Film & Television

Vintage TV Review: Small Screens, Glass Ceilings

The Good Wife

Putting work on hold for family is something that Alicia Florrick understood well when The Good Wife premiered in 2009. Award-winner Juliana Margulies deftly portrayed the balancing act necessary to work both in and out of the home. In her case, Alicia was forced back to work when her political husband was implicated in a sex scandal eerily reminiscent of then current events. Three years later (and heading into its final season), Scandal’s political animal Olivia Pope, brilliantly brought to life by Kerry Washington, actively chose career over marriage and family. Her calling is higher than happy wife and mother. As Washington’s most successful (if often absolutely ruthless) “fixer,” she can make — or take down — a president. Although Olivia and her team of so-called “gladiators” are fighting the good fight, there’s always a lot of grey area. A very dark grey, including theft, blackmail, torture, even coerced suicide. Olivia is an anti-hero much like Don Draper or Tony Soprano. The difference, and it’s significant, is that she’s a woman.

 

The Bold Type

A new show on Freeform stars three young — and admittedly very attractive — women pursuing careers at the magazine Scarlet. As you would expect from a network that brought us such silly fare as Pretty Little Liars, there’s lots of emphasis on fashion, sex, and social media. However, what makes The Bold Type stand out is its reinvention of women’s relationships in the workplace. There’s an almost universally acknowledged (though less universally proven) idea that women are each other’s worst enemies at work. Allegedly, we’ll do anything we have to in order to climb the ladder of success — even if it means impaling our sisters on our Louboutin stillettos on the way up. Against this pervasive (mis)perception, the three heroines are determinedly loyal. They have each other’s backs and their close relationship helps each of them. More importantly, they have a female mentor.

Editor in chief Jacquelyn Carlisle is played by The Office’s Melora Hardin. She’s a marvelous counterpoint to Meryl Streep’s malignant Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada. She encourages her young protegees, but doesn’t mother or nursemaid them. She is a tough boss; she runs a tight ship. But, she also encourages the younger women to explore their talents and develop their own voices. Success is a distinct possibility for each of them, but they’ll have to earn it.

As we learn in the very first episode, Scarlet is owned by the Steinem publishing empire. Despite the illustrious name, however, Jacquelyn answers to a board comprised almost solely of old white guys. Clearly not the magazines readers, these “suits” are skeptical when the magazine strays too far away from topics that will attract big advertisers (like cosmetics companies) in order to explore the less superficial side of contemporary women. Just as Jacquelyn encourages her young staff, she defends her readership and her responsibility to produce relevant content.

Would life at WJM have been a little easier for Mary Richards with a boss like Jacquelyn instead of Mr. Grant? Probably. But, lady bosses were few and far between in 1970. Bravo to Freeform’s The Bold Type for giving its main characters (and today’s audience) a positive role model. Portrayals of women in the media play an important role in how little girls think about their own future possibilities. There’s a saying “You can’t be it, if you can’t see it.” Let’s hope more series create strong leading ladies, across fields and at higher levels in the workplace. And let’s hope those heroines of the small screen inspire real-life shatterers of glass ceilings.

 

The vintage series mentioned here are available on DVD through Netflix, to stream on Hulu, or for rent or stream on Amazon Prime. Scandal returns to ABC Thursday, October 5th. The Bold Type is currently on Freeform (formerly ABC Family). If you have digital cable, you can catch up with episodes on demand.

If we missed any of your favorite television career women of yesterday or today, let us know in the comments.

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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!)

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