David Zurawik

TV and the rise and (hopefully) fall of patriarchy

There is an irony that must be noted in television’s playing a leading role in making pariahs out of some of its biggest sexual predators lately, while Washington and much of corporate America drag their heels. TV, after all, has been the principal media teacher of patriarchy since its arrival in American homes after World War II.

And everything we have been seeing since the fall of Bill Cosby and Roger Ailes, including the recent firings of Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer, is about patriarchy and this revolutionary cultural moment we are in.


Since Cosby’s accusers came forward, I have been writing that this oppressive ideology appears at long last to be losing its hold on our minds and lives. And nowhere does it have a stronger hold than on the minds of baby boomer men who still retain much power in this culture — from Congress and the White House to network and cable TV.

But I truly believe we can change that if we don’t lose our nerve and back away from taking down those who have used their power to violate the privacy, dignity, spirit and bodies of women. Media have led the way in providing a forum for this discussion this last year — a forum that honors the testimony of victims in a way it has not been honored elsewhere, be it human resources departments, courts or corner offices.


I was asked by a student recently how I thought so many men came to believe it was somehow righteous to think they should hold dominion over women. At the mention of the Old Testament, I could see my questioner’s eyes glaze over.

But male clerics certainly played a role. So did male English department chairmen who demanded their students follow reading lists full of male authors and devoid of women.

I am not trying to put media over school and church in appropriating blame.

But since my beat is media, let’s just go back to TV in the 1950s and note prime-time situation comedies with titles like “Father Knows Best,” which aired on CBS and NBC from 1954 to 1960 and hammered home the theme week in and week out that we should all defer to Dad.

Men of my generation grew up with a sea of shows teaching that ideology, whether they were sitcoms, Westerns or medical and police dramas. Women could be able assistants to men, but that was it. And they usually had to have a crush on their male superiors in the bargain. Love your oppressor.

And for non-scripted fare as we moved into adolescence, there was late-night, with Johnny Carson offering a tamer version of the view of men and women popularized by Hugh Hefner in the pages of “Playboy.”

“The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” ran from 1962 to 1992, and dominated the time period most of those years. It also taught sexism and patriarchy, with Carson joking about how his ex-wives were constantly squeezing him for alimony as if it was his right to be unfaithful to women he married. Meanwhile, them asking for monetary compensation somehow made him the victim.

When he retired from The “Tonight Show,” I argued that he did more to teach masculinity to baby boomer men than perhaps any institution in society, and we were the worse off for it.


Carson was the role model for a generation of comedians like David Letterman who have had such enormous effects on teaching masculinity and male-female relations to successive generations of young men.

Yes, that David Letterman who in 2009 acknowledged having had sexual relations with women on the staff of his CBS show, including interns.

That’s the same David Letterman, by the way, who was honored on PBS last month with the telecast of “David Letterman: The Mark Twain Prize.”

Last month!

Something as ancient and evil as patriarchy will not die easily even with the likes of Lauer and Rose banished from their TV towers the past two weeks.

I was also asked by that same student how we reached this current cultural moment with media figures like Bill O’Reilly and Louis CK falling left and right.


There is one strand of conventional wisdom that attributes it to the fall of media titan Harvey Weinstein as a result of The New York Times’ reporting widespread allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior.

All praise to the Times, but that is not when the wall started to come down, in my opinion.

You could go as far back as the summer of 2016 and the lawsuits that brought Ailes down at Fox News. That certainly played a role, and all praise to the brave TV women like Gretchen Carlson who took that monster on.

But I believe the moment that drove many women to say they would do whatever it took to end the evil of patriarchy came with the election of Donald J. Trump as president only a month after the release of an “Access Hollywood” tape in which he boasted of sexually assaulting women.

His words were bold, base, vile, cocky and ugly. This is what patriarchy sounds like in the mouth of an arrogant, ignorant man who is a believer in the superiority of his gender.

The Women’s March in January, which was at least in part a response to his election, is one of the most powerful protest moments I have witnessed. And if you thought the force of all those who marched was going to dissipate when they returned to their homes, you were living as far out in fantasy land as some think the president himself is living these days.


Even though we now have male network and cable TV executives doing the firing, after looking the other way far too long in some cases, it is the marchers who are bringing down Rose, Lauer and all the rest.

And, hopefully, changing us for the better.