From Inclusion Riders to Cultivating Care: What Lifetime Can Teach The Industry about Entertainment By and For Women, Pt. 2
Miranda J. Banks and Kristin J. Lieb / Emerson College

Screenshot of Lifetime's Surviving R. Kelly

Lifetime’s Surviving R. Kelly

This is the second part of a series. For part one, click here.

The televised awards ceremony creates its own form of melodrama: nominees’ faces filled with anxious hope, from the ingenue to the seasoned star, the surprised delight (or disappointed congratulations to the victor), and of course, the tearful often protracted narrative of the artist’s rise to this celebratory moment. At the Golden Globes this year, Regina King’s speech for Best Supporting Actress started as an alternately misty-eyed and revelatory listing of her collaborators for If Beale Street Could Talk. But then her speech took a turn as she self-reflexively noted that this was her chance to talk about issues larger than her personal experience—namely, the Time’s Up Movement. The “wrap it up” music began to play, but nevertheless, she persisted. And rather than raising the volume and cutting away from her, the song quieted and the camera remained fixed on her, allowing her to finish. The industry—at least those producing the show that night—is finally listening. They broke their time-honored policy to amplify a powerful voice that demanded to be heard.

Regina King’s Golden Globes Acceptance Speech

Changing production cultures is no easy task. And it takes not just a voice, but a vision. To want to do this work is only a small step in a complicated process. And few companies in the industry appreciate the challenges of executing systemic change better than the Lifetime Network. Lifetime’s bold executive move toward equity in its production—arguably its savviest executive decision since the creation of the Lifetime movie—brought about just such transformational change. In Spring of 2015, Lifetime launched Broad Focus, a sweeping employment strategy that aims to establish gender parity in above-the-line talent across the network’s original programming. What has made the program distinctive is that its goal has been not just to hire, but also to support and develop, the work of female writers, producers, and directors. Danielle Carrig, Senior Vice President for Communications and Public Affairs at Lifetime, conceived of Broad Focus as a way of doubling down on Lifetime’s mission of making television by and for women. [ (( Carrig, D. 2017. Interview by Miranda Banks. Audio. June 8, 2017. ))] As part of the initiative, Lifetime started scouting for talent, partnering with AFI’s Directing Workshop for Women and the Bentonville Film Festival, to usher at least one project a year from each through the network’s development pipeline. (Lifetime has also committed to airing one winning film from each of the festivals annually). At the time, A&E Networks’ (Lifetime’s parent company) president and CEO, Nancy Dubuc, celebrated Broad Focus as a challenge, not just for the network but to the industry. “In this day [and] age, it’s hard to believe as an industry we still struggle to fully recognize women’s talents in behind-the-camera roles, especially as directors… Broad Focus will inspire us to look deeper and in nontraditional places to discover women among those storytellers. I’m proud we are challenging ourselves and our friends in the industry to do more to support them.” [ (( Zumberge, M. 2015. “Lifetime’s Broad Focus Hopes to Find Jobs for Women in Hollywood.” Variety. May 6, 2015. ))]

Lifetime's Broad Focus

Lifetime’s Broad Focus

A month after the Broad Focus announcement, Lifetime premiered UnREAL, a series in which the network went meta on itself, chronicling the scripting of a reality dating series. The idea struck a chord with audiences, garnering record ratings for the network and abundant critical praise for the show. UnREAL both parodied and fueled the wish-fulfillment storytelling formula, historically so vital to Lifetime’s own success. Up until then, the network’s track record with original scripted programming had been decidedly uneven, with only six series lasting beyond two seasons. [ (( Newman, E.L. and E. Witsell. “Introduction.” The Lifetime Network: Essays On “Television for Women” In the 21st Century. Ed. E.L. Newman and E. Witsell. MacFarland. 1-17. Newman and Witsell include Any Day Now (1998 to 2002, four seasons), Strong Medicine (2000 and 2006, six seasons), The Division (2001 to 2004, four seasons), Army Wives (2007 to 2013, seven seasons), and Drop Dead Diva (2009 2014, six seasons). We also include here Devious Maids (2013-2016, four seasons) and UnREAL (2015-present, three seasons). ))]

Partnering with the Broad Focus’ initiative, UnREAL‘s creative team ensured not only the hiring, but the financial support of women working on the series—including those at the bottom. Stacy Rukeyser, co-executive producer and later executive producer of UnREAL, noted the impact of subsidizing typical pay rates for assistants on the series. Doing this diversified their pool of job candidates to include those who could not normally work at such low rates without going into debt. (Assistant jobs, which often put novice talent in the same room as people who might one day help them get staff jobs, often pay little. Typically only those people who have saved up funds, or who have family members willing to support them while they take these jobs, are the only ones able to capitalize on these opportunities.) As Rukeyser said, “Paying just a couple more hundred dollars a week opens doors.” [ (( Bennett, A. “Hollywood Harassment: Best Fight ‘Is to Have Inclusion’ — Produced By.” Deadline. June 10, 2018. ))]

In January 2019, Lifetime aired the six-part documentary series Surviving R. Kelly. The series extended the promise of the network brand, moving from revealing the drama behind the melodrama of reality television to making a haunting documentary about sexual predation that amplified Lifetime’s commitment to telling more inclusive stories by women and for women. Where other networks passed on Surviving R. Kelly, Lifetime believed that the series fit within their brand: this time not as a scripted biopic, but rather as a documentary told through the voices of the young black women who were survivors. But others needed convincing—including filmmaker and writer Dream Hampton, whom Lifetime approached to executive produce the series. “I didn’t want to get involved… And Lifetime, I had watched them fictionalize Aaliyah’s story [Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B]. I said, ‘I’m not interested in doing some re-creation of R. Kelly’… The fact is, I didn’t pitch this. And there wasn’t some buffet of people trying to do this story about black girls.” [ (( Lockett, D. “Why Didn’t Surviving R. Kelly Happen Before Lifetime Entered the Picture?” Vulture. January 18, 2019. ))]

The trailer itself moves from centering the infamous star to bearing witness to survivors’ stories.

With this move, Lifetime stepped more securely into the realm of making television that matters, with integrity, by women and for women—without going off-brand. Lifetime achieved this by greenlighting the story, enlisting Hampton to serve as Executive Producer, and relying on more than 50 interviews to chronicle Kelly’s trail of abuse and bring the stories of his survivors to light compellingly, journalistically, and respectfully. The focus of the series is bearing witness to the women, not sensationalizing the fall of the infamous star, and thus the frames shift as well, making for novel, nuanced television about the entitlements of fame and the hazards and horrors of comparative invisibility. Where other networks said no, Lifetime said yes. By opting to tell an in-progress story about justice for wronged women–rather than offering a safer, post-facto dramatization—Lifetime has expanded its portfolio of meanings to include words like bold, daring, and activist.

But to capitalize on powerful brand meanings and intentions, companies must continue to invest in talent at all levels. In an interview, we asked Carrig about the importance of economic investment to the bolstering of these initiatives. She responded: “We have to start talking about money and the flow of money and making sure women are in that path of the flow of money. It’s okay to start to talk about money. We’ve thought it’s like this dirty thing that women need to be in that line. If their time is being used—even if it is, in part, a learning experience—I believe in compensating for time.” [ (( Carrig, D. 2017. Interview by Miranda Banks. Audio. June 8, 2017. ))]

The network has continued to imagine modes of expanding its reach globally and programmatically. As the network expanded its international reach—with 122% growth in global audience from 2012-2015—executives elected to extend Broad Focus to Lifetime’s worldwide brand through investment in micro-budget content development and in engagement with female talent and audiences through local festivals and markets. Amanda Hill, Chief Creative Officer, International for A+E Networks, said at the unveiling of this plan: “[i]t’s imperative that we use the power of our reach as a media brand to break down the barriers of entry for talented women storytellers.” [ (( Carrig, D. 2015. “A+E Networks’ Lifetime Takes Broad Focus Initiative Global,” Press Release. A+E Networks. October 5, 2015. ))] In terms of sports programming, while Lifetime was an early supporter of the WNBA, it recently deepened its investment in women’s sports, acquiring an equity stake in the U.S. National Women’s Soccer League, and broadcasting games starting in the 2017 season. [ (( Hagey, K. 2017. “A+E Networks Buys Stake in National Women’s Soccer League.” Wall Street Journal. February 2, 2017. ))] Then by building a nightly block around “women who pursue justice and display courage as a routine part of their work,” [ (( Littleton, C. 2018. “Gretchen Carlson to Host Lifetime’s ‘Justice for Women’ Monday Night Block.” Variety. June 4, 2018. ))] the network embraced cultural momentum related to the #MeToo and #TimesUp Movements, rebranding its Monday night programming block as “Justice for Women with Gretchen Carlson.” Carlson, a former Fox News anchor who successfully sued Fox News Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes for sexual harassment, uses her voice on Lifetime to continue her campaign—and that of the network’s—to be a strong voice for gender parity.

With Broad Focus, Lifetime made its commitment to equity, care, and corporate responsibility clear internally and externally, improving its chances of achieving employee buy-in and industry success. As Colin Mitchell notes in the Harvard Business Review: “Turning points are ideal opportunities for an internal branding campaign; managers can direct people’s energy in a positive direction by clearly and vividly articulating what makes the company special.”[ (( Mitchell, C. 2002. “Selling the Brand Inside.” Harvard Business Review. January, 2002. ))] Lifetime is now poised to become more relevant than ever as it delivers on its brand promise of making television by and for women with as much responsibility, care, and equity as it can. With this recently refocused mandate, Lifetime can ensure that a wide range of women get to tell a wide range of stories, broadening and deepening representation on its network, and validating the diversity among makers and audiences in the process.

Neither one person, nor one company, can undo long-held entitlements and the unchecked privilege of those who have dominated the media industries. To ensure that well-intentioned individual efforts are not made in vain, they must be coordinated and supported by institutional measures focused on impact and longevity. Many individuals working autonomously can make many other individuals feel cared for, but this approach results in duplicative effort, wasted time, and burnout. Lasting change is possible, but only if Lifetime and its network peers operationalize their values by integrating them into every conceivable level of their organizations and brands, investing in and supporting relevant initiatives, using more inclusive labor practices, and establishing how they will more thoughtfully and comprehensively measure success—and justice.

Image Credits:

1. Screenshot from Lifetime’s Surviving R. Kelly (author’s screen grab)
2. Lifetime’s Broad Focus

From Inclusion Riders to Cultivating Care: What Lifetime Can Teach The Industry about Entertainment By and For Women
Miranda J. Banks and Kristin J. Lieb / Emerson College

McDormand and Streep at the 2018 Academy Awards


A young woman’s life is cut short by violence and trauma. Her strong, attractive, middle-aged white mother, unable to set aside her grief, cannot forget this tragedy that their small midwestern town seems to have forgotten. The mother uses all of her savings and the help of a young black man to confront the local sheriff. The plot weaves in an untimely cancer diagnosis, a fire that destroys evidence, alcoholism, and an abusive ex-husband. Sound like a Lifetime movie? Perhaps. But it’s actually the stuff of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, and for her performance, the actress who played this grief-stricken mother, Frances McDormand, won the 2018 Academy Award for Best Actress.

In her acceptance speech, McDormand called not just for the voices of women in Hollywood to be heard, but for their projects to be financially optioned. “Look around ladies and gentlemen, because we all have stories to tell and projects we need financed. Don’t talk to us about it at the parties, invite us into your office in a couple days or you can come to ours, whichever suits you best, and we’ll tell you all about them.” She ended her speech with a rallying cry—two words that threw some executives into a tizzy and sent most people to Google: “inclusion rider.”

McDormand calls for the Inclusion Rider

A rider, a stipulation sometimes placed within an artist’s contract with a media company, puts a particular demand on the legal agreement that, if violated, allows the artist legal recourse to walk away from a deal. Top creative talent—whether actors, musicians, or directors—have invoked riders, in part, as a way to demand respect (or claim diva status) and feel less like employees and more like artists. Common or outrageous examples of such demands include private chefs, no brown M&Ms in the candy bowl, time off to golf during the workweek, or an endless supply of premium cigars.[ (( Desta, J. 2017. “8 Movie Stars with Unbelievable Contract Clauses.” Vanity Fair. August 10, 2017.))] In contrast, McDormand’s applied a rider to ensure justice—financial and professional justice for her cast and crew. McDormand called on the top-tier industry insiders assembled at the Academy Awards ceremony to establish contractually-mandated inclusivity and equity.

