Tag Archives: television

Proto-Feminists on Classic TV

Who were the feminists who were feminists before we knew much about feminists? Who were the role models for young women when role models for young women were thin on the ground? Lately, people have been looking to vintage TV for the answers to those questions.

The first woman that many people think of as a proto-feminist is Samantha Stevens of Bewitched. Samantha was powerful, rescued her bumbling husband from unpleasant situations, and generally made life better with her superpower. (Although occasionally it went wrong.)

Recently, though, I’ve heard the sitcom deconstructed from a feminist viewpoint, and I can’t argue with much of what they said. Samantha gave up her vocation for the man she loved and had to sneak behind his back to work magic. (At least it’s not like the film Bell, Book, and Candle where, when a witch falls in love, she loses her powers entirely. (Also, irrelevantly, I consider BBaC a Christmas movie in the same way that Die Hard is a Christmas movie.) But I digress (three times in one digression)).

Where was I? Oh, yes, Bewitched. When Samantha did use her magic to benefit Darrin, he berated her, yelled at her, and shamed her. Instead of ripping him a new one or even pointing out that he’s an asshole, she meekly acquiesced and promised to do better. And they call this feminism?

In the 1970s, we had the Mary Tyler Moore Show. This sitcom had more going for it, feminist-wise. Mary Richards was a single woman, living on her own, and working at a responsible, possibly high-pressure, job in a newsroom. Mary wasn’t what you’d call an outspoken campaigner for women’s rights – but that’s okay. She was an example and a role model just by the way she lived, without dependence on a man.

The show had some episodes with more overtly feminist themes. There was one in which Mary discovered that she was paid less than her predecessor in the same job. Her boss admitted it was because she was a woman and spouted the now-recognized-as-drivel drivel about a man needing more money to support a family. There was another where Mary championed hiring a woman as a sportscaster. Perhaps most revolutionary of all was when Mary tacitly admitted that, despite being single, she took birth control pills.

Bridging the time gap between Samantha and Mary was the late-60s-early-70s That Girl, featuring Marlo Thomas as Anne Marie, an aspiring actress living on her own in New York. Anne was presented as kind of ditzy, but Thomas found it significant that her character wasn’t married off to her boyfriend in the series’ final season, and she had wanted to name the show Miss Independence.

Later in life, Thomas became a staunch and visible feminist. She once said, memorably, that getting married was like putting a vacuum cleaner to your head and sucking out your brain. She later married talk-show host Phil Donahue, apparently with no vacuum cleaners present at the ceremony. Thomas was also responsible for the ground-breaking 1972 Free to Be…You and Me, an album, illustrated book, and TV special which contained empowering content for children, including feminist themes and stories.

My personal favorite feminist icon in popular culture is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Back in the ’90s, she was the kick-ass embodiment of girl power. Almost 25 years ago (so I guess it was classic TV, though not a sitcom but an action show with comic elements), the teenage Buffy was the “Chosen One” who could, well, slay vampires. The new slayer, who was called when the previous one died, was always a young woman. Series creator Joss Whedon specifically said that his purpose in creating Buffy was to upend the dominant paradigm that the cute young girl was always the victim in need of rescue. Buffy rescued herself and others in every episode. True, she had an unfortunate love life, but many feminists do.

(By the way, I was hooked on Buffy because my husband introduced me to it. The TV series. The movie of the same name was much less good, except for Paul Rubens’s death scene, which was worth the price of admission. But I digress again.)

Now feminist characters are everywhere in TV and movies. We’ve had TV dramas with women as US presidents, women as superheroes, women as crime solvers, women as hospital administrators, and more. It’s good that the industry has finally caught up with the way feminism has changed our culture and contributed to it. I don’t watch sitcoms anymore, so I don’t know if there are strong women in them, but I bet there are. Female heroes and feminist characters have gotten a lot of pushback from the bro brigade, but I think they’re here to stay. Personally, I think we need all the feminist role models we can get. And if my husband likes them too, so much the better.

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What a Hoot!

Owls are everywhere these days. I can think of at least four series of commercials that use owls as pitch-birds: ones for travel, eyeglasses, higher education, and decongestant. I almost understand the eyeglasses one, since owls have those big eyes, and I figure the university one is on pretty safe ground, given that owls are associated with wisdom. Geico even had an ad featuring an owl, but given that company’s other commercials, it scarcely fazed me. At least it wasn’t as nerve-shattering as the little piggy one.

But the travel advice bird and the one hawking allergy pills baffle me. Owls are not known for migrating, at least not like swallows and buzzards are. And I’ve never heard an owl sneeze, though I think it would be hilarious, except for the owl snot. As far as noncommercial representatives go, owls are also not well known as team mascots, except for the Temple University Owls. I’m told owls are the 17th most popular team mascot in the U.S., but I didn’t actually do the research. I certainly admire whoever did.

But I digress. At least the sinus relief commercial featuring not an owl but a bee with the voice of Antonio Banderas sort of made sense, since bees are associated with flowers, which can trigger allergies.  Although Banderas may not have been the wisest choice. I associate Spanish accents with deadly killer bees. And while I would never accuse Antonio B. of such a thing, the subtle note of aggression makes me twitchy.

But I digress again. The subject was owls. Owls have lately been making a comeback of sorts since they became the de facto messenger pigeons of the wizarding set. But in real life, owls are hardly the noble birds that CGI Hedwig portrays on film. While most owls are represented as giving a calm but inquisitive “whoo,” there are also screech owls, which didn’t get that name by being melodious singers. Encounter one of those at night on a camping trip and you’re more than likely to drop your s’mores.

