind of moved so we had ‘Murphy Brown’ on the one hand, and ‘Roseanne’ on the other hand, but now, there’s the privilege and class position skewing up and up. There’s a lot of progress, but a lot to be done.”

© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints


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