Rhoda, Mary, Maude and the Movement

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.

5 responses to “Rhoda, Mary, Maude and the Movement

  1. excellent. I wondered as I read your piece about ‘Alice’. That was the show I watched the most over the other three (a function of my age). But it never made the re-run circuit, so haven’t watched it with adult eyes. A widow who moves out west to make her singing career, but the car breaks down outside Phoenix and she ends up working a roadside diner. The tail end of Mary, Rhoda and Maude? or the start of a turning point back to crap? I really do forget. But come on: how can you go wrong with Linda Lavin, Polly Holliday and Beth Howland!

    • Another great show and an insightful point about Alice marking the turning point to crap. It drives me bananas these days that nobody, except for cops and doctors, ever actually performs work on TV.

  2. @Sherry: And the work portrayed on TV is always sensationalized, too. At least as far as doctors are concerned, it gives people unrealistic expectations and undermines the years of sacrifice, red tape navigation, and endless paperwork that we have to deal with every day. Where is the episode where the brilliant, handsome doctor can’t give a person life-saving treatment because they didn’t have insurance? I guess that would be a downer. How can us regular schmucks compare to Dr. House? No wonder there is a stereotype of doctors having adventures every day, curing everything, and making a zillion dollars doing it.

  3. The crapification of TV is truly something to behold, & I think there is definitely a connection between the ideology the ruling class wants to push (or is forced to cede by social & workers movements), and popular TV.

    I think a prime example of this are cop shows. In a time, such as right now, when the ruling class is desperately looking to justify & legitimise the state, in the context of the ‘war on terror’, & the bolstering of the armed wings of the state–military & police–there has been over the past 10 years an absolute explosion of cop shows around the world, either starting up, getting bigger budgets, or starting spin-offs.

    Some examples:

    – The CSI franchise, which started in the early 2000s, & ballooned to 3 shows set in different U.S. cities. Serving dual purpose, they illustrate how fantastic cops’ technology is (‘we’re gonna get you’) as well as popularising forensic science, which led to a surge in the number of people wanting to study related courses at university/college with an aim of working as a scientist for the state.

    – Law & Order, got a couple of new spin-offs, including Law & Order UK, the point of all of which seem to be to drive home messages of the legal system working (generally), that cops work really hard, but that there are serious moral questions faced by poor just-trying-to-make-the-world-a-better-place cops & lawyers trying really really hard to make the legal system better from the inside.

    – Life on Mars (the British one), which got a second series, Ashes to Ashes, which centred around illustrating how much better, nicer, more highly trained & more humane cops are these days, as compared to back in the day when they were brutish, racist pieces of shit who degraded women and beat people up at every given opportunity. This of course falls down when you look at the reality of cops today as well as back then, as the only thing that’s actually changed is that now the cops have shinier & bigger guns, as well as other fancy techniques & technology meaning they need not scrape their knuckles as they murder predominantly non-whites and assault women.

    The list could go on for pages, but the thing all cop shows (as well as detective shows, which are more Agatha Christie than ‘Cops’) have in common is an intense attempt at humanising the state, trying to make workers sympathise with the apparatus that harrasses/assaults/murders them if they’re young or non-white, protects the property & rights of those who exploit them, hunts down/attacks/imprisons ‘illegal’ immigrants, & all the while ignoring if not outright violating the rights & bodies of workers. At the same time, these shows are pushing justifications for racism (how many ‘muslim-terrorist’ plots can they cram into one evening? At least 3 in Australia) and increased state powers to search & detain people without charge etc.

    And this is before you even begin to take into account reality shows (‘Cops’, ‘Border Control’ etc.), movies (‘Batman: The Dark Knight’, ‘Salt’, and so on), or country specific shows (I’m thinking of all the Australian cop shows set in Melbourne or Sydney which will hopefully never air anywhere else because wow they’re disgusting: Underbelly, Cops L.A.C, Rush, Blue Heelers, City Homicide, etc.), or even all the ‘special forces’, ‘federal agent’ cop shows (‘NCIS’, that show about U.S. Marshalls, the new one about the CIA, and such).

    The X-Files is another, older, example, which contained the common elements of all the others, though it had a strong anti-U.S. government streak to it at times, even though it was about the FBI, so it was more contradictory, and more prone to getting caught in those contradictions than any of the other shows mentioned.

  4. I totally agree about the cop shows and doctor shows. But what do you, Sherry, or others think about the numerous shows that actually show working (and working class) people? While TV always sensationalizes, I think many of these do portray the frustrations, long hours, and dangerous work many people do. Maybe TV can serve a different purpose for the working class, even current for profit TV. For example:

    “Ax Men” – Loggers
    “Ice Road Truckers” – Truckers
    “The Deadliest Catch” and “Lobster Wars” – Fishers
    “Ace of Cakes” and “Cake Boss” – Bakers, receptionists, retail, delivery drivers
    “The Office” (reality spoof) – white collar workers
    “Outsourced” (reality spoof) – Call center workers (in India, it does have problematic racial elements in it)
    “Say Yes to the Dress” – retail and tailors (yes, I know this show is bad in many ways, but it is an interesting portrayal of retail jobs)
    “Miami Ink” and “L.A. Ink” – tattoo artists
    “Dirty Jobs” – while the main guy is an actor, not a worker, he actually does the job on the show and they show real workers who do that job for a living
    “Mad Men” – Advertisers, secretaries
    “Clean Sweep” and others like it – cleaners and professional organizers

    I could go on, and there are probably many more that I don’t even know of. Maybe glamorizing jobs like these, while showing the realistic dangers and pitfalls of them, isn’t a bad thing? I don’t think we should have blinders on when looking at the range of shows that are on TV now, some that are quite good, and the potential to use TV politically.

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