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Old June 24th, 2013, 12:00 AM
Brainbin Brainbin is online now
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Join Date: Jul 2009
Location: The British Empire
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You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby

Ever since the Sexual Revolution of the late 1960s, which sparked (among many other things) the Women’s Liberation Movement, the place for women in society, and in popular culture, had been in constant flux, their depiction in the media experiencing seismic shifts in an attempt to keep with the times, despite widespread uncertainty of what “womanhood” looked like in a very chaotic era. This began as early as the mid-1960s, with the prototypical “single young working woman” show, That Girl, bearing the torch for newly-liberated women everywhere. In a keen example of ideology making for strange bedfellows, it did so alongside even the more fantastic action-adventure programming popular at the time, as shows like Star Trek, Mission: Impossible, and The Avengers all featured female characters who were competent, work-oriented professionals, defined by their place within their organizational hierarchy, as opposed to their relationship to a husband or father – and who were not afraid to be “sexy” in the performance of their duties, a far cry from the demure (some would say “puritanical”) demeanour of those teachers, nurses, and secretaries featured in most shows from the 1950s and early 1960s. However, these groundbreaking shows stood in stark contrast to certain others, such as Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie – in which magical women with exceptional powers were entirely subservient to completely normal (and rather domineering) men. This was demonstrative of the rapidity with which these changes were taking place, and the uncertainty on all sides of their overall tenacity. That the era was one of great confusion about woman’s place in society was perhaps best (and most succinctly) illustrated by the Helen Reddy dichotomy: that popular singer had performed the feminist anthem “I Am Woman” in 1972, with the single reaching #1 on the pop charts at the end of the year. However, she also reached #1 in 1974 with “You and Me Against the World”, a song about a mother’s devotion to her child. [1] They were the two biggest hits of her career.

It wasn’t until The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1970 that what became the iconic “working woman” of the new decade finally seemed to “stick” in popular culture; it was perhaps no coincidence that, by this time, Jeannie was off the air and Bewitched was reduced to recycling scripts from earlier seasons. Ironically, though, the seemingly definitive status quo that had emerged on the small screen was not as true-to-life of the society which Mary Tyler Moore was attempting to represent. At the conclusion of the overseas quagmire in early 1969, and as young men returned home to settle down with their loved ones (timed perfectly with the maturing of the oldest of the Baby Boomers), the birth rate (in decline for the last several years) began to rise again. The Manufacturing Miracle and the overall prosperous economy seemed to indicate a return to “The Best Years of Our Lives”, as had been the case for the previous generation. That said, this time around there was not nearly so strong a stigma for women seeking employment as there had been in 1945. In fact, a not-insignificant number of women sought work in the factories, warehouses, and loading docks of America, though most women on television usually sought more white-collar, service-industry jobs instead. [2] Mary Richards worked as an associate producer at a television station; Gloria Higgins on Those Were the Days was a clerk at a department store. Gloria, however, did represent the lot of many young, married working women at the time, supporting their husbands or boyfriends through school (often on the G.I. Bill) rather than bettering themselves strictly for their own sakes. Such employment was therefore utilitarian and pragmatic.

Television, like most media, did not tend to dramatize the mundane unless doing so was the whole point – and in the muted atmosphere of the 1970s, it had surely become so. The contrast between That Girl (one of the sunniest-ever depictions of “glamorous” New York City, which by that time faced rampant crime and net emigration) and Mary Tyler Moore (a cautiously optimistic show set in a typical Midwestern city) was obvious. Mary Richards was sweet, friendly, and completely non-threatening, but she was also unmarried and childless, and this did not change at any point throughout the show’s run. In fact, the (all-male) production team stubbornly refused to even consider such an option, though they relented to mounting criticism against the “anti-family” Paramount Television – which, prior to the mid-1970s, starred only singletons, divorcés, or childless couples in all their shows, save for the anomalous Room 222 – in preventing the planned divorce between Lou Grant and his wife, Edie. In fact, Edie Grant even carried over onto the spinoff, Lou Grant, though since it (like Mary Tyler Moore) was a work-oriented sitcom, she seldom appeared in the flesh, and was infrequently mentioned. [3]

