When I was growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, I was a stereotypical latchkey kid. My folks were never home and after school I would, after my homework was done (and sometimes before), spend my afternoons in front of the TV. It is, of course, a truth universally acknowledged that this is a bad way to rear a child. But the two things I will say in defense of my questionable upbringing are that: a) I can whup your ass at trivia any day of the week and b) I had some damn fine role models to watch. The late ’80s and ’90s were an era of the pop culture feminist . . . this is when feminism infiltrated (those sneaky women folk!) the mainstream. Strong female characters who stood up for women’s rights stopped being caricatures and comic relief and started being real, lovable, breathing, complex women who, in some glorious cases, headlined the show.
One of the most incendiary series of the time was Murphy Brown, which ran from 1988-1998 and made an impression not only on my little, squishy child-psyche, but also on the culture in general. The character’s choice to raise her baby without a father prompted then-Vice President Dan Quayle to say, “It doesn’t help matters when prime time TV has Murphy Brown – a character who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid, professional woman – mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice.” Not one to roll over at this patently absurd attack, Murphy Brown producer Diane English incorporated Quayle’s comments into the show, both lampooning and eviscerating him. Recently, English said (probably in jest but oh how I would love it), “If Sarah Palin runs for president, I’m going to ask CBS to bring us back.” In the end, the character of Murphy Brown, as portrayed so beautifully by Candace Bergen, wasn’t merely sharp and acerbic and strong, she was also funny. Little me loved her because she was funny.
My affection for Murphy was far outstripped, however, by my crushing adoration for Miss Julia Sugarbaker. She is, in my extremely biased and warped opinion, the best that ever was and ever will be. I have a somewhat dry and sarcastic way about me, so when people ask me what my favorite sitcom is (which they do, oddly, and often), I think they expect something a bit more cutting and subversive than Designing Women. But man alive, I love that show. It still makes me laugh out loud. And nobody, but nobody, skewers like Julia Sugarbaker.
This prompts me to wonder who the little protofeminist latchkey kids (a narrow demographic, to be sure) have to look up to. Listen, I’m a strong advocate for actual parenting or, barring that, some good old fashioned book readin’. But say a child were to look for a strong female role model on television right now. Who would he or she find? The three women I could think of off the top of my head (er, I mean after hours of arduous pondering) were Diane Lockhart from The Good Wife, Dr. Miranda Bailey from Grey’s Anatomy (dubious), and that glorious paragon of everything Tami Taylor from Friday Night Lights. None of these shows, however, could captivate a child. Where are the sitcom feminists? Why are the shrews, saps, and skanks of Two and A Half Men and Everybody Loves Raymond and The Big Bang Theory the only thing in the offing? Whither thou, Julia? Let’s take a minute and soak up some more of her Sugarbakeryness. It’s addictive, ain’t it? Don’t worry, it’s good for you.
(I had to put in this one. ~ed)