McDormand’s call for inclusion riders excited a conversation in the industry, the press, and popular culture about inclusivity and about the potential for powerful individuals to make transformative change within work cultures and communities. We believe wholeheartedly that every individual working within the media industries—actually, every individual—should do everything in their power to make workplaces more equitable. But seeing inclusion riders as an answer to Hollywood’s problems leads to further questions. All riders will not be written the same way—and the fine print is vital to their impact. So, how inclusive will these contracts be? Will they demand 50-50 gender hiring of cast and crew–or be progressive enough to think beyond gender binaries? Will they look for sustainable equity or just, as the Time Up X2 movement suggests, doubling numbers this year? Will they consider race or ethnicity? Will they consider what roles or leadership positions those who are traditionally underrepresented will take in these productions? What else is in the fine print?[ (( One scholar tweeted out an easily downloadable inclusion rider, but the document stipulated that signers give that particular scholar unique access to their production data for research purposes This addition of a third party to a contract could mislead signers or impede adoption.

Kalpana Kotagal, a class action litigator and co-developer of the inclusion rider that MacDormand referenced, called a rider “an important piece of getting justice” and “a crucial tool for corporate accountability.”[ ((Dishman, L. 2018. “This Is One Of The Women Behind Hollywood’s Inclusion Rider.” Fast Company. March 22, 2018.))] A rider, as Kotagal says, is a compelling and powerful instrument, but in isolation, it is not a solution. Hollywood’s gender problems cannot be solved solely by individuals who use their star power to effect change on a project-by-project basis.[ ((Dvorak, P. 2018. “She wrote Hollywood’s ‘inclusion rider.’ But she fights for women at Walmart, chicken plants and hospitals, too.” Washington Post Blogs, March 8, 2018.))] Helen Wood and Heather Savigny recently noted in a shared keynote address at the University of Greenwich, there are deeply troubling neoliberal assumptions that underpin the idea that individuals can make a real-world impact and meaningfully transform systemic institutional sexism, racism, or classism.[ ((Wood, H. and H. Savigny. 2018. “Troubling Trailblazing: A Politics of Care.” Trailblazing Women On and Off Screen Conference. University of Greenwich, UK. June 19, 2018.))] One individual cannot unmoor a neoliberal meritocracy that systematically privileges white, able-bodied, cisgendered, straight, upper-middle class, college-educated men and disadvantages everyone else. Using feminist moral philosophy, Wood and Savigny instead called for a politics of care that would harness teams, groups, and organizations to work collectively to bring real and lasting change to companies, institutions, and systems.

With this politics of care in mind, individuals and companies must think beyond hiring practices noted in riders to consider how riders still might exclude those who do not have the access to apply for positions on production crews. Could a rider ever go so far as to demand reconsideration of how creative labor is organized and structured so that the culture of work is more equitable and inclusive? Wood and Savigny rephrase economist Milton Friedman’s famous quotation that “before there can be equity there must be freedom” to assert that “before there can be freedom, there must be care.” Care has been systematically undervalued—and without care for the well-being of others, Wood and Savigny state, true equity cannot be achieved. Using this logic, an inclusion rider forces a conversation and some action, but it must work in conjunction with a politics of care—or, at the very least within the current neoliberal economies of the media industries, to build or facilitate a semblance of corporate responsibility. Unless a vision for change is both action-oriented and has financial support—backed not only by powerful individuals within the organization but also by institutional policy—its chance for lasting impact is profoundly compromised.

Within the context of the highly conglomerated, capitalist system of television production that dominates the American market, what actions on screen and behind the scenes (from the corporate office to the set) highlight equity, justice, and care? In thinking about a company best positioned to implement these ideals, we arrived at Lifetime, the television network that has the for last 30 years branded itself as the dedicated network for women. In this two part series, we map how the network has found its way to an increasingly inclusive and compelling model of media made by and for diverse women. This first article follows Lifetime’s early history up to 2015. The second article, coming out next month, will explore how Lifetime’s Broad Focus initiative has transformed the network and how recent series, from UnREAL to Surviving R. Kelly, represent examples of how the network is reimagining what women—and others—who are increasingly interested in watching nuanced, representative, and engaging stories about women—want and/or need to see in 2019 and beyond.

The recent #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have placed gender equity and justice at the center of many cultural, political, economic, academic, and pop cultural discussions about gender in the United States. These conversations have expanded cultural understandings of sexual harassment and sexual violence in the workplace, and served to let women of all ages, races, ethnicities, classes, sexualities, professions, and political affiliations know that they are far from alone in navigating these harrowing experiences. Lifetime is advantageously positioned to advocate for women in all the ways a powerful, women-centric television network should, by considering its practices around employment—on screen and behind the scenes—in its offices, and in its boardrooms.

At this time in Lifetime’s trajectory, its brand is well-known, but not particularly well-respected; in order to have the market influence it desires, Lifetime must invest in making the brand as well regarded as it is recognizable. By embracing the cultural moment and investing more deeply in developing systems of care, creative autonomy, and equity that have already been applied at various moments in its history, Lifetime could have a stable platform from which to enact meaningful change, reflect more nuanced and inclusive explorations of “women’s stories,” and recast its brand as one to be enjoyed by audiences and emulated by peers.

The Lifetime Television Network, which grew to prominence as “the network for women,”[ ((Meehan, E.R. and J. Byars. 2000. “Telefeminism: How Lifetime Got Its Groove, 1984–1997.” Television and New Media 1:1: 33–51.))] sold itself to audiences as a safe space for women to see and hear their own stories. Lifetime’s broadly constructed target market—women of all ages, races, classes and geographies—created a difficult executional conundrum: how to appeal to all women. Network executives resolved the dilemma by focusing on 18 to 49 year-old-women, a well-known and profitable segment that was easy to sell to advertisers.

As the Lifetime Network bolstered its brand identity and developed signature offerings, it seized upon the winning formula of the Lifetime Movie. These movies were regularly criticized—often for being overwrought, unbelievable melodramas. But audiences tuned in. On the level of plot, Lifetime’s movies were delivering pablum, but between the lines, they were offering something Lifetime’s target market couldn’t resist: justice for women. Justice they weren’t getting at home, at school, at work, or from the legal system. Any wild tale that culminated in some semblance of justice was vindicating, validating, and thrilling. And while its heroines were often brutally victimized, its movies gave viewers access to a world in which justice could, and would, prevail. The formula worked. As Heather Hundley observed: “Ten years after it began, Lifetime was in 59 million households and was the eighth­ most-watched basic cable network in prime time, but most importantly, it was first in one of its key demographics: 18- to 49-year-old women.”[ ((Hundley, H. “The Evolution of Gendercasting: The Lifetime Television Network—‘Television for Women.’” Journal of Popular Film and Television. 29.4: 174–181.))]

Typical Lifetime Movie Fare: My Stepson, My Lover (A.K.A. Love Murder and Deceit), circa 1997.

Lifetime, like most television networks, has mainly focused on external branding efforts—to cable carriers, advertisers, and audiences. But during its history, a few powerful and well-intentioned individuals have made compelling efforts to change the brand from within. In 2007, Andrea Wong’s first act as the network’s new president was to meet and listen to all 500 of her employees as they talked about perceived opportunities and challenges at Lifetime.[ ((Chang, C., W Guttentag, and R. Kramer. 2008. “Lifetime Networks: Andrea Wong” Stanford Graduate School of Business, EM5.))] In engaging these extended conversations with employees across the network, Wong learned that most felt they did not have the authority to make decisions. In response, she encouraged them to act, arguing that, from her perspective, making mistakes was preferable to inaction. As Wong worked to change the programming of “the women in peril network,” she noticed the women behind the scenes were also in peril and sought to give them agency.[ ((Ibid.))] Wong captured something vital about how women in the media industries were experiencing the workplace and took compassionate action to build care into daily corporate life. Sadly, her efforts were short-lived for a number of reasons, including that she was just one individual trying to fix an ingrained, elaborate process problem. But her management approach to corporate climate was a thoughtful and compelling way of making her employees feel seen, heard, and valued. Wong’s approach may have also encouraged Lifetime employees to, in marketing terms, “live the brand” and see the network more completely as both for and about women.

Wong, who had earned an MBA at Stanford prior to joining Lifetime,[ ((Ibid.))] appreciated the depth and the value of internal (or employee) branding—whereby companies regularly articulate their brand mission and values to employees to create better alignment between corporate mission and employee action.[ ((A recent example of a company trying to realign with its mission and action would be Starbucks’ decision to close its stores on May 29 2018, for emergency training about racial bias .))] One company that has done this particularly well is Southwest Airlines. A Harvard Business Review article,[ ((Mitchell, Colin. “Selling the Brand Inside” Harvard Business Review January 2002.))] and a business case study of the company,[ ((Miles, S.J. and W.G. Mangold. 2005. “Positioning Southwest Airlines through employee branding” Business Horizons. 48: 535—545.))] explore Southwest’s commitment to engineering the brand from the inside out, sending clear and consistent messages to both internal and external audiences about the brand’s mission and values. The article notes that Southwest goes so far as to screen job candidates not only for their professional skills, but also “on a scale of one to five on seven traits corresponding to the brand’s core values.”[ ((Mitchell, Colin. “Selling the Brand Inside” Harvard Business Review January 2002.))] By interviewing with its mission in mind, Southwest is able to recruit and hire employees whose personal values and personalities align with Southwest’s systematic and progressive way of doing business. Lifetime could consider hiring this carefully and deliberately to achieve its own organizational goals.

As Lifetime has struggled to be more inclusive on screen and behind the scenes, it has succeeded in some ways and faltered in others. In 2012, Lifetime began phasing out “Television For Women” to make way for its new slogan, “Your Life. Your Time.” This move was designed to make the network more inviting to those not yet interested in or committed to the brand. Part of this meant expanding its focus beyond white women.[ ((Amanda Lotz’s (2004) study of the early Lifetime original series, I’ll Fly Away, argues that in part because of creative differences between writers and network executives, the representation of women of color on the series, only went skin-deep. The authenticity the series sought faltered in its execution.))] As Newman notes “what often went unsaid in previous discussions of their brand was that Lifetime’s generic woman was actually a white woman.”[ ((Newman, E.L. 2016. “Conclusion–Lifetime at Thirty: Leading the Way for Women and Television.” The Lifetime Network: Essays On “Television for Women” In the 21st Century. Ed. E.L. Newman and E. Witsell. MacFarland. 171-192.))] At some level, the network itself realized the myopic whiteness of its brand and started actively recruiting women of color as creative talent to help the network cultivate inclusion and creative autonomy throughout its ranks in recent years.

In 2012, the network remade the film Steel Magnolias with an all-black cast, drawing in 6.5 million viewers and strong reviews,[ ((Andreeva, N. 2012. “Steel Magnolias Remake Posts Ratings Records For Lifetime, Draws 6.5 Million.” Deadline. October 8. 2012.))] but this was a continuation of a superficial approach to representation. In 2013, Devious Maids, an original series created by Marc Cherry, resonated with many viewers by providing representation of Latina characters that pushed the envelope, just not too far. Jillian Baez argues the program captures “multiple segments of the female audience through postfeminist and postracial content that is intentionally polysemic.”[ ((Báez, J. 2015. “Television for all women?: Watching Lifetime’s Devious Maids.” Cupcakes, Pinterest, Ladyporn: Feminized popular culture in the early 21st century. Ed. E. Levine. 51-70.))] The series predictably positions these Latina heroines as hyper-sexualized members of the service economy but also presents them as more ethical than their rich and often white employers. This is a form of bounded transgression, which upholds televisual conventions around gender, race, class, and sexuality while subverting these norms and expectations just enough to court more progressive audiences searching for something newer and truer.

An example of bounded transgression, Devious Maids (ABC Studios/Lifetime)

Savvy viewers of color—as well as some scholars–saw Lifetime’s patterned representational problems clearly. Crosby and Bartlow highlight the contradictions in the original series Girlfriend Intervention, showing how it problematized white women’s behavior but expected Black women to do the labor of restoring “true” womanhood.

Extensively, the show advances white supremacy by helping white women; however, teaching white women to “embrace and celebrate their lives, speak their mind, lighten up and love themselves” (GI casting call) does not support the subservient role patriarchy demands of women of any color, especially if it is black women teaching even superficial empowerment.[ ((Crosby, S.L. and S. Bartlow. 2016. “‘What did we teach you?’ Racialized sisterhood in Girlfriend Intervention.The Lifetime Network: Essays On “Television for Women” In the 21st Century. Ed. E.L. Newman and E. Witsell. MacFarland. 21-37.))]

Audiences used their own methods of speaking back, taking to social media to exact representational justice through biting humor and memes. Brandy Monk-Payton, writing about the 2014 hashtags #LifetimeBeLike and #LifetimeBiopics that poked fun at the network, articulates how “social networking becomes a crucial platform for generating humor as a form of protest against systemic anti-Blackness in the United States.”[ ((Monk-Payton, B. 2017. “#LaughingWhileBlack: Gender and the Comedy of Social Media Blackness.” Feminist Media Histories. 3. 2: 15-35.))]

Taking heed to criticisms of their continued missteps and failures in its racist and stereotypical depictions of women of color, the network chose a high-profile marketing campaign around their decision to greenlight a biopic about the talented and beloved singer Whitney Houston, from the esteemed actor and first-time director Angela Bassett. The Lifetime movie, Whitney (2015), garnered the network’s highest ratings in more than a year,[ ((Kissell, R. 2015. “‘Whitney Biopic, Specials Score Big for Lifetime on Saturday.” Variety. January 19, 2015.))] but infuriated those overseeing Houston’s estate, who fired back that Bassett’s choice to make the film was short-sighted and opportunistic.[ ((Houston’s family was deeply angered by this unauthorized biopic. In a press release, Pat Houston, President of the Whitney Houston Estate, directed some of her anger directly at Bassett: “This creative pursuit at the expense of the integrity of such an iconic woman, who is voiceless today, reeks of condemnation and deceit. It reeks of enslavement to an industry that will likely do the same to you one day.” Whether Houston’s Estate was more angry at her representation, or that the movie eclipsed the Estate-authorized biopics in the ratings, is somewhat unclear. See Hyman, V. 2015. “Whitney Houston’s family on Lifetime biopic: ‘Brace yourself for the worst.’ January 18, 2015.
))] What resonates from Steel Magnolias, Devious Maids, and Whitney as examples of the network’s more recent approach to inclusivity—from the stories of women of color inserted into originally white narratives, to stories created by white men that push the representational envelope ever so slightly, to stories directed by women of color about women of color—is the importance of making space for women of color, queer women, gender non-conforming women, and women with disabilities to craft their own narratives and to visualize their own representation.

In Part II, we address Lifetime’s Broad Focus Initiative which heralded employment policy changes that led to some of its most compelling content yet, including UnREAL, which flips the script on the fantasy of on-screen romance, to Surviving R Kelly, a six-part documentary series that takes an intersectional feminist approach to one of the worst-kept secrets of the #MeToo era: Kelly’s serial sexual predation of underage girls.

Image Credits:
1. Frances McDormand and Meryl Streep at the 2018 Oscars
2. McDormand calls for the Inclusion Rider
3. Typical Lifetime Movie Fare: My Stepson, My Lover (A.K.A. Love Murder and Deceit), circa 1997.
4. An example of bounded transgression, Devious Maids (ABC Studios/Lifetime)

Liberal Women, Mental Illness, and Precarious Whiteness in Trump’s America
Jorie Lagerwey / University College Dublin
Taylor Nygaard / University of Denver

UnReal Season 2

This essay is the first piece of a larger project we are mapping through articles on Flow that examines the ways in which white, liberal, middle-class, educated elites—a demographic that closely overlaps with the target audiences for so-called “quality” TV and streaming content—are complicit in the maintenance and promotion of white supremacy. The press has done some of the work of unpacking the economic and political reasons behind the now-infamous statistic that 53% of white women voted for Donald Trump. We want to add to that conversation by analyzing a sizeable programming cycle we call Horrible White People shows that has emerged on television in the last 2-3 years.

Just a few examples of Horrible White People Shows

We see this representational trend as intimately tied to recession, the emergent mainstreaming of feminism(s), the unmasked visibility of racial inequality and violence, and changes in TV production and distribution models. This column focuses on the cycle’s white women in emotional distress or facing mental illness—women who distract viewers from the plight of minorities most impacted by Trump’s policies and broader political agenda. Like all Horrible White People, these female characters work together to televisually foreground a supposedly precarious, threatened, middle-class whiteness. In the Trump era and on these shows, people are confronted for the first time in several decades with the failure of their white middle-class identity to grant them the privilege of stable or easy-to-find jobs, accessible home ownership, and long-term relationships. The range of emotional distress these characters face is broad, from grief (Fleabag) to pervasive ennui (Divorce, Catastrophe) to textually diagnosed and treated mental illness as on You’re the Worst, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and UnReal. Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby), the central character on Lifetime’s behind-the-scenes-of-reality-TV soap opera, gives us one of the most overt examples of the racialized dynamic of these sad white women (see also You’re the Worst s3e12, “You Knew it was a Snake”).

The opening sequence of “Return,” season 1 episode 1 of UnReal

In the first season of UnReal, Rachel, a producer on the Bachelor-clone show-within-a-show, Ever After, returns to work after an on-camera breakdown and several months in hospital under psychiatric care. The slogan on the t-shirt she wears on her first day back, This is What a Feminist Looks Like, becomes ironic in the shot above where a resigned-looking Rachel is photographed through the open sun roof of a limousine, lying on the floor of a car filled with evening gown-decked postfeminist girls looking for love on reality TV. The show’s first season is an often incisive satire of a complex cultural moment in which mainstream postfeminism clashes with the language of (re)emerging feminism coming out of the mouths of Rachel and her mentor Quinn (Constance Zimmer). The first season is even self-aware about the racial exclusivity of that emerging feminism and the work that supposedly trashy popular culture like the Bachelor or Ever After does to maintain patriarchy and white supremacy. [ ((See for example, Rachel E. Dubrofsky, “The Bachelor: Whiteness in the Harem,” Critical Studies in Media Communication 23.1 (March 2006): 39-56.))] Indeed, it’s those tensions, between Rachel’s expressed progressive politics and her complicity in maintaining and celebrating the status quo via being a very skilled reality TV producer, that leads to her relapse into mental illness (she is pictured in hospital, in therapy, and taking medication, but never given a specific diagnosis in the show) in the backstory leading up to the show’s first season.

The critically panned second season attempts to take the show’s engagement with white supremacy further, but instead re-encodes the centrality of white women’s suffering. Promoted to showrunner, Rachel casts a black suitor/bachelor and textually acknowledges using her racial privilege and position of cultural power to, in her own words, “change the world.”

A promotional image of season 2 of UnReal

You can see just from this promotional image that while the black suitor is centered in the frame and in the text of the show-within-a-show, it is really the two white women flanking him that audiences should be interested in. Rachel, in jeans on the left, stands slightly behind but also above the suitor with a walkie in one hand and the other resting possessively on the suitor’s shoulder. Quinn, opposite in the black suit, leans casually against Darius’s (B.J. Britt) other shoulder. Its casualness makes the pose an eloquent gesture of power. The two women make eye contact with each other, further setting Darius apart and illustrating—for those who know the premise of the show—their control over his performance. Rachel and Quinn’s eye contact also prioritizes the relationship between the two white female frenemies as the most important relationship on the show. So while Rachel directly states her intention to promote black representation, the show’s narrative structure centralizes white women and Rachel’s trauma and sadness over the victimization of black people rather than actually working toward more equitable representation in front of and behind the camera.

UnReal’s second season offers a rare, explicit representation of a liberal white feminist’s efforts to ameliorate racial injustice and her simultaneous complicity in racist cultural structures, including mainstream television. Rachel’s initial recognition of her position of cultural power, both as a white person and as the showrunner of a highly rated reality television show, creates the potential for good ally-ship—using one’s privilege to create spaces where those with less access to power can speak and be heard. But Rachel’s mental illness and resultant erratic behavior instead turns a narrative about police violence against black men into one about white women’s health.

In episode 207, “Ambush,” Darius needs to blow off some steam after being sequestered on set for weeks. He and his friend/manager, along with two of the white female contestants, borrow a car from set and go joy riding. Rachel, seeing the opportunity for dramatic television, calls the police and reports the car stolen. She and another member of the production team state outright that calling the police on two black men in a supposedly stolen car “isn’t going to end well.” Rachel and the other producer hide behind bushes filming the incident as police pull over the car, ask Darius and his manager to step out of the vehicle, and eventually point their weapons at the two black men. Rachel, thinking she can de-escalate the situation, runs out from behind the bushes, startling the cop into shooting both Darius and Romeo (Gentry White).

The rest of the season then shifts not to a representation of unjustified police violence against black men, but instead focuses on Rachel’s deteriorating emotional state as she tries to deal with her culpability in getting two men shot.

In this cycle generally, mental illness does more than represent female oppression, often creating character development and offering insight into a character’s interiority. But taken together, the existence of this trope across a large programming cycle suggests a broader cultural function to the mentally ill horrible white lady character. Rachel’s distress in season 2 parallels the contemporary context of middle-class white women’s hurt or confused responses to criticisms of their version of feminism. Mental distress in these programs, then, doesn’t function as a metaphor for personal or even gendered containment (think Stepford Wives or Gaslight). Rather, it seems to be part of a dystopic vision of the world that includes economic precarity (whether from a gig economy like on UnReal and You’re the Worst, divorce on Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce, or failed entrepreneurialism on Fleabag and Casual) for the traditionally stable white middle- and upper-classes. Economic precarity is further paired with political upheaval and a relatively rare self-awareness of white privilege and recognition of the ineffectiveness of white liberal politics that these female characters don’t know how to rectify.

This narrative move, centering Rachel’s experience and indeed her control over the entire situation, both foregrounds the power that comes with her whiteness, and offers a fictional version of the ways in which white middle-class feminists so often center their own emotional responses to violence and inequality experienced by others instead of searching for intersectional political responses. So rather than mental illness being a way to contain white women, it’s a way for Rachel to explain her incompetence and actually deleterious contribution to dismantling structural racism. White women’s mental illness then becomes a way to re-contain or control black characters while it alleviates responsibility for structural oppression or indeed for correcting those structures from sad white ladies.

Image Credits:

1. UnReal season 2
2. Just a few examples of Horrible White People Shows.
3. The opening sequence of “Return,” season 1 episode 1 of UnReal (author’s screen grab)
4. A promotional image of season 2 of UnReal.

Please feel free to comment.

Fire in Her Belly: Gendered Standards of Comedic Discourse
Ashlynn d’Harcourt / The University of Texas at Austin

On May 30, 2017, the celebrity news website TMZ published a photograph of comedian Kathy Griffin holding a mask of President Donald Trump covered in fake blood. The title reads, “Kathy Griffin Beheads President Trump,” followed by the tongue-in-cheek, ”I Support Gore.” TMZ asked the question, does this photo incite violence?

Griffin Shields

Tyler Shields’ photograph of Kathy Griffin holding a Trump mask covered in fake blood, TMZ, May 2017.

Griffin has her roots in stand-up comedy, which she began performing in the 1990s. She has made a number of guest appearances on television shows, including on Seinfeld and The X-Files. Griffin also starred in NBC’s Suddenly Susan (1996-2000) and her Bravo reality television show, Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List (2005-2010), but she has never given up live stand-up and has recorded a number of comedy specials. In addition to laughs, stand-up comedy delivers cultural critiques like other forms of experimental theater and performance art. As early antecedents to the stand-up comic, vaudeville performers were recognized as having “a fire in their belly which makes you sit up and listen whether you want to or not.” [ (( Lytel, Robert. “Vaudeville Old and Young.” New Republic July 1, 1925, p. 156. in Jenkins, Henry. What Made Pistachio Nuts?: Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992, p. 37. ))] Many early sound films, with their fast-paced strings of gags and physical humor, showcased the vaudeville actor’s “performance virtuosity”; for example, the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields. [ (( Jenkins, p. 63-72. ))] These anarchistic comedies are described by Henry Jenkins (1992) as Hollywood’s attempt to assimilate the vaudeville aesthetic into the film practices of the 1930s, and they tended to emphasize the creativity of their comic stars in lieu of the dominant narrative structures of cinema at the time. Eventually, this style of film comedy was abandoned for the more subdued style and orderly format of the Hollywood romantic comedy, but vaudeville and anarchistic comedy played a valuable role for audiences, much like stand-up does today. By transcending the everyday experience with absurdity, these forms of popular entertainment both amuse and provide audiences with a “vicarious escape from emotional restraint,” creating space to question the status quo and expand social discourse [ (( Ibid., p. 217. ))] .

Conceptualizing stand-up as a descendant of anarchistic comedy is useful in understanding the photo created by Griffin and photographer Tyler Shields. There are many similarities between the two types of comedy. In anarchistic comedy, the clown is a social misfit with a marginalized identity, sometimes an immigrant or member of an ethnic minority. [ (( Ibid., 224. ))] Stand-up comics are predominantly heterosexual, white males, but within the Hollywood social stratum, most are D-list celebrities on the fringe of fame. This is particularly true of Griffin, who strongly identifies with her D-list status and uses her position as an outsider to joke about Hollywood A-listers. [ (( Mizejewski, Linda. Pretty/Funny: Women Comedians and Body Politics. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2014, pp. 38-40. ))] Anarchistic comedians are excessive, demonstrating “gross and unquenchable appetites”; for example, in Groucho Marx and Winnie Lightner’s gold diggers or Buster Keaton’s drunk in What! No Beer? (1933). [ (( Ibid., p. 226-227. ))] Stand-up comics are also excessive in presentation, in their unorthodox language (Richard Pryor) or appearance (Phyllis Diller used her over-the-top style as a punchline as well as to call attention to societal standards of beauty [ (( Gilbert, Joanne. Performing Marginality: Humor, Gender, and Cultural Critique. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2004. pp. 117-136. ))]). Finally, both early sound and stand-up comedy contain anarchistic cultural commentaries. Anarchistic comedies are transgressive, offensive even, particularly in their portrayal of class, race, and gender stereotypes. This type of comedy was most successful at critiquing the status quo when the clown was of a marginalized identity rather than vice versa, as in Lupe Vélez playing the stereotype of a Mexican spitfire to expose the biases of a racist white patriarchy.

Lupe Velez

Mexican actor Lupe Vélez on the cover of Film Fun magazine, July 1929.

Griffin posted a video of the photo shoot with the Trump mask to her Twitter feed, which sparked swift condemnation from conservatives and liberals alike. Griffin’s friend and CNN New Year’s Eve Live co-host, Anderson Cooper, tweeted that her participation in the photo shoot was “disgusting and completely inappropriate.” After initially standing by Griffin, Senator and fellow comedian Al Franken caved under pressure from his constituents and disinvited Griffin from a promotional event for his recent book, asserting that her behavior had “crossed the line.”

The photo served as a catalyst for an increasingly familiar phenomenon in the media—the celebrity apology. [ (( Cerulo, Karen A. and Janet M. Ruane. “Apologies of the Rich and Famous.” Social Psychology Quarterly, Vol 77, Issue 2, May 2014, pp. 123-149. ))] The mediated script starts with a public gaffe, followed by the media reaction—outrage and criticism—and ends with the celebrity’s apology. After assessing the public’s reaction to the photo, Griffin posted this apology to her Twitter feed: “I sincerely apologize. I’m a comic, I cross the line. I move the line, then I cross it. I went way too far… And I beg for your forgiveness.” She denied any intent to incite violence and explained how the absurdist image was meant as a reference to Trump’s comments about journalist Megyn Kelly during the campaign season, when he stated, “There was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her… wherever.” The photo is essentially an extension of her stand-up comedy and a critique, not an endorsement, of violence.

President Trump comments on journalist
Megan Kelly’s questions during the GOP presidential debate.

This time the apology was not enough. The morning after Griffin’s apology, the president tweeted that Griffin “should be ashamed of herself,” referring to the photo as “Sick!” The First Lady disparaged Griffin’s character, and his family repeatedly called for Griffin’s termination by CNN. As a result of this and the extended backlash, Griffin lost her nearly decade-long job as co-host of CNN’s New Year’s Eve Live. The Secret Service tweeted that they were investigating the image after it went viral, prompting discussion on news websites about whether Griffin had broken the law (she had not). The comedian continues to receive death threats from the public for her involvement in the photo shoot.

In contrast, comedian George Lopez received a relatively tame reaction during the campaign last year when he tweeted a drawing of a decapitated Trump head held by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. Musicians Marilyn Manson and Snoop Dogg have released music videos over the last year in which the singers, respectively, behead a bloody Trump figure and shoot a gun at the president’s head. More recently, A-list actor Johnny Depp joked about assassinating the president. The backlash to Depp’s comment has been largely partisan; and while the White House Press Secretary admonished his rhetoric, the scolding was directed more toward the media in general than to Depp personally. Back in 2012, shock jock Ted Nugent’s more violent jokes about killing then President Obama launched a Secret Service investigation. None of these male celebrities have been vilified in the media to the same extent as Griffin, nor have they suffered professional consequences for their performances and jokes. Nugent was recently Trump’s guest at the White House.

Lopez Trump Head

George Lopez tweeted this drawing of a severed Trump head, February 2016.

Why didn’t the cloak of comedy protect Griffin from the magnitude of this recent media backlash? Stand-up is a genre in which female voices—from Joan Rivers to Roseanne Barr, and more recently Margaret Cho and Wanda Sykes—have addressed society’s patriarchal relations of power; [ (( Ibid. 7. ))] [ ((Rowe, Kathleen. The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genre of Laughter. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1995. ))] [ (( Mizejewski. ))] however, as with any profession “there is still a firm line of acceptable female behavior” which if crossed is “tantamount to career suicide.” [ (( Peterson, Anne Helen. Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman. New York: Plume, 2017, Intro. ))] Female clowns have long faced greater restrictions than their male counterparts in what is considered to be acceptable clowning. In early sound films, male actors played a variety of roles, whereas women were only able to escape traditional domestic roles by playing one of a few types such as matrons, wise-cracking sidekicks, or “sexually omnipotent sirens.” [ (( Ibid. 2, 276. ))] If Griffin were a man, or a glamorous siren, would the public’s reaction to the photo shoot have been equally harsh?

Griffin has removed her apology from Twitter and is pledging to continue to mock the president even “more now.” Interestingly, the male photographer and Griffin’s collaborator, Tyler Shields, never apologized and instead defended his freedom of speech in making art. Shields has faced comparatively little public reprisal and, to date, has lost no jobs as a consequence of taking the photo.

Image Credits:

1. Tyler Shields’ photograph of Kathy Griffin holding a Trump mask covered in fake blood, TMZ, May 2017.
2. Mexican actor Lupe Vélez on the cover of Film Fun magazine, July 1929. (author’s screen grab)
3. George Lopez tweeted this drawing of a severed Trump head, February 2016.

Please feel free to comment.

I Am Woman, See Me Bleed: from Tampon Taboo to the Pro-Period Movement
Alexis Carreiro / Queens University of Charlotte


Steph Gongora’s Instagram post regarding her ‘leak’ during her yoga class

People Magazine isn’t exactly on the cutting edge of feminist sub-culture. In fact, it’s usually the opposite.[ ((They, like many celebrity publications, often use the words “flaunt” and “showing off” when describing women who are simply in public. Running errands. Going to wok. Playing at the beach with their children. That language perpetuates the idea that women exist to be looked at — and dress as objects for other people rather than subjects in their own lives.))] However, on February 14, 2017 it ran this story online (“Yoga Instructor Practices in White Pants While Free-Bleeding to Make a Point About Period Shame”) and posted the image above. Perhaps more shocking than the image itself is that, according to the homepage, it was the third most popular story that day.

People‘s website showing the ‘Free-Bleeding’ article among its most popular pieces

The story features Steph Gongora’s Instagram video of her yoga practice while having her period. However, contrary to People’s headline, Gongora claims that she wasn’t free-bleeding and that it was “just a leak.” [ ((You can see the full video and text here. ))]

Free-bleeding refers to women who don’t use any menstrual products during their periods. Gongora, on the other hand, seems to imply that her product leaked during yoga. For some women, free-bleeding is a choice while for others, it’s not. In her original Instagram post, she highlights how millions of women around the world lack access to (or can’t afford) menstrual products and the negative impact it has on their lives. She directly relates that to her decision to post the video and encourages women to break free from the shame and embarrassment they feel about their bodies during menstruation. For Gongora, she posted the video of herself in solidarity with women who free-bleed—not by choice but—by necessity.

To date, the post has over 520,000 views and (almost) 8,000 comments that, not surprisingly, are not all positive. They range from supportive and celebratory to callous and contemptible. To put it mildly, the comment section, like the history of the tampon itself (and its history in popular culture), is a bit… messy.



The lead image in The Atlantic‘s article on the history of this particular menstrual product

In her article for The Atlantic, Ashley Fetters charts the history of the tampon from its origins in the late 18th and 19th century, and examines the various materials used over the years (like plants, paper, wool, gauze, and glycerin) to aid in absorption. [ ((] Over the last several hundred years, companies have improved the basic design and are now offering eco-friendly alternatives like “period proof underwear” (Thinx) and various menstrual cups designed to catch the flow, [ ((It seems fitting to discuss this topic in a journal called Flow.))] but menstrual blood is still taboo to talk about and, even more so, to show or display on film or TV. For such an ordinary and daily occurrence, it’s largely and—more specifically—visibly absent within mainstream, American media. Or, when it is present, it’s traditionally seen as horrific, comical, or shameful. [ ((For a quick overview of film and TV shows from the last 25 years that feature menstruation, see this and this. And, for a great satirical sketch about men’s role during women’s menstruation, see Key & Peele’s Menstruation Orientation.))] According to Fetters, “the commercial tampon as we know it has been shaped and re-shaped by a myriad of invisible forces—like genuine concern for women’s wellness, certainly, but also sexism, panic, feminism, capitalism, and secrecy.” Part of what the pro-period movement attempts to do it remove that panic and secrecy. [ ((This pro-period movement, of course, isn’t new. This 2015 Bustle article explains the recent history of the movement which most people seem to date back to a 2004 blog post and then chart through 4chan’s 2014 “Operation freebleeding” hoax.))]

Over the last several years, all-things-menstruation have gained momentum and visibility outside of broadcast media. [ ((Some of the most popular hashtags related to this are: #padsagainstsexim #freebleeding #notaxontampons #justatampon #PeriodsAreNotAnInsult #realmensupportwomen. ))] People across the world have used social media to protest the “tampon tax” that categorizes menstrual products as luxury items. [ ((Larimer, Sarah. “The Tampon Tax, Explained.” Washington Post. January 8, 2016. ))] Some people (women and men) have used social media to de-stigmatize the natural phenomenon. [ (( See Jose Garcia, Instagram, 2015. ))] For example, artist Rupi Kaur posted a photo of herself during her period on Instagram.


Artist Rupi Kaur’s interpretation of a woman’s monthly menstrual situation

It was part of a larger photography project her visual rhetoric college course. Instagram originally banned it but later reversed their decision after the outcry on social media. It was in 2015, however, when former M.I.A. drummer Kiran Gandhi ran the London Marathon without a tampon that the movement really gained legs. [ ((Here is her first-hand account of the experience. ))]


Former M.I.A. drummer Kiran Gandhi and friends after they ran the London Marathon in 2015

She did it for several reasons—one of which was physical comfort and the second was to raise awareness about the relationship between economic oppression and period stigma. According to Gandhi, “My run was about using shock factor to create dialogue around menstrual health and comfort, so that women can start to own the narrative of their own bodies. Speaking about an issue is the only way to combat its silence, and dialogue is the only way for innovative solutions to occur.” [ (( Madame Gandhi Blog. Sisterhood, Blood, and Boobs at the London Marathon 2015. ))] And create dialogue, she did. This story was picked up and covered by Buzzfeed, The Daily Mail, The Telegraph, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, Mashable and more. In fact, it helped push the movement so far forward that National Public Radio called 2015 “the year of the period” [ ((Gharib, Malaka. December 31, 2015. According to this article, “But social media’s been awash with the p-word, and when we checked the number of times the word “menstruation” was mentioned in five national news outlets, it more than tripled from 2010 to 2015, from 47 to 167.”))] and Cosmopolitan referred to it as “the year the period went public.” [ ((The 8 Greatest Menstrual Moments of 2015. October 13, 2015.))]

Women, however, aren’t the only ones contributing to the movement. Two teenage girls created a video game called Tampon Run that also went viral and eventually landed them a book deal. In the game, the player has to “collect tampons, shoot them at your enemies, and don’t run out of them before your moon cycle is over.” [ (( Brownstone, Sydney. Fast Company. September 5, 2014. The game creators are not the only females to fling tampons or sanitary products as a form of protest. See A Brief History of Tampon Throwing and A Short History of Women Throwing Their Tampons at You for more information.))]


A screenshot from the Tampon Run game

Of those whose bodies who are capable, roughly 25% of the female population are menstruating at any given time; that means approximately half the population are bleeding from their vaginas about a quarter of the time. Therefore, there is nothing inherently strange or weird about the biological process. Yet, culturally, it is shrouded in mystery, largely invisible in mainstream media, and remains taboo. This is exactly what Tampon Run is trying to resist. According to the developers, the goal of the game is to “normalize tampons in video games where guns would have been acceptable otherwise.” [ (( Brownstone, 2014. ))]

And this, to me, highlights the central problem; we live in an era where it is more acceptable to see dead victims of police brutality (on TV or in the news) than it is to see menstrual blood; the menses is more shocking than the murder—and the blood more shocking than the bodies. It is a striking example of how something so ordinary and mundane is actually shocking—and how something so shocking has become so ordinary. [ (( International artist Elone is also tackling this concept in her work. ))]

The pro-period movement, with its diverse members from across the world, is only working to solve one part of that problem and, more likely than not (similar to the debate about breast-feeding in public), it will never completely go away. So the question we need to ask ourselves is: whose blood, and in what circumstances, is the most difficult to look at? And, what does that reveal about us as a culture?

Image Credits:
1. Image for “Steph Gongora Free Bleeding Yoga,”
2. Author’s screenshot;, February 14, 2017
3. Image for “The History of the Tampon,” The Atlantic, June 1, 2015, credited to “ SASIMOTO / Shutterstock / Kara Gordon / The Atlantic.”
4. Rupi Kaur, Artist’s Website.
5. From Kiran’s “modern period piece” on
6. Screen shot from Tampon Run, Fast Company, September 5, 2014.

