MY LITTLE FRIENDS and I nurtured throughout the early '50s on a steady diet of I-Married-Joan-I-Married-Lucy-I-Married-Gracie, had no way of knowing just how benighted we were.
To show you how far deprivation can go, the sole electronic fantasy we all shared concerned a consuming romance with The Lone Ranger - this despite the rumor about his abominably ugly eyes, which (we were sure) were masked for cosmetic reasons alone. There was among us one morally defective child who wanted to be Princess Summer-Fall-Winter-Spring on "The Howdy Doody Show." No one, on the other hand, especially admired Lois Lane - she of the padded shoulders and the predilection for men in tights.
Ms. Lane having since benefitted by some serious and wrongheaded electronic revisionism (presenting her as a precursor of the Independent Working Woman), it is worthwhile noting that by the time Superman died she had not managed to: (a) discover how cute Clark Kent was without his glasses, (b) improve her wardrobe or (c) receive a raise from The Daily Planet.
Which is all by way of explaining that we had no role models, a term that has barged into current usage in the most offensive way, and which means some kind of authority figure a lot of social scientists believe worthy of admiration and emulation. This was difficult to do with, say. My Mother the Car.
Now girl-children of the '60s had a different set of choices altogether. The most memorable TV heroines were - as men always suspected of women - magic. They were witches (as in "Bewitched") who despite their enormous powers, wanted desperately to be housewives.They were genies (as in "I Dream of . . .") whose emotional excesses could instantly be curtailed by shoving them back into the bottle. They were in other words, the pliant and compliant fantasies of the men of that time - awesome in their potential, petty in their aspirations and dump as a stick.
But now all that's changed. The '70s have given us role models with a vengeance, and for the first time a whole lot of them happen to be female.
They are everywhere: "Rhoda," "The Bionic Woman," "Poilcewoman," "Charlie's Angels," "Phyllis," "Wonderwoman," the dear defunct Mary Tyler Moore who at once embodied and vindicated the solitary Saturday night. Whether or not these ladies are role-models is questionable. Model would be more appropriate and certainly more literally true, for the one thing women on television do not yet have is the right to be is homely, ugly or excessively funny-looking, and the failure of Nancy Walker to command for herself a sizable audience with "Blansky's Beauties" is possibly attributable to this. Men can most certainly be bald and paunchy (Telly Savalas), oppressively ugly (Don Rickles) and - of late - old (Art Carney). But Farrah Fawcett-Majors come to us straight out of the shampoo commercials only to dive sportingly onto the cover of Vogue, and Rhoda is by now as slender as a fading hope, and both Phyllis and Police-woman wear the most divine little numbers on what is after all, a working stiff's salary.
What has changed then is the multiplicity of females and the nature of some of their functions.What has not changed is that a lot of our heroines do not happen to be women. They are men in drag - men as TV has always perceived them, anyway. Which is to say that the female leads on adventure shows today are stalwart law enforcers, iron-jawed indestructibles carved directly out of the rib of "Adam-12." The clearest example of this is the Bionic Woman, a lineal descendent of "I Dream of Jeannie" in that she is not made up of normal parts and is in some sense supernatural. She can, for instance, hear conversations miles away by pulling her earlobe, an enviable gift to be sure, but one that is unavailable to most of us.
Like all her sister-heroines on the adventure series, she had no enduring emotional ties to men. The unwitting fiancee of "The Six Million Dollar Man," she managed to sever that alliance by the simple expedient of forgetting about it entirely (and would that we all had this option open to us . . .). This is important because what most TV women share today is implicit sexual availability to any man.
To her credit, the Bionic Woman cannot be shoved back into her bottle. On the other hand, most of her was conceived in a laboratory, which may or may not affect her explicit sexual availablility (I worry about that sometimes . . .)
On the other hand, you may be sure, nobody has been fretting about the availability of "Charlie's Angels." There are three of them and they all wear bikinis to great effect, which is evidently the latest job requirement for lady detectives. If you watch "Policewoman" you'll notice that Angie Dickinson was fortunate enough to be issued a gun, but Charlie's Angels have an infinitely more lethal weapon against dopedealers, murderers and other assorted riffraff.
