In television, it's always "The Year of The" something. From the looks of some shows on the new network schedules, this is to be the year of the bitch boss. It's not a development worth much of a hearty hoo-rah.
In fact, what we may have here is a twisted piece of fallout from the women's movement. True, more women in television shows, especially sitcoms, are being depicted in active, assertive roles. But in comedies where one finds a woman boss, she doesn't really differ all that much from the lady bosses of movies in the '40s, except that padded shoulders appear to be out and liberation has made these women bosses sexual Scrooges, frustrated crabs and despotic killjoys.
Subtly there is the suggestion that in acquiring power they have sacrificed their femininity and this makes them mean. Is this kind of stereotype really anything new? It probably goes back to Adam, the first male chauvinist. At least in the '30s and '40s, career women had character. Rosalind Russell in "His Girl Friday" was no ninny; maybe she did have a soft spot for that scoundrel Walter Burns, but she was also capable of chasing a prison guard and wrestling him to the ground.
They literally do not make women like that any more. In the popular arts.
The new TV portrayals are actually a leap backward, maybe two leaps, from that pivotal working woman of the '70s, Mary Richards, heroine of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." Although she did answer to a male boss, and always referred to him as "Mr. Grant," Mary developed into a dimensional, affirmative character no feminist could reasonably deride.
Now come the '80s and a regression to the '50s, albeit with kinky new wrinkles.
On "Bosom Buddies," the bitch-boss is called Ruth Dunbar and she's an executive at a Chicago advertising agency. She is portrayed as ruthless, calculating and willing to take all the credit for work done by underlings, though they're threatened with expulsion if she should suffer a moment's embarrassment. The program is one of the brighter comedies of the season, but from its own script one could pluck an apt term for this particular conceit, and it would be "bull pucky."
Elsewhere on ABC, the catty boss pops up on "I'm a Big Girl Now," one of the most clearly doomed sitcoms of the season. This lady boss isn't really a monster, but she makes up for that by being weird. Instead of suffering from sexual starvation like the others, she goes too far the other way; she's sex-mad. In the pilot, she talks merrily about her odd boyfriend, who likes to dress in rubber.
When the heroine of the show worries about whether her new boyfriend is actually a married man, the boss advises her to ask him and then says, "Don't worry -- odds are he won't tell you the truth." It happens that this is one of the few TV sitcoms written by a woman -- the cynical Susan Harris, creator of "Soap." It proves that it doesn't take a man to dream up demeaning images of women for TV.
On Abc's "It's a Living," the boss is played by the gifted comic actress Marian Mercer. Again, we're given something of an unreasonable, frustrated, small-minded tyrant, though the mitigating adorability about this character is supposed to be that she is daffy and absent-minded, a cross between Lady Macbeth and Blondie. Definitely not one giant step for womankind.
But the worst offender is on CBS -- the smirky and unfunny sitcom "Ladies' Man," about a wimpey schmo who's the only male employe at a magazine for and run by women. Here the boss is another unreasonable Witch of Endor, and a sexually stymied one as well. She's vindictive, she's hypocritical and she's unfair. In the pilot, she was also guilty of sexual harassment and discrimination, a problem one could safely say plagues far more women than men in the real world of work.
Among the women on TV perpetually pointed to with pride is Nancy Marchand as Mrs. Pynchon, publisher of the fictitious Los Angeles Tribune on "Lou Grant." Mrs. Pynchon is nobody's fool, hardly a weakling, not dominated by men (although Lou and other male editors at times have to talk her out of foolish notions) and a character with depth and moxie. However, it should also be noted that not every woman publisher's office comes complete with a precious little doggy-woggy that sits in the out box on the desk.
Ironically or not, women continue to be the key target audience for most prime-time programming -- specifically, women between the golden consumer ages of 18 and 49. And if this woman-dominated Nielsen audience is not rejecting the sitcom images of women, can the shows justifiably be criticized? Maybe not, but early evidence on the new season indicates that the audience is not cradling these new programs to its bosom; "Ladies' Man" is a disaster, the others also-rans even in a season of also-rans.
And the highest-rated TV movie so far this year was a roaring man-hater called "The Women's Room" on ABC, indicating the audience may be so fed up with slurs on womanhood that it will eagerly opt for slurs on manhood as an alternative.
Few things are quite as tedious as advocating ideal "role models" on television that cater to every conceivable special interest group or demographic faction. If TV writers followed through on the demands of all special interests, then only racial and sexual minorities would be portrayed in favorable lights; white Anglo-Saxon males would always be the heavies.In fact this has become, for lack of a better term, the norm.
So it's not that every woman boss in every drama and sitcom should be palmed off as the ideal, well-adjusted, saintly human being. In addition, there's a long-standing and probably healthy tradition of always portraying bosses as villains. On "Taxi," the tyrannical Louie, cab dispatcher, is a hilariously exaggerated extension of what millions feel about their superiors on the job.
But there's nothing topical or timely about Louie; he's a classic, and he can't be said to comprise a reflection of contemporary changes in sexual roles. cThe women bosses on the sitcoms are obviously unwanted by-products of those changes, and it's too bad they represent such a reactionary impulse. They don't differ that much from the "career women" in old movies except that they tend to be meaner, more messed-up and, worst of all, less human.