And owls’ eating habits are not, shall we say, dainty. Not devotées of the backyard bird feeder, they like their meat and they like it still kicking. They don’t chew their food, either, like their mama owls should have taught them. Watching an owl chow down on a mouse, snake, or even a rabbit, is stomach-turning. For the owl too, apparently. Because they don’t have crops or gizzards like civilized birds such as chickens, owls pay the price for their gluttony by spitting up (to put it politely) the unpalatable bits – bones, fur, feathers, scales, and such – before they can eat again. Scientists find these “owl pellets” interesting, but they’re really just disgusting. And so are the owl pellets. Apparently, you can buy the repellent pellets on the internet for science classes or some other use I don’t care to contemplate.

Hedwig aside, owls tend to the creepy rather than the cuddly. They have that whole Exorcist thing going on where they can turn their heads backward, a consequence of their having more vertebrae than anyone except a giraffe deserves. Ohio humorist and professional curmudgeon James Thurber had it right when he said, “you could send an owl into my room, dressed only in the feathers it was born with, and no monkey business, and I would pull the covers over my head and scream.”

(He was discussing Gertrude Stein and her literarily famous pigeons on the grass. Evidently, owls had a profound effect on Thurber. He had a book titled The Owl in the Attic and also wrote a fable titled “The Owl Who Was God.” The moral was: You can fool too many of the people too much of the time. I recommend it to your attention. But I digress. You could probably tell by the parentheses.)

The only literary owl that I can view with any sort of affection is the one in Winnie-the-Pooh, who spells his own name Wol and can also spell HIPY PAPY BTHUTHDTH THUTHDA BTHUTHDY, which (in case you can’t tell) means “A very happy birthday with love from Pooh.”

When it comes to real-life owls, though, I prefer to keep my distance. And when it comes to TV commercials, I haven’t been able to stand talking animals ever since that damned gecko with the ambiguous accent. Even that picture of the owl with this post makes me feel like it knows just a little too much about my past and is particularly judgy about it. 

Good thing I have enough self-confidence to look that bird in the headlamps and say, “Who, me?”

TV Would Be Great, Except for the Ads

Have you noticed that no one has teeth anymore? Or money, for that matter.

AdvertisementNo, in ads for toothpastes, dentistry, and even breath-fresheners, teeth are seldom mentioned. Only “smiles.” Maybe I’m nit-picking, but those of us who are gloomy, depressed, or upset want nice teeth too.

The same with money. We used to manage our money. Then there was “financial” management. Now there is “wealth management.” I know this is supposed to make us all feel that we are rich and need such services, but even money management is out of reach for me. When your savings have lint from living in your pocket, you don’t need someone else to manage it, and it’s definitely not wealth.

I used to work in advertising, so I feel entitled to criticize. Of course, we handled mostly small, local accounts. And even the political ones were pretty dreary. We did have to come up with some promos for a candidate named Hickey once, but all the joy was sucked out of that when he vetoed the slogan “Give Ohio a Hickey!” Spoilsport.

I was fairly low on the organizational chart in that office. (Who am I kidding? There were four people and I was number four.) So most of my assignments were, shall we say, low-budget. I was allowed to write blurbs for a client, describing their tables for ads that would appear in trade magazines (Tables Today!, Popular Living Room Furniture, or Things to Put Other Things On, if I remember correctly).

The challenge there was to come up with adjectives. I would stare at photos of each new model and make notes. Distinctive. Intriguing. Innovative. Any euphemisms for ugly, weird, and useless.

But that job was small potatoes as advertising goes. National advertising agencies get the big bucks for ruining the music that Baby Boomers loved (see http://wp.me/p4e9wS-7I) and inventing ridiculous portmanteau words.

What are those? (I hear you cry). Why, portmanteaus are when someone slams two words together that have no business touching each other: your inner “kidult,” “funtastic,” “sale-a-bration,” anything ending with “-thon” or “-licious.” They’re everywhere nowadays, like bedbugs, which are apparently now a Thing more to be feared than standard termites and roaches.

And, speaking of things “funtastic,” since when does everything have to be fun? And not just for kids, who might actually be sucked into the idea of brushing your teeth being fun. (It isn’t.) Now adults are supposed to find everything fun, including taking a dump. “Enjoy the go,” my ass! (Literally.)

My husband objects to cannibalism in commercials. No, not ads for Soylent Green, though those can’t be too far away. Pigs that advertise products that are made from others of their species. Pieces of cereal that eat other pieces of cereal. Toaster pastries that lure other pastries into toasters. He feels it’s just wrong, somehow, though the animal world is full of examples of creatures eating creatures of their own species. Probably not pigs, though, and they don’t advertise it if they do.

We both hate ads that claim to be scientifically accurate by inventing an imaginary research lab. The Ponds Institute, for example. If there is such a thing, it’s one room in a windowless corner of the building where one guy in a lab coat smears cold cream on armadillo skin and accidentally softens himself to death. (Except that “cold cream” hasn’t existed since my maiden aunt used it in the 50s.)

And I know that the drum for patriotism has been thumping loudly for the last 15 years, but the relentless brandishing of flags has now crossed over the line when a car advertisement features a song that touts “a full tank of freedom.” It’s even more gag-inducing than “Love is what makes a Subaru a Subaru.” Steel. Fiberglass. Rubber, Chrome. A little metal symbol on the hood. That’s what makes a Subaru.

Are there any ads that I do like? A few. There’s the one for paint that uses paint chips to make a stunning animation of underwater, hang-gliding, and other scenes. And Patrick Stewart’s ads for hard cider. And of course the one where the cat jumps up to the balcony for treats.

Anything but Flo. Those insurance commercials are like “You Light Up My Life” – okay the first time, but after the thousandth, they start to wear on you. After the millionth, you just want her to retire, already. I’m sure she’s got the money by now. After all, she can save big money on her insurance.

And the same goes for that damn gecko.