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?
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?
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.”
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.”