Beyond 'Mad Men's' Joan: How TV Has Tackled Taboo Female Topics

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Going Primetime Chuck Lorre cleaned up with the regular-family sitcom Roseanne from 1990-92.

Divorce, abortion, single motherhood: Shows from Mary Tyler Moore to Murphy Brown changed the conversation.

The 1970s were a watershed moment for American women. Congress passed Title IX, a law that forbade schools receiving federal money from discriminating based on sex. The Supreme Court legalized abortion.  And the Equal Rights Amendment, courting ratification by the states,still had a hope in hell.

Not only did TV prepare viewers for these milestones, some shows paved the way — beaming an alternative to June Cleaver’s chirpy self-abnegation into households still wedded to the Cleaver model.  This is not to undercut the real-life accomplishment of feminists Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem or Bella Abzug. But to suggest that Mary Richards, Mary Tyler Moore’s reluctant TV icon of female independence, belongs among these groundbreakers — along with other important TV characters, such as Edith Bunker, and her cousin Maude. 

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When creators James L. Brooks and Alan Burns first conceived The Mary Tyler Moore Show, they intended Mary to be divorced — but soon ditched this plan, fearing audiences would think Mary had split from that nice Rob Petrie, Moore’s husband on the Dick Van Dyke Show. Instead of being jilted, Mary, brought up to view “doctor’s wife” as an enviable profession, actively dumps her callous physician beau and stumbles into a career. (Despite her best efforts, he is such a jerk she cannot pretend he isn’t.)

“Take care of yourself,” he says, as he walks indifferently out of her life.

And Mary, to her own amazement, haltingly replies: “I think I just did.”

Edith Bunker, the scatterbrained wife of notorious bigot Archie Bunker, also drove home feminist points in Norman Lear’s button-pushing comedy, All In the Family. In an unforgettable episode set on her 50th birthday, Edith survives an attempted rape. The terrifying encounter illustrates the thesis of Susan Brownmiller’s controversial 1975 bestseller, Against Our Will. Rape, Brownmiller contends, is not a crime inspired by sexual arousal, the destiny of mini-skirted co-eds who “ask for it.” Rather, it  “is a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.” Edith, in her frowzy housedress, is no temptress. Her attacker is a handsome young man who could easily score in a singles’ bar. But he doesn’t want to; he is aroused only by instilling fear.

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Like All in the Family, Lear’s Maude honed in on controversy. In 1972, after New York State had legalized abortion, Lear exposed one woman’s soul-searching on the subject. At age 47, Maude, a happily married with grown children, accidentally becomes pregnant — and chooses not to have the baby. With the perspective of 40 years, the episode remains poignant, except for one false note — an expectation of ongoing social progress that has far from come to pass. “When you were young, abortion was a dirty word,” Maude’s daughter reassures her.  “It’s not anymore!”

Before the 70s, women were shamed into muteness on the subject of menopause. In 1972, however, Edith Bunker and her daughter, Gloria broke the silence — with a hilarious birds-and-and-bees lecture in which Gloria details the tumultuous “manifestations” that her mother should expect.

Wide-eyed, Edith blurts, “My aunt Elizabeth went through this and she didn’t get ‘manifestations.’ She got a moustache.”

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Nor did defiant women pipe down in the 80s and 90s. During the 1991-92 season, Murphy Brown, a TV journalist portrayed by Candice Bergen, bore a child outside of marriage. This move so outraged then U.S. Vice President Dan Quayle (best remembered for his inability to spell “potato”) that he tongue-lashed Brown by name in an infamous 1992 speech, blaming the Los Angeles riots on a decay in moral values — and linking that decay to pop culture figures like her. Roseanne Barr also worked to enrage the family-values crowd. Her show featured frequent gay story lines, including one in 1994 that was set in a lesbian bar and involved her kissing actress Mariel Hemingway. More significantly, Rosanne exposed economic injustice, championing what Barbara Ehrenreich has termed “the hopeless underclass of the female sex: polyester-clad overweight occupants of the slow track.” By 1997, lesbian characters were not exceptional on TV. But Ellen DeGeneres made history that year when both her TV character — and she herself — came out. There most likely would not be a New Normal this fall had Ellen not shattered the old one.
Where prime-time dramas win prestigious writing prizes, daytime serials tend to win hearts and minds.  Viewers perceive the ongoing characters as family. From its debut in 1970, for instance, ABC’s All My Children addressed nearly every divisive social issue at the height of its storm. In 1973, on the heels of Roe v. Wade, Erica Kane, played by Susan Lucci, underwent the first legal abortion on daytime TV.  Positioned as a bad girl who ended her pregnancy for selfish reasons, Erica eventually got her comeuppance. In 2005, her abortion came back — literally — to haunt her. The doctor who had allegedly performed the procedure actually implanted Erica’s fetus into his own infertile wife. The former fetus, now grown up and bearing the doctor’s surname, became a regular on the show.

By the 1980s, however, Erica had become less a villainess and more a pillar with whom viewers could identify — Lucci herself even voted Republican. Ellen’s 1997 announcement drew attention to the predicament of closeted gay people. But the coming out in 2000 of Bianca, Erica’s fictional daughter, may have garnered more real sympathy for their situation — as well as that of parents who strive to love their children as they are. Bianca is bullied; a mean girl calls her “Lesbianca.” But love and tolerance prevail; and Erica is a proud mother-in-law at her daughter’s gay wedding in 2009. 

Although it occurs in the 1960s, Joan’s recent choice on Mad Men — to trade one night of sex for a lifetime of financial security — reflects the direction of academic feminist thought in the 1990s. Far from denigrating prostitutes, third-wave feminists called them “sex-workers” who expose the covert sex-for-money transactions of heterosexual marriage.

Betty Friedan’s 1963 classic, The Feminine Mystique, which sparked the 1970s feminist movement, is, at its core, a critique of the immorality of advertising. Friedan describes “the problem that has no name,” a chronic unhappiness and lack of self-worth among educated women who are devalued by a system that ignores female intelligence. Worse, Friedan discovers, market-researchers had confirmed the existence of this problem, and rather than solving it, they used it to manipulate women into buying products. 

I’d like to see Mad Men address Friedan’s indictment directly rather than obliquely. Stop dancing around the edges — exploring the manipulation of male desire to peddle cars. Show us how misery is exploited to enrich manufacturers. Far more than an individual character making an isolated step, that would be a real breakthrough for women.

M.G. Lord is the author of  The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice.