PBS’s Primetime Television Poorly Researched

The people who produced the “Primetime Television” segment on women in television obviously didn’t bother to research the wide variety of characters played by women in the fifties. PBS likes to bragg about having quality programming, but the episode on women is drivel.

They suffer from the delusion that the only roles available for women in the fifties were housewife roles. Actually housewife roles were in a minority. Even many sitcoms had women playing characters other than housewives, including Ann Sothern’s highly rated “Private Secretary”. Sothern subsequently appeared as an assistant hotel manager in the equally popular “The Ann Sothern Show”.

Some people may have the delusion that women primarily played housewives because the family sitcoms from the fifties were more frequently rerun in subsequent decades then the dramas and action / adventure shows that provided women a wider variety of roles. Society in the fifties attempted to prepare young girls to become housewives and mothers. Fifties television demonstrated that women could do other things including running their own businesses.

Primetime Television devoted an excessive amount of space to misrepresenting Mary Tyler Moore’s character Mary Richards on the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” as being the first “independent woman”. They apparently forgot that Rose Marie had appeared as television writer Sally Rogers on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” on which Moore had played Laura Petrie. Actually independent female characters had been appearing on television since “My Friend Irma” in 1952.

The character Mary Richards was much less independent than many of the earlier female characters. Ann Sothern’s characters on “Private Secretary” and “The Ann Sothern Show” were much stronger than Richards.

The character Lois Lane on “Superman” makes Richards look like a wimp and a klutz. Lane was a serious journalist and didn’t mind taking risks to get a story. Lane not only wanted to beat other reporters to the story, she wanted to solve crimes before the police did. Noel Neill who played Lois Lane for most of the show’s run later toured college campuses. She told a reporter for the University of Kansas student newspaper “The Daily Kansan” in early 1972 that she often had young women come up to her and tell that her character had sparked their interest in a journalism career.

Mary Richards was an employee of a male run television station. Dale Evans played a truly independent woman on the popular “Roy Rogers Show” in the fifties. Her character Dale Evans owned a cafe with a male employee. She often ignored the advice of Roy Rogers and played a major role in catching the bad guys.

In an episode recently broadcast on RFD-TV Evans walked into a house where bank robbers were holding a family hostage by pretending she was just visiting the mother and baby even though she was wearing a six gun just like the men. She forced one of the robbers into a closet and then shot through the bedroom door at the outlaws in the living room to protect the mother and baby. Her action allowed Roy Rogers to come in behind the other two robbers.

In the sixties Anne Francis appeared as the owner of a private detective agency on “Honey West”. Honey West, like Diane Rigg’s character Emma Peel on “The Avengers”, could subdue the bad guys using martial arts skills.

The fifties had many anthology dramatic programs, including “The Loretta Young Show”. Young appeared in many roles. One week she might play a nun seeking to improve morale at a hospital, a judge another week and in another week a self centered businesswoman best described with the b-word.

Primetime Television illogically compares women in modern dramatic programs to sitcom characters from the fifties.

Anyone wishing to compare modern dramatic programs to the fifties need to examine the fifties dramatic programs rather than fifties sitcoms. Comparisons of sitcom characters from the fifties should only be made to characters on more recent sitcoms, including programs like “Home Improvement”, “Married with Children” and “Seinfeld”. Comparing dramatic characters to sitcom characters is going to make the sitcom characters appear less complicated because complex characters don’t work very well in sitcoms.

Comparing the fifties sitcom housewives to the female characters on shows like “Friends” and “Married with Children” could support a claim that television is doing a poorer job of portraying women. If Primetime Television wanted to make a serious comparison of how television portrayed women in the fifties and today, it would have compared the characters Betty White played in “Life with Elizabeth” and “Date with the Angels” in the fifties to her current character in “Hot in Cleveland”. White has appeared in various sitcoms over the last 60 years. A study of her various characters, including those from shows that didn’t catch on, might be very interesting.

In the fifties women could appear in many different roles involving many occupations. June Lockhart, who is best known as the mother of Timmy on “Lassie” and the mother on “Lost in Space”, appeared as a frontier doctor in a couple of episodes of “Have Gun will Travel”. Mary Tyler Moore played a bank clerk in an episode of “Surfside 6”

Not all fifties housewives were obedient. Alice Kramden routinely told off her oversize husband Ralph on “The Honeymooners”. On the “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” episode “Lamb to the Slaughter” Barbara Bel Geddes played a young pregnant housewife who killed her police officer husband with a frozen leg of lamb after he told her he was leaving her for another woman. She then put the lamb in the over and went to the store to establish an alibi before returning home to discover the body. Later in the evening she served the lamb to the officers investigating the murder.

Bel Geddes wasn’t the only woman to play a criminal in the fifties. Barbara Billingsley, June Cleaver on “Leave it to Beaver”, played a smuggler whose partners mysteriously died on an episode of “The Lone Wolf”. Frances Bavier, Aunt B on “Andy Griffith”, played the leader of an outlaw gang on an episode of “The Lone Ranger”.

French sociologist Jacques Ellul uses the term “prepropaganda” to describe information received before a “propaganda campaign” that makes people more inclined to accept the claims of the propaganda. Incidentally, Ellul uses the term propaganda to include true statements that are presented to support come claim.

References to the women’s movement failed to mention the possibility that the non-housewife characters on fifties television made women more willing to recognize that women could do other things besides being a housewife. Women might not have remembered specific instances of seeing women work as doctors or as business owners, but that information was in their subconscious memory

Society might have told girls that their goals should be to becomes wives and mothers, but television was showing them that they might have other options.

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