A Year's Reflection on TV Herstory
Hello Advanced TV Herstorians! Today we’re celebrating the one year anniversary of this podcast. It’s been a labor of love, no question. Here’s the deal. It’s been rewarding, eye opening and inspirational – this research, write, phrase, teach approach to talking about women in and of TV.
This anniversary segment is retrospective. Sharing a bit of what I’ve learned in producing these segments. It’s more than content, sometimes I am struck by what I don’t find, in conducting research. Also, it’s fascinating to stay within the confines of women and TV. I’ll explain how those limits have led to me certain fun finds, topics-wise.
Finally, for almost every segment, I have residual thoughts, or observations shared by listeners, that help put this year in perspective. Sending the best your way, as a matter of record, shall we say.
There are 33 installments of Advanced TV Herstory, including one called Basic TV Herstory. I wrote that to explain the podcast’s purpose and mission. After a year I’d say it’s aged well. Within that purpose and mission, I am mindful that listeners have choices. You can choose from thousands of podcasts that you find entertaining or educational. My target audience is still people who are already TV fans or fan scholars, capable of jumping into advanced references following a short introduction. So yes this podcast may be hard for some listeners to grasp. However, within each segment I also try to bring out lessons in leadership, diligence or the herstorical context of life in the 70s, 80s, 90s or today that aligns or contradicts how TV depicted it. Seriously, it’s TV. Roll with it!
While there should always be more time for research, mine is sometimes limited. Here are some clips or reporting that I didn’t find when conducting serious research without access to a major university library system, for some segments:
A full video of the 1973 Battle of the Sexes tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. I found clips that total about a minute and scores of interviews with both players in the days, weeks and years following the match. While I cringe at how sexist the commentary may have been, I really just want to watch King’s conditioning and strategic precision play out on the court. The match is a significant moment in 20th century women’s herstory and it’s not readily found. If you have a lead on how I might view it, please shoot me a note.
There is precious little to be found about the women behind MTV and the videos it played. One monolithic book, I Want My MTV by Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks, serves as a compendium of interviews, but it includes men and women across the channel’s history and phases, and of only the primary people behind the scenes. Only a few remain in the entertainment industry. The early years of MTV changed world culture and many industries. I get the sense there are a lot of stories from women performers as well as the producers and crews that could be put into a feminist context.
Finally, with regard to video interviews of Lucille Ball archived online, there’s not as much as you’d think. Amazingly, she was a very private person. What video is available, talk show or interview format preserved from the 60s and 70s mainly, really shows you how closely she stuck to her talking points. This isn’t a criticism in any way. It was a different day of talk show format – risking a “gotcha” question wasn’t worth burning a bridge with a celebrity of Lucille Ball’s stature. Her life was amazing and particularly the business side will never be fully understood. She played her cards THAT close to the vest.
If you’ve listened to a single installment of Advanced TV Herstory, you’ve come to understand that the scope is limited to women in and of TV. In order to dig out the story, it’s sometimes audio from men that provides the richest or first hand detail.
For instance, to better understand 3 special girls who took TV cartoons by storm – Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup – The Powerpuff Girls, we heard from their male creator, Craig McCracken.
And two installments to date, about the development of Cagney & Lacey, are held together with Producer Barney Rosenzweig’s audio book excerpts. His accounts are not only vivid in detail, but you get a sense that just in his reading his own writing, he’s reliving the whole labor with adrenaline racing. His book provides first-hand perspective not readily available from Barbara Corday or Barbara Avedon, who along with Rosenzweig helped build the show.
And then there are moments when women really are making history – herstory. When I began this podcast, I was shocked to find the Battle of the Sexes billed as a “spectacle.” But it’s an appropriate description. And later, I realized that Anita Hill’s statement and testimony before the United States Senate’s Judiciary Committee was also called a “spectacle” by many who saw it, covered it or have written about it since.
These two segments meant a lot to me because we have so many TV screen images burned in our memories that only depict men. Men in war, the first men on the moon, presidents being sworn into office, men performing great feats in all sports – every day of the year.
So when Billie Jean King and Anita Hill flash on the screen for any reason, women take notice. Those were big, national, shared moments. They deserve more attention than a 60 minute podcast, but I’m honored so many have chosen to hear me tell the stories.
