Maude: TV's Timeless Feminist Icon
TV Herstorians, any time we go back to the 70s it’s a deep deep dive into the foundations of what we see on TV today. There’s just so much there – the fashion, the hair, the dialogue (usually but not always written by men….wait – nothing’s changed on that front!) but the plots were changing… they might be right out of vaudeville or a variation on an I Love Lucy Lucy/Ethel shtick or they might weave in social themes that simmered top of mind. Change brought on by the Baby Boom was taking hold.
Norman Lear helped us through those final growing pains by holding a mirror up to America’s face. What we saw wasn’t pretty or free of wrinkles or wealthy or silly sophomoric humor. Norman Lear gave words and presence to voices that were emerging and those that were viewing their own obsolescence.
We’re looking at the TV series Maude – which planted a brilliant, tall flag on the landscape of American feminism. It aired from 1972 to 78 – 6 seasons of a unique look at relationships, social matters of the day – life’s aspirations and fears – through the eyes of a woman approaching 50.
This segment of Advanced TV Herstory revisits the relationships, themes and incredible acting and dialogue that makes Maude a pillar of TV herstory. The Maude story starts with her creator, Norman Lear and is carried by the incomparable and talented, Beatrice Arthur.
In 1971, the landmark TV hit All in the Family debuted. Norman Lear’s creation put America’s change right in the living room via the conversations that took place in Archie Bunker’s house. Archie, Edith, daughter Gloria and her husband Michael Stivick took turns wrestling with big topics: racism, freedom of speech, many topics of feminism, patriotism – it was generational. As was happening in real life, an episode often ended with no resolution, just an open ended question for the viewer to ponder.
Working to keep the show fresh, Lear tells my favorite website, Emmy TV Legends how he introduced a woman character in the second season who could give it to Archie as well as he dished it to others.
View All in the Family and Maude and there is an element of drama, delivery, timing and tight writing that just isn’t found today. The live studio audience gave it a sense of real theater as did the training of the cast members – Bea Arthur, Jean Stapleton, Carroll O’Connor – they had acting chops! And just a reminder, it seemed like a majority of the dialogue in the show was yelled, even when the plot called for them to all be laid up with the flu – which was the very reason for Maude’s stay.
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Little did anyone know at the time – anything Norman Lear touched, it seemed, turned to gold! With little fanfare, decisions flew to spin off Maude and The Jeffersons. And from Maude came Good Times, which starred the incomparable Esther Rolle as Florida Evans.
Bea Arthur recounts her adjustment to the character Maude – perhaps the first female TV character, out of sheer personality, was larger than life.
That was Arthur recounting her memories playing Maude and being part of the show to Emmy TV Legends. She was nominated five times for an Emmy for outstanding lead actress in a comedy series and took home the trophy in 1977. Ten years later, she’d be nominated four times for the same category for her role in The Golden Girls and winning in 1988.
Her recall, to Emmy TV Legends, of the selfless team work and effort put in by writers, producers and the cast is a sign of the humility that came with those longstanding accomplished performers who had found a quality home on television.
But just as Carroll O’Connor was nothing like Archie Bunker in real life, Bea Arthur wasn’t 100% Maude. Maude Findlay, with her four husbands would have been born in the mid-20s and most likely would have worked during World War II. In the show, Maude attended college and over the show’s run, we track her real estate career as well as her interest in government and politics.
Outspoken on progressive issues, Maude often found herself walking the line between suburban, white privilege and comfort and her political ideas. With a respectful live audience, great writers and an incredibly talented cast, this made for momentous TV.
So what was all this content about? More than politics, you should know. And the guest appearances…. Maude became one of those shows high profile enough to attract cameos of talented big stars of stage and film – among them: John Wayne, Eve Arden, Roscoe Lee Browne, Henry Fonda, Barbara Rush, Jill Clayburgh, Richard Dysart and Nanette Fabray.
These folks joined the supporting cast which developed in the first season and pretty loyally stuck through the entire show’s run. Bill Macy played Walter Findlay, Rue McClanahan (who went on to co-star with Bea Arthur in The Golden Girls) played Vivian, her neighbor and friend from college. Early in the show’s run, Vivian married Dr. Arthur Harmon, one of Walter’s old Army buddies. Maude had a housekeeper, which I don’t know whether most middle American sensibilities knew what to think of that.
This recurring supporting role provided as much skewer as plot – courtesy of Esther Rolle as Florida Evans and Hermione Baddely as Mrs. Naugatuck. An African American and a Brit – accomplished actresses who complimented the tone. Maude’s daughter Carol and grandson drove a few plots too.
Enjoy this riff – perfect comedic timing between guest star and TV pioneer Eve Arden, who played Maude’s Aunt Lola and the regular cast. First, the build up.
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When this aired, Arden was approaching 70, but that didn’t stop Aunt Lola from going after her nemesis Mrs. Naugatuck’s new husband, rather than staying in and playing party games.
Eve Arden is a name that may not mean much today, but in the mid-70s, hers and the many other cameos showcased emerging talent and Broadway caliber performance.
