I come from the generation nobody ever bothered to name or as I often put it—too young for Stonewall, too old to tweet.
[OK, so I just got on Twitter this week, but to be honest I have no idea how to navigate the Twittisphere and I’m a bit ambivalent about the whole venture. And yes, for those persnickety types, I know that some demographers insist I’m part of something called Generation X, but I reject being lumped in with kids born when I was already driving—and most importantly they’ve only watched Rhoda, Mary and Maude on Me TV in reruns.]
This is not an ode to coming of age in the late 70s and early 80s, it’s not like I had any say in the whole matter. It’s that a key cultural touchstone of all Americans for some decades has been TV and the shows of that era reflected the influence of the women’s movement. Maude had an abortion and talked openly about it; Rhoda and Mary actually worked, like most women do, and didn’t have oodles of hours (and money) to sit around sipping cocktails in the evenings, but grabbed a cup of joe on the way to the office or snagged a quick sandwich together during their lunch breaks.
Most tellingly, their lives didn’t revolve around dating and men and how to “fix” their bodies, hair, faces, etc. The central themes were about their self-fulfillment and relationships with an ensemble of people—often in their workplaces and families. And the men were usually grappling with how to cope with shifting social and cultural realities as a result of the gains of the women’s movement.
In an era of shifting racial attitudes, they tepidly introduced Black characters and tried, however haltingly, to deal with racism. In other words, they had quality writing, acting and social relevance.
I got to thinking about all this after reading today’s obit for Harold Gould, who played Rhoda’s dapper father and in later years, dated Betty White’s ditzy character on Golden Girls. A breakthrough show itself in that it revolved around “women of a certain age”—a theme never before or since highlighted on primetime TV. Women are supposed to politely drift off screen by 45 or so never to be heard from again, except as a walk-on role as someone’s mother.
The point is that the crapification of most—not all—of today’s TV is usually explained in terms of supply and demand. Network executives explain that if people weren’t watching the Real Housewives of Self-Absorbed Richville or whatever, then they wouldn’t produce them. But aside from the fact that these shows cost virtually nothing to put on because there are no writers and actors, the content of so much TV is a reflection of the whittling away of the gains and momentum of the social movements of the sixties and seventies.
It’s hardly as simple as build the movement and TV shows will improve. But the connection seems undeniable.
Come check out my talk on What is Socialism this Thursday, Sept. 16, 7:30PM, Columbia University, Hamilton Hall, 1 train to 116th St.
Sherry Wolf is a public speaker, writer and activist who is available to speak at your campus, community center or union hall for a moderate fee. Wolf is the author of Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics and Theory of LGBT Liberation (Haymarket Books, named one of theProgressive’s “Favorite Books of 2009”). Contact Sherry at: sherrywolf2000 at yahoo.com or find her on Facebook. Check out the video of Sherry speaking with Cleve Jones and the cast of Hair at the National Equality March.