If you listened to the installment about Diana Ross’ concert in Central Park, you heard my professional awe. As a long time public relations professional, this concert, available on DVD and filmed because it was broadcast on Showtime when the subscription channel was like two minutes old, is perhaps the most riveting hour of video I watched all year. Diana Ross was at the height of her career, she demonstrated show-personship and leadership during a horrific rain storm.
You’re hard pressed to find too many other instances of Diana Ross being on TV. Oh sure, as a guest or cameo, but this concert placed her in the Advanced TV Herstory Hall of Fame.
Similarly, Judy Garland is mostly remembered for her film work and singing. However, for about a year, she ambitiously cranked out a top notch variety show on CBS that included a Christmas special. It was fascinating to watch many years ago, when it was first re-aired on cable. I loved it so much that the off script podcast segment seemed like the best tribute to Judy, her family and her career.
Two more installments focused on women who weren’t necessarily on TV much. In February, we looked at women musical acts who’ve played the Super Bowl Halftime Show. The history of the halftime show production and reviewing which female groups or singers who’ve been included – Wow! No one may remember an aging Roger Daltry and The Who lipsynched their songs at halftime, Everyone DOES remember Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction, which is a part of TV Herstory. As is the very essence of Beyonce’s two performances, which wouldn’t have happened if Diana Ross hadn’t arrived at her halftime performance in a helicopter and kept singing her set during her costume changes.
The other women we don’t associate much with TV are the two first ladies who spoke their minds. Yes there’s audio of Eleanor Roosevelt available online– her speeches and prepared comments going all the way back to radio. However, her unique speech pattern sends shivers up your spine when she’s on the Frank Sinatra show – you can tell she’s reading off cue cards, but you just get the sense of her presence and her sincere goodness. And then there’s Betty Ford. I never thought when I started this podcast that I’d have to explain the timeline of Watergate and the political downfalls of Vice President Spiro Agnew and President Richard Nixon, to set the scene for audio of one unfiltered, feisty first lady, Betty Ford. Her interviews, while not totaling too many minutes, was almost always controversial – in favor of women, feminism and every family of the 70s. I wouldn’t have missed producing that installment for anything.
One last woman whose brief TV career we spotlighted – Angela Bassett –is much more well known for her film work. Incredible performances that span 30 years and an Oscar nomination. She’s Angela Bassett! But seriously, Bassett’s interest in headlining the 15th and final season of E.R. saved that show from a set of discharge papers would have instructed them to drink more water and here, take this pepto bismol as directed. At the conclusion of the 14th season, how much further did the writers and producers think they could wind the plot? Fortunately for them, Bassett’s sophistication and intensity returned the show to the E.R. as the setting for story arcs and introduced a character who challenged assumptions of colleagues and patients alike. Good for E.R., good for us. Good for Bassett.
So yeah, every once in a while TV treats us to a performance – real life or fully staged and produced – by women just passing through. Are we looking to focus on Jessica Lange’s work in American Horror Story? Possibly? Send me your list… we’ll compare notes.
Listeners do write and it’s been fun corresponding as fans, steeped in understanding why we like the shows – and their strong female characters or performers – that we do.
Early in this first year, I showcased the performances of Veronica Hamel and Betty Thomas in Hill Street Blues. What prompted me? A note from a listener who revealed just how much she and her women classmates in law school looked forward to tuning in each week to see these two on the job as Public Defender Joyce Davenport and Officer Lucy Bates. It’s not a female-centric show by any stretch, but even watching today you see the quality both actresses – and Barbara Bosson as Faye – bring to this huge ensemble cast. We just don’t talk about it nearly enough.
Regular listeners may be following my efforts to plow through the dozen or so TV series that feature a 4-female character formula. Or at least the TV series that lasted a season or longer. As a result of producing my salutes to Sisters – starring Swoozie Kurtz, Sela Ward, Patricia Kalember and Julianne Phillips, and Desperate Housewives – I was contacted by an author and scholar who wanted to talk about the literary theory behind the four female construct.
What resulted from that first email was an interview that served two podcast segments, the first going in depth on Female Foursomes and how fans of women’s shows connect to discuss plots, characters and the industry. Dr. Wendy Burns-Ardolino of Grand Valley State University in Michigan and I then took that framework and applied it to Living Single, a show that featured four African American single women living in Brooklyn. Well-written popular show – largely forgotten today and not fully available on DVD.
