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When Mary Richards ("The Mary Tyler Moore Show") joyfully tossed her blue-striped beret into the air at the prospect of an exciting new life in the big city, little did she know that she was actually mounting a direct attack on the sexual double standard of 1970.
Today, viewers take Carrie Bradshaw of "Sex and the City" and other single television heroines for granted. But television series of the '60s and '70s featuring single girls leaving home to pursue careers, date, and even have sex before marriage were presenting a new way for women to behave. More than just fun to watch, these shows were reflecting, and helping to break ground for, the sweeping changes taking place both in American media and in American society.
Katherine Lehman, Ph.D., assistant professor of communications, recently broke ground of her own with her book Those Girls: Single Women in Sixties and Seventies Popular Culture (University Press of Kansas, 2011), the first in-depth academic study of the single woman in film and television of that time period.
Popular television shows like "That Girl," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," and even "Wonder Woman," Lehman says, were often an affront to the double standard, representing women in media in new ways and helping viewers "negotiate the sweeping changes in gender roles and sexual mores."
After World War II, women who had taken on men's jobs during the war began to realize they had more options than marriage and motherhood, although marriage and a family were still the expectation. But by the mid-1960s, the Civil Rights Act and the creation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission were beginning to change the playing field for women.
Lehman's book explores the creation and impact of television shows and films from "That Girl" toLooking for Mr. Goodbar and Valley of the Dolls. Along the way she looks at "Charlie's Angels," Angie Dickinson's tough but feminine "Police Woman," and the challenges of race and gender in shows like"Get Christie Love" with Teresa Graves.
Lehman's interest in the topic began with her dissertation research for her doctorate in American studies at the University of New Mexico. She found the young, never-married career woman in popular culture was a controversial character, even for networks that gradually realized the profitability of blockbuster shows. One of the most surprising aspects of her research was "the amount of animosity and fear of single women…the fear of female sexuality, fear of female ambition."
Her research draws from original scripts for TV shows and films, revealing how often story lines and scenes were radically changed during production and brought more in line with cultural norms. For example, in the original concept for "That Girl," Marlo Thomas' character, Ann Marie, lives in a boarding house with other single women. The produced show has her living alone. "I think it's a way of making it more about an individual character rather than a movement of women," Lehman says. "I think if you have an independent woman who doesn't necessarily need a man or marriage for fulfillment or for income, that was seen as upsetting the social order…"
Lehman adds, "If you have a character that breaks from the norm and is radically different from others, that can kind of create more of a lasting impact, which explains why people remember these shows decades later or have an attachment to them."
The impact of these shows on media and social change was significant, Lehman says."One show can lay the ground work for future series. So Marlo Thomas lays the foundation for the more daring Mary Tyler Moore, who inspired spinoff series, and 'Wonder Woman' shows that a female superhero can head an hour-long action series in prime time."
But media depiction of the single woman was not without its darker side. One of the themes Lehman notes is Pursue your dreams and you'll be miserable. As women found role models other than the"quintessentially pure and top-grossing" Doris Day and began to own their sexuality, life was shown as correspondingly more dangerous. Singles bars were portrayed as empty wastelands, and the women who frequented them were seen as sexually aggressive, desperate and a threat to the traditional gender balance—and punished accordingly. The book's final chapter focuses on the classic film Looking for Mr. Goodbar, in which a career bar hopper meets a violent death. "Goodbar's shocking ending sparked national dialogue about changing sexual roles and the risks inherent in casual sex," Lehman says. Despite the bleakness of such a narrative, Lehman admits Diane Keaton's character in Goodbar is one of her favorites, along with Jeannie Berlin in Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York.
Lehman recognizes that not everyone understands the value of studying television, but she considers examining popular culture through a critical lens as providing "insight into American history, so you can get a sense of collective visions of gender and family and workplace issues."
Her current research considers the revival of the '60s and '70s on contemporary television in series like "Mad Men" and "Pan
She says the depiction of the '60s and '70s in these current popular television series is "kind of shaky.
"Are they really representing not only the excitement of that time period but also the points of discrimination, frustration? Is it a balanced perspective?" she asks. "'Mad Men' does a much better job of that," Lehman says. "You see it repeatedly in 'Pan Am,' a pilot or passenger makes a harassing gesture and the women defend themselves and it's all taken care of with humor. It was not funny then. Not funny now."
Lehman recently taught an Interim course in television and identity, giving students a historical and critical look at how television has interacted with movements like civil rights, feminism and the American family, and how animated series like"The Simpsons" "have shaken things up."
Lehman's media-savvy students do not accept everything they see in media as reality, and view it on some level as fantasy. But they often ask why they have to take popular media so seriously, and why they can't just enjoy it.
Her job, she says, is to help them understand the extent to which media shapes values, especially if it is representing groups we are not familiar with. "Communications researchers discovered a trend they called the '"Will and Grace" effect' [after the popular television series "Will and Grace"], where people were more likely to support same-sex marriage if they knew someone in their lives who was gay, and that television characters could serve in proxy for that. It's hard to say what's causation, what's correlation, but there's some evidence that seeing diversity on television makes a difference in how people think politically or how they act in the world."
We have come a long way in terms of having more working women populating television, Lehman says, and "certainly on shows like 'Glee' that openly address gay and lesbian issues and some really hot-button issues for teenagers that you wouldn't have seen on television a couple of decades ago."
Mary Richards tossed her hat, Carrie Bradshaw hoarded shoes, and the single girl remains a central feature in television and film. But when new series like "Two Broke Girls" and "The New Girl" continue to rely on tired clichés and stereotypes, Lehman wonders how much things have changed. "While modern heroines may display higher career aspirations and sexual drives than their historical counterparts," Lehman writes, "they still often resist aligning with feminism, strategically use their sexuality as a means to power and express deep ambivalence about remaining single.
"Modern media and viewers, it seems, are still struggling to make sense of the single girl."
Lehman's other publications include an article on the working women in "Mad Men," a textbook chapter on
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