thirtysomething: TV’s Hope for the Modern ’80s Woman

Through the magic of Netflix I recently watched all four seasons of the late-’80s yuppie classic thirtysomething. I live in Canada where the Netflix Instant selection is sparse, so I was surprised to see all four seasons of thirtysomething, which were only released on DVD over the course of the last couple of years. I didn’t remember much about the show from when it originally aired – I was a young teenager in the late “˜80s and watching a show about people just a few years younger than my parents wasn’t going to tear me away from the V.C. Andrews novels that were waiting for me in my bedroom.

Going in I knew that thirtysomething was about yuppies in their 30s. As much as I’d love to deny it, for all intents and purposes, I am now a yuppie in my 30s. I also knew that the show was created by Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, the geniuses behind my beloved My So-Called Life and the underrated Once and Again. All of this was working in the show’s favor, but I certainly didn’t expect to blast through all four seasons in less than a month. I couldn’t stop myself – here were two of my favorite topics, the ’80s and the circumstances of my own life, together in a televised mash-up.  It all got me thinking though: what would the thirtysomething gang, particularly the women, be like if they lived in my 30-something life in 2011?

First up, you’ve got Hope, the magazine writer who gives up her career to have a baby, who is played by Mel Harris, a woman who magically manages to look absolutely gorgeous in both high-waisted jeans and overalls. Hope’s saga is still a common by today’s standards, but with a subtly different subtext than you’d likely see in an updated version of the show. Throughout all four seasons Hope tries to balance her decision to stay home with her children with the pull to go back to work. While she goes back and forth between the two worlds and feels guilty about leaving her kids with a babysitter, you never get the sense of resentment (and the subsequent guilt over that resentment) that modern moms seem to be willing to articulate these days. Never once does Hope express anything towards her children other than complete adoration. I think that a 2011 version of Hope (who would, without a doubt, be blogging through her entire experience) would not only express frustration about her struggle with the motherhood/career balance, but also her frustration with having to be with a baby all day, her frustration about losing her sense of self, her frustration with having to hear her kid’s voice all day long. There never was an episode where Hope screams “Oh my God, these kids are driving me up the frickin’ wall! I want to run away/turn to the drink/lock myself in the bathroom for two hours!”

The same goes for Nancy (played by Patricia Wettig). She’s married to a guy who happens to be a bit of an ass and she is coming into her own as an artist and children’s book author; but again, her journey is presented as a move from the role of “˜50s housewife into a working woman. Even as her children act out in the face of their parents’ divorce, she never loses it with them and the producers never suggest that any woman would. That questioning of a mother’s devotion of her children was a taboo that was left unbroken in the world of late “˜80s television.

My favorite characters though are the two single women, Hope’s best friend Ellyn (played by the amazing shoulder-pad clad Polly Draper) and the quirky and sensitive Melissa (Melanie Mayron), who was the “alternative” character (she wore her suspenders backwards!). Wardrobe choice withstanding, I think these women could step straight out of 1987 and into 2011 without batting an eyelash. They’re both plagued with emotional issues and tend to self-sabotage, but the writers actually handle these issues really tactfully and give each woman opportunity to grow. Plus Melissa has a gay best friend (thirtysomething was the first network show to show two naked men in bed together) and a cool photography gig where she gets to do things like photograph Carly Simon album covers.

So, while you will notice things about thirtysomething that are hopelessly out of date (take-out coffee was pretty much unheard of in 1987 Philadelphia and there’s a very funny scene where they mistakenly lament the fact that toothpaste pumps have made toothpaste tubes obsolete), the nature of televised version of white, middle-class 30-something women hasn’t changed that much. Except for the overalls. Thank the fates for that one.

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Sissy Larue

30-something, mother-of-two, former rock 'n' roll reporter, currently into retro house-wifey things, bad TV and any movie that I can sneak out of the house to watch.

One thought on “thirtysomething: TV’s Hope for the Modern ’80s Woman”

  1. Ooh, thanks for the recommendation! I’m almost done with Veronica Mars, so needed a good netflix suggestion.

    Speaking of awesome 80’s TV (well, I guess it’s 90s, but it certainly has the 80s aesthetic), anybody out there watch Twin Peaks? There is a Log Lady…you have not experienced David Lynch until you’ve seen the Log Lady. Just trust me.

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