by Kathy Merlock Jackson
Today when people look back at television in the 1960s and 1970s, they cringe at its portrayals of women and see that messages that seemed to be progressive at the time were merely smokescreens in a patriarchal world view. Nevertheless, changes in culture had to begin somewhere, and for an audience of post-World War II baby-boom females, television provided a lens for growing up. Prime-time network television programs targeted different segments of the population, but very little was available for baby-boom girls growing up and looking toward their futures. However, three popular prime-time television sitcoms,The Patty Duke Show, That Girl, and the Mary Tyler Moore Show, aired when few shows were built around the lives of young single women, demonstrated for their time agency, ambition, and professional aspirations of females. Although antiquated by today’s standards, each of these shows–driven by an attractive woman with a flip hairstyle, lots of warmth, and endless determination–was groundbreaking. Collectively, they comprise a single narrative of female maturation from high school student, to job seeker, to young professional, showing steps a woman can take to navigate a male-dominated world, achieve independence, and establish an identity and career.
The Patty Duke Show, That Girl, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, baby-boom females, television portrayals of women, prime-time sitcoms
Today when people look back at television in the 1960s and 1970s, they cringe at its portrayals of women. A popular advertising campaign for Virginia Slims cigarettes claimed, “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby,” but like that slogan, messages that seemed to be progressive at the time were merely smokescreens in a patriarchal world view. Nevertheless, changes in culture had to begin somewhere, and for an audience of post-World War II baby-boom females, television provided a lens for growing up. In America between 1946 and 1964, roughly seventy-six million babies were born, about half of them female, with the high-water mark for births occurring around the mid 1950s, which was also a key period for the expansion of the television audience. Prime-time network television programs targeted different segments of the population, but very little was available, in the early age of the Barbie doll, for baby-boom girls growing up and looking toward their futures. Beginning in 1959, Mattel Toys took to the air waves to advertise Barbie directly to girls on children’s television. In the words of its creator, Ruth Handler, Barbie assured little girls that they would someday grow up, enabling them to imagine their future selves and truly dream their dreams (Stern).
So too did three popular prime-time television sitcoms, The Patty Duke Show, That Girl, and the Mary Tyler Moore Show, which aired in an era when few shows were built around the lives of young single women who, for their time, demonstrated agency, ambition, and professional aspirations. The Patty Duke Show, which ran on ABC from September 18, 1963, to April 27, 1966, became the first television show to be named after a teenage girl. In it, Duke played identical cousins Patty and Cathy Lane, high school students in Brooklyn Heights, New York. The show centered on teen girls, showing that their lives, concerns, and hopes are important. Just five months after The Patty Duke Show ended, Marlo Thomas debuted on ABC in That Girl, featuring television’s first young, single independent female. She played the role of struggling actress Ann Marie, who moves out of her parents’ home in Brewster, New York, and tries to make it on her own in her early twenties in New York City. The show ran for nearly five years until it ended on March 19, 1971, just six months after another female-focused show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, appeared on CBS, featuring thirty-year old Mary Richards leaving town after the break-up of a two-year relationship to begin a new life and career in Minneapolis The show followed Mary for seven years, wrapping up on March 19, 1977.
Although antiquated by today’s standards, each of these shows–driven by an attractive woman with a flip hairstyle, lots of warmth, and endless determination–was groundbreaking for its time. Collectively, they comprise a single narrative of female maturation from high school student, to job seeker, to young professional, showing steps a woman can take to navigate a male-dominated world, achieve independence, and establish an identity and career. In so doing, these shows, which share patterns of goofy sidekicks and madcap capers, fill an important role not only in the evolution of prime-time television but also in the lives of young females, demonstrating that they have agency, abilities, and life choices aside from love and marriage. Considering the shows in this manner constitutes a new way of looking at television characters and their sequential influence on the mindset of a youth audience, dovetailing with what Melissa Ames and Sarah Burcon describe in How Popular Culture Shapes the Stages of a Woman’s Life as studying the “impact that popular culture products marketed toward girls and women have on their development through various ages and ‘stages’ of life” (5).
