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On television, it's the year of women on the verge


ON THE NEWS, the L.A. riots mesmerized the nation. But on TV prime time, where the entertainment never stops, it's the sweeps period -- the time when the networks trot out their most topical mini-series to corral a mass audience. Continuing a recent trend, TV has apparently decided that dramas about manipulative or victimized women out for revenge are this season's hottest topic. For example:

* In "Stay the Night," a seductive sociopath persuades a teen-ager to murder her husband, only to be brought to justice by the boy's mother.

* In "In My Daughter's Name," a mother and daughter go after a rapist.

* In "Calendar Girl, Cop Killer?" -- well, you get the point.

According to Entertainment Weekly, these mini-series follow such earlier presentations this season as "Bed of Lies" (woman kills abusive husband), "Wife, Murderer, Mother" (woman poisons husband) and "A Woman Scorned" (divorcee shoots former husband). You obviously don't have to be a sociologist to recognize that this trend is TV's way of exploring the war between the sexes. In a year that has seen the furor over "Thelma and Louise," the Tyson and Smith trials, the Hill-Thomas confrontation and the Gennifer Flowers accusations against Bill Clinton, it's no surprise that TV has taken up the theme as well.

What's notable, of course, is how TV has dramatized the issue by playing to cultural stereotypes. On the one hand, these dramas often portray angry women who fulfill the "Thelma and Louise" fantasy of avenging themselves on abusive men. Never mind that the statistics show that the percentage of all murders committed by women is only around 10 percent.

But in a larger sense, these portrayals play to male fears of what independent women are really like -- namely, crazy feminists who will turn on those closest to them, a theme that was actually pursued with some success during the Thomas hearings and Flowers episode.

Another underlying theme of these teleplays is that mothers who work frequently run into trouble, often with their "neglected" children. Whether it's Elizabeth Montgomery, a real estate agent under siege in "With Murder in Mind," or Sharon Gless, whose troubled son becomes a killer in "Honor Thy Mother," the message is clear: Women who enter the workplace do so at their own, and their children's, peril.

With the backlash against feminism, well-documented by Susan Faludi and others, it's hardly a shock that these dramas are drawing audiences. What is surprising is that such mini-series are popular in the same era, on the same networks, with many of the same predominantly female audiences as such supposedly progressive shows as "Designing Women" and "Murphy Brown," which featured a single-mother pregnancy this season.

The point, of course, is that most Americans of both sexes are quite ambivalent about the role of women in the '90s. To a degree, they believe both the "Murphy Brown" and "Calendar Girl, Cop Killer?" portraits, just as they found themselves nodding as both Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill gave their testimony or William Kennedy Smith and Patricia Bowman delivered theirs.

With the role of women still one of the culture's principal preoccupations, the issue is sure to play a role in this year's presidential campaign, where it will be played out largely in a debate over which wife the public likes more: Barbara Bush or Hillary Clinton. So far, the polling data suggest that if forced to choose, the voting public may not be nearly as ready for a working mother in the White House as many think.

The primary victories of Lynn Yeakel in Pennsylvania and Carol Moseley Braun in Illinois have convinced many that a revolution is occurring in the political life of the nation. But low-turnout Democratic primaries aren't general elections, where the masses vote. In fact, if the themes of this year's mini-series are any indication, those Democratic primaries are an aberration. Women still have a long way to go.

Steven Stark is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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