You are here

Marketing Angry Women

We're comfortable with women who are comfortable with their own power, but we like to make sure they're still women.
Ann Marie Caffrey

Issue #5, March/April 1993

Anita Hill measured her words carefully. Of course, anyone in front of a Senate Judiciary Committee places high value on composure. As she sat through hours of patronizing skepticism, relaying her account of sexual harassment, she didn't get angry. When the irreverent Senator Alan Simpson faked having "letