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Lena Dunham, Emily Nussbaum and the Mixed Messages of 1980s TV

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire August 8, 2014 at 12:22PM

The star of "Girls" and the New Yorker's TV critic talk Susan Faludi's feminist classic "Backlash" and how it applies to "thirtysomething" and "The Cosby Show."
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"Designing Women"
"Designing Women"

At the Medium, a rotating cast of cultural critics and creators are working their way through Susan Faludi's feminist landmarks, "Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women," one chapter at a time. Faludi's 1991 book became a sensation for the way it challenged dominant narratives about independent women, among them the oft-repeated (and totally bogus) statistic that a single woman over 40 was more likely to be killed by a terrorist than she was to find a man to marry. But though it worked as a wake-up call, Faludi's pessimistic reading tended to gloss over the ways women were successfully fighting back, especially in the realm of popular culture. In their commentary on "Backlash's" sixth chapter, "Girls'" Lena Dunham, the New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum and Aminatou Sow, the host of the podcast "Call Your Girlfriend," point out how shows like "The Cosby Show" and "thirtysomething" were finding new ways to represent women, even as they worked within a framework designed to perpetuate stereotypes. Here are few excerpts.

Emily Nussbaum: I thought the analysis of the shows was oddly tone-deaf: it gives short shrift to shows that contradict her thesis and it’s so focused on the image of the working mother that it leaves out many other feminist issues. It’s also just wrong on a few points: How is Clair Huxtable a repetition of old-school Ozzie & Harriet type moms? That said, there’s a lot of fantastic reporting, which still holds together. It’s very illuminating about behind-the-scenes discussions, especially about "Cagney & Lacey" and "thirtysomething."

Aminatou Sow: The "Cagney & Lacey" analysis is great, and the sexism at play is infuriating. Legend has it producer Barney Rosenzweig told the network he wouldn’t make the show unless the women were allowed to make a menstruation joke.

Lena Dunham: I watched "thirtysomething" in college and was completely rapt. I think the female characters are actually stronger than the men on the show. Melanie Mayron is an object of fascination for me, not least of all because she directed "The Baby-Sitters Clubmovie. "thirtysomething" addressed the figure of the working mother in a way that felt honest and truthful (albeit neatly composed for prime time).

Nussbaum: I liked that Melissa was neurotic, she seemed liked a rich and interesting person  —  not just an object of pity. It’s the part that doesn’t come across in Faludi’s portrayal, that an interesting character is more valuable than someone that women can see simply as a model for an ideal life.

Dunham: I was definitely struck, upon reading the chapter, by the fact that even though female-driven television wasn’t dominating at that point, the shows that did exist ("Roseanne," "Golden Girls," "Designing Women") have such lasting influence. 

EN: It was a pretty interesting moment because there were these two smash-hit contrasting sitcoms: "Cosby" and "Roseanne." "Cosby" was a very old-school sitcom, except that it put a black buppie family in place of the old-school "Father Knows Best" idea  —  but in the scripts, Cosby lectured the boys a ton about feminism (or, really, respecting women.)... Meanwhile, "Roseanne" blew everything wide open, as a working-class working mother who was fat and angry and explicitly political and just raw and impolite. The show had such a different tone from "Cosby," but the two shows were linchpins that upended the question of who could be at the center of a network series.

Sow: Mikki Halpin brought up an interesting point last week discussing the chapter on media: “What bothers me is that Faludi takes ‘the media’ to task for not covering what she says is really happening in women’s lives and in the women’s movement, yet she too ignores important discussions and crucial ’80s texts and issues that took up feminist energy while the ‘backlash’ was happening.” And that really struck me because it applies here as well. I’m sorry I keep going back to "Designing Women" and my strong feeling that Faludi dismissed the show’s lasting legacy, but I think that’s what’s happening here.

Nussbaum:
 Me personally, I can’t get over how huge the range of female representation is on TV currently, on both cable and network  —  although some of it is on shows people pay little attention to, like "The Fosters," because that show doesn’t fit into the class-inflected category of “prestige cable television.” Susan Faludi, come over and watch "Inside Amy Schumer" with me.

What's fascinating about the conversation — which is much longer, and eminently worth reading in full — is what it reveals about how the sea change in how TV is perceived. In 1991, shows like "The Golden Girls" and "Designing Women" were easily overlooked because they were perceived as apolitical — although considering the latter's Linda Bloodworth-Thomason produced Bill Clinton's famous campaign video, "The Man From Hope," you can bet she knew exactly the kinds of political messages the show conveyed. As Sow points out, Faludi was focused on the classically (white) feminist issues of social class and workplace equality, and looked right past how radical the character of, say, Meshach Taylor's interior designer was in the late 1980s. Then again, as Nussbaum points out, a similar prejudice persists today as critics gravitate towards prestige-cable drama and gloss over shows like "The Fosters" and "Switched at Birth." As Faludi points out in her book, some forms of oppression are vanquished over time, but more often they simply change shape and reappear.

This article is related to: Lena Dunham, Bill Cosby


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