They flirt with them. Every time any one of them puckers up, you know it's cutrains for some poor outlaw. In fact there is only one man in the entire show they never kiss. He is Charlie, their invisible boss (and would that we all had such thoughtful employers . . .) whose voice alone comes to them over the intercom.
(In this sense "Charlie's Angels" may be considered an updated version of "Waiting for Godot" with top ratings. It is impossible to overemphasize the importance of that threatening word "Angels" in the title or the fact that they do, quite literally, belong wholly to Charlie, who never appears.) Television, which generally borrows very little from life, adheres to reality rather strictly in this instance: Almost all female figures are beholden to male superiors.
Unlike "Delvecchio," "Kojak," "Baretta" and "Starsky and Hutch," female adventure shows (with the single exception of Nancy Drew) tend to draw their titles from the nature, rather than the name, of the heroine - the name is not yet enough to command an audience, evidently. Of the five shows with anonymous titles, only Policewoman is endowed with a first name you can actually remember. It is Pepper, and while a lot of us might have a tough time on the beat with that kind of name, Angie Dickinson does not. Every pimp, pusher, axe-murderer and - of course - rapist warms to her instantly because although she does not flirt, she empathizes.
I cannot tell you how many times I have turned on "Policewoman" to find Angie in the most appalling circumstances (an attempted rape, near death - all that sort of thing) only to see her wheedle her way of it by . . . empathy. That and her rather casual boyfriend-the-partner, who generally backs up empathy with a fine left hook.
Like her sister law enforcers on television Pepper lacks something in particular. It is called a problem. Both "Police Story" and "The Blue Knight" have advanced the humanity of their heroes by showing them engaging in marital spats or worrying about sending their kids through college. But women authority figures, new to television, do not yet have the luxury of being fallible. Only the situation comedies whose nature demands that its characters resolve at least one problem an episode bequeath to heroines the right of being wrong.
Which brings us to "Rhoda," "Mary Tyler Moore," "Maude" et al. And boy do they have problems . . . Divorce, alcoholism, extramarital affairs, abortion, waxy yellow build-up. Comedy has become a vale of tears.
Not so very long ago Lucy's main dilemma in life involved preventing Ricky from discovering she'd bought a new hat, so certainly we've come a sizable distance since then. And yet - and yet - every time I watch Maude I get the feeling that all her problems - the mental illness, the aging, the fear of divorce - have been reduced to Lucy's illicit purchase.
In light-hearted shows the ability of a woman to make certain painful decisions for herself is still invariably accompanied by a perfunctory gulp or stammer. The only exception to this, (and it is a modified exception at that), is Nancy Drew.
The saving grace of Nancy Drew, who is supposed to be a teen-age amateur sleuth, is that here father is always wrong and she is always right. Nancy Drew invariably goes to her father for advice and consent. He dutifully gives it. She then dutifully ignores him and goes out to solve soe dreadful murder. The murderer is invariably an adult, grown-ups being the subversive elements on any Nancy Drew show and the subjects of her brilliant sleuthing.
To be sure, she does have a loyal sidekick, and she does date someone named Ned, but he is a drip and of no earthly use to any teen-age detective. Nancy Drew is therefore forced to go it alone. She is, in other words, the closest any woman has come to McCloud, independence in a woman being permissible only when she is a girl.
And now for a stunning statistic: It is said that the average child in this country will have watched, by age 18, 15,000 hours of television. I don't know what little girls are going to make of that. Cetainly it is a relief that they cannot grow up to be bionic. Presumably none of them is aching to be Phyllis. If life is good to them they won't end up with either Starsky or Hutch. They might, quite conceivably, just go their own way when they grow up - and more power to them. It's the only way to go.
And after all, the male-role models, strong, decisive robots that they are, are not that much better off. We who were once about as young as television always had our suspicions about masked men.