Inevitably, the strong reaction against Paramount forced a skew in the depiction of women on their shows vis-à-vis the changing reality on the ground. By 1977, when Mary Tyler Moore had concluded, more and more women were seeking employment, as the birth rate once again declined, and the economy began fluctuating, making stay-at-home motherhood a less attractive proposition; the average age at first marriage was also on the rise. But Paramount, suitably chastised, had decided to tread carefully from then on; in its final season, the formerly childless couple in Barefoot in the Park had a son, and Rhoda almost immediately became pregnant upon getting married in her eponymous sitcom spinoff (which naturally earned it a reputation as the anti-Mary Tyler Moore), giving birth to a daughter. This spawned a famous in-joke amongst the higher-ups at Paramount, as the son had been named Grant and the daughter Mary, after the married couple who formed the backbones of the studio; surely, those two babies would someday be destined to wed and have children of their own. In fact, executives delighted in suggesting hypothetical names from one of any number of the more odious “family values” critics who had denounced their programming. Those Were the Days, one of the hyper-realistic Tandem shows, avoided the bouncing between extremes of their rival studio: Gloria Bunker had married Richard Higgins soon after high school, getting a job to put him through school as her father (reluctantly) put a roof over their heads. They had one child together before both halves of the couple decided to focus more on their careers, eventually resulting in their departure from New York City for sunnier pastures elsewhere.

But the decline in marriages and birth rates as the decade wore on resulted in shows like Police Woman (noted to be a personal favourite of the Speaker of the House, Gerald Ford, who quite famously once put an early end to proceedings in order to get home in time to watch a new episode of the show [4]), and spiritual sister The Alley Cats – which was both more absurd and more escapist than Police Woman, reflecting a move away from the grounded, realistic shows that dominated in the decade’s earlier years. Notably, both shows depicted the women protagonists as subservient to men, but not in any way denigrated by their superiors on account of their gender. In fact, the “feminine wiles” of the characters on Alley Cats were essential to their success, as had been the case on the earlier Mission: Impossible. However, grittier, less glamorous fare endured; Penny Marshall followed up Those Were the Days with an equally envelope-pushing sitcom, Inside Straight. Created with her producing partner Linda Bloodworth, it cast Marshall as a thirty-something divorcée, whose husband, fed up with her gambling addiction, had walked away. With few other options and armed with only her associate degree in interior design, she chose to start her own business – sublimating the thrill of the risk from gambling into entrepreneurship, especially in the trying economic times that marked the era. [5] The depiction of Marshall’s character as a divorcée was an explicit callback to the original plan for Mary Richards to have been depicted as one, before CBS executives insisted that audiences would assume that the character had divorced from Rob Petrie (on The Dick Van Dyke Show). Here, the equally potent assumption that Gloria Higgins had finally ditched the Meathead was left unchallenged – either viewers were more sophisticated, or (more likely) this show’s producers were more stubborn. Over the course of Inside Straight’s run, both Richard Dreyfuss and “Daddy”, Carroll O’Connor himself, would appear in guest roles. [6] Even more demonstrative of the enduring “grittiness” was The Birds of Baltimore, the American adaptation of the British Liver Birds program, which starred two single women dockworkers living and working together in Baltimore, considered the most apt analogue to Liverpool. The title referenced not only the original version (as “bird” was UK slang for a young woman), but also the Baltimore Orioles baseball team.

Sex appeal could not be underestimated as an indicator of the liberated woman. This was the era of “bra-burning” (which actually never happened in a literal sense, though the symbolism of such an event was encouraged for metaphorical purposes). Pride in one’s own, natural self was a recurring theme of the civil rights struggles from the late 1960s onward – “Black is beautiful”, “Gay is good” – and this naturally extended to womanhood as well. Miniskirts were in, as Star Trek so famously demonstrated (in fact, early episodes had women wearing uniform pants, just like the men, but these were later discarded). But even more important was what were out: brassieres. This helped to cement the “bra-burning” legend (women didn’t wear bras because they had burned them, or so the logic went), and it certainly contributed to how fashions of the era were remembered. If anything, it seemed a foundational principle of how women were dressed in television and film at the time: from the very outset, costumers took great pains to ensure that titillation and liberation went hand-in-hand. In fact, this ideal was codified, so to speak, in the “Theiss Titillation Theory”, named for Trek costumer William Ware Theiss: “the degree to which a costume is considered sexy is directly proportional to how accident-prone it appears to be”. [7] It certainly explained the fundamental appeal of The Alley Cats, not to mention Three’s Company. Those boomers – male and female – who had not yet married tended to be wealthier (and less in need of financial support from a spouse) and more educated (putting off marriage and children until able to support themselves financially – in other words, the demographically ideal viewer. [8] Even the oldest Boomers had not yet reached the age of 30 by the mid-1970s. And they were legion – the largest cohort in history. Appealing to the crème de la crème of such a massive crop was irresistible to programmers, and this informed their choices of which shows to put – and keep – on the air.

