As a newcomer to Washington last year I watched the "Goodbye Willard" ceremonies on Channel 4 with considerable interest. The former weatherman obviously earned a good deal of respect and affection from the Washington community. There aren't too many good guys left in this world, and Willard Scott apparently is one of them.
And so he was showered with presents and parties and given a rousing sendoff to his new job on the "Today" show in New York. Fine, nothing wrong with that.
But as I watched the parade of honors for Willard, a couple of questions came to my mind. Suppose that Willard, a congenial, overweight, not-too-handsome middle-aged man had instead been Wilma, a congenial, overweight not-too-handsome middle-aged woman?
Would such an outpouring of affection have been forthcoming for Wilma, or even more fundamentally, would Wilma ever have been able to obtain that TV job in the first place and hang onto it over the years as the jowels sagged and the weight crept up?
The answer to both these questions seems to be, "No." As in many other aspects of life, there is a double standard at work in television. And that double standard says that it is perfectly acceptable for men to be homely, to get old, wrinkled, or covered with liver spots, but it emphatically is not acceptable for the same thing to happen to women.
There are to be sure, middle-aged and older women in television, but they bear scant resemblance to the middle-aged and older women you and I encounter in the supermarket, even in Washington which -- with New York and Hollywood -- seems to have an uncommonly high percentage of handsome women around. In point of fact, few middle-aged women I know can squeeze into size 8 dresses, and not many have had facelifts or nose jobs.
Like most middle-aged men, they come in various sizes, shapes and stages of physical slippage. Wrinkles, bags, blotches and bifocals adorn their less-than-perfectly-aligned features. Some, like Willard, have spaces between their front teeth, and some, like Willard, have wonderful personalities.
From watching television shows, you would hardly guess that such less-than-perfect women have existed, let alone have any meaningful place in our society. One would never know that they hold down responsible jobs inside and outside the home, or that they can write, paint, be active in politics or perform well in any of a number of important roles.
The truth is that women over 40 have very limited roles on television; homely, or even ordinary-looking women, even fewer.
In the television drama shows, for example, middle-aged and older men seldom have middle-aged wives. The concept of a happy marriage between two persons over 40 is almost totally ignored. The wives of aging television heroes usually are divorced, estranged, or conveniently dead, and hence not around to complicate either the plot, or the lives, of geriatric heroes as they cavort around with women half their age.
Marcus Welby, Rockford, Harry O, Mr. Drummond of "Diff'rent Strokes" and Trapper John, popular TV heroes of the last decade, never worry about pleasing a middle-aged wife or, for that matter, have any meaningful relationships with post-menopausal women. Karl Malden, to be sure, had a wife in his short-lived "Skag." Predictably she looked about 20 years younger than he, and predictably she was uncommonly good looking. Mr. Malden is an excellent actor, but no one could accuse of him of being handsome.
Wouldn't it have been nice for a change if his television wife had been similarly unhandsome, and that he had been portrayed as loving her even so? Such a situation seems to be beyond the imaginings of most of the writers and producers of video scripts.
In a few shows such as "Family" (now defunct) or "Lou Grant" or "Dallas," a few middle-aged women are portrayed as persons you and I might be likely to know (although Lou Grant himself, of course, does not have a wife in the series). But mostly middle-aged women in television series are relegated to the role of comic relief, like the housekeeper of "Diff'rent Strokes" and all of her housekeeper predecessors in the last two dacades of family shows.
The portrayal of middle-aged and older women in television advertising is even more offensive. Mostly they are allowed to sell laxatives, arthritis nostrums, toilet paper and soap powder. Inevitably they are shown as helpless, subservient, incapable of doing for themselves, or even making up their own minds on the most trivial of matters.
"If that's what he wants," says one woman as her husband squeezes the toilet paper, "that's the brand I'll buy."
A middle-aged woman is told, "You do so much for others, why not do something for yourself?" The "something for herself" is taking a special laxative. To imply as this ad does, that there is a special laxative which older women should take seems particularly fraudulent and offensive.
One of the cruelest TV ads portrays the outline of a woman taking a shower. When she steps out, instead of seeing a beautiful young thing, the viewer is shown the wrinkled feet and shoulders of an aging female -- admonished to take a particular patent medicine for her aches and pains. No television advertiser would dare portray such an insulting image of a middle-aged man with all his bags and wrinkles. But for women the message is: "When you're female and over 40, baby, you become an unlovely consumer of pills."
Another advertising put-down starts out with a seeming salute to an accomplished woman by showing a fortyish author autographing her book in a store. Up comes a handsome man, but he is immediately deflected to a young woman who is doused with the proper brand of perfume.
We are told that children spend more of their time watching television than doing anything else, including going to school. We know that adults also spend a lot of time watching TV. Consciously or not, all of us absorb the humiliating, degrading and demonstrably false images of middle-aged women which television endlessly projects on the screen.
The medium has long employed 40-plus men who are less than handsome while requiring its women to be beauty queens. How about it Abc, CBS, NBC? You know that Willard is a valuable star; isn't it time you hired Wilma?