Robots in Popular Culture: Labor Precarity and Machine Cute
Anthony P. McIntyre / University College Dublin


Hitchbot, the hitchhiking robot.

In August 2015, Hitchbot, a robot developed by academics at McMaster and Ryerson Universities in Canada, was vandalised beyond repair in Philadelphia just 4 days into its mission to travel across the US depending on the kindness of strangers. A video promoting the robot’s earlier successful hitchhiking adventure across Canada introduces Hitchbot’s developers by cheerfully announcing that “Usually it’s humans that are scared that robots will take over the world, well these guys flipped that idea on its head.” [ ((““))] However, later events would of course undermine the vision of benign human robot collaboration that informed the road trip experiment. While the true motive behind the vandalism that cut short Hitchbot’s journey is impossible to know for sure, the whole episode is evidence of the highly ambivalent positioning of robots in popular culture, and a suspicion of these technological marvels. This ambivalence, I argue, is compounded by the affective responses generated by cuteness, one of the main aesthetic paradigms for the representation of robots. Cuteness, in the view of some theorists, with its aestheticization of weakness or powerlessness, also generates feelings of suspicion and exploitation that can trigger violent responses. [ ((“Ngai, Sianne. Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting. Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard UP, 2012. Print.”))] In addition to the demise of Hitchbot, we may also consider the “Burning Elmo” videos posted on YouTube, [ ((““))] where the lovable cute talking toy is burnt, while often continuing to talk as exemplary of this phenomenon.

Cuteness was initially theorised by ethologist Konrad Lorenz, who in 1943 developed a kindchenschema, or ‘child schema’ that posited features such as large eyes, pudgy extremities and clumsy movements as common to infant humans and animals alike. Lorenz ‘s belief was that such features triggered nurturing behaviours in adults and were part of an evolutionary step to ensure caregiving for the young of a species. Many contemporary theorisations of cuteness contest some of Lorenz’s more rigid views on the links between cuteness and an instinctive nurturing response, with psychologists Gary D. Sherman and Jonathan Haidt, for instance, suggesting that the response elicited is more often one of play rather than protection. [ ((“Sherman, Gary D., and Jonathan Haidt. “Cuteness and Disgust: The Humanizing and Dehumanizing Effects of Emotion.” Emotion Review 3.3 (2011): 245–51.”))] Machine cute exists within a constellation of both visual and behavioural traits that overlap with but also go beyond Lorenz’s kindchenschema. The main features of machine cute are (a) overt indicators of vulnerability, such as clumsiness; (b) a lack of bodily integrity; (c) limited linguistic capacities; and (d) a naivety or cognitive neoteny. Examples of machine cute can display several of these features, but not necessarily all, as I shall demonstrate.


BB8, Baymax, Chappie, and Hitchbot, all recent examples of robots in popular culture.

If we consider recent examples of robots that emerge in contemporary popular culture, BB8 in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, (2015) Baymax in Disney’s Big Hero 6, and Chappie the eponymous robot from Neil Blomkamp’s 2015 violent action adventure film, we can see differences in how machine cute manifests. All three of these robots, as well as, of course, Hitchbot, demonstrate key features of machine cute to a greater or lesser extent.

With Hitchbot, for instance, we see in his ultimate demise evidence of his lack of bodily integrity. The robot had limited linguistic capacities and was a less than robust entity, commonly requiring reassembly on his travels, even before he met a violent end. In Chappie, although the robot was originally built as part of a generic squad of humanoid police robots, from the beginning of the film this particular robot is portrayed as vulnerable to attack, signified visually by a prominent replacement bright orange ear. This aspect of machine cute marks the seeming opposite of the impenetrable robot impervious to human attack common to dystopian sci-fi narratives, a type perhaps best represented by Gort from the classic 1951 sci-fi The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Chappie’s cuteness really emerges with his “birth” scene, briefly shown in the trailer below, with the robot displaying the cognitive neoteny of a human infant in its early years, although considerably accelerated. Chappie’s linguistic development improves quickly also but for most of the film his grammar is imperfect, with the robot referring to himself in the third person, using tenses clumsily, saying lines such as: “Chappie got stories” and “Chappie got fears.” This demonstrates how the depiction of robots as cute on the basis of linguistic incompetency works similarly to the aesthetic process that cute-ifies animals as demonstrated in the iconic “I can haz cheezburger” meme.

Prior to the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a toy version of BB8, the cute round robot that assists the central characters just as R2D2 did in the early movies, hit the shops. BB8 both as character in the film and as a toy, demonstrates key features of machine cute. The video below of the BB8 toy designer providing a demonstration also suggests the pedagogic role such material objects perform [ ((“Gibbs, Samuel, and Richard Sprenger. “Meet BB-8, the Star Wars Droid You Can Take Home as a Toy – Video.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 03 Sept. 2015. Web. 22 Feb. 2017.”))] .


The BB8 toy, on sale in anticipation of the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

If we apply the criterion of limited linguistic capacities, it seems congruent with the case of BB8 with its complete lack of intelligible words and reliance on affective-digital sounds that indicate mood. In addition, we see vulnerability inherent to the little robot, both on account of its diminutive size and its tendency to dismantle easily with the head popping free of the body in instances of minor collision. Finally, we might consider the concept of labour as articulated by the robot engineer. His various statements bear analysis. While acknowledging the existing fears about robots (he’s careful to distance the robot from notions of surveillance), he makes the contradictory remarks that it’s not there to do anything and later suggests the toy constitutes “the first step to people being used to having robotic companions,” for which we should also read, perhaps, robotic labour.