Marcia Lucas – who, along with her husband, George, was in the process of suing Paramount Pictures on behalf of Lucasfilm for that company’s rightful share of the profits from The Journey of the Force – found herself the primary breadwinner of her family when the pair were blackballed from Hollywood. Her employer, Lucille Ball, had enough pull that Marcia’s position as staff editor for the studio’s venerable post-production house was secured – though Desilu was given an ultimatum by the collective major studio chiefs: Marcia would not be allowed to edit any movies on threat of Desilu Post-Production being dealt an industry-wide boycott. So she was left to work solely on the in-house productions for the studio, primarily Three’s Company. The characters on that show – a slapstick farce very much in the vein of I Love Lucy but, once again, with added sexuality, befitting the era – were definite types: Janice, played by Susan Anton, was sexy but aloof and totally oblivious to her effect on men; Chrissy, played by Pam Dawber, was goofier and earthier, basically a toned-down “Lucy” type; Mrs. Roper, played by Betty Garrett, was assertive and man-hungry, trading barbs with her cold-fish husband. The central character was Robby Tripper, played by John Ritter, but the woman characters were each given their own plots and scenes without Robby (or their ornery landlord, Mr. Roper), and often discussed topics other than them, such as their jobs, or their desire to make the rent. Lucille Ball loved Three’s Company, easily her favourite of the shows that Desilu produced; and in her way, appointing Marcia to supervise the editing of that show was a distinct honour. Nonetheless, in absolute terms, it could not be perceived as anything but a career setback for a two-time Academy Award winning film editor. But in her own way, Marcia provided another interpretation of the working woman of the 1970s: her husband, George, had also been rendered unemployable by the lawsuit, and unlike Marcia, he did not have steady work to fall back on, forcing her to become the primary breadwinner for the family. Being the higher income-earner within the couple was something else that Marcia and her employer had in common, as the decade came to a tumultuous close. In more ways than one, Marcia Lucas would prove a new model for the new woman of the new decade…


[1] “You and Me Against the World” only reached #9 IOTL, failing to become one of her three chart-toppers. ITTL, there are a lot more children and mothers who would appreciate this song at the time of its release, contributing to its success. Now, many people would claim that “I Am Woman” and “You and Me Against the World” are not necessarily songs with mutually exclusive themes, which is certainly true; certainly, Reddy herself obviously never thought that way. However, wags can’t help but note the irony of a singer hitting #1 with the defining anthem of Women’s Lib (which is to say, liberation from being identified, valued, and judged solely as a wife and/or mother) and then that same singer reaching that same plateau with one of the great maternal love songs, not two years later.

[2] Many working women on early-1970s television, IOTL and ITTL, were in “pink-collar” jobs. However, ITTL, that term does not exist, for the simple reason that the proportion of women working blue-collar jobs is considerably larger. IOTL, one of the first hit shows to depict women working blue-collar was, ironically, the 1950s throwback Laverne & Shirley, in which the eponymous duo worked as bottle cappers at a Milwaukee brewery. However, that series does not exist ITTL.

[3] Edie Grant appeared less often, and had less impact on the plot, than Liz Miller did in the later seasons of Barney Miller IOTL.

[4] Based on an OTL story about (President) Ford re-scheduling a press conference so as not to miss an episode of Police Woman.

[5] Bloodworth (as Linda Bloodworth-Thomason) co-created a series with the premise of women running an interior design firm IOTL as well: Designing Women.

[6] Many of
O’Connor’s preferred Those Were the Days writers also got gigs working on Inside Straight, in a contrast to the OTL situation behind the Archie Bunker’s Place spinoff Gloria, wherein his people were forced out of the production by the network, resulting in his (rather obstinate) decision to have no further involvement with that series.

[7] The Theiss Titillation Theory, a cornerstone of the costume design principles behind Star Trek, was widely disseminated while the show was in first-run.

[8] The definition of the “ideal” consumer has remained remarkably static over time. Generally, the younger you are, the less likely you’re set in your ways, which means you’re more willing to try new products or services; the more affluent you are, the greater your disposable income. Indicators of either age (younger people tend to live in more urban markets) or wealth (level of education correlates highly with annual income) tend to strongly influence the nature of the products or services being advertised.


Thanks to e of pi for his assistance in the editing of this update, and for his terrific pun of a title suggestion as the title of Marshall’s star vehicle sitcom!

I thought I would post this retrospective on the depiction of women in popular culture in the 1970s, as we enter this new decade. Along with the additions, I suggest that you take note of a deliberate omission: Maude, which was cancelled several seasons early ITTL, and has no second life in syndication. In all, there
s less of a cultural backlash against Women’s Lib ITTL, because the steps it takes are more tentative, less united front than IOTL. However, the degree to which progress has been made can’t really be compared qualitatively to OTL, because (of course) such a metric is highly subjective, and wholly dependent on individual goals and values.

Thank you all for your patience and understanding in waiting for this latest update! Coming up next time
The Turtledove Award-Winning That Wacky Redhead: Big Dreams Have Big Consequences!

Find out more on the Alternate History Wiki or TV Tropes

Last edited by Brainbin; June 24th, 2013 at 12:37 AM..
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