Long before her guest role on All in the Family, Bea Arthur occasionally appeared on TV shows and a few films, mainly in the 50s. In the 60s, she was a Broadway workhorse, cast as the first Yente in Fiddler on the Roof and earning a Tony Award for her portrayal of Vera Charles in Mame – these were musicals, performed before high tech amplification could boost a voice.
Hence, Bea Arthur’s voice never needed any help and thus, in four episodes across the shows 6 season run, Maude choreographed a show for charity, managed a telethon, led a fundraising efforts that include a TV musical and Tuckahoe’s televised Bicentennial celebration. Oh and in a runaway hit show with big talent, a lead occasionally Arthur got to break into song – just because she could.
Maude’s family presented a number of social challenges: Walter’s drinking rose to a level of concern in a few episodes – this was pretty serious stuff for American TV in the day – including the moment when, after a fight, Walter slapped Maude. Daughter Carol dated men older and younger than she – including one man Maude went out with in between husbands.
Maude’s grandson Philip voiced the younger half of the Baby Boom, not afraid to challenge his mother or grandmother.
Women of all ages, however, heard Maude and Vivian broach topics previously off-limits: Vivian got a facelift, which Maude initially criticized – until she went out and got one too. Maude worried about her marriage – her fifth, about her husband’s fidelity, his drinking, their sex life, his success, her success, his depression, her sense of being unfulfilled.
Maude got a hysterectomy. Maude encountered a man who attempted to rape her 30 years prior. She found her progressive principles and ideals challenged more than once, while sipping a drink from her Tuckahoe New York living room. She ran for the New York state senate and lost but in the series’ end, her political future wrapped up nicely – I won’t spoil it for you.
Few entire series from the 70s are worthy of a binge - most Maude episodes can be found on YouTube but consider buying the entire series on DVD, watching it and then passing it along to the feminists in your life. It’s a time capsule of social themes and wild 70s fashion.
Channel surfing not long ago I encountered the episode Maude Bares Her Soul, which aired in November 1975 – season 4. It’s literally a one-woman show – the premise being that Maude is seeing a psychiatrist, who we never see or hear. View it for the writing, the acting, the content, the force. Maude Bares Her Soul – season 4, episode 9.
No controversy was spared in the making of this series. Norman Lear loaded the cannon and just kept firing until America was more comfortable with the sensitive issues of the day. Due to Title IX and the ERA, the women’s movement was in full force. It wasn’t as united as it could have been and this TV show sometimes drove that point home. They may have only had 22 minutes, but those writers more often than not honed in on a complex issue and exposed it. Not necessarily with an answer, but for sure with enough fodder for both sides to hear.
That was back when America was okay with hearing the other side of an issue.
In season one, Lear and writers took chances that even through today’s lenses seem controversial – some might say impossible. Lear tells Emmy TV Legends…
In this first season, Maude is 47, part of a generation that didn’t discuss birth control, didn’t discuss menopause and had limited options for even managing their periods. The understanding even of what a late-in-life pregnancy could mean for the mother or the baby was sketchy.
Yet surely, this was a situation silently managed throughout American by women and their best friends – of all classes, colors and religions.
With all of America watching, Lear used this his soap box – with the statuesque 5 foot 9 Bea Arthur with booming voice standing atop it – to even educate women (daughters, moms and grandmas) about birth control options.
So in season one, this 2-part episode tackled a controversy that had only recently been “settled” – I just used air-quotes – by the Supreme Court. It featured a woman’s perspective. It’s Season 1,episode 9 entitled Maude’s Dilemma.
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These weren’t sophomoric laughs, they were nervous ones. Women in the audience saw women in situations that weren’t pie in the face haha, they were tinged with irony and sarcasm, where eye-rolling was okay and women could be frank. Maude deserves a place on the highest shelf of Herstory. Watch it today and realized it has aged as it should – like a rare book you’d find in a library that can’t tell you how the world is today – but was written with such rich detail of the time as to transport you back.
It’s a solid show that can’t be unraveled – the writing and acting are tight. The message, on the other hand, blows mightily or stands still, depending upon political winds. Thankfully, we have YouTube and DVDs that enable us to keep this treasure alive.
Loyal listeners, if you’ve been with Advanced TV Herstory from the beginning, you know we’d get to Maude and Bea Arthur sooner or later. Right now the political winds are at Maude’s back and fashion’s eye to the 70s, complete with long vests and long coat pant suits, make it must-see TV all over again.
Clips from this installment were found at Emmy TV Legends interviews with Lear and Arthur, as well as series episodes found on YouTube. Do you have a Maude memory or idea for a future podcast? Shoot a note to firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet us at @TVHerstory. If you’ve got a relative or friend who doesn’t understand that a podcast can be audio streamed – no download necessary – just show them how to pull up the show at Libsyn, press play and listen right from their iPad or desktop.
Your recommendations, reviews and plugs mean the world to me! Thank you and thanks for listening, each and every time.
I’m your host, Cynthia Bemis Abrams