In effect, this robot, and the many similar toys and devices that flooded the market in its wake are there as pedagogical instruments. So, much in the same way that Joyce Goggin, building on the material cultures work of Daniel Miller, describes the Liddle Iddle Kiddle dolls she played with as a child and collects as an adult as providing a means of teaching “how to perform gender in a very essentialized … way,” [ ((” Goggin, Joyce. “Affective Marketing and the Kuteness of Kiddles” in The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness, ed. Joshua Paul Dale, Joyce Goggin, Julia Leyda, Anthony P. McIntyre and Diane Negra. New York: Routledge, 216-34.”))] the BB8 robot seems to be facilitating interaction with a robot companion while simultaneously alleviating the fears that would surround such technologies.

If Hitchbot, Chappie and BB8 are a far cry from the haptic sensuality of what many associate with cuteness, such as the furry softness of puppies and kittens, there are also examples of machine cute that align with these features. Writing on plush toys in his analysis of cuteness as a commodity aesthetic, essayist Daniel Harris (2000) describes “… a world of soothing tactile immediacy in which there are no sharp corners or abrasive materials and in which everything has been conveniently soft-sculptured to yield to our importunate squeezes and hugs.” It is such a world that Baymax, the robot star of Big Hero 6 clearly belongs to. Of all the robots I consider, the medical robot from this movie is perhaps the most “classically” cute. His softened and rounded body constitutes an extreme end point in animated figurations of cuteness. His soft features also contribute to the robots clumsiness (see gif) (another key element feature on the machine cute schema). I ’m not sure how much further you could go in terms of soft lines and rounded features without losing discernibility. This over-determined cuteness, I argue, functions in one way to obfuscate the very real threat presented by robotic labour to large swathes of the working population.


Baymax of Big Hero 6.

It has been widely predicted that as robot costs decline and technological capabilities expand, robots are expected to replace human labour in a wide range of low-wage service occupations. In an Atlantic article, “The Fastest-Growing Jobs of This Decade(and the Robots That Will Steal Them),” for instance, the author notes that the low-wage sector is the area where most US job growth has occurred over the preceding decades and in fact many people had been shifted down to such jobs as higher paid employment shrunk as a result of automation. [ ((“Thompson, Derek. “The Fastest-Growing Jobs of This Decade (and the Robots That Will Steal Them).” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 28 Jan. 2014. Web. 22 Feb. 2017.”))] This means that many low-wage manual jobs that have been previously protected from technological developments such as automation could diminish over time, leading to large-scale expulsions from the labor force and increased numbers living in poverty. In addition, many studies predict that highly skilled jobs such as those related to healthcare face a similar threat from automation and robotic labour. [ ((“Susskind, Richard, and Daniel Susskind. “Technology Will Replace Many Doctors, Lawyers, and Other Professionals.” Harvard Business Review. N.p., 31 Oct. 2016. Web. 22 Feb. 2017.”))] In Baymax, we have a fictional medical care robot who can perform the functions of a physician and a personal care aid — two of the professions indicated as being under threat. The suggestion that Baymax was inspired by developments in “soft robotics” [ ((“Ulanoff, Lance. “‘Big Hero 6’ Star Baymax Was Inspired by a Real Robot.” Mashable. Mashable, 07 Nov. 2014. Web. 22 Feb. 2017.”))] attests to the bi-directional influence that fictional and real life robots exert on one another, and while such robots are demonstrably a long way off, technologies providing similar services are not too far away.

As Annalee Newitz notes in her book Pretend We’re Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture (in which she argues that robots are one such example of capitalist monsters) considerations of labour relations are rarely the main focus in popular film, yet often “lurk in the background, shaping the narrative.” [ ((“Newitz, Annalee. Pretend We’re Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture. Durham: Duke UP, 2006. Print.”))] In Big Hero 6, this is certainly the case, but with Neill Blomkamp’s short film Tempbot (2006) we have a not entirely successful attempt to examine the potential impact of robotic supplantment of human labor. [ ((“Swedish TV series Äkta människor (trans. “Real Humans,” 2012-14) and its UK/US remake Humans (2015–) have recently taken a more sustained look at the issue. For an analysis of cute robots that examines specifically female-gendered and sexualized robots and analyzes these series, see Julia Leyda, “Cute Twenty-First-Century Post-Fembots” in The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness, ed. Joshua Paul Dale, Joyce Goggin, Julia Leyda, Anthony P. McIntyre and Diane Negra. New York: Routledge, 151-74.”))]

Tempbot, as the title suggests, concerns the eponymous machine (an earlier version of the robot that would appear in Chappie) which is, brought into a cubicle office environment as a temp worker, where it is largely ignored by the rest of the mostly disaffected workforce. The short film is somewhat uneven and the cringe humor it attempts is heavily indebted to Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s comedy The Office (2001-03). The vulnerability of the robot in this film is primarily figured through his romantic infatuation with a recently hired female manager and consequent inability to navigate the complex rules of (human) inter-personal intimacy.

If we examine the screenshot below we see an example of how cuteness, as I argued in my previous Flow column, functions in proximity to subordinated groups. Tempbot suggests that there is complacency among those at a more senior positions in the workplace hierarchy, while the ethnic-minority depicted cleaners — here warily watching as Tempbot continues working long after his colleagues have departed for drinks — are those most aware of the threat posed by the new workplace paradigm the robot constitutes.


Tempbot, at the office.