Please feel free to comment.

On Feminism, Racism, and Bewitched‘s Not-So-Magical Politics of Fun
Phoebe Bronstein / University of California San Diego

A still from the Bewitched episode Be It Ever So Mortgaged.

A still from the Bewitched episode “Be It Ever So Mortgaged.”

The history of American feminism is also a history of white women centering their own experiences. From Seneca Falls to The Feminine Mystique and through hashtags like #NotAllWhiteWomen, white feminists have often ignored or actively excluded women whose backgrounds differ from their own. The months leading up to the Women’s March on Jan. 21, as Jia Tolentino outlines in The New Yorker, reflected this historical positioning: many white women were angered by the suggestion that contemporary feminism and The Women’s March itself should engage, express, and embrace differences. [ ((Jia Tolentino, “The Somehow Controversial Women’s March on Washington,” New Yorker, January 18, 2017.)) ]

This narrow and racist brand of white feminism has proven extremely marketable. However, packaging feminism in this way is by no means new. In this column, I look at how a potentially progressive 1960s sitcom like Bewitched imagines and reinforces an exclusionary white feminism. Premiering while the Civil Right Movement waged a televised war against white supremacy and in the same year as the publication of The Feminine Mystique, Bewitched’s centering of whiteness and white women especially was not unique. However, the sitcom’s magical gender politics coupled with its investment in whiteness provide a historical example of how mainstream television embraced a consumer-driven white feminism that operated at the expense of people of color.

In the pilot of Bewitched, Samantha’s (Elizabeth Montgomery) mom jokes that when Darrin (Dick York)—Sam’s newly minted husband—finds out that she is a witch, he will certainly discriminate against her. He is sure to be “prejudiced” against Samantha, her mom argues. And indeed, Darrin does struggle with accepting his new wife’s bewitching talents. The pilot and other episodes are peppered with similar jokes about prejudice and discrimination against Samantha—ironic and comic, the show seemingly suggests, because she is white (and blonde, no less), middle class, and quite pretty. Here, the humor relies on the premise that she is in fact not discriminated against and thereby mocks people who face real discrimination.

This racist and sexist structure, entirely absent of bodies of color, relies on an inferential racism, which depends on “premises and propositions” that have inscribed in them, as Stuart Hall argues, “a set of unquestioned assumptions” that “enable racist sentiments to be formulated without ever bringing into awareness the racist predicates on which the statements are grounded.” [ (( Stuart Hall, “’Whites of Their Eyes’: Racist Ideologies and the Media,” in Gender, Race, and Class in Media: A Text-Reader, 2nd Edition, eds. Gail Dines and Jean M. Humez (Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2003), 91.)) ] This brand of racism, Hall argues, is far more insidious than its overt counterparts. Following Hall, in Bewitched, white supremacy masquerades as both a troubling feminist appeal and harmless fun—after all, it’s just a joke. This is the danger and insidiousness, as Hall warns, of inferential racism, wherein the humor treats race and racialized violence with irreverence. Discrimination, after all, doesn’t actually happen to Samantha. The misunderstandings she has with Darrin become a source of humor, erasing real fears of violence. Undergirding the jokes about discrimination in Bewitched, remains an inability to engage the very real discrimination of people of color as serious.

At the same time, the sitcom pokes fun at the expectations placed on white housewives to perform perfection. The second episode, “Be It Ever So Mortgaged” begins with a cheeky focus on normalcy as the introductory voiceover describes Samantha’s morning: “Here you see the average normal suburban housewife, preparing breakfast for her husband.” Meanwhile, Samantha squeezes oranges into a juicer, while wearing a white apron over a pink floral print dress. As the shot pulls out, we realize that Samantha is squeezing the oranges onto the kitchen floor, not into a glass. The camera, then, follows her to the stove where her pan is on fire. The male voiceover continues with anthropological-like observations, “The capable suburban housewife moves efficiently through her tasks” (Season 1, Episode 2). Here, the juxtaposition of the voiceover with Sam’s breakfast-making difficulties–and her ultimate need to use magic–pokes fun at and critiques the rigid expectations of the perfect contemporary homemaker.

Samantha struggles to cook

Samantha struggles to fulfill “the rigid expectations of the perfect contemporary homemaker.”

As Lynn Spigel writes about Bewitched — and the similar fantastic sitcom, I Dream of Jeannie — “the elements called into question are not the supernatural elements of the story […]. Rather, we are “made to question the ‘naturalness’ of middle-class suburban ideals,” like the role of and expectations placed on the housewife and the gendered division of labor. [ ((Lynn Spigel, “White Flight,” in The Revolution Wasn’t Televised: Sixties Television and Social Conflict, eds. Michael Curtin and Lynn Spigel (New York: Routledge, 1997), 58-59.)) ] In this sense, Bewitched is in fact progressive, pointing to the ways in which the perfect housewife is a troubling and controlling fiction that requires women to quite literally give up their personal magical powers, subsuming their lives and dreams into the desires of their husbands. Not only does Bewitched play with this notion, it also suggests the impossibility of being the perfect housewife and the need for magic to keep everything in order. Like Spigel points out, the sitcom seems to celebrate the constraints of white suburban life even as it points to its limitations. [ ((Spigel writes, “We are, in other worlds, made to question the ‘naturalness’ of middle-class suburban ideals, especially as those ideas had previously been communicated through the genre conventions of classic suburban sitcoms such as The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet or The Donna Reed Show.” Spigel, “White Flight,” 59.)) ]

Samantha struggles to make toast

Samantha forgoes her magical powers in order to make toast like a “normal” housewife

The sitcom, following David Marc’s observation in Comic Visions: Television Comedy and American Culture, is a genre of “comic mitigation.” [ (( David Marc, Comic Visions: Television Comedy and American Culture, Second Edition (New York: Blackwell Publishers, Inc., 1997), 203.)) ] Sitcoms, Marc suggest, desperately seek a middle ground, that is neither progressive nor regressive. In this way, we can see the jokes on Bewitched as simultaneously interested in white women’s liberation at the expense of embracing a repressive racial politics. The discussions of what will happen if Samantha is discovered — which mobilizes discourses of passing — and the problems she might face if she is in fact found out, underscore the limits of the Bewitched’s seemingly-progressive politics. Here, the sitcom reflects a racist politics of fun, reliant on the underlying assumption that white viewers will think it funny to mock the very real discrimination experienced by people of color.

Making women’s liberation palatable and comic in Bewitched, then, foregoes and dismisses any intersection with race, sexuality, or class. Here, like elsewhere in pop culture, nothing is ever just a joke. It’s both troubling and telling that Bewitched’s politics of fun remains relevant today: white feminist complaints surrounding The Women’s March reveal an ongoing inability to de-center white women’s experience and value intersectionality. We’ve seen this brand of feminism embraced by white feminists and marketers with best-selling books like Lean In and through the marketing of Pantsuit Nation and “Nasty Woman” mugs, t-shirts, and totes. In many ways, there is nothing wrong with buying feminist swag or raising money for organizations like Planned Parenthood through such promotions. However, we must remain wary of this strain of marketable feminism. Like Bewitched, consumerist white feminism troublingly masquerades as progressive or even worse revolutionary, even as it often ignores and relies on the erasure, labor of, and violence against those who do not fit the white heteronormative model.

Image Credits

All images are author’s screen grabs from the Bewitched episode “Be It Ever So Mortgaged.”

Please feel free to comment.

Women Together, Not Alone: An Alternative Feminist Legacy for The Mary Tyler Moore Show
Bonnie J. Dow / Vanderbilt University

Mary Tyler Moor as Mary Richards in The Mary Tyler Moore Show

Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Richards in The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

I admit I was surprised by the volume and intensity of the commemorations around the death of Mary Tyler Moore in late January. What precipitated so much attention to the loss of a former television star who had been so little in the news for years? Was it our hunger for all things retro? A longing for a simpler time, when our television heroines were more iconic because we had so much less television than we do now?

As my inbox populated with media requests for commentary on how Mary Richards, Moore’s character on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (MTM) from 1970-1977, “revolutionized women on television” (as one query put it), one explanation I settled on for this phenomenon was the context created by the recent Women’s Marches across the nation. The outpouring of political resistance by women, and the ample media coverage of it, was certainly reminiscent of the 1970s. Perhaps the desire for discourse around MTM was about a collective need to celebrate feminist achievements from the past at a time when women’s rights are under assault.

January’s Women’s March was strikingly analogous, in fact, to 1970’s Women’s Strike for Equality, the largest public action of early U.S. second-wave feminism. On August 26, 1970, less than a month before the September 1970 premiere of MTM on CBS, the Strike involved an estimated 50,000 women who marched up Fifth Avenue in New York City, and, as in January, there were satellite marches in cities around the country. The marches merited coverage on all three nightly newscasts as well as front page, above the fold, coverage in the New York Times, providing useful feminist context for MTM, a show that producers wanted to be understood as a “new” kind of female representation. [ (( Bathrick, Serafina. “The Mary Tyler Moore Show: Women at Home and at Work.” MTM: “Quality Television.” Eds. Jane Feuer, Paul Kerr, & Tise Vahimagi. London: British Film Institute, 1984. 103-104. ))]

In another useful coincidence, one of the three demands of the Women’s Strike for Equality, along with abortion rights and child care, was equal opportunity in employment, an issue raised in the first episode of MTM (“Love is All Around”). When Mary Richards interviewed for a job in the WJM-TV newsroom, her soon-to-be boss, Lou Grant, told her he assumed it would be filled by a man. Later in the episode, her new colleague, newswriter Murray Slaughter, referred to her as their “token woman.”

Lou Grant, Mary Richards, and Murray Slaughter in WJM Newsroom

Lou Grant, Mary Richards, and Murray Slaughter in WJM Newsroom.

Although the episodes of MTM that dealt explicitly with feminist issues—like Mary’s demand for better pay or her attempt to hire a woman sportscaster—were not that numerous, the show’s departure from previous sitcoms populated by submissive wives and mothers or frustrated husband-hunting single women made it the new standard for liberated TV womanhood in the eyes of mass media. The title of TV Guide’s story on MTM the week it premiered was “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby,” which gestured at the infamous Virginia Slims ads that equated smoking with women’s liberation while pointing out Moore’s transition from suburban wife and mother in The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966) to single, urban career woman in MTM. [ (( Whitney, Dwight. “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby.” TV Guide. 19 September 1970. 34-38. ))]

TV Guide cover, September 19-25, 1970

TV Guide cover, September 19-25, 1970.

When Murphy Brown (1988-1998), another sitcom centered on a woman in a television newsroom, premiered in 1988, the comparisons to MTM were remarkably consistent. On the one hand, such comparisons pointed out that Murphy Brown was a much more explicitly feminist character, a “Mary Tyler Moore Updated for the Eighties,” as a USA Today headline put it. [ (( Quoted in Alley, Robert S. & Brown, Irby B. Love Is All Around: The Making of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. New York: Delta, 1990. 204. ))] On the other hand, these comparisons also made clear that MTM had positioned the “single, white [urban] working woman sitcom as the paradigmatic form for feminist representation”. [ (( Dow, Bonnie J. Prime-Time Feminism: Television, Media Culture, and the Women’s Movement Since 1970. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1996. 137. ))] And that is why we have had so much media commentary over the years on the feminist implications, or lack thereof, of not just Murphy Brown, but also Sex & the City (1998-2004), 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon (2006-2013), and, most recently, Girls (2012-present).

Shortly after Moore’s death, Lena Dunham, creator and star of Girls, penned a New Yorker column titled “Everything I Learned from Mary Tyler Moore,” in which she said this: “There was a lilting poetry to her expressions of exasperation, a performative melancholy to her solo moments that is familiar to any woman who has ever lived alone, and a strident glory when she finally stood up for herself. Imagine her at last weekend’s Women’s March—pumping a fist despite herself, but too prudish for a pussyhat”. [ (( Dunham, Lena. “Everything I Learned from Mary Tyler Moore.” The New Yorker. 27 January 2017. ))]

In addition to the reference to the Women’s March, two implications of Dunham’s remarks stand out to me. The first is the emphasis on relatability. Mary Richards was a user-friendly feminist representation for those not entirely comfortable with women’s liberation, because, although she had moments of feminist frustration, she was incapable of being truly rude. This made her tremulous and more than a little bit funny when she tried to resist sexism, as in Season 3’s “The Good Time News,” in which she tried to confront Lou Grant after discovering that she was paid less than the man who had previously held her job.