During the recorded interview, we discussed Wendy’s book that also researched fan response to the many social issues that women-led shows examine. That led me to a segment on Designing Women – the one that dealt with Delta Burke’s weight gain. It was a controversial time in the popular series’ run. Burke’s personal troubles were tabloid fodder and producer/writer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason leveraged the opportunity into a larger statement on body shaming, beauty and acceptance. Download statistics indicate that segment is a listener favorite.
The list of female-foursome shows that await Advanced TV Herstory’s critical eye is still long. Facts of Life, The Golden Girls, Hot in Cleveland, Sex and the City to name a few. We’re also scheming to roll two BBC mid-century period series into the mix: Call the Midwife and The Bletchley Circle.
So much TV so little time! If you’ve got an angle to aid in my focus, contact me!
One such email, written by a listener in Ottawa, contained a list of shows she’s long considered quality favorites. In our email exchanges, we discussed performances, story arcs about relationships – like in Roseanne – what’s the more interesting relationship triangle? Roseanne, her sister and their mother? Or Roseanne and her two daughters? TV’s inventory of mother/daughter relationships is sketchy at best and this show gave us a cast of women strong enough to view them, across two generations.
As a viewer who maybe has viewed half of all the episodes that ran from 1988 to 1997, I know this is a series that deserves a deep and thoughtful approach. If you’re a Roseanne fan, guide me a bit with your impressions of strong episodes or actually game-changing episodes. After all, Roseanne herself is known as a disruptive agent to the status quo. This show had more quality arcs and branches than just the mother/daughter lines. But ya gotta start somewhere, ya know?
It was from this exchange, however, that I embarked on re-watching E.R.’s early seasons. The show has aged fairly well, but from a feminist perspective, the roles of women were marginalized both in terms of number of lines and roles in each story arc. It had that whole Hill Street Blues de ja vu. Great ensemble cast. Sure I remember the women roles. Wow, they really didn’t appear on screen for all that long… did they? Stringfield’s interviews over the years really show her dissatisfaction with this and other roles, though she sort of cautiously frames her experience.
It’s been fun to examine genres a bit. We had the lady private investigator shows of the 70s, which really did serve as a time capsule of the women’s movement. The Nancy Drew Mysteries, Mrs. Columbo and Charlie’s Angels – their dialogue alone reminds us how far we’ve come and why it’s important to have women writers, women directors and women show runners.
It was pretty common, in all three of those series, for a woman character to find herself in a situation where she was in danger of physical harm at the hands of a bully man. The plot weren’t very sophisticated and the dialogue usually involved intimidation and condescension. Bad toupees, sansabelt pants. It wasn’t great TV but it didn’t matter. A lead character played by a women was on prime time. Women watched.
By the 80s, the prime time soap opera was in full swing. I find it quite curious that both Dallas and Falcon Crest landed big name older women to play matriarchal characters. While it makes sense – your primary audience is women accustomed to serial dramas, why not land the big fish? – Barbara Bel Geddes and Jane Wyman delivered on credibility, delivered on talent and showed us that quality dramatic parts for women over 60 can and should be written. Think about what you see on TV today. How many women over 60 in dramatic roles…?
Granted, both shows featured large ensemble casts, but Bel Geddes and Wyman discussed principles like risk taking, truth, loyalty and honor. As the more aggressive Angela Channing, Wyman often didn’t put much stock in those traits. And Barbara Bel Geddes, sporting no Texas accent whatsoever, looks and acts like a she’s pulled straight from The Preppy Handbook. They both wielded power, which for younger viewers was a novelty not often seen in the women of our lives back then.
With regard to biographical segments, I just have to say I am pretty selective about who gets profiled. My criteria: the woman profiled – like Betty White, Debbie Allen from only her early years – wow, (what a prolific career!) and Patty Duke each have filmographies and accomplishments that demonstrate longevity as well as talent.
The list of women I could profile next is long, but what’s also necessary is a stream of writings or video that help me build the segment. In the case of these three women, I’ve curated literally decades worth of profiling segments or talk show interviews to bring you their most salient thoughts.
