Television heroines have long served as outlets for the female struggle to balance work, family and everything in between. With comedy, candor and heart, these fictional characters gave women someone to relate to. The common female archetypes in TV had always been simple: wives and mothers catering to their husbands and households. It was only in the 1970s that the dichotomy began to play a part. Lead female characters suddenly had larger struggles than roasting chicken and cleaning kitchens. Modern women needed representation, and more importantly, a chance to find humor in everyday life.
Mary Tyler Moore
Maybe we really could make it after all. After all, what woman didn’t want to throw her hat up in the air with a smile?
The Mary Tyler Moore Show hit screens in 1970. Written by James L. Brooks, Mary became one of the most loved and progressive female characters in television history and paved the way for the working woman. Even Oprah was inspired by the great MTM. In the clip below you will see Oprah’s nearly insane fan-ship, as she goes into her “ugly cry” at the sight of Mary and even films her own (a little psycho) spin on the opening intro.
The 80′s brought us the politically charged, sardonic and no nonsense Murphy Brown. A television news anchor, both feared and revered by colleagues, who, despite her dry and patronizing delivery, was had a big heart. Brown, who began the show fresh out of a rehab facility, was a comedic character recovering from a breakdown. By the last season of the series Murphy had opted to become a single mother. This proved controversial, even effecting the presidential election when Dan Quayle spoke out, saying a series of things too stupid to quote here and now. Murphy Brown didn’t take it lying down and the writers of the show jabbed back on air. This was television history, the first on air smack down between a fictional character and politician. PS. Murphy won.
Roseanne became one of the most socially relevant television characters of our time. In the same half hour long episode, she could deliver hilarious biting lines one minute but also deal with issues like spousal abuse, homosexuality and working class struggle the next. A family with big ideals housed in the small town of Lanford, Illinois, the Conners started businesses, faced foreclosure and brought working class issues to the TV that had never been seen in natural light.
A factory worker, diner owner, waitress and mom, this unconventional template for a television heroine was pioneered by a woman in an a-typical package, a comedian who changed the face of the primetime landscape with an equal dose of realism and strength. Battling inequality, fighting for feminism and shattering taboos, Rosie shattered blue-collar stereotypes and indulged in them as well, riding a fine line and an even finer demographic.
While in theory a character like this seemed like a risk, audiences flocked to watch the Connors, a family just like theirs, whether rich, poor, or middle class, no one could escape the human connection Roseanne brought to the table, and served with pot roast. While working mothers were demonized politically, we rooted for Roseanne Connor to pull through for her family. She represented more women than June Cleaver. She held a mop, made a casserole and put her kids to bed, all after clocking out of her dead end job. But more importantly, Roseanne stood for, and often stomped for, what she believed in.
Ally McBeal made the cover of time magazine. It was due in fact, to her short skirts, sex driven hallucinations, love triangles and constant outbursts. So, she wasn’t as headstrong as Roseanne Connor, so she sexed up the courtroom and hung out in a unisex bathroom. All kinds of women need to be represented here right? Many called McBeal a sexist representation of the modern woman. They disagreed with the way she lusted after men, her constant range of emotion and feelings.
But these rants seemed plausible in a world where, let’s face it, women lust after men, women have emotions and feelings often come into play. Ally represented a new wave of stiletto feminism, where you don’t have to act like a man to be empowered. Women can have their sexuality, not suppress their feelings and still get a job done in a miniskirt. Raising more controversy than it should have, this only managed to raise curiosity from audiences, boosting the shows ratings and giving it a highly successful run.
And then there was Lemon. Liz Lemon, a character brought to life by Tina Fey just after her run on SNL as the head writer. Clearly, based on her experiences working on the live show, Liz shared a lot of Tina’s quirks, catchphrases and even managed to make glasses hipster cool. Much of 30 Rock tends to venture away from romantic relationships and finds it’s footing as a workplace comedy. Liz is always struggling to “have it all:,” the demands of her job, love, her friends and her timeline as a woman often make it tough to balance.
And so we say goodbye to our beloved cheese-loving, Liz Lemon. With just a season left to enjoy her love of Star Wars, German quips, food porn, Oprah quotes and all the stuff geek heroes are made of.
Cover photo: www.fanpop.com