Especially at the time, watching a good girl trying not to be one was comedy genius, and a key reason MTM was so beloved. But that’s not what gave the show its feminist resonance for mass media or the public. More than anything, Mary Richard’s feminist significance came from the fact that she was alone, the second crucial implication of Dunham’s comments. Alone, in television parlance, meant “without a man,” demonstrating how profoundly the medium’s representations of feminism were conditioned by heteronormativity. I called this “lifestyle feminism” twenty years ago, but the crux of that lifestyle, as it manifested in MTM and other shows to which it was compared, was lack of a heterosexual relationship—the career and the always urban setting were just window dressing. [ (( Dow, Prime-Time Feminism, 24. ))] This is what made MTM different from other shows that explicitly addressed feminist issues—like Maude (1972-1978) or Roseanne (1988-1997)—but that have gone largely unmentioned during the many reflections on Moore’s feminist legacy.

As much as this limited understanding of feminism is a problem for television, it is also a problem for feminism itself. A central reason mass media made Gloria Steinem the feminist icon for the 1970s and beyond was because of her long-unmarried status, and her famous quips about it, e.g., “a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.” Indeed, Steinem’s public career as America’s foremost feminist gained steam at about the same time as MTM did. Despite Steinem’s own support for lesbians and women of color from the beginning of her feminist work, the white, heterosexual (but uncoupled), career woman became the somewhat universal signifier of feminist womanhood.

Gloria Steinem on the cover of Newsweek, August 16, 1971

Gloria Steinem on the cover of Newsweek, August 16, 1971

The lamentations about feminism’s failures to be diverse, inclusive, and intersectional have been going on for decades, and I need not rehearse them here, except to say that the entire fault is too often laid at the feet of (white) feminists themselves when it was mass media that provided the American public with profoundly narrowed versions of feminism from the start. [ (( Dow, Bonnie J. Watching Women’s Liberation: Feminism’s Pivotal Year on the Network News. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014. ))]

The white, urban, single career woman is a problematic feminist figurehead, and not simply because it limits our understanding of the multiplicity of women who figure in feminism. This formulation also overlooks a crucial component of feminist politics: its collective nature. Feminism is about women together, not alone, and that is one of the legacies of MTM that should be celebrated more. Mary Richards had a female—although not always feminist—community, a key reason she was actually not alone. For the show’s first three seasons, her best friend Rhoda Morgenstern, a Jewish New Yorker transplanted to Minneapolis, brought some noteworthy diversity to the sitcom and provided a comic foil for Mary’s Midwestern propriety. Mary’s landlady, Phyllis Lindstrom, a frustrated housewife, was also part of Mary’s community at home, where much of the show’s comedy occurred.

Mary, Rhoda, and Phyllis on The Mary Tyler Moore Show

Mary, Rhoda, and Phyllis on The Mary Tyler Moore Show

Of course, Rhoda and Phyllis provided solidarity at home, not at work, where Mary remained a token. Indeed, female solidarity would have been much more threatening in the workplace, as it always is in the public sphere. But to claim that Mary Richards was a pioneer because she was a woman alone makes invisible the importance of women’s relationships to each other: in life, in television, and in feminism. Their strong female communities are the most compelling reason, for me, that Sex & the City and Girls are heirs to MTM. Because if Mary had been here to throw her pink pussyhat in the air last month, she would not have done it alone on a downtown street—she would have been in a crowd of women doing the same.

Image Credits:
1. Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Richards in The Mary Tyler Moore Show
2. Lou Grant, Mary Richards, and Murray Slaughter in the WJM Newsroom
3. TV Guide cover, September 19-25, 1970
4. Gloria Steinem on the cover of Newsweek, August 16, 1971
5. Mary, Rhoda, and Phyllis on The Mary Tyler Moore Show

Please feel free to comment.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show, American Television, and the Slow Pace of Social Change
Elana Levine / University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee

Figure 2

Ed Asner and Mary Tyler Moore on The MTM Show

There are few better sites through which to understand the incremental nature of social change than American television. Because the medium has been structured to earn profits for corporations and to resonate with a diverse public, it necessarily wavers between minimizing risk and engaging with the emergent, and potentially disruptive, interests of everyday people. In the present, it is difficult to see the ways these tensions can result in the small and often partial steps that might eventually build to progressive social change. Such developments are more visible from the perspective of history.

Both The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77) and its eponymous co-owner/star were linchpins of social change in terms of television’s representation of women, and of real-world changes in beliefs about and experiences of gender. By representing women’s role in both public and private spheres differently from most instances of television’s past, The MTM Show and Moore herself set the tone for what might be possible in TV depictions of women in the years to come. These possibilities allowed for progressive change in some respects, but linked those changes to conventions of femininity that would moderate their impact; there are no revolutions when it comes to American television.

The social intervention of The MTM Show was a result of the many forces that combine to create TV and that shape its resonance. As a range of scholars have documented, the show was in part an outcome of the move by the TV industry and its advertisers to target young, upscale viewers in urban centers rather than the broad mass assumed to be the inevitable audiences of the network era. As part of the “turn to relevance,” The MTM Show had permission to speak to contemporary social changes, in this case new ideas about women’s roles. It also was able to benefit from the freedoms of independent program production. The Financial Interest and Syndication Rules gave a company like MTM Enterprises, unaffiliated with a major studio or network, the opportunity to become financially solvent while licensing its shows to the networks. [ (( Jane Feuer, Paul Kerr, and Tise Vahimagi, MTM: “Quality Television” (London: BFI Pub, 1984). Todd Gitlin, Inside Prime Time (New York: Pantheon Books, 1983). Aniko Bodroghkozy, Groove Tube: Sixties Television and the Youth Rebellion (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2001). ))] (The company even commented on its independence by substituting a meowing cat in its logo for the roaring lion in the MGM logo it referenced.) The production was hardly free from the many constraints of the American TV business, but it deserves some credit for its ability to introduce new dimensions of women’s experience to prime time, in part due to the presence of “feminist conscience” Treva Silverman on the show’s writing staff, one of the few women in such positions at the time. [ (( On Silverman’s role, see also Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic (Simon and Schuster, 2013). ))]

These conditions were paired with the advertising industry’s growing realization that changes in women’s roles encouraged by the Women’s Liberation Movement meant a re-evaluation of the traditional ways products were pitched to women. Paired with an array of protests over and investigations into media treatments of women, the different approach The MTM Show offered was an ideal fit for its cultural moment, a moment when a mainstream publication like TV Guide sought to explain, “Why the Feminists Condemn Television.” [ (( Edith Efron, “Is Television Making a Mockery of the American Woman?” TV Guide Aug. 8, 1970, 8.  For more discussion of this cultural context, see Elana Levine, Wallowing in Sex : The New Sexual Culture of 1970s American Television (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 128-130. ))] Although US network prime time had seen women leads of sitcoms in the past, those women were typically contained by their domestic roles (I Love Lucy, Bewitched) or, like TV Guide’s cover girl, Marlo Thomas’ Anne Marie of That Girl, were occasionally allowed to be single and pursuing a career as long as they were more actively pursuing marriage.

Figure 1

Marlo Thomas’ Anne Marie of That Girl

The MTM Show’s protagonist, Mary Richards, was in her early thirties, single, and fresh off a break-up, a choice different from the original conception of the character as a divorcée, to which CBS had balked. Moving to the “big city” of Minneapolis and pursuing a career in TV news, Mary is hired by her curmudgeonly, sexist boss, Lou Grant, as an associate producer, a more impressive title for a lower salary than the job for which she had applied. Between her “family” of female neighbors in her new apartment and the workplace family to which she quickly acclimates, Mary becomes the caring, moral center of her communities, the “Mom” to those around her. Multiple critics have analyzed this representation, largely agreeing that the character’s independence and status both in her career and as a (somewhat ambiguously depicted) sexually active single woman amounted to a “compromised and contradictory feminism.” [ (( Bonnie J. Dow, Prime-Time Feminism: Television, Media Culture, and the Women’s Movement since 1970 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996), 51. ))] Mary could be the “New Woman” advertisers believed the changing society was calling for, but the potential disruptiveness of this identity could be tempered by her “‘girl-next-door’ sweetness.” [ (( Ella Taylor, Prime-Time Families: Television Culture in Postwar America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 124. ))]

Figure 2

Mary Richards interviewing with Lou Grant on The MTM Show

Crucial to this precarious position was the star image of Mary Tyler Moore herself. She was seen as an appealing figure to both men and women. As one critic wrote of her, and of Mary Richards, with whom she was conflated, “Men, whose taste in women runs from Tammy Wynette to Gloria Steinem, think she would make the perfect girlfriend. Women like the fact that she’s the star without being a sex queen or a loser.” [ (( T. Johnston, “Why 30 Million Are Mad About Mary,” New York Times Magazine April 7, 1974, 96. ))] The reference to Steinem here is crucial, for Steinem shared the Marys’ conventional physical attractiveness while nonetheless reading as threatening to the status quo in her feminist activism. Both Marys could seem amenable to a (moderate) Women’s Liberation platform but without the threat that an overt activist such as Steinem posed. Indeed. CBS executive Perry Lafferty noted of Moore, “I think it’s her vulnerability that makes her particularly appealing . . . she’s beautiful and all that without being threatening.” [ (( Ibid., 30. ))]

Figure 3Figure 4

Mary Richards; Gloria Steinem

The popularity of The MTM Show led to spin-off series, a number of ultimately failed imitators, and more durable successors, including Maude, One Day at a Time, and Alice, and all of which featured unconventional women leads — an older, married woman who espoused explicitly liberal and feminist views; a divorceé; and a widow raising a son. That Bea Arthur portrayed Maude made her different from most female sitcom leads but also permitted her politically activist stances. Her deeper voice, grayer hair, and larger bodily frame than a “sweetheart” star like Moore kept conventionally attractive heterosexual femininity from being too closely associated with feminism proper.

Figure 5Figure 6Figure 7

Bea Arthur as Maude Findlay; Bonnie Franklin as Ann Romano; Linda Lavin as Alice Hyatt

Indeed, American prime time television of the 1970s would shift toward action-adventure series with “sex symbol” female leads as its primary means of pairing conventionally valued forms of femininity with gestures toward feminism. In programs such as Charlie’s Angels and Wonder Woman, sexy young women took on duties like crime fighting, typically associated with men, sometimes in the name of women’s rights. But the assurances these programs offered of their heroines’ status as objects of desire helped these versions of the New Woman follow in the path of The MTM Show in the limited nature of their gestures toward change. The types of women such series depicted, and the generic constraints within which they operated, differed from The MTM Show. But their ultimate contribution to the medium’s participation in processes of social change was much the same.

Figure 8Figure 9

Time cover of Charlie’s Angels; TV Week cover of Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman

The incremental and compromised progress in representations of women’s changing status in 1970s television was initiated and modeled by The MTM Show. The program, its star, and its viewership deserve kudos for this intervention; the economic, cultural, and political structures within which they emerged deserve our ongoing critique.

Image Credits:

1. Ed Asner and Mary Tyler Moore on The MTM Show
2. Marlo Thomas’ Anne Marie of That Girl
3. Mary Richards interviewing with Lou Grant on The MTM Show
4. Mary Richards
5. Gloria Steinem
6. Bea Arthur as Maude Findlay
7. Bonnie Franklin as Ann Romano
8. Linda Lavin as Alice Hyatt
9. Time cover of Charlie’s Angels
10. TV Week cover of Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman

Please feel free to comment.

My Life with Mary: Remembering The Mary Tyler Moore Show
Jane Feuer / University of Pittsburgh


When the death of Mary Tyler Moore was announced, a college roommate of mine posted on Facebook: “Remember how we all used to watch the Saturday night shows (All in the Family, MTM, Newhart, etc.) before we went out on Saturdays? Those were the days.”

It is hard to imagine the impact these shows had on us in the very early 1970s. We were baby boomers and hippies and we didn’t watch TV anymore. We went out at 10 on Saturdays and listened to Jefferson Airplane and took drugs. I don’t know whether the drugs or the going out at 10 is more shocking to me now at the age of 65. But we watched Mary. Somehow she fit the radical agenda.

But not because Mary herself was a feminist. Nor was Mary Richards. As I recall, the character we identified with most was Rhoda. But even Rhoda was not that radical, certainly not as extremely feminist as we were. It was the writing of the show that caught our imagination, and the way the show was radical FOR TELEVISION. Yes, they did “issues,” but not like All in the Family. Rather the show captured the “structure of feeling” of the times, a term Raymond Williams used to describe a softer, more visceral notion of ideology. We liked the way the characters on the show went to work and bonded with their work buddies. We were tribal, too. Even All in the Family featured a traditional family, and we wanted to turn the nuclear family into Woodstock. After the show, we went out en masse, took LSD, and went to see 2001: A Space Odyssey together.