Patty Duke, who at the age of sixteen won the 1962 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker, plays a very different part in her namesake series, The Patty Duke Show. Entertainment writer Ramin Setoodah, who claims the show was her favorite when she was growing up, calls Duke’s character “a high-school version of Lucy Ricardo, except she didn’t have Ethel. She had something better: an identical cousin.” As Setoodah reflects, “The Patty Duke Show spoke to me as a kid because it was like a serialized version of The Parent Trap. But . . . I also realized it was one of the first TV shows to feature a strong, single, opinionated young woman. You could say that it paved the way for The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda, Murphy Brown, 30 Rock, even Hannah Montana” (Setoodah). Although Patty has an affable boyfriend Richard, she does not center her life on pleasing him. Instead, she functions as a force in her high school. In one episode, Patty, whose father is a New York journalist, becomes editor-in-chief of her high school newspaper and has her own ideas about news; in another, Patty plans celebrity musical events for her high school prom and even sings with the band. However, Patty’s aspirations take her beyond Brooklyn Heights High as she explores many career options. Other endeavors include starting a babysitting business (even though she has no babysitters), marketing one of Cathy’s popular handmade dresses to the masses, selling stocks for a company she calls Patty Lane, Inc., campaigning for a family friend’s bid for a Congressional seat, writing a novel, and joining the Peace Corps. Cathy, Patty’s quiet, reserved, and serious cousin, succeeds in school, appreciates the arts and travel, and provides a different role model for tween and teen viewers. She is tapped for student of the year, hosts a classical musical program, writes a fiery letter to the editor of her local newspaper, and works behind the scenes to solve problems when Patty’s schemes go awry. Sometimes Patty’s and Cathy’s styles clash, such as when they unknowingly nominate one another for President of the Girls League or both want to be student of the year, leading to audiences identifying with Team Patty and Team Cathy and acknowledging their different approaches to leadership and conflict. It might be easy to pass off The Patty Duke Show as a silly 1960s sitcom in which most of Patty’s and Cathy’s escapades fizzle; however, for a young female audience watching and talking about this show, it cracked open the door for new roles and possibilities, aside from being someone’s girlfriend. It showed that girls’ lives mattered.
That Girl debuted the same year that The Patty Duke Show left the air, picking up where the earlier sitcom left off. In it, Ann Marie, played by Marlo Thomas, has all the energy of an older Patty Lane. A young woman in her early twenties from a small town in New York, she has just moved away from her parents’ home to her own apartment in New York City in order to launch an acting career. Thomas, a political activist who advocated for feminist causes and the Equal Rights Amendment, served as a creator and producer of the show, paving the way for female creative power in The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Laverne and Shirley, Kate and Allie, and Murphy Brown (Newman 286). In her article on Marlo Thomas as a feminist icon, Emily L. Newman regards the show as “more than just the sweet little sitcom” and asserts that although there was increasing pressure for Ann and her boyfriend Donald not only to get engaged but married, Thomas resisted. “It was her producing role,” Newcomb writes, “that allowed Thomas so much control over the program and helped provide a space for women in television to just appear or even star on a program” (286). This control contributed to the Ann Marie persona. Although Ann’s father is over protective and her boyfriend Donald is a big part of her life, she forges ahead with her own ambitions, confronting the difficulties of doing so. Making it in acting is not easy, as evidenced by Ann’s grueling auditions and roles she plays: gagged hostage, mop, dancing chicken, elf in a department store, villain in a soap opera, dancer in a gypsy revival, model wearing chinchilla, and caterer in a cave girl outfit, all of which made her appear totally ditzy. Still, Ann is committed to building her own self-identity and career, and the series ends not with Ann’s marriage to Donald but instead with the duo attending a gathering of feminists (Mitchard).
In 1970, just before That Girl ended, The Mary Tyler Moore Show appeared, with Mary Richards seeming much like an older and more sophisticated Ann Marie. Like That Girl, The Mary Tyler Moore Show featured women behind the scenes, including Moore as producer, Treva Silverman and Pat Nardo as writers, and Ethel Winant as talent and casting director. They created what Hope Reese regards as “the first time in television history when a woman’s perspective was not only highly regarded, but crucial to the success of the show” or, in essence, “TV’s first truly female-dominated sitcom” (Reese). The series begins with Mary Richards leaving her boyfriend, whom she has been putting through medical school, to move alone across country to Minneapolis, where she and old friend Phyllis and new friend Rhoda become confidantes. She rents her own apartment in the same building as the two, interviews for a secretarial position at a local broadcasting station, and lands a job as an associate producer of a television news show after her new boss, Lou Grant, asserts, “You have spunk. I hate spunk.” Mary is unsure of herself but proud of her position, mustering up enough courage to ask her boss Lou Grant why she is making less than the man she replaced even though she is doing a better job. She grows into her role, developing news sense and good judgment, solving problems, becoming a valued member of the team, and representing the aspirations and lifestyle of the modern woman. Jacquelyn Michard regards the Mary Tyler Moore Show as the “cultural-watershed sitcom that brought us the unsinkable Mary Richards, a single career woman over 30 who didn’t need a man to support her.” “Demure but sexy,” Michard adds, “Mary was one of TV’s first women to let a boyfriend sleep over” (Mitchard). Ending in 1977, the series lasted seven seasons, during which time Mary is put in charge of the newsroom while Lou is away, gets arrested for refusing to name a source, is promoted to producer, plans and writes many news shows, and ultimately, along with others in the newsroom, is laid off at the age of thirty-seven when someone new buys the station. The show, which grappled with more serious issues such as prejudice, sexual mores, gender inequities, and news ethics, struck a balance between Mary’s work life and personal life, providing a favorable portrait of the modern professional woman.