At the end of the film, the office is shown completely staffed by Tempbots and, given the evident unhappiness of most of the human workforce depicted in the film, it is unclear whether this is to be interpreted as a happy ending or not. One strange aspect of the film is the dual function of Tempbot who both functions as metaphor for alienated labour and the increased pressures of post-Fordist working conditions, what Melissa Gregg has termed “workplace affects in the age of the cubicle” as well as the threat roboticized labour presents to employees in such disaffected workplaces [ ((“Gregg, Melissa. “On Friday Night Drinks: Workplace Affects in the age of the aubicle.” In The Affect Theory Reader (2010) ed. 250-267″))] . The lack of clear interpretation is quite fitting given the ambivalence of cute robots in general, which both move us emotionally through their vulnerability but also are indicative of very real threat to many livelihoods.

Image Credits:
1. Facebook
2. Courtesy of the author.
3. Youtube
4. The Guardian
5. ibid.
6. Giphy
7. Screenshot from Tempbot (2006) courtesy of the author.

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“I Just Expect There To Be Some Trouble”: Boyz N the Hood and Racialization of Cinema Violence
Caetlin Benson-Allott / Georgetown University

Poster for Boyz N The Hood

Original poster for Boyz N The Hood (John Singleton, 1991).

Although there was relatively little cinema violence during the 1980s, the decade nevertheless changed popular perception of such incidents. Between 1979 and 1988, the US media largely forgot their fear of cinema shootings, or rather it was eclipsed by a larger moral panic over gang violence. Gang activity did increase in the US during this period, but media coverage exaggerated and sensationalized the problem, vilifying all African-American youth by association. As a result, reporters and even some reviewers began predicting cinema violence at films by and about African-American men. The 1979 incidents at screenings of The Warriors had been treated as horrific yet isolated episodes — isolated by their association with one inflammatory film. But between 1988 and 1991, a series of films were accused of soliciting violence by soliciting Black viewers. An entire audience group was both courted and criminalized in advance, so that when violent incidents did occur, they provided confirmation bias for further prejudice and disenfranchisement.

Colors (Dennis Hopper, 1988) was the first film to inspire sustained press coverage about the threat of theater violence. Its depiction of gang life in Los Angeles so alarmed the LAPD that they demanded a private screening approximately one month before the film’s release to determine its potential impact. Afterwards, LA Country Sheriff Sargent Wes McBride predicted that the movie would “leave dead bodies from one end of this town to the other… I wouldn’t be the least surprised if a shooting erupted in a movie theater.” [ (( “Deborah Caulfield, “Colors Director Hopper Defends His Movie on LA Gangs,” Los Angeles Times March 25, 1988, Y18; “Gang Movie Colors Will Trigger Violence,” A1.” ))] Colors opened without incident, but unfortunately, ten days later, David Dawson was fatally shot while standing in line for the film outside a theater in Stockton, California. Dawson was a member of the Crips, and his attacker, Charles Van Queen, was a member of the Bloods, a connection that was overplayed in the press to suggest that gang movies weren’t safe.

Scene from Colors

Danny (Sean Penn) evaluates suspected gang members in Colors (Dennis Hopper, 1988).

Not just gang movies, though — even serious dramas about racism and African-American disenfranchisement were critiqued for courting violence. Hence Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) was excoriated in New York Magazine for potentially inciting riots before it even premiered. Reviewer David Denby predicted that Lee’s film would “create an uproar” and warned that “if some audiences go wild, he’s partly responsible,” while columnist Joe Klein expressed hope that the film would open “in not too many theaters near you” because “black audiences” could “react violently” to its depiction of “a summer race riot.” [ (( “David Denby, “He’s Gotta Have It,” review of Do the Right Thing (Universal film), New York Magazine, June 26, 1989, 53, 54; emphasis mine; Joe Klein, “The City Politic: Spiked?” New York Magazine, June 26, 1989, 14.” ))] Jack Kroll of Newsweek also called the movie “dynamite under every seat.” [ (( “Jack Kroll, “How Hot Is Too Hot; The Fuse Has Been Lit,” review of Do the Right Thing (Universal film), Newsweek, July 3, 1989, 64.” ))] Needless to say, none of them apologized after Do the Right Thing ran without incident. Lee’s movie grossed over $27.5 million on a $6.5 million budget, sufficient success to warrant a cycle of similar films, albeit ones about black-on-black rather than interracial violence. The films of the “ghetto action cycle”—as Amanda Ann Klein and S. Craig Watkins call it [ (( “S. Craig Watkins, “Ghetto Reelness: Hollywood Film Production, Black Popular Culture, and the Ghetto Action Film Cycle,” in Genre and Contemporary Hollywood, ed. Steve Neale (London: British Film Institute, 2002), 236-250, quoted in Amanda Ann Klein, American Film Cycles: Reframing Genres, Screening Social Problems, and Defining Subcultures (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011), 139.” ))] —continue Lee’s politicized violation of “a once-sacrosanct taboo against the portrayal of ‘negative’ images” of African-Americans by African-Americans. [ (( “Salim Muwakkil, “Spike Lee and the Image Police,” Cineaste 14, no. 4 (1990): 35.” ))] These movies were likewise blamed for inciting violence despite their anti-violence messages of personal responsibility, messages that, ironically, downplay the larger social forces undergirding racist and gang violence in this country.

Poster for Do The Right Thing

Poster for New Jack City

Original advertisements for Do The Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989) and New Jack City (Mario Van Peebles, 1991).

