These 60s and 70s TV show heroines ruffled the feathers of mainstream society and helped change our culture’s perception of unmarried women.
Before Carrie Bradshaw (1998), there was Mary Richards (1970). Both TV characters were single women journalists, though on very different ends of the chastity scale. And before New Girl (2011) there was That Girl (1966). Both programs featured ingénues navigating the rocky landscape of urban single life — although Marlo Thomas’ character remained virginal throughout, and Golden Globe nominee Zooey Deschanel’s character has enjoyed kinky frolics, as befitting her era.
But one thing is certain: Shows like Sex and the City and New Girl owe a huge debt to those single-female-centric shows of the ’60s and ’70s. Unlike shows of today, which seemingly just play to pop cultural norms, shows like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, That Girl, Police Woman and even Wonder Woman were groundbreaking and helped alter our culture’s perception of unmarried women. So argues Katherine Lehman in her new book, Those Girls: Single Women in Sixties and Seventies Popular Culture.
In her research, Lehman, an assistant professor of communications at Albright College, discovered that while the earlier shows were wildly popular, they also ruffled the feathers of many who could only accept depictions of single women if they were pining for marriage. Lehman also places shows like Charlie’s Angels against the backdrop of what was going on when the show debuted in 1977 — the raging debate over the Equal Rights Amendment.
I caught up with Lehman to ask her a few questions about her book — an enjoyable, if slightly academic, read.
Jane Ganahl: Why were the ’60s and ’70s the years when roles like that of Mary Richards began to proliferate?
Katherine Lehman: There were multiple reasons. New job opportunities for women and the growth of a national “singles scene” allowed many young women to delay marriage and pursue employment and sexual freedoms in the city. The feminist movement was beginning to change women’s hopes for their own lives and their expectations of popular media. So single working characters allowed producers and networks to answer feminist critiques of media and ensure that television still had relevance to younger audiences. It was a commercial move as much as an ideological one.
JG: Were there negative reactions to these portrayals?
KL: Yes, often critics and viewers felt that characters like Mary weren’t liberated enough — that they were too acquiescent or cautious about their sexuality, or that their living situations weren’t relatable.
JG: What were the messages contained in shows like Wonder Woman and Police Woman about what women were capable of doing?
KL: I read these series as engaging directly with conversations Americans were having about sexuality in the workplace, namely the Equal Rights Amendment and sexual harassment laws. Here were women with strength and power in roles that had usually been reserved for men. Yet they were also highly sexualized and feminine in their interactions with men. So it was a carefully crafted equality that reassured audiences and relied more on women’s individual talents than equal opportunity laws.
JG: When single women in the movies went perhaps too far in their pursuit of sexual fun, what was sometimes the result, and what was the intrinsic message?
KL: There was a disturbing pattern of women being assaulted or killed — this was the moralistic plotline in films ranging from Where the Boys Are (1960) to Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977). Women’s worth hinged on their chastity in early 1960s media, and even as social mores changed, there were definite warnings against women being too loose with their affections.
JG: You argue pretty convincingly that the single woman in popular culture was instrumental in helping our culture negotiate the sweeping changes we were experiencing in gender roles and sexual freedoms. Could that era be called revolutionary in that regard?
KL: It certainly was revolutionary in changing how Americans thought about women’s roles in the family and in society. We owe our current freedoms to the feminist movement, and to generations of adventuresome women who challenged the limits on their work, wages and romantic lives.
JG: Did these shows also help change how we viewed racial equality?
KL: Definitely. Characters such as Christie Love, in a 1974-1975 action series, showed black women in leading roles, which was rare to see before that time. We did see more minorities in TV and film, but there was such an emphasis on representing the African-American family (as in shows like Good Times) that few featured single women on their own.
JG: Why did shows like Mary Tyler Moore shy away from the issue of sex? When Mary revealed that she was on The Pill, it was like the shot heard ’round the world.
KL: A sexual single woman was historically something of a threat, and Mary was designed to appeal to a broad audience. So the writers had to negotiate network censorship standards as well as create a character who would not alienate viewers. The series became more daring in its third season, after magazines like TV Guide criticized Mary for being stuck in the 1950s — and after shows like All in the Family paved the way for TV to become more daring.
JG: Shows like That Girl made it clear that the heroine’s goal in life was to get married. But as the years went on, is it fair to say that marriage became a less important goal for other TV characters than career achievement?
KL: Marriage still remained an eventual goal for women like Mary, but it wasn’t referenced as frequently as in That Girl. The 1970s action series, by definition, focused on women’s competence on the job and love for their work.
JG: Your book reminded me that Marlo Thomas refused to let a wedding be the final episode for That Girl, choosing instead to end it with Donald and her going to a feminist meeting. How was she able to negotiate that counter-cultural ending?
KL: Marlo had a lot of creative control behind the scenes, and as I understand, fought network and advertiser pressure to end the series with a televised wedding. She was also becoming more visibly associated with feminism — although it must be noted that she and Donald never actually make it to the meeting!
JG: How do shows like Mad Men and Sex and the City pick up where these early shows left off?
KL: Sex and the City inverts the traditional formula, celebrating rather than punishing women for their sexual proclivities, and featuring singles in their 30s and 40s. But we still see single women expressing fears that they’ve missed their chance at marriage or are too jaded to be suitable wives. Also, the series ended conventionally with all four women paired off. Mad Men is great for showing the ugly side of workplace culture in the 1960s and humanizing the women who were often one-dimensional in 1960s film. We can admire the women’s talent and style, but we also recognize the sexism that single women endured.