Beginning in their tweens and teens, baby-boom girls gravitated to The Patty Duke Show, That Girl, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show over a span of fourteen years, and decades later, still recall their catchy theme songs and the window on the world that they provided. Audiences seek from television what they need, and young females discovered a trifecta of sequential sitcoms that pushed, ever so slightly, the gender boundaries of the 1960s and 1970s and described what would become for many of them their own trajectories. In their personalities, Patty Lane, Ann Marie, and Mary Richards were bubbly, relatable, girl-next-door types rather than aggressive trailblazers, and their comedy sometimes depended on acting silly or differential. Nevertheless, the situations in which they placed themselves, outside of the traditional domestic sphere of earlier television shows, offered new possibilities, especially in the realm of communication and media, for a young audience caught up in a changing world, and over time, Patty, Ann, and Mary matured, developing new independence and strength. As Hope Reese asserts, “America was in the middle of the women’s rights movement; The Feminine Mystique, released in 1963, urged women to envision work outside the home, touching a nerve for housewives. The Pill became available to all women, regardless of marital status, in 1972. And more and more women were earning degrees and setting off to find jobs” (Reese). Patty Lane may have made some missteps as a newspaper editor, Ann Marie may have had to play a gagged hostage, and Mary Richards may have heard her own voice quaver when she demanded a raise (Armstrong 183), but these characters nevertheless planted the suggestion that it was desirable for a female to strike out on her own, set goals, pursue interesting work as perhaps an editor, actress, or associate producer, and not worry about getting married and starting a family.
The shows also created an aspirational lifestyle. What Jennifer Keishin Armstrong writes about The Mary Tyler Moore Show could really be applied to each of these shows: as its “audience grew, advertisers and thus TV networks, were scrambling to cater to the new consumer group known as ‘Life Stylers’: women who embraced liberation in their everyday lives without necessarily identifying as feminists. These women were Mary Richards. And they needed fabulous clothes, beauty products, and furniture to feel like the independent women they wanted to be. The rise of the young empowered woman on television had at least as much to do with marketing as with feminist ideals. Products such as Charlie perfume, Breck shampoo, and Aqua Net hair spray now had the perfect place to advertise their wares” (Armstrong 132). Young females identified with Patty, Ann, and Marlo, and although it would still be many years before the majority of American women moved beyond familiar gender stereotypes, these three characters provided a starting point for young females to think, act, and look differently and to navigate their lives and careers on their own terms. Although never the intent of their producers, The Patty Duke Show, That Girl, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show arguably present the same character growing up for the same demographic; they offer a seamless portrait of a post-World War II baby boom female in America maturing from age sixteen to age thirty-seven against a backdrop of social change. Looking at other popular sequential shows in this way may reveal key developmental and aspirational messages that young audiences, seeking and finally finding meaningful role models in television, may have responded to and ultimately absorbed.
Ames, Melissa and Sarah Burcon. How Pop Culture Shapes the Stages of a Woman’s Life:
From Toddlers-In-Tiara to Cougars-On-The-Prowl. Palgrave, 2016.
Armstrong, Jennifer Keishin. Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds
Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic. Simon and Schuster, 2013.
Mitchard, Jacquelyn. “Twelve Amazing Women Who Changed TV Forever.”AARP, 2014.
Newman, Emily L. “From That Girl to Girls: Rethinking Ann Marie/Marlo Thomas as a
Feminist Icon.” The Journal of American Culture 93:3 (September 2016): 285-297.
Reese, Hope. “The Real Feminist Impact of The Mary Tyler Moore Show Was Behind the
Scenes.” The Atlantic, 16 May 2013.
Setoodah, Ramin. “Q+A: Patty Duke Remembers ‘The Patty Duke Show.” Newsweek, 29
September 2009. http://www.newsweek.com/qa-patty-duke-remembers-patty-duke-
Stern, Susan. Barbie Nation: An Unauthorized Tour. El Rio Productions. 2007.