Did you catch America in Primtime on PBS? In four parts, the series examines iconic moments and movements in television over the years. It was well-executed, featuring plenty of clips and extensive interviews with people who were and are on the front lines of entertainment on the small screen.
The first episode is “Independent Women,” which looks at how women’s roles on television have reflected and sometimes even forecasted changes in society.
Watching it got me thinking about my own television heroines. Whom have I admired and enjoyed watching and why?
Here’s the list, more or less in chronological order:
- Lucy Ricardo. Watching I Love Lucy reruns as a child, it didn’t occur to me that Lucy was anything but a funny, headstrong woman with a clueless husband who thought he wore the pants in the family. It was only later that I appreciated how unusual a television and real life heroine she was for her time: Married to a man of another ethnicity and nationality, Lucille Ball was an equal partner in her production company, playing a character who made being herself (and laughing at herself) seem natural. Genius.
- Wonder Woman. Linda Carter portrayed Diana Prince as smart, strong and beautiful. For me the tools of the superheroine’s trade seemed absolutely feminine and perfectly plausible: a magic belt giving her strength, bullet-stopping bracelets, a tiara she good wield as a weapon and a magic lasso that could force anyone to tell the truth. I can’t recall a single episode, but I remember this program has my first experience of must-see TV; a magical hour that I hated to miss.
- Louise Jefferson. What a woman! Isabel Sanford’s take on a wife and mother reminds us that through the years, women have found ways to run their households and keep their families on track in spite of spouses who are legends in their own minds–and only their own minds. Weezy moved on up with George and never missed a beat in her new life, showing class and grit and the patience of Job. I always appreciated, too, her relationship with housekeeper Florence (Marla Gibbs). The employer and employee relationship gave Florence her dignity and showed Louise’s innate sense of egalitarianism. I loved The Jeffersons, too, because of the Willis family: a black woman married to a white man, raising a biracial daughter. As with I Love Lucy, this show was a fairly bold production that was in step with and sometimes ahead of the times.
- The women of The Cosby Show. What a revelation! A cast of black females of a range of ages, led by a mother who was strict, but loving and fair. I identified most closely with the quirky Denise Huxtable. Not only was actress Lisa Bonet biracial in real life (like me), Denise seemed to have the real angst and issues of teenage girls on the verge of adulthood. In a way, the comic stylings of Bill Cosby seemed like an excuse to have the women of the show strut their stuff.
- Elaine Benes of Seinfeld was a direct television descendent of Lucy Ricardo, Mary Richards and Rhoda. Julia Louis-Dreyfus portrayed her as a truly independent woman: her own apartment; cool jobs (book editor, J. Peterman catalog writer) followed by an awful one (working for Mr. Pitt); a series of unsuitable boyfriends; smart retorts that put her trio of male buddies in their places every time; and strong feelings about which lovers might be Sponge-worthy. Perhaps I am biased, but (as in The Cosby Show) as I watch reruns of Seinfeld today, it appears that it’s Elaine’s world and the boys are just living in it.
- Lt. Anita Van Buren. From the moment S. Epatha Merkerson joined Law & Order in 1993, we saw Van Buran outlast a slew of detectives at New York’s 27th Precinct and go head to head with district attorneys over her principles and in defense of her squad. She fought her own demons; remember when she shot a boy who was trying to mug her? One of the great things about Law & Order is that it showed us the hearts of the lead characters in glimpses and snippets of pithy dialogue. Van Buren’s character development was no different: as a mother and wife she could relate and empathize with victims, perps and the people who loved them. She went through a divorce, battled cancer (and turned to marijuana to help her deal with chemo-induced nausea) , and found a good man.
- Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson of The Closer. She had me at the first bite of chocolate, pulled surreptitiously from the candy drawer in her office. Kyra Sedgwick’s portrayal of a tough-as-teflon Southern Belle who takes a job running the Priority Homicide Division of the Los Angeles Police Department is simply riveting. The Monday night TNT program is one of the few examples of must-see TV in my life today. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed watching Brenda Leigh fight to win the respect and affection of her squad; unexpectedly find love with a recovering alcoholic; and solve case after case. She has a way of reading people and understanding the dark and light spaces in them; the viewer knows this because it’s all over Sedgwick’s face in the interview room. “Thank you. Thank you so much.” The storyline involving another strong woman within the LAPD, Captain Sharon Raydor (Mary McDonnell), has been a joy to wtch: two strong women come to terms with each other as they assert themselves in a man’s world.
- Liz Lemon. These days you can find back to back reruns of 30 Rock on several channels–and thank goodness! For the first few seasons of this show I worked at night, so I missed out on the comic genius of Tina Fey as the producer of sketch comedy show. Now, I am almost completely caught up–just in time for the new season! As a former television news producer I can relate to the tension that women in behind the scenes jobs feel: You are not the “face,” but you have to be the brains and the conscience of your production; getting all of the blame and none of the credit. There’s a good deal of psychology involved; motivating, consoling, listening, advising, and subsuming one’s own feelings for the greater good.
Looking at this list I see a common theme. Do you, dear reader? Whether in situation comedy or drama, I like heroines who are making their way–sometimes fearful and sometimes fearless–but ultimately fabulous.