There she was, the one and only Suzanne Somers (the one with the big teeth), cavorting for 10,000 leering American servicemen in West Germany, proving once again that nothing is too bad to be put on television. Instead of Cagney and Lacey, a show of contemporary interest that portrays women as human beings, CBS inflicted on America last Monday evening a tasteless anachronism that had only one thing to sell: Suzanne Somers, sex object.
She slinked and wiggled and shimmied and jiggled her way through a collection of songs while the camera focused either on her or on the GIs in the audience who got right into the spirit of things by ogling her like they were watching a strip show. There were no redeeming displays of talent, funny jokes or skits to distract the viewers from the principal product. Unlike the great sex symbols of the past, Somers left little to the imagination. At one point she appeared in a skimpy black costume wearing something that looked like a dead black bird in her hair and hollered into the microphone, "Is there a man out there who needs a good woman? Let me tell you I am a good, good, good woman."
The high point of the special came when she bounced onto the stage wearing a Big Bird costume. The low point came when she and other women performers appeared on the stage doing a burlesque number, wearing costumes that were, in a word, unbelievable. They were poured into purple outfits shaped like merry widow corsets, with ornaments resembling piano keyboards affixed to their bustles. Each performer, including Somers, appeared with two bells dangling from the center of the fabric that covered their breasts, which they shook to create bell sounds. After this, the divine Suzanne delivered herself of some patriotic remarks and then tortured "America, the Beautiful."
In fairness, I should confess a certain bias: Cagney and Lacey, which is about two women police officers, is fast becoming one of my favorite shows. The heroines look and talk like real women and they have real working women's ambitions and problems. One of them has a terrific husband who cooks dinner and picks up children from the babysitter's. It may not sound terribly exciting, but when you figure it is one of the few shows on television that portrays working women in a way that remotely resembles reality, then you can see its appeal. That is why its replacement with something like the Suzanne Somers show was even more annoying.
Last fall, the National Commission on Working Women released a 10-year study of how television has portrayed women who work outside the home. While the study concentrated on working women, it offered some telling insights into how television has treated women in general. It found that Hispanic women were invisible on television. So were working couples. In the decade the commission studied, there were only 11 two-income couples in prime-time series and of those, only four had children; and most of the TV wives held traditional jobs.
More than half of all adult women are working, an enormous change of the last three decades with innumerable ramifications as to what interests women, what conflicts and problems dominate their lives, and how they perceive themselves. "TV has not caught up with this reality," noted the report. "Like advertising, it is still presenting an image of a woman whose role hasn't changed in 20 years."
"Stretching a paycheck, getting to work when the kids are sick, or trying to get promoted to a better job, rarely preoccupy women TV characters. In fact, they seem to have no financial worries at all."
The commission pointed out that networks have experienced a 10 percent decline in viewers in the last three years, with further declines expected as communities gain access to cable and pay TV. And it suggests that the new technologies--including cable, which is rapidly coming to the Washington area--can offer working women the kind of quality programming that the networks won't.
Television can entertain, it can teach, it can influence opinions and perpetuate stereotypes. It can also, as CBS demonstrated Monday night, offend. "Amos and Andy" is off the air. It is a testament to how far behind the times CBS is--and to the enormous vacuum cable and pay TV can fill--that the Suzanne Somers special was on.