What formidable '90s heroines these women are, jerking open file cabinets with a smart flex of a bicep and trading hard-boiled one-liners with cops while up to their wrists in a cadaver's chest. It's probably best not to delve too deeply into the part of our reptilian brain these characters touch, but it's there.
On the sitcom side, however, are a couple of '90s women you wouldn't want near any sharp objects. They're the creations of Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and Diane English, two women so powerful in TV-land that their newest series, Hearts Afire and Love and War, were placed on CBS' Monday night lineup.
Both are war-between-the-sexes comedies about formerly successful women on the come-back trail. Both are hits--Love and War is 15th in the season's ratings and Hearts Afire stands 20th. And both female leads share that contemporary womanly bond, anger.
In Hearts Afire, Markie Post plays a once-famous journalist putting her life back together with the help of a passionate romance. Although Post and co-star John Ritter generate as much sexual heat as George and Barbara Bush, you can't help but hope the sex is good, because out of bed this woman is not much fun. In one episode, Post's self-righteous character launches into a pseudo-feminist aria of belligerence and hostility that actually includes the phrase "male chauvinist pig." You have to wonder how any man could stay attracted to a woman this unpleasant (other than the fact she has big breasts).
Love and War, as its name implies, is considerably more dialectical. The foibles are evenly divided between a worn-looking Susan Dey and a grizzled Jay Thomas, who plays her regular-guy lover. It's the War portion of the show that provides the laughs, and it's Dey's character who's angry and confrontational.
Given the producers behind these shows--Blood-worth-Thomason is Hillary's bosom pal and English is the woman who took on Dan Quayle-the heroines are implicitly and explicitly meant to be feminists. They are new women in new kinds of relationships. They've seen the world and its men, they've been victimized and they'll be damned if they're going to take it anymore. Their anger is ideological, abstract, social.
Imagine how they'd react if their mates did something to really piss them off, like sleep with another woman. Instead, they vent their rage for other reasons. The Dey character, for instance, saves her wrath for an afternoon when her boyfriend, worried that his stressed-out lover needs a break from her job, takes her to a movie. She chooses a Thelma and Louise-style, girls-with-guns flick that sends her into a fever of feminist ire. By the time they leave the theater, she's flinging out phrases like "male oppressors." When the Thomas character protests that all he wanted to do was help her relax and have a good time, it becomes clear the poor woman is incapable of these experiences.
This is an odd message from two women who, in real life, have forged highly productive relationships with male partners. But don't mistake this as a sisterly lecture on the evils of promoting negative images of women. These shows are just sitcoms, after all. You'd have to be an idiot like, say, our former vice president, to take a TV character as a role model. But if I were to choose a relationship role model from one of these shows, it would have to be one of the guys. Not just because they're portrayed as more tolerant and flexible, but because they seem so much less miserable than the terminal PMS cases to which they're attached.
No show makes it into the top 20 without touching some nerve in the body politic. Angry, vocal women are characters that ring true in the post-Artira Hill era. And not just with all the angry vocal women out there. People are angry, period.
At the same time, women are the only people allowed to be angry on television today. Picture a male sitcom character as belligerent as the heroines of Bloodworth-Thomason and English. He would not be funny. He would probably be frightening. Or imagine an angry black man whose frustration and indignation is played for laughs.
Angry women, though, are not considered threatening. Their anger provides the mechanical conflict that powers current sitcoms, the way the buffoonish bellicosity of Ralph Kramden drove the classic war-between-the-sexes sitcom The Honeymooners. In the new shows, the women are the buffoons. At least no one laughs at a lady pathologist, a woman who knows how to use a knife and keep her cool. But then lady pathologists have an advantage: Most of the men they meet are dead.
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)