History of Women’s Rights in Visual Media: Televison

In order to examine the connection between women’s rights and television, as well as the social commentary of the time, we must look at the prominent females featured on TV at the beginning of its heyday. How did television appeal to the coming-of-age social movement that attempted to give a voice to women, who have been oppressed, silenced, and docile since the beginning of time? The controversial, conversational, and legendary appearance of stronger female characters on the “tube” was a way to promote women’s rights without being downright explicit about it. In a time where the common idea of women was the sweetheart, the housewife, and the girl next door, actresses had to get creative with their portrayal of out of the box women. One of the most popular and well-known actresses who punched out of this “box” was the revolutionarily sexy and forward-thinking Mary Tyler Moore.

Moore on the set of her TV show.

Different than many other housewives on television, Moore was the only one with an undeniable flair for the dramatic and hard-to-overlook sex appeal. In fact, in the very first episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show, she staked her ground with the famous line, “I am a woman.” Moore delivered this seductive sentence while promenading into the bedroom, and we can all imagine what happened next (Smith). Although Mary Tyler Moore had already won herself a housewife role, she differentiated her character from the likes of Lucille Ball and Donna Douglas, two blonde women who were the picture of “oops!” innocence and femininity. Moore was a seductress and a housewife, and perhaps the first woman on national television that proved the fact that moms can be sexy.

The Shift from Nuclear Family to Powerful Woman

At the beginning of a new decade, though, the nuclear family trope just did not make it, and Moore found herself wanting to be a part of something more. With The Dick Van Dyke Show under her belt, Moore soon moved on to her own program, titled The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which aired in 1970. Already, there is a huge step forward, as evident in the transition from being merely a feature on a man’s self-titled show to heading her very own. Even more fascinating, she starred as Mary Richards, a thirty-something woman who lands a job as associate producer of an evening news broadcast. Mary claimed to be playing herself – just a girl with flaws, as every other woman in the world has. She was spunky, she was funny, and she was sexual.

This shift in the tide of women represented in mainstream media played a huge part in the women’s rights movement of the mid-20th century. According to Stephanie Coontz, author of The Way We Never Were: America’s Families and the Nostalgia Trap, housewives never even existed the way they were portrayed on television. “The hybrid idea that a woman can be fully absorbed with her youngsters while simultaneously maintaining passionate sexual excitement with her husband was a 1950s invention that drove thousands of women to therapists, tranquilizers, and alcohol when they actually tried to live up to it.” (Ziesler 38) Not only were women being shown unrealistic expectations of themselves every day when they tuned into their nightly shows, but they were also destroying themselves when attempting to live up to them.

The idea of a perfect woman: A cooking, cleaning housewife.

The Subtle Rhetoric behind American’s “New Woman” on Television

This improbable picture of what a real woman should have been is why the genuine portrayal of real woman like Mary Tyler Moore was so necessary in the 60s and 70s. The women’s rights movement was not garnering any sort of positive attention, let alone any media coverage at all. Television networks and news broadcasts were focused, instead, on more important matters, like the space race and presidential scandals. Prominent figures in Hollywood, though, like Moore and the producers of her show, were working to make sure women’s rights were seen and heard in the most subtle way. Why subtle? Had been done any other way, it might not have been broadcast.

At first, actresses and their allied counterparts might have been too afraid to step outside of the box defined by the degrading trope of housewife and object of men’s desire. However, as society itself progressed forward, the second wave of American feminism coming into play, we can see a definite push forward and against typical ideas of women in the mid-20th century. But rhetoric is subtle, yet hard-hitting, if one looks at it correctly. And that is how television of the Golden Age, forward-thinking celebrities, and the entertainment industry initially launched the media-focused fight for women’s rights into the 21st century.