The first film of the cycle, New Jack City, premiered on March 8, 1991 — four days after news media unveiled video of Rodney King being beaten by LAPD officers. [ (( “Laura Baker, 7” ))] Yet journalists failed to make that connection when reporting on a riot outside one of the film’s screenings. At the Mann Theater in Los Angeles’s Westwood neighborhood, ticket-holders became upset when denied seats to an oversold show. LAPD were called in, and King’s name became the rallying cry in a protest against institutionalized racism. Reporters only associated the Westwood riot with New Jack City, however, and with the death of Gabriel Williams at another Brooklyn screening. The New York Times translated these and other incidents into a fear-mongering think-piece about how a “Film on Gangs Becomes Part of the World it Portrays.” [ (( “Seth Mydans, “Film on Gangs Becomes Part of the World It Portrays,” New York Times, March 13, 1991, A16. ” ))] The paper later granted producers Doug McHenry and George Jackson an op-ed to argue that “New Jack City doesn’t cause riots,” but the panic had been reborn. [ (( “Doug McHenry and George Jackson, “Missing the Big Picture,” New York Times March 26, 1991, A23.” ))] After New Jack City, the press associated ghetto action films with cinema violence; as Singleton put it, they were “lying in wait” when Boyz N the Hood came out on July 12th of that year. [ (( “Robert Reinhold, “Near Gang Turf, Theater Features Peace,” New York Times, July 15, 1991, A13.” ))]

Although Boyz N the Hood premiered at the Cannes Film Festival — where it received a glowing review from Roger Ebert — its US debut was marred by biased and inflammatory stories of cinema violence. During the film’s opening weekend, twenty of the 829 theaters where it played experienced some fighting or disorder. Shots were fired at cinemas in eight cities, and two people died: Michael Booth, at the Halstead Outdoor Drive-In in Riverdale, Illinois, and Jitu Jones, shot outside a downtown Minneapolis theater. [ (( “John Lancaster, “Film Opens With Wave of Violence,” Washington Post, July 14, 1991, A1; “Minneapolis Youth Second Victim of Violence at Film Showing,” New York Times, July 19, 1991, ” ))] Riots and “melees” were also reported in Orlando and Tukwila, Washington. [ (( “Mike Williams, “Boyz N the Hood Violence Subsides,” Atlanta Journal and Constitution, July 15, 1991, A3.” ))] The LAPD set up defensive barricades in Westwood, fearing a riot similar to the one that accompanied New Jack City (and evidently in denial about the latter’s correlation with the King video). Newspapers sensationalized all of these events; headlines like “Trail of Trouble for Boyz” and “ Film Opens with Wave of Violence” accompanied stories that belied the film’s commercial and critical success. [ (( ““Trail of Trouble for Boyz,” Hollywood Reporter, July 15, 1991, 6; Lancaster, “Film Opens With Wave of Violence,” A1.” ))] In one, an Atlanta exhibitor scoffs, “Frankly, I’m surprised they haven’t banned the movie,” while another quotes an anonymous Columbia executive lamenting, “Who will show these movies anymore?” [ (( “Norma Wagner, “Atlanta-Area Theaters Beef Up Security for Boyz’ Showings,” Atlanta Journal and Constitution, July 14, 1991, A6; John Lancaster, “Film Opens With Wave of Violence,” A1.” ))] Even after the violence ended, newspapers continued to quote sources condemning Singleton’s movie as “just an excuse for getting rowdy.” [ (( “Williams, “Boyz N the Hood Violence Subsides,” A3.” ))] Like McHenry and Jackson, Singleton was called upon to publicly defend his film; he reminded reporters that cinema violence does not justify censoring filmmakers but is rather an “indication of the degradation of American society…a society that breeds illiteracy, economic depravation, and doesn’t educate its kids, and then puts them in jail.” [ (( “Andrea King, “Columbia Backing Up Its Boyz,” Hollywood Reporter, July 15, 1991, 6. ” ))]

Singleton rightly blamed the incidents at Boyz N the Hood — and Colors and New Jack City by extension — on the systematic dispossession of African-Americans, but this salient and important critique differs strikingly from the message of his film. Boyz N the Hood, like other films of the ghetto action cycle, stresses the individual’s personal responsibility to rise above unjust conditions. Its protagonist, Tre (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), avoids the pitfalls of early parenthood and drugs, which entrap his friends, because he has a strong father figure, Jason “Furious” Styles (Lawrence Fishburne), who counsels him on anticipating the consequences of his actions.

Furious and Tre in Boyz N The Hood

Furious Styles (Lawrence Fishburne) advises his son Tre (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) in Boyz N the Hood (John Singleton, 1991).

Furious also soliloquizes on how the impoverishment of black communities benefits white communities, but the film places its allegiances with Tre — who rises above — rather than with Ricky (Morris Chestnut) or Doughboy (Ice Cube), who cannot. As others have noted, personal responsibility is a politically conservative philosophy with high crossover potential for white audiences. [ (( “Kenneth Chan, “The Construction of Black Male Identity in Black Action Films of the Nineties,” Cinema Journal 37, no. 2 (1998): 35-48.” ))] It is to Singleton’s credit that he did not continue this reasoning in press conferences or interviews. But the contradiction does matter, in no small part because some people used the content of films like New Jack City and Boyz N the Hood to interpret the violence that accompanied their premiers. “Personal responsibility” places blame with the shooter, the filmmaker, and sometimes the victim, but it does not ask viewers to question how mass disenfranchisement also breeds violence. It helps decontextualize cinema violence by aligning those involved with the pathologized or irredeemable characters who cannot or will not escape violence in the films. To be sure, most journalists and other pundits report on cinema violence before they’ve seen the films, but as the films’ anti-violence messages are subsequently marshaled for their defense, they point towards the “personal responsibility” of the perpetrators. Unfortunately, the social origins of cinema violence would not be considered by the mainstream press until the twenty-first century, when lack of adequate mental health care became one way of explaining why whites were killing other whites at the movies.

Image Credits:

1. Original poster for Boyz N The Hood
2. Danny (Sean Penn) Evaluates Suspected Gang Members in Colors (Dennis Hopper, 1988) (author’s screen grab)
3. Original Advertisement for Do The Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989)
4. Original Advertisement for New Jack City (Mario Van Peebles, 1991)
5. Furious Styles (Lawrence Fishburne) Advises His Son Tre (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) in Boyz N the Hood (John Singleton, 1991) (author’s screen grab)

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.