The Betty White Show, a short-lived sitcom that ran for 14 episodes between 1977 and 1978

In the early eighties, I collaborated on a book about the company that produced Mary’s show. I did not initiate this project. I never thought of Mary and Rhoda as a subject you wrote about. But when the British Film Institute asked me to do some of the legwork for the book in the U.S., I, of course, agreed. I spent Christmas in one of those early 1980s years at the Wisconsin Archive in Madison, watching endless episodes of Mary and Rhoda and Phyllis and The Betty White Show (still an unheralded comic masterpiece) and some really sophisticated unproduced pilots that prefigured the development of quality drama. (I stayed at a boarding house with a dermatologist who showed me slides of skin diseases. I don’t know why I remember that.)

Mary was part of the embroidery of my life. I would describe the eponymous show as anti-patriarchal rather than feminist. I don’t buy all the hype about how proto-feminist it was. But I would say that none of the dominant males on the show were very masculine. Ted was, of course, a complete buffoon. Murray we thought of as gay and self-deprecating even though he was married. And Lou Grant was all bluster. Mary always got the best of him, and Sue Ann Nivens sexually humiliated him. We loved the Mary/Rhoda relationship and thought it so much better than a nuclear family, especially when we met Mary’s father and Rhoda’s hilarious, but irritating mother, played to the hilt by Nancy Walker, and even Phyllis wasn’t as aggressive as a husband would have been. We knew that because we’d watched Mary as Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show and even though she wore pants, she was still intellectually inferior to Rob and to career woman Sally Rogers, who wasn’t pretty or thin, but who was kind of a Dorothy Parker type for her times. Mary may have been on her own, as the song said, but she was never alone. In some ways, this was more of a feminist utopia than the stereotype of the independent woman.


A screenshot from “Not a Christmas Story,” the ninth episode of Season 5

So as they always ask me, what is my favorite episode? It’s not “Chuckles Bites the Dust” because that is everyone’s favorite, and I’m supposed to have more depth. Rather it is a little known episode from the fifth season entitled “Not a Christmas Story.” Many quality dramas (e.g. thirtysomething) attempted unconventional Christmas episodes, but this one took place during a blizzard in Minneapolis in November as the Happy Homemaker is recording her special “Christmas in many lands.” Oddly enough, this episode takes place entirely at WJM and does not feature Rhoda or Phyllis. My own feeling is that Sue Ann and Georgette more than compensated for the spinning off of these characters. In this case, Sue Ann forces the group to dine in her studio on one of her lavish meals (or to face the consequences of stale crackers from the vending machine). The first half of the show involves a battle over the control of decision making between Mary and Murray. A silly struggle occurs over whether Ted should say his tag line the way Murray wrote it or the reverse that Ted prefers–“news from around the corner and around the world.” Murray accuses Mary of lacking authority and quits but because they are snowed in, he is stuck there acting like a belligerent child. As they gather at Sue Ann’s fake Christmas dinner, everyone is angry at everyone else except, of course, Georgette, who says to Ted, “Can’t we just once pay full price and have Christmas dinner on Dec. 25?” Sue Ann forces them to wear ridiculous international hats and to sing “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” They comply angrily. But my favorite moment is at the end where there is a kind of breaking of the fourth wall as the dialogue continues over the end credits. Mary seems to be going for a typical ending when she says something like “I can’t even remember why we were angry.” But then Murray says “I can,” and Mary closes with “Well, yeah, me too.” It is the perfect family show without an ounce of sentimentality. I decided to write about it here from memory and without fact checking because no matter how many times I view it, it remains in the past for me. I’m not one of those people who say they can’t believe Mary Tyler Moore is gone because even though I never missed an appearance of hers, she remains for me a figure that epitomized the shift from the sixties to the seventies with everything that implies. The Mary Tyler Moore Show in my estimation is still the best sitcom ever.

Image Credits
1. The New York Times
2. Wikimedia Commons
3. Basement Rejects

Please feel free to comment.

Support Your Local Daughter: Celebrating Mary Tyler Moore’s Glimpse at Maternal Anxiety
Emily Hoffman / Arkansas Tech University

Mary Richards and her mother, Dottie Richards

Mary Richards and her mother, Dottie Richards.

For a show with a single, childless, thirty-something woman as its protagonist, The Mary Tyler Moore Show grapples with the often fraught dynamic between mothers and daughters. Initially, Mary Tyler Moore teems with maternal anxieties in a way that overtly challenges the fallacy tacitly perpetuated by so many family sitcoms—that mothering comes naturally to women. Conflicts regularly arise from female characters’ struggles to parent their daughters and forge fulfilling relationships. Initially, the subject is introduced through Phyllis and Bess Lindstrom in “Bess, You Is My Daughter Now” (Season 1, Episode 3). Phyllis relies on “creative child rearing” books to encourage Bess’s independence, but when Bess chooses to live with Mary instead, she worries about being supplanted, about being just “the old drudge who cooks her meals and mends her tattered little clothes.” Moreover, she worries that Bess will “hate me for being weak.” Her fear that Mary thinks she is “a lousy mother” is clearly an opinion she has of herself.

Like many adoring fans of Mary Tyler Moore born too late to experience the show in its original cultural context, I began watching the endless loop of reruns airing on Nick at Nite in the 1990s. I laughed at Ted’s incompetent yet confident bluster, all the clever put-downs Murray and Lou made at his expense, and Mary’s disastrous dinner parties. Plus, Mary just seemed nice, and her wardrobe—all bold colors and bell bottoms—looked casually glamorous even from the considerable vantage point of two decades later. Now, however, as a single, childless, nearly forty-year-old woman, I still laugh at Ted and envy Mary’s style, but I am struck by its poignant, at times painful, insight into how mothers (and sometimes fathers) struggle to maintain a comfortable relationship with adult daughters living on their own.

Traditionally, sitcoms have focused on the mothering of pre-adolescent and adolescent children like Bess Lindstrom. They need weekly discipline and lessons reiterating the difference between right and wrong. But what happens to those relationships when the children grow up? Sitcoms have tended not to deal with this except through distorted, atypical circumstances like the domineering-mother-next-door that was the plot engine for seemingly every episode of Everybody Loves Raymond. Instead, sitcoms contrive new (inevitably shark-jumping) plotlines that will re-set the cycle of precocious children growing up under the gentle guidance of loving parents. This means that sitcom parents on the verge of becoming empty-nesters must brace themselves for a return to child rearing thanks to middle-aged pregnancy (Family Ties and Growing Pains). If not that, they become guardians to orphans (The Donna Reed Show) or grandchildren/ step-grandchildren (The Cosby Show). Narratively speaking, these relationships are so appealing because of the stark imbalance between the parents’ maturity and the child’s immaturity. From this dynamic it is easy to wring sitcoms’ favored brand of light didacticism.

Rhoda Morgenstern (Mary's liberal friend) and her mother, Ida Morgenstern

Rhoda and her mother in matching outfits.”

Mary Tyler Moore, however, operates from a more complex premise in which the children—Mary and Rhoda—are well-adjusted, self-sufficient adults. In effect, when it comes to maturity, they are their parents’ equals. Despite this, these relationships are messy in ways that offer no simple solutions and call into question Mary and Rhoda’s autonomy. “Just Around the Corner” (Season 3, Episode 7), the episode famous for revealing that “good girl” Mary has an active sex life despite her singleness, forces Mary to confront the fact that she still occupies a liminal—to borrow a pet word in academic discourse—space. She is financially stable. She is a valued employee and beloved by her coworkers. She has a host of supportive friends. As her knowing comments in “You’ve Got a Friend” (Season 3, Episode 11) about Ed, the sportscaster who clearly expects sexual favors in exchange for baseball tickets, prove, she knows how to read men. In other words, her parents have no logical reason to be concerned, yet when they move to Minneapolis, they treat her as an adolescent. Mary’s father may be the one who keeps checking on her with his early morning phone calls, but it is Mary’s mother who struggles to find a way to relate to her unconventional daughter. At first, she repeatedly emphasizes her own relative youth, seemingly in hopes of establishing a kind of sisterly bond with Mary. “A Girl’s Best Mother Is Not Her Friend” (Season 2, Episode 5) later rejects mothers and daughters as sisters/friends in part by having Ida Morganstern appear ridiculous for wearing clothes identical to Rhoda’s because “it’s nice.” One could argue that Dottie Richards is envious of Mary and believes she could pass as a single career woman herself. Standing in Mary’s apartment, she says she wants “a place just like this.” That strategy, though, is short-lived, and she reverts to being an embarrassingly hands-on mother prone to awkward hugs. She insists on renting an apartment in Mary’s neighborhood, fusses with Mary’s hair before she goes out, and reminds her not to stay out too late on a work night. She uses a meatloaf she’s made for Mary as an excuse to get into her daughter’s apartment when she isn’t home. She admits to Mary she does these things because “I like you,” but she lacks the ability to translate that liking into a satisfying relationship for both mother and daughter. Her smothering actions are a product of her anxieties: she wants to maintain a close connection to Mary, but their relationship seems to lack a comfortable context.

What goes unspoken is that Mary’s mother treats her like a child because she cannot treat her as a wife and mother, the ways she “should” be traditionally treated as a woman over thirty. In fact, this is apparently a longstanding, latent issue between Mary and her parents because when Rhoda asks her if they ever bring up the fact she is not married, Mary says, “not directly.” (For Rhoda, things are not so obscured. Her mother, she says, “holds a grudge” against her because she is not a housewife.) The episode implies that Mary’s life choices do not meet with the greatest resistance in the public sphere of work where the more groundbreaking attributes of the series reside, but in the private sphere of family. When it comes to Mary’s parents, and Rhoda’s, too, being a wife and mother are the silent prerequisites for accepting their daughter as fully adult. Rhoda experiences the same over-protectiveness. Every time she moved in the Bronx, her parents moved too, and her mother makes regular visits to Minneapolis to monitor her husband-hunting progress.

The inherent vulnerability that comes from being a woman in a world full of predatory Eds is at the heart of the matter. When Mary laments feeling as if she has to call her parents if she is going to be late, I recognize my own frustrations. I make these same calls myself out of a combination of respect and consideration. It pains me to imagine my own parents worrying because I know that for them, like Mary’s parents, lateness equals danger, the hostilities of the world unleashed on an unprotected woman. However, I resent them as Mary does because they challenge my otherwise deep, inarticulable affection for my parents. Despite my mother relaying her displeasure at an acquaintance asking how I cope with not being married as if I have a disease, I often think while dialing, I wouldn’t have to make this call if I was. If Mary and Rhoda had husbands, their mothers would not be so oppressively attentive. A husband would stand in the gap between them and the world and shield them from harm. He would be constant, reliable, chivalrous. Put simply, a husband would relieve them of their parental duties. Moreover, without husbands, they are without children, denying Dottie and Ida the ability to communicate with their daughters as fellow parents. Surprisingly, this fact is revealed through Lou Grant in “You’ve Got a Friend.” He has no trouble sustaining lengthy conversations with his daughters because they share one inexhaustible subject: his grandchildren.

Mary Richards and her parents, Dottie and Walter Richards

Dottie Richards, “We’ll never get used to that.”

Nearly fifty years after its premiere, Mary Tyler Moore still illuminates truths about womanhood. The easy response would be to express anger at such apparent stasis. What I find remarkable is that it not only acknowledges the messiness of motherhood and daughterhood but doesn’t bow to sitcom conventions in doing so. “Just Around the Corner” ends with Mary standing her ground, unapologetically refusing to share details of her personal life with her parents. Her chastened mother appears to have learned the lesson that Mary does not owe them an explanation, a fact she and Mary’s father will have to get used to. Just as a tidy sense of resolution sets in, she adds, “We’ll never get used to that.” Family harmony is not restored according to sitcom convention. The tension lingers, masked by Nanette Fabray’s comically resigned reading of the last line. While offering little in the way of hope and reassurance, it offers something better, something beautifully yet frustratingly real.

Image Credits:
1. Mary Richards and her mother, Dottie Richards (author’s screen grab)
2. Rhoda and her mother in matching outfits (author’s screen grab)
3. Dottie Richards, “We’ll never get used to that.” (author’s screen grab)

Please feel free to comment.

Can you imagine Mary Richards as a radical queer?
Gerald Walton / Lakehead University

Walton image 1

Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Richards in The Mary Tyler Moore Show

I have a bone to pick with Mary Richards. [ ((With thanks to Aaron Wilson and Özlem Sensoy for helpful feedback. ))]

It is not that I did not love The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Forty years after its finale, I still do, often binging on the DVDs. The show was, and continues to be, acclaimed as a milestone in feminist-representations on American network comedy television and a showcase for women’s equality and agency beyond the home.

Not only was The Mary Tyler Moore Show a beacon of modern White feminism, it was also hailed for its inclusion of contemporary, liberal ideals. For instance, Mary Richards was also a small screen gay icon. A 1973 episode featured a gay character, one of the first television shows to do so that did not pander to homophobic stereotypes and swishy mockery for cheap laughs. The politics of depicting a gay man in a respectful and multi-dimensional way on network television was beyond my grasp, given that I was 9 years old at the time of broadcast and not knowing what a “gay icon” was in the first place or even that I was gay myself. As significant as that moment was in the history of queerness in American pop culture, her being a gay icon involved more.

