Mary, C.J., Alicia: Here’s to strong TV women

Surely it’s a sign of middle age that the youthful Saturday nights I recall fondly aren’t about dancing at Rupert’s Nightclub in Golden Valley or downing tequila sunrises to the bluesy sounds of Lamont Cranston at the Cabooze.MTM_hat

My memories go further back, to the early 1970s, when CBS had the best comedy lineup on TV. All in the Family at 7 p.m., followed an hour later by The Mary Tyler Moore Show — essential viewing for a shy but ambitious teenage girl — followed by Bob Newhart as a delightfully droll therapist and capped off by an hour with Carol Burnett.

I’ve been thinking of CBS Saturdays during this cold, icy Minnesota winter when finances, the frigid weather and the press of graduate school have conspired to keep me home most weekend nights. I find myself knitting again and curling up with my dogs to watch Downton Abbey, Madam Secretary, The Good Wife and, more recently, Mercy Street — a sometimes shockingly accurate Civil War–era drama set in a makeshift hospital on the border of North and South.

What these shows all have in common is what too many Hollywood films still lack: strong, vulnerable, believable female characters whose stories help me write and weave my own.

Long live C.J. Cregg

The best gift my older son, Sam, ever gave me was a boxed set of all seven seasons of The West Wing, the most inspiring drama ever made for television.

I loved the portrayal of Chief of Staff Leo McGarry as a recovering alcoholic, the poetic idealism of speechwriter Sam Seaborn, the soaring speeches of President Josiah Bartlet (a Notre Dame graduate and Nobel Prize–winning economist) and the identity struggles of his accomplished physician wife.

But I watched The West Wing for C.J. Cregg, the tall, sharply dressed, fast-talking press secretary who — like most women — found her voice and professional confidence as she grew older, more experienced, less naïve.C.J. Cregg

C.J. made me wish I’d majored in political science instead of English in college. She helped me see the value and trust inherent in office friendships. Lacking any life outside of work, she helped me appreciate the hard-won balance I sustained during my years of commuting and raising children.

A natural evolution of Mary Richards’ TV producer some 25 years on, C.J. showed viewers that women can be smart and soft, tough and tender, feminist and feminine. Name one mainstream American film besides the obvious — Thelma and Louise, Norma Rae, The Kids Are Alright — that dares to show the lined faces and toned bodies of middle-aged women in all their hope and heartbreak, their character and complexity.

Today’s television heroines

Premium cable channels and streaming services like Netflix and Amazon have created opportunities for women on surprisingly sophisticated shows. (House of Cards and The Newsroom, from West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin, are among my favorites.)

TV series about “women of a certain age” catch my attention, because I seldom see those stories in Hollywood films.

  • The Servants of Downton: From Daisy, the cook’s assistant who is getting an education to get out of a life of service, to Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper and head of the maids, the women downstairs in Downton Abbey resonant more with my paycheck-to-paycheck existence than the fancy clothes and silly romantic troubles of the Crawley sisters upstairs. Anna’s rape at the hands of a visiting valet in season 4 — her shame and her fear of telling her husband — was harrowing, realistic, must-see TV.
  • Mercy Street: Women had no property rights and couldn’t vote during the time of the Civil War. The first women’s rights convention was held in 1848, and out of that social movement and the reality of men being away at war came women’s emergence into relief work and nursing. Reformer Dorothea Dix was an advocate of female nurses. Her courage is channeled on the new PBS series Mercy Street by Mary Phinney, a widow and woman of privilege who seeks a new purpose in life.
  • The Good Wife: Google “Alicia Florrick,” and it’s no wonder you’ll find stories about her hair, her clothes. The character is too perfectly put together for my taste, and the series never achieved the promise of its premise. (Why not explore what Alicia gets out of staying married to her philandering husband?) But I still watch, occasionally, for The Good Wife’s focus on the compelling female friend — for five seasons the sassy, savvy Kalinda and, this season, Lucca Quinn.
  • Madam Secretary: It’s no West Wing, and conservative commentators say the series’ purpose is to get Hillary Clinton elected. That’s one reason I like it. More important, though, Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord shows the real-world struggles of maintaining a family and an always-on career. If husband Henry McCord is too much of a women’s wet dream (an academic, a dad who cooks, a sexy guy who insists that he and his wife talk), that’s OK. I tell my husband that Henry is a role model he can aspire to.

We’ll be reminded this Sunday night about the #OscarsSoWhite movement. Check out the Best Director category; women are underrepresented, too.

So even though TV remains, for me, an “only if I have time” pastime, I am watching television more often than I am going to the movies. Enough of the action flicks, the December-May romances. For my own sense of self, especially as I age, I want to see women whose lives feel real.

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