Prestige and Purpose: The “Rise” and Fall of the Critics’ Choice Television Awards
Myles McNutt / Old Dominion University


The Critics’ Choice Television Awards Banner

Last November, it was announced that Entertainment Weekly would be the exclusive promotional partner of the Critics’ Choice Awards, which aired on A&E on December 11. For Joey Berlin, the president of the two organizations—the Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA) and the Broadcast Television Journalists Association (BTJA) — that together administer the Critics’ Choice Awards, this partnership was part of “the breakout year for the [awards],” going on to suggest “adding Entertainment Weekly and the other powerhouse Time Inc. brands to our terrific partnership with A&E will blast our show into the top tier of must-watch awards shows.”

Ultimately, this partnership did nothing to change the place of the Critic’s Choice Awards, which remain marginalized from the “Oscar Season” narrative compared to the Golden Globes or the various Guild awards. However, the partnership proved newsworthy for another reason, as it came at the expense of nearly 15% of the BTJA’s membership, who resigned in protest of the awards promoting a single media brand. TV Line’s Michael Ausiello, who was one of the charter members of the BTJA when it was formed in 2011, said in a statement that “What I loved about the organization is that it was never about one outlet but about the entire industry coming together to recognize the best that television had to offer.” [ (( Notably, this came under a year after the BFCA faced a similar exodus from several members in protest of the decision to add Star Wars: The Force Awakens to the Critics’ Choice Awards Best Picture category after voting had already concluded, seen as a bald attempt to increase ratings in light of its huge box office success. ))]

This mass exodus represents a key moment of transition for the BTJA, an organization whose existence gives insight into the perceived role of journalists within economies of prestige as well as the function of media industry awards in our contemporary moment. Although ostensibly presenting itself as a professional organization that represents the interests of journalists that cover television, the BTJA can better be described as a loose collection of individuals who exist in symbiosis with the industry and the prestige economy it perpetuates. Whereas the more established Television Critics Association organizes the twice-a-year TCA Press Tour for its members, the BTJA has failed to generate any meaningful role in its six-year existence outside of giving out television awards to go along with the BFCA’s existing Critics’ Choice Awards honoring the best in film.

The 2011 Critics’ Choice Television Awards

As they were originally designed, the Critics’ Choice Television Awards filled a perceived absence in the space of TV prestige. While the Oscars are preceded by a series of “precursors” that allow contenders to practice acceptance speeches or bolster their campaigns through televised appearances, the Emmys have historically lacked such an event, despite the fact that campaigning for the Emmys has grown increasingly robust in recent years. Although the TCA has its own awards, they are not televised, and offer a more intimate celebration of the year’s best in television with only winners in attendance. What Berlin and the BTJA imagined was something different:

“We’d like to think it’s appropriate for the critics and TV journalists to weigh in at the beginning of the TV awards season, performing a similar function as the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards do in the movie awards season, The Academy members are busy making TV shows, so it is nice for the industry if the critics help focus the attention on the best TV programming. We think it is a useful timing.”

This statement is notable for its willingness to frame the Critics’ Choice Television Awards as a useful service not to the viewer, or to the critics themselves, but rather to the television industry: while its audience may be the viewing public at home, its message is perceived as a placeholder for more traditional promotional efforts that the industry is too busy to handle. This is echoed by the fact that the Critics’ Choice Television Awards came with a new category: “Most Exciting New Series” honors between five and eight new series that the BTJA members are anticipating, despite the fact that those members would have likely seen only the series’ pilot at the time of voting. It’s a decision that helped build a positive relationship between the BTJA and the networks and channels whose talent it depended on to fill tables, present awards, and “buy into” the event in its early years, where the BTJA struggled to pull the awards together: they moved from a barely-watched tape-delayed airing on Reelz Channel to two years of online streaming, plagued by production mistakes like envelopes with the winners printed upside down (as evidenced in the video below).

In this way, the Critics’ Choice Television Awards were not designed as an objective measure of the best of television by independent journalists: rather, they represent an opportunity for a group of select journalists — few of whom would self-identify as critics beyond those members who overlap with the TCA — to exact their influence over the prestige economy in the television industry. [ ((This was further reinforced for the Critics’ Choice Awards in general when Berlin moved the Awards to December this past year, which pushed the broadcast to the “start” of Oscar season for greater influence, despite disrupting the procedures of voters actually seeing the films in contention.))] Rather than allowing the entire membership to vote on nominees, the BTJA created panels of its most experienced members, who hand-selected nominees in Drama and Comedy categories. This allowed them to highlight performers that the Emmys — and potentially the rest of the BTJA membership — would likely ignore: Tatiana Maslany was nominated for, and won, a Critics’ Choice award for her acclaimed work on BBC America’s Orphan Black in 2013, and the visibility of her win could well have been influential in her nominations and eventual win at the Primetime Emmy Awards three years later.

Tatiana Maslany’s Critics’ Choice Awards Speech

In this way, the Critics’ Choice Television Awards could be seen as a vital corrective to the predictability of traditional media industry awards, offering formal recognition to series and actors that may be ignored by the Emmys. Shows nominated in recent years by the Critics’ Choice Television Awards but not the Emmys include FXX’s You’re The Worst, Comedy Central’s Broad City, The CW’s Jane The Virgin, and HBO’s The Leftovers — none of these shows have won when put to the larger membership, but their nominations stand as a testament to their value. Although Maslany stands as the only example of a performer or series whose path to an Emmy explicitly started at the Critics Choice Television Awards, there is an argument to be made for the value of giving performers like her visibility as Emmy voters — including many in the room — cast their ballots.

