As I glanced over at the magazine rack, I couldn’t help but be struck by the juxtaposition of two covers: one of Bethenny Frankel’s impending divorce, the other of Valerie Harper’s own devastating terminal cancer revelation.
One is a woman whose ‘life as a shambles’ is documented on a reality show providing a voyeuristic characterization of a woman having it all; the other a TV actress whose character spoke volumes about women on the verge of a feminist movement.
It’s been about 40 years between these TV shows; yet, we sure haven’t come a long way, baby.
Before we had reality TV and reality stars like Bethenny, the rise of strong TV female representation began with 1970 sitcoms. There was “That Girl” Marlo Thomas. And there was also Valerie Harper, so familiar to most of us as Rhoda Morgernstern.
Rhoda – as we knew her — was the first opinionated, openly Jewish, boho chic (before it was chic) TV character I, and the rest of the viewing public, had ever seen. Valerie Harper burst onto the popular Mary Tyler Moore show in 1970 – just as the decade was about to usher in second-wave feminism – better known as Women’s Liberation.
I was quite young at the time and did not really understand what feminism was all about – but I understood Rhoda. Ms Harper’s portrayal of her embodied my eventual definition of the term. Her real life support of the women’s movement and the passing of the Equal Rights Amendment cemented it.
Rhoda was the antithesis to Mary Tyler Moore’s gosh-darn-golly-gee good girl character from Minnesota. She lived alone in a studio apartment with hippie beads for a doorway, wore colorful head scarves, had a creative job and dated. A lot. She was everything I wanted to be: a headstrong, funny, independent career girl. With a cute boyfriend.
Turns out a lot of women wanted to be like Rhoda. She was so appealing that CBS gave Ms. Harper her own show. Rhoda debuted in 1974 and immediately set a record by being the first and only television series ever to achieve a number-one Nielsen rating for its premiere episode.
Ms. Harper’s character spoke to women and girls of the early 70s; she was vulnerable, body conscious and agreed to live with her devastatingly handsome boyfriend, Joe (played by David Groh), during a time when it was unheard of. Her wedding broke TV viewing records and captured the imagination of a nation: people even held ‘wedding parties’ to celebrate the fake nuptials.
Even though sitcoms are truly contrived scenarios, Rhoda did more to honestly portray, through comedy, what a feminist could look and act like, more so than any reality TV show featuring women today. In fact, I would be hard pressed to find any show that would have a positive female role model. When I asked my soon-to-be 13-year-old daughter if there were any such role models on TV that she could relate to, she snickered, “The Real Housewives!” Then she sat there for a full minute before answering, “No, mom. There aren’t any.”
While TV sitcoms are not the be all and end all of forwarding the women’s movement, you need to go where the people are — in front of their televisions and computer screens and standing in the grocery check-out line. Now that Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon is gone, what’s left? Groups of women who are artificially thrown together, most of whom have rich husbands, fabulous houses and lots of booze.
We’ve gone from “you’re gonna make it after all” to “having it all.” And as far as the media’s portrayal of women is concerned, I’m not sure the “all having” direction is the one we want to go in.
Guest contributor PR consultant Elissa Freeman brings more than 25 years of communications experience to the pages of The Broad Side. Named one of Twitters Top 52 PR pros and Top 75 Bad-ass Females, the Toronto, Canada-based Freeman is also a contributor to PR Daily/PR Daily Europe and is a guest columnist at Canada.com. You can follow her on Twitter at @elissapr.