Upon publishing each, I admit I was proud of being able to shine today’s spotlight on them and bring elements of their past to my listeners. They haven’t been celebrated nearly enough. My installment on Patty Duke – if you listened to the entire hour I shared my plan to do a second segment that focused on her appearances on TV and throughout the country educating and advocating on mental health issues. She was active on Twitter and I’d ponder how to approach her to ask a few questions that were relevant enough and novel enough that she’d agree to answer them for podcast audio.
Sadly, we lost Patty Duke all too soon, though it’s reassuring to know it was through natural causes and not a factor of her mental health.
Speaking of Twitter, as a result of my having posted the Mother’s Day segment featuring Murphy Brown giving birth, I ended up having a few quick exchanges with Faith Ford. The seed may be laid for an interview where she discusses where Corky Sherwood might be today. And that would tie in nicely with an interview with Allison Klein, author of the book What Would Murphy Brown Do?
So much TV, so little time!
Scores of smart woman who love their TV have conducted their own research. They’ve written books and produced documentaries. Learning more about them and their work legitimizes all of us in our own interest in TV. It’s okay to think about this stuff! Really! Consider the endless fawning and statistics reciting that goes on every day about men in sports. TV and TV shows and TV characters are no less real. It’s all entertainment.
Jennifer Keishin Armstrong wrote a great book, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted which formed the basis of three podcast installments. In going behind the scenes of the production of this show, Armstrong detailed the significance of women writers – and how The Mary Tyler Moore Show really was the first to recognize that the dialogue and plot twists of women characters are richer when women are at the creative table.
The remaining segments I haven’t discussed – My So-Called Life, Sports Night and The Closer – were important series to feature in this first year. My So-Called Life was Quality Television at its best, coming from established show runners and written mostly by a woman, Winnie Holzman. One season long, this is essential viewing for mothers of teens and pre-teens, as the entire first season is a subtle exploration into the mother daughter relationship. Lots of plaid, no cell phones and enough angst felt by mothers and daughters alike to be real.
When watching Sports Night and The Closer for the purposes of the podcast, the threads I found worth exploring come out of my professional interest in leadership development. It makes sense, these two shows spend focus on the workplace – one a sitcom, the other a police drama. They are shows that are just obscure enough that you might have missed them when they aired, but both are out on DVD. Bottom line: workplace relationships are something women think about a lot.
So in Sports Night, the subtle thread of mentoring and teaching what you know to the younger person coming up is a frequent theme. No question. And it fits right into a show about the competitive nature of sports and competitive TV industry. Within that framework, our main characters explore all sorts of values-based issues and three of those characters – Isaac, Dana and Natalie – represent different rungs of the career ladder – with no guarantees for the future.
To be honest, when The Closer first aired on TNT, it seemed too intense for me. I had too much going on to pick up a new show and I am kind of glad I saved it for DVD bingeing. From the vantage point of studying leadership – a woman leader in a male dominated industry and organization like law enforcement it’s manna! – a good focused binge brings that attention to detail. The character of Brenda Leigh Johnson is surprisingly complex. She leads men and has high points and low points in her professional and personal life, worth reviewing. This show is a gift in many ways, not the least of which is providing us a look into how – in the shows final few seasons - two Alpha Women compete and collaborate. Kyra Sedgwick and Mary McDonnell are a modern day Cagney & Lacey. And in today’s polarized uncertain world, these women model outstandingly the notion that sparring and competition builds strength and skills – makes for a smarter team.
Listeners, I can’t wait to embark on Year Two of Advanced TV Herstory. No idea where the effort will take us, but I do know that stories need to be told and re-told. Representation of women in the media – on the TV screen and doing all the important work behind the scenes to produce quality productions – is amazingly low. In the context of 50 years of TV, it’s much lower than it should be.
This podcast will continue to focus on where we, as women, have been, who we’ve watched and cheered on, and how women make a difference at every position.
Thanks for listening. Follow the podcast on Twitter at TVHerstory. Send an email with feedback – your favorite installment or ideas of books, people, series, moments in herstory – to advancedtvherstory at gmail dot com. Recommend this podcast to your family and friends. I consider that a high compliment. So please, set your mother, grandmother, neighbor lady or aunt up on her tablet computer and show her how to find the Libsyn or iTunes page and press play.
Our herstory is generational and I find it endlessly fascinating. I’m your host, Cynthia Bemis Abrams.