Best of the 22nd Annual Critics’ Choice Awards

However, despite this being central to Berlin’s stated purpose for the awards, the BTJA has since abandoned the awards’ place as an Emmys precursor. After persistent ratings struggles across multiple networks and channels, the Critics’ Choice Television Awards were merged with the Critics’ Choice Awards, with the BFCA and BTJA handing out all of their awards on the same night beginning in January 2016. [ ((This created an awkward half-year of TV eligibility, with Best Drama Series winner from the 2015 Critics’ Choice TV Awards The Americans ineligible for the next year’s award, having not aired new episodes in the intervening six months.))] Although this technically serves as a precursor to the television awards handed out by the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild Awards, it operates on a calendar year model that creates limited overlap with Emmy consideration. [ ((It also resulted in some confusion when Mandy Patinkin was nominated for Homeland this past year, despite Homeland not airing during the stated eligibility period—the nomination was rescinded, but it points to the confusion within the awards themselves.))] The decision has further rendered the Critics’ Choice Television Awards a vanity project: no longer capable of standing on their own, the awards now exist primarily to justify the existence of the BTJA, which with its loss of key members looks increasingly like a group that will never serve a purpose beyond its now diminished role in economies of prestige.

While the failings of the Critics’ Choice Television Awards could point to the lack of “purpose” to media industry award shows more broadly, their existence points to the allure of awards for those adjacent to and within those industries. There was a clear demand for an award show from the networks and channels competing for Emmys and the actors and producers who value recognition, in addition to the journalists who gain their own sense of prestige by participating in this economy. Although they may no longer hold the same purpose or value that was imagined when they began, the Critics’ Choice Television Awards still hold enough value to the industry to continue as a yearly tradition, albeit not one that has entered the “top tier” of award shows as Berlin predicted.

Image Credits:

1. Critics’ Choice Logo

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A Pedagogical Experiment in the Era of Black Lives Matter
Susan Courtney / University of South Carolina

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Class Facebook Group Page of “Mediating Ferguson, USA” at the University of South Carolina

While academics typically recognize the publication of research as the most permanent form our work can take, the work we do in the classroom can feel by turns endless and ephemeral. This ephemerality has real benefits, teachers and students know, be it in the restart button we can press at the beginning of each class or in the knowledge that every term, no matter how grueling, will come to an end in a matter of weeks. Yet this always-passing time of teaching can make it easy to forget classroom moments worth remembering. Such a moment — a powerful, semester-long moment, but a moment nonetheless, in a special topics course entitled “Mediating Ferguson, USA: 1915-2015,” on “race, justice, and popular U.S. film and media in the 20th and 21st centuries” — inspired me to mark it with the permanence of publication. For in this class, at a predominantly white institution where students are often hesitant to talk about race, an unusually diverse group of undergraduates came together, day in and day out, for exceptionally open, incisive, and productive discussions about race and its intersection with a host of social dynamics, on screen and off. With these columns I hope, at least, to honor this remarkable community of students, who made our sixteen weeks together among the most meaningful in my nearly two decades of (rewarding) teaching at the University of South Carolina. I also write fueled by a sense that some fundamental questions about teaching race and media studies — questions about how we do it, why we do it, what tends to work and not work, and for whom, where, and when — are being profoundly reshaped by histories still very much unfolding.

In my first column, I sketched the historical moment, locally as well as nationally, of the months and weeks leading up to the course, because that backstory so shaped it, and in ways that far exceeded any frameworks my syllabus or pedagogical habits might have provided. As one friend’s visiting relative put it of Columbia while visiting here in the summer of 2015, it felt then like we were at the “epicenter” of a convulsing national crisis around race and violence. The community this class became was forged in the urgency of that moment. And our awareness of how unusually and acutely our work within the classroom was being shaped by histories unfolding beyond it had little chance of diminishing over the course of a semester punctuated by more viral videos of police brutality and a rise of student activism, here as around the country. One such video, from Columbia’s own Spring Valley High School, made the “school to prison pipeline” shockingly vivid, and once again brought painfully home our own undeniable place in what we might describe as the newly vivid, albeit unofficial, network of institutional forms of racial injustice being mapped on our screens through such videos from points throughout the country. And when students, including some from our class, organized a walkout and marched to the President’s office to deliver a list of demands for improving inclusivity on our campus, the class understood this, too, in the context of both particular local histories (the list began with the “demand that our university acknowledge that this institution was built on the backs of enslaved Africans”) and a larger national surge of student activism that fall. In the midst of all this, it thus became routine — and often felt necessary—to begin class by checking in on the latest relevant developments, which students readily connected to our assigned materials, even when the syllabus could not have.


Students Demand Greater Inclusivity, On Screen and Off

In part because of so many structuring contingencies beyond my pedagogical control, it seems worth reflecting on some deliberate strategies that also played a part, regarding the course’s title, syllabus, and some assignments.

What I initially recognized to be a certain risk in the course title, “Mediating Ferguson” — that it would appeal to a self-selected group and might turn off “students who most need” a course like this (as we educators sometimes and perhaps too condescendingly put it) — I came to understand only later as also having had tremendous benefits. For the title’s self-selectivity brought together a group of students at once eager to engage and unusually diverse. Whereas media studies classes here are usually, like our institution more generally, predominantly white, nearly a third of the students in this class were African American. Students also routinely spoke, and thought, from positions marked by genuinely diverse socioeconomic, sexual, and geographic experiences. In short, not only were we not slowed down, or derailed, by stubborn resistance or routine reluctance to engage, but the students who were so eager to engage had both a safe space and an excellent group of peers with which to do so. The class discussions that resulted (I almost never lectured) were thus routinely probing and robust, and we all had daily opportunities to seriously listen and respond to others with sometimes profoundly different experiences and insights from our own.

