Film & Television

Vintage TV Review: Small Screens, Glass Ceilings

Murphy Brown

Ten years after Mary Richards left her newsroom, another strong female character returned to one. In 1988, when Murphy Brown first aired, career women were less of a novelty. Consequently, series star Candice Bergin became larger than life eponymous FYI anchorwoman Murphy, more colorful than Mary and not always as congenial. (Let’s face it, Murphy was irreverent, inappropriate, and often downright caustic. In one particularly sarcastic scene, she barged in on a focus group when a participant questioned what she (Murphy) wore on camera. “Where did you get your outfit?” she demanded of the startled woman. “Did you come here from clown college?”)

Murphy Brown, which ran for ten seasons, stirred controversy from the start. Murphy was a recovering alcoholic; in the pilot, she complained that her only vice left was “chewing number two pencils.” A much bigger issue was tackled in the fourth season when single Murphy decided to have a baby. Dan Quayle publicly criticized the popular character for “mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone.” In a creative fiction-meets-fact-meets-fiction twist, the next season of Murphy Brown included a storyline in which excerpts of (the real) Quayle’s speech were used and convinced (the fictional) Murphy to develop a special episode of FYI to focus on family diversity.

Although Murphy wasn’t always politically correct, the series did make bold political statements. When the character was diagnosed with breast cancer, the show was criticized for some gallows humor that was arguably anti-feminist. However, the prime time exposure for the disease resulted in a marked increase in mammograms. There’s nothing anti-feminist about that.


Ally McBeal

In 1997, another television heroine became an unlikely (and not universally liked) poster child for feminism. Ally McBeal, which starred Calista Flockhart amid a quirky ensemble, told the story of an ambitious young lawyer, who was big on dreams and short of skirts. Her skimpy courtroom attire raised eyebrows in more than one episode, while her relentless pursuit of romance made some critics wonder whether she wasn’t undoing the progress of lead female characters before her. In fact, at the end of the successful first season, Time magazine’s cover featured a line-up of portraits: Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Ally, with the headline “Is Feminism Dead?” (Taking its cue from Murphy Brown perhaps, a reference to the real-life cover appeared in a future episode of the show.)

Ally was an associate (and eventual partner) of unconventional Boston law firm Cage and Fish. In addition to her romantic and legal misadventures, which were numerous and mostly funny, the show added a mélange of oddities to pop culture in its six-year run. From the dancing baby, to the unisex bathroom, and the dismissive non-apology “Bygones.”  When the series ended in 2002, Ally had become an accidental parent (she had donated eggs to a fertility clinic to help pay for law school and one of them had grown into a very young Hayden Panettiere). Whether she was the “new face of feminism or not,” Ally left her career behind to focus on being a good mother.

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  • Deborah Harkins August 22, 2017 at 2:24 pm

    Thanks, Alex! All these shows encouraged me with their themes showing that loving your work while remaining unmarried wasn’t a dead giveaway that you were a loser. This was a startlingly new concept in the fifties and sixties. Those old shows were indeed inspiring to young women way back then. (I remember being thrilled that the writers had made Mary – ulp! – 30 And she wasn’t a wife!)