For me, The Mary Tyler Moore Show was a refuge from the loneliness and torment of my exile from other boys my age. I was not rough-and-tumble, aggressive, or, as it turned out, sexually interested in girls. Ultimately, I came to see Mary Richards as a role model for women, yes, but also as hope for “failed” boys like myself. She would have championed and protected failed boys rather than tormented and further alienated us.

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Phyllis introduces her brother Ben in the 1973 episode of TMTMS, “My Brother’s Keeper”

She was resilient but timid, self-effacing, socially-conscious. If Mary could be emboldened to make it on her own, perhaps we could, too. Like Mary, I wanted my own apartment, enjoying both friends in my building and friends at work. I wanted to be Mary Richards. Though it may be a gay cliché, yearning to be Mary was about more than her fabulous apartment and impeccable fashion sense, although of course that was part of it; after all, young queerling boys tend to respond positively to aesthetics. Beyond surface appearances, what resonated so deeply was her insistence that she not be secondary to men in any context. It was her ability, even with trademark hesitation, to go head-to-head with men for the sake of her dignity as a woman pursuing a career.

There were, of course, other female sitcom leads in network television. Lucy, for instance, was a Chaplinesque clown with impeccable comedic timing, Maude was a caustic, liberated woman who was a verbal bulldozer when she needed to be, and Roseanne was crude and uneducated, but took the risk of standing up for social justice as a working-class mom. Lucille Ball, Beatrice Arthur, and Roseanne Barr, respectively, were unique by virtue of the fact that most sitcoms were headlined by men. They were determined and ambitious but, especially in the case of the latter two, they were also scorned by men and women alike for being, unlike Mary, too brash, too loud, too political, too in-your-face. In them, however, some women, and even some men, found role models that gave them inspiration and hope for agency, a life on their terms.

Mary Richards represented such agency, but in a more conservative way than Maude and Roseanne did, and in a less zany way than Lucy did. In Mary Richards, failed boys witnessed possibilities for finding a place where we belonged, where we could stand up for ourselves, where we could call some of the shots and determine who we were and what we wanted to be even if other men stood in our way. Mary could goof things up and still be loved by her friends. She made mistakes. Such vulnerability was comically depicted in an episode that could have been entitled “Bad Hair Day.” Despite her foibles, she was not the target of ongoing bullying that attacked her deeply and personally on the basis of her gender. The fictional world of Mary Richards is where failed boys could find solace. Some of us saw in Mary what we yearned to be in real life.

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In the late 1960s, “gay is good” was an adage that sought to build equality with straight people

In the days after Moore’s death on January 25, 2017, columnist and radio host Colin McEnroe described Mary Richards as “just one of us,” meaning everyday folks. But fitting in as “just one of us” has dangerous implications. Fundamentally, Mary represented respectability, which is certainly one of the reasons The Mary Tyler Moore Show was such a hit. Across queer communities, Mary’s approach to finding her place in the world mirrors conservative gays and lesbians who do their best to appeal to the majority by saying in behavior and demeanor, if not actual speech, “We’re like you, straight people, so there is nothing to fear from us.” Liberal gay politics emerged from the gay civil rights uprising of the late 1960s and 1970s. In those early years, “gay is good” was the adage that sought to build equality with straight people. [ (( Capehart, J. (2011, October 12). Frank Kameny: American Hero. Washington Post . ))] Although the phrase is an artefact of that particular social and political time, [ (( The adage also followed the “Black is Beautiful” motto of the 1960s Black cultural movement, a significant component of the Civil Rights movements. ))] the ideology of sameness = equality pervaded later queer rights campaigns, most notably marriage equality. The position that “We’re not different from you, so we deserve the same rights under the law” had, and continues to have, political currency, largely because many queer people want to be included as “just one of us” and many straight people do not feel threatened by the logic of sameness. The result is that queers have become mainstream. We are out and proud, have supportive families and co-workers, and deserve equal rights under the law with straights.

I now see Mary Richards through older, more politically mature eyes. As much as she was a beacon of feminism, hers was a White liberal version. Mary sought to fit in and slowly work towards change, from the inside. She was not out to rock the boat, even when she landed herself in jail for not revealing a journalistic source. Being socially conservative and caring about what others thought of her, and being able to understand a reasonable argument, Mary Richards would have supported marriage equality if The Mary Tyler Moore Show were in production today instead of the 1970s. She might not have comprehended flamboyant drag queens of colour, radical faeries, bull dykes, gender-fuckers, or other marginalized groups within the broad spectrum of queer communities. Such marginalized queers were the ones who truly rocked the boat, most famously sparking the Stonewall riots of 1969, one year before the debut of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The riots were about revolution and refusal to be pushed around by the cops who made raiding bars and hauling queers to jail a routine. The queers who fought back were unconcerned with respectability. They were angry and visceral. [ (( The 2015 film, Stonewall, was widely criticized for its focus on white, attractive, male, middle-class gay young men rather than on marginalized queers who were the actual epicenter of the uprising. ))] Their uprising against the cops, and society broadly, was a foreshadowing of the now-hackneyed jingle, “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!” that Queer Nation made famous two decades later. [ (( Retrieved from ))] Fighting back was a refusal to gain a place at the table by capitulating to the politics of sameness.

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Mary Richards represented a feminism that was never out to rock the boat

Respectability is where I, as a 50-something gay man, depart company with Mary Richards. Pandering to respectability through campaigns of marriage equality is fine. It is our right to say “no” to marriage rather than having the state do it for us. But I do not trust the politics of sameness on which equality with straights is built. In the 1970s, I did not feel the same as other boys. I was different from them. I was treated like shit because of it, as those on the fringes usually are. The message from other boys was that I was not “just one of us,” but if I wanted to be, I had to straighten myself out under the weight of sameness. After several failed attempts to fit in, I eventually had my personal Stonewall moment and replied, “fuck you.”

I found a hero in Mary Richards when I was young, and I continue to celebrate The Mary Tyler Moore Show today. Yet, I can now see the political limitations of Mary Richards. Respectability might result in fitting in, but it also goes hand-in-hand with the regime of sameness that marginalizes unconventional queers.

Image Credits:
1. Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Richards in The Mary Tyler Moore Show
2. Phyllis introduces her brother Ben to Mary in the 1973 episode, “My Brother’s Keeper”
3. In the late 1960s, “gay is good” was the adage that sought to build equality with straight people
4. Mary Richards represented a feminism that was never out to rock the boat

Please feel free to comment.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show: We Need Vulnerability and Spunk
Jennifer Fogel / SUNY-Oswego

Mary's insecurities

Mary Richards: The Embodiment of Vulnerability and Spunk

As a Gen-Xer, my first introduction to Mary Tyler Moore was through a screening of the pilot episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in a History of Broadcasting course. The pilot was humorous, perhaps even more so with my cynicism already fully circumspect in how trivial the plight of Mary Richards getting her first “real” job was, and the fishy nature of how Lou Grant called her earnest battle for a “civil” [and now legally appropriate] interview was a sign of “spunk.” Inequity between the sexes wasn’t really on my radar having grown up with the action heroines of the 1990s. These warrior women were already light years ahead of Mary Richards’ crises of confidence in the workplace. They were too busy saving the world on a weekly basis to stop and reminisce about the Second Wave’s role in battling towards the still tenuous gender equality.

I hate spunk 2

Mary’s “civil” interview with Lou Grant

But having grown into a television scholar and professor, with a – dare I call it – specialty in the representation of gender, I see The Mary Tyler Moore Show as something more than a spectacle of women’s liberation on the small screen. Showing the pilot episode to my millennial underclassmen today garners the same huffy laughs as I remember from my days in undergrad. And while my students laugh uproariously at a drunken Lou Grant traipsing around Mary’s apartment, I certainly feel that, they too, are missing the point. Mary Richard’s feminism comes not from her then-brazen choice to forego marriage after waiting patiently for her doctor boyfriend to “man up,” or her inescapable optimism in dealing with blatant sexism at work. No, Mary Richards’ truest feminist quality was never shying away from her vulnerability.

Similar to many of the television scholars that frequent Flow, I assign Bonnie Dow’s “Hegemony, Feminist Criticism and The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” in which Dow points to a number of areas of the series that are in direct conflict with the feminist praise that have been levied at the show, which aired during the height of female liberation. [ (( Dow, B. (1990). Hegemony, feminist criticism and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 7, 261-274. ))] While I don’t disagree with Dow’s observations – the hegemonic patriarchal devices utilized in the series do disguise and interfere with its true feminist agenda – in comparison to many of the televisual feminists that currently grace the small screen, Mary Richards embraces something that we don’t often see today: the awareness that female empowerment and strength doesn’t mean you have to see “choice” as right or wrong. Mary Richards waffled… a lot. At times submissive and nurturing, and still others a neutral voice between Phyllis the traditionalist and Rhoda the staunch liberal, Mary didn’t see the harm in acknowledging a way through instead of a way around.

The Three Ladies 2

Mary mediating between Phyllis and Rhoda

As many feminists argue against the traditionalist’s view of what Elspeth Probyn terms “choiceoisie,” whereby women are forced to choose either marriage and family or the workforce and likely regret either decision, Mary was never one filled with regret or guilt. [ (( Probyn, E. (1997). New Traditionalism and Post-Feminism: TV does the home. In C. Brunsdon, J. D’Acci, & L. Spigel (Eds.) (pp. 126-137). Oxford: Clarendon Press. ))] For my upperclassmen who first engage with Mary Tyler Moore via a PBS documentary titled America in Primetime: The Independent Woman, [ (( Kramer, L. (Director). (30 Sept. 2011). The Independent Woman. In T. Yellen and L. Kramer (Executive Producers), America in Primetime. NY: The Documentary Group. ))] they see Moore describe the importance of the series – in addition to her earlier turn as Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show – to women’s liberation. Moore, along with a host of other recent female television celebrities, recalls how her “choices” made women understand that they, themselves, could be something more than a housewife. Of course, The Mary Tyler Moore Show was constantly under pressure from the network to be progressive without being too liberal, but the humor and word play allowed it to put forth a valiant effort in creating a critique of gender roles in society. Even Moore herself noted in Independent Woman that the series was not about “Women’s lib,” but representing a woman trying to pursue a more fully realized and independent life on television.

Mary Tyler Moore on Katie

After watching the documentary, I typically ask my millennial students to pick their favorite independent woman on television today. The usual responses range from the women of Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, or in the Shonda Rhimes oeuvre, each of whom possesses an intrinsic strength, take-no-prisoners attitude, and are fearless unlike the men that surrounded them. But very few of my students name heroines from today’s sitcoms. Every once in a while, Leslie Knope from Parks & Recreation, Kimmy Schmidt from The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and Selina Meyer of Veep will be named. What surprises me about their explanations for these sitcom women as “the most independent woman on television” is that the responses highlight how each of these women radiate confidence in everything they do, even in the most vulnerable of positions. Unlike their dramatic sisters in arms, these funny ladies – as Mary Richards did before them – don’t pretend that they are invulnerable or detached. Instead they revel and thrive by pushing through their insecurities instead of hiding them. In these sitcoms, we don’t get a random episode of emotional strife or skepticism in pushing through the work-life balance – like we do with Olivia Benson on Law & Order: SVU or Meredith Grey on Grey’s Anatomy. The humor and appreciation, here, is perpetuated by the continued effort Leslie, Kimmy, and their comedic colleagues make in navigating a revolving door of issues with complete self-assurance that they will reach the other side.

As society continues to debate women’s “preference” in the work-life balance or superimpose traditional gender role sentiments on acts of liberation from the Mommy Wars, now is the time to remember Mary Tyler Moore and her refreshing periods of self-doubt both personally and immortalized in the women she played. In the strange days ahead under the current administration, where women’s hard-fought and well-earned liberties remain in question, I prefer to hold fast to the women on television who don’t need to kick-ass and take names (or carry Katana blades). Give me the wobblers, the indecisive, the manic optimists, and poorly prepared but ever hopeful women who refuse to mask their uncertainty to make themselves feel stronger. I still firmly believe that the excellence of The Mary Tyler Moore Show rests not in Mary Richards’ exasperated sighs and inexhaustible word play with the sexist men that orbited her workplace, but in the way she “made it after all” with a sheer determination that didn’t require her to become something and someone she was not. If there is a lesson to be learned from the iconic character, I hope that my millennial students understand that strength comes from facing our insecurities – in whatever form they may be – and always finding the humor in preserving all the qualities within us that give us “spunk.”

Image Credits:

1. Mary Richards: The Embodiment of Vulnerability and Spunk
2. Mary’s “civil” interview with Lou Grant
3. Mary mediating between Phyllis and Rhoda
4. Mary Tyler Moore on Katie

Please feel free to comment.