While so much of this, to be sure, had everything to do with the particular students in the room, one syllabus experiment seemed to help. While I routinely begin media history classes with contemporary material — to draw students in and to prime them to look back at media from the past with eyes and ears open for reverberations with the present — in the Ferguson class I expanded the scale and goals of the opening contemporary unit. We began with three weeks of immersion in contemporary material, with several aims: (1) to give the class a shared set of materials with which to join the current “national conversation” about race (including viral videos, some excellent journalism, and Lawrence Bobo’s, “Somewhere between Jim Crow and Post-Racialism: Reflections on the Racial Divide in America Today”); (2) to equip students (who came to this class from several different majors) with key concepts in media studies for thinking about cultural formations of whiteness and blackness (including work by Richard Dyer and Herman Gray); (3) to invite them to begin to consider distinct ways of thinking and feeling about race afforded and/or discouraged by distinct media forms and practices (in addition to the materials already mentioned, we watched Fruitvale Station [2013], a superb group of young black poets on campus performed a reading of their work in our class, and each student had to “curate” a digital media post to the class’ Facebook Group—finding something online they thought would add to our conversations and pithily explaining why); and (4) to cultivate habits for generating productive questions for further inquiry and research. This last goal involved two kinds of tasks, the second of which expanded (and enhanced) the work of reading responses. First, in a series of daily assignments, they were asked to pinpoint key arguments and insights from the readings and generate specific critical/conceptual questions of their own in response. Then, having done this for several weeks, they had to submit a revised, edited list of questions (refining, expanding, etc. those previously drafted) that seemed important to continue thinking about in the course and/or (potential) future research.

These four aims fed each other, and encouraged students from the start to articulate, sharpen, and develop the questions they found most urgent and productive. And by the end of this first unit, they each had not only an arsenal of potential research questions, but also a method for how to develop these. I also invited them relatively early in the semester to think about what kind of research and/or creative work they might want to do to pursue their questions. Or, as I put it to them more than once: “How do you want to mediate Ferguson, etc.? What kinds of things do you most want to say and/or to show? And to whom? And which media forms and practices might best help you reach your audience(s)?”

Also vital to the success of this first unit, and the rest of the course, was one of our earliest discussions — grounded by the Bobo reading with all the specific examples, and data, he provides — in which I asked them to specify what we are talking about, exactly, when we talk about “institutional,” “structural,” or “systemic” racism. Once we had established a concrete understanding of the kinds of historical and contemporary social practices these terms refer to (we covered the board with them one day), I could then ask them to think in specific ways about the work of distinct media forms and practices in relation to such systemic inequities. Right away, they recognized how the viral videos coming across their screens from seemingly everywhere made visible the institutional, systemic nature of police brutality. These early conversations also set us up to then look back at a diverse set of media histories with eyes and ears more attuned to discern their specific, varied, and shifting forms of mediating race.

Image Credits:

1. Author’s Screenshot of Group Facebook page, with cover photo of protesters with JR’s image of Eric Garner’s eyes, from JR on Twitter.
2. Photo from The Daily Gamecock of phone with image from an online petition of the student activist group, USC 2020 Vision, taken at the start of a student walkout at the University of South Carolina on November 16, 2015.

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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

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

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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.

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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.

Laura Petrie and Performance as Wifely Duty
Annie Berke / Hollins University


We might as well start where so many episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show (CBS, 1961-1966) do: with our goofy hero, Rob Petrie (Van Dyke), tripping over the ottoman in his living room. In this incarnation of the show’s opening credits, the supporting cast—wife Laura and son Richie (played by Mary Tyler Moore and Larry Mathews) and co-workers Buddy and Sally (Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie)—rushes to help a laughing Rob to his feet. This sequence encapsulates the premise of the show, namely the intertwining of work and home for a television writer not unlike the show’s creator, Carl Reiner. As David Marc notes in his book Comic Visions, the divide between home and work in The Dick Van Dyke Show is negotiable, not unlike its sitcom precursor, I Love Lucy (CBS, 1951-1957), in which Ricky might break into song in their New York apartment or where Lucy reveals her pregnancy during a show at the Tropicana. [ ((David Marc, Comic Visions: Television Comedy and American Culture, 2nd ed. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1997).))]


A tidy domestic space littered with prat-falls.

Still, we spend more time at Rob’s place of work than at Ricky’s, where the Rob-Buddy-Sally bond establishes the “alternative” or “workplace” family sitcom further developed in later sitcoms including The Mary Tyler Moore Show (CBS, 1970-1977), Cheers (NBC, 1982-1993), even The Office (NBC, 2005-2013) or 30 Rock (NBC, 2006-2013). But unlike many of these other shows and the workspaces they present, the Alan Brady writers’ room of Dick Van Dyke looks like a cozy upper-middle class home, with non-descript wall art, a communal coat hanger, and, in place of a round table, a coffee table around which Rob, Sally, and Buddy exchange zingers and unsolicited advice. While there is a typewriter, and Sally does use it, her desk is tucked away stage right, and the typewriter’s unprivileged place on a solo desk does not lend itself to collaborative work – unless we count performing for one another and for the viewers at home as labor.


Writers Rob, Sally, and Buddy in their office/abode.

Rob connects the Petrie writers’ room and the Petrie home, and his primacy as a silly patriarch in both “homes” is never in doubt, but this essay is not about Rob, or, at least, not entirely. Instead, let us turn our attention to Laura, the queen of her Westchester castle and a character whose own transgressions of the work/home divide create comedy and conflict, establishing her as a sneakily subversive hybrid of the housewife and the performer, and troubling the distinction between those two roles.


For the Petries, the domestic space can easily change into a rehearsal or a performance space.

Carl Reiner recently said of Moore: “She was grace personified. She could never take a wrong step…. The fact that she started out as a dancer was indicative of everything she did after that. Her grace was unmistakable. I saw it the first time she walked into my office.” [ ((Cynthia Littleton, “Carl Reiner Remembers Mary Tyler Moore: ‘She Was Grace Personified,’” Variety 25 January 2017 .))] That Moore’s character, Laura, is a retired dancer factors into a series of storylines, including Season 1’s “To Tell Or Not To Tell.” In this episode, the Petries host a party at which, after comedy performances from Buddy, Sally, and Rob, the crowd clamors for Laura to dance. At first, she pretends to demur, saying “oh no…,” but before the people around her can respond, strikes a pose and launches into a boldly mod and seemingly improvised routine: apparently, Laura is no shrinking violet. She proceeds to fill in for a missing dancer at The Alan Brady Show, throwing her household into comparative—read: sitcom—chaos. Rob worries that, now that his wife has returned to her old stomping grounds (so to speak), she won’t want to return to being a wife and mother. The television gods swoop in and nullify this potential problem: while Laura is invited to stay on the show permanently, she is flattered but disinterested in returning to the stage full-time. Thus, the show has its cake and eats it too. Laura could be a dancer, but doesn’t want to, while the begrudgingly egalitarian Rob is rewarded with a contented stay-at-home wife. The Season 3 episode “My Part-Time Wife” has a similar plot, in which Laura serves as a typist in Rob’s writers’ room. Rob, threatened by her talents and seeming ability to balance her home and work responsibilities, is shocked to discover by episode’s end that Laura is exhausted and eager to return to the role of happy homemaker.

What do these plots reveal beside Laura’s competence in all things? The situation comedy is, in many ways, a conservative genre, and Laura’s return to the home is partially mitigated by the fact that it is always presented as her choice and that she understands her work in the home as a difficult and legitimate form of labor. Such plotlines as I have described above position the figure of Laura Petrie as an inverse of Friedan’s “feminine mystique”: rather than struggling with unarticulated disappointment, however, Laura speaks frequently and articulately on these issues without wanting any change in her situation. While we are not yet in “working woman” or Mary Richards territory, this public reckoning with the housewife’s dilemma is a decisive move in that direction.

But that’s not all. To return to the start of this essay, the fuzzy boundaries between home and work not only converts the writers’ room into a familial zone but also makes the home legible as a stage or performance space. Rob and Laura are not just husband and wife but scene partners to boot, finding romantic and creative fulfillment in one another and how they play together and off one another. In the Season 1 episode “Oh How We Met on the Night That We Danced,” we learn that Rob and Laura met while he was a Sergeant in the Army and she danced in the USO. It is love at first sight for Rob, aversion for Laura, so he bribes her dance partner to let him dance with her on-stage. The two perform a romantic duet, the humor stemming as much from Laura’s barely concealed snarl as from Rob’s gangly soft-shoe. Their anti-chemistry chemistry signals Rob and Laura’s compatibility: after all, they somehow know how to sing and dance together, in spite of her initial hostility and their never having rehearsed together. While Rob does step on her foot and break her toe at the end of the dance, this conclusion only serves as the (off-screen) pretext for him to show his caring nature and win her heart. Laura’s injury proves less important than our witnessing their meet-ness as a duo, their marital bliss signaled and performed through a musical number.


For the Petries, the domestic space can easily change into a rehearsal or a performance space.

Another example of the marriage-as-duet motif comes through in the Season 2 episode, “The Two Faces of Rob,” in which Rob, in researching the plausibility of a sketch for the show, disguises his voice on the phone with Laura to see if she recognizes him. A flirtatious energy passes between the two, leaving Rob worried and jealous of his own alter ego. The same Laura from “To Tell Or Not To Tell”—an unabashed and joyous performer—comes out to play in this episode, purring, cooing, and leaning into the archetype of the restless suburban wife. Could Laura have been duped by Rob’s charade and, in fact, be on the prowl for an extramarital affair?

No, of course not. Yet, again, we see how Laura the housewife incorporates performance and whimsy into her daily life, this example being fairly innocent foreplay; as Robert David Sullivan writes for The A.V. Club, this interaction “implie[s] that Laura likes a little role-playing to spice up the Petries’ sex life.” [ ((Robert David Sullivan, “Examining The Dick Van Dyke Show’s comedy in just 10 episodes,” A.V. Club 12 September 2012 .))] Stephen Bowie of Vulture points out the episode’s “big” reveal: Laura gets off the phone after a seductive conversation with the fairly forward “Dr. Bonnelli” and turns to visiting neighbor Millie. “Who was that?” Millie asks. “Rob,” Laura chirps, returning to the Girl-Next-Door we never really feared she wasn’t… did we? “It is one of Moore’s most delicious line readings,” Bowie justly declares. The episode ends with her accidentally propositioning a real wrong number, believing it to once again be Rob. When Laura discovers her mistake, she is suitably mortified, while Rob is amused and attracted, the scene ending on a long and suggestive smooch. Laura may not perform for pay anymore, but what her character and storylines reveal is the home as a site of play, fun, and style, and who better than Mary Tyler Moore to teach this lesson?


Laura is unafraid of a little make-believe between spouses.

Image Credits
1. Vulture
2. The Franklin Chronicles
4. ShareTV
5. Blogspot

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

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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.