You Go, Girl!

TV Eye

Many years ago I read a comment about the women's movement saying basically that it wasn't until Gloria Steinem started wearing glasses like Georgia state troopers that men sat up and took notice. (I don't even remember the gender of the writer, just the phrase.) The statement seemed to have two points: 1) Besides being intelligent and eloquent, Gloria Steinem was attractive and that was more likely to make men pay attention than her agenda, and 2) attractive women often have to de-cosmetize themselves to be taken seriously.

The statement also reminded me of a column Nora Ephron had written years ago about Sally Quinn's comment, "Being blond doesn't hurt." Quinn, an attractive, D.C.-based journalist-turned-TV-personality, had caught a lot of flack in the Seventies for her irreverent, and some felt unprofessional, deportment. Quinn was not the best journalist of her time but neither was she a ditz. And she was cognizant enough of the effect (having benefited from her sorority girl good looks) that appearance has on how women are perceived to make such a statement without disdain. Smug, perhaps, but not disdainful.

As I remember, Nora Ephron fretted at length about Quinn's disingenuous comment -- Ephron herself being a master of the self-deprecating elbow-in-the-ribs. Ephron would be among those of us who do not have to de-cosmetize ourselves to be taken seriously and find the issue of looks to still be paramount. But it was interesting to note that Ephron came around to the same conclusion as Quinn: Being blonde doesn't hurt.

Ephron wrote that well before television's Battle of the Breakfast Blondes -- remember the Deborah Norville/Jane Pauley flap? By the early Nineties, every network had a well-coiffed, perfectly made-up, and impeccably dressed blonde chirping network news when the sun came up. This is not to dismiss the indvidual talents of women like Katie Couric, Joan Lunden, and the other women who worked hard to make it to the network, it's to slap the hands that made the rigid mold all of them have been squeezed into, even Connie Chung. For a while, it seemed as if the focus of women in television was going to be on the media.

That's where prime-time TV programming began to reach further. In the mid-Eighties, CBS's Cagney & Lacey and Designing Women, ABC's Moonlighting, and NBC's L.A.Law were representative of the way women were being portrayed on television. They were tough like Chris Cagney (Sharon Gless) and Mary Beth Lacey (Tyne Daley), witty and professional like Julia and Suzanne Sugarbaker (Dixie Carter and Delta Burke), resourceful and scrappy like Maddie Hayes (Cybill Shepherd), successful and vulnerable like Grace Van Owen (Susan Dey) and Ann Kelsey (Jill Eikenberry). Then came Roseanne.

From the moment Roseanne's show debuted on ABC October 18, 1988, women's television roles took a detour. The kind of blue-collar feminism the comedienne-turned-actress espoused first in her comedy routines and then in the show created shockwaves that are still felt -- and still make walking in the minefield of prime-time programming dicey, especially in high heels.

But it wasn't Roseanne alone -- a month after the show debuted came Murphy Brown on CBS. Different level of humor, same effect (with a wicked tweak at the networks and their policies), and big tip of the knit hat to The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Candice Bergen, never much of an actress by her own admission, found a flair for and her niche in television comedy and thrived. Even laced with humor and good-heartedness, these women had to combat the Spelling syndrome created by Eighties TV behemoths such as Dynasty and Falconcrest, in which overdressed women had lots of time to stab each other in the back without worrying about paying bills. Murphy Brown might have been glamorous and successful, but her love life sucked. Roseanne Connor was neither glamorous nor successful but someone loved her a lot. There wasn't much common ground between the working class Connor family and Brown's urban yuppie, except one thing: Even in their sanitized depictions on TV, more women were in situations like Roseanne and Murphy Brown than Dynasty.

I lost interest in Roseanne years ago, and in Murphy Brown too, but not because of the women playing them. I had outgrown storylines or they had outgrown me. And I had new heroes, other women to watch, for many different reasons. There were fresher, more vibrant characters like Ellen DeGeneres in Ellen, Fran Drescher in The Nanny, Brett Butler in Grace Under Fire, Melissa Leo on Homicide, and Cybill Shepherd on Cybill. I even find myself admiring and empathizing with King of the Hill's Peggy Hill. (Don't ask me about Friends -- I can barely abide Jennifer Aniston. She reminds me of Benji.)

On Sept. 14, the annual Emmy Awards will be presented. In my little world, the trunk that serves as a coffee table in my living room has statuettes of its own for me to give out --the TV Eyeballs. I'll probably be badly dressed for the occasion, but that's nothing new.

So, here's a TV Eyeball to Heather Locklear for her role as Amanda Woodward on Melrose Place, Best Actress in a Ludicrously Silly Nighttime Soap. Does anyone think Locklear is making Meryl Streep nervous? No. But she crackles with a crisp combination of humor and melodrama, and never once do you think she takes herself seriously. Here's to Gillian Anderson, who plays Dana Scully on The X-Files, Best Actress to Resist Her Gorgeous Co-star. Anderson's luminous portrayal of the conservative FBI agent has created her own little cult of fans. On his "appearance" on the fictitious Larry Sanders Show, David Duchovny described their characters as being "like Laurel and Hardy with sexual tension." I liked to have died laughing. Here's one also to Janeane Garafolo, who plays Paula the talent agent on HBO's The Larry Sanders Show. for her role as the Actress Who Seems Most Realistic. Paula is a mess. She sleeps around with the wrong guys, she's always fretting about something, gets PMSy the way women really do, and dresses just like the rest of us.

But mostly, here's to NBC and ER, for the very real, imperfect roles the women of Chicago's County General Hospital and the way they make me love them: Julianna Margulies as Carol Hathaway, the lovely nurse whose life should be perfect but isn't. Margulies has made a weak character strong and appealing, and grown in the role the way an actor should. To Gloria Reuben, whose role as the gentle Jeanie Boulet, an HIV-positive intern, caught me by surprise last season, making her probably limited life very precious to me. To Laura Innes, whose portrayal of the salty, businesslike Dr. Kerry Weaver usually makes me forget she is walking with a brace until all of a sudden I think, "oh yeah".... To Glenne Headly, as the recurring pediatrician Abby Keaton, a late thirtysomething doctor who takes exquisite pride in her work and is physically unprepossessing but somehow attracts the young Dr. Carter (Noah Wyle). And here's to the new fall season, for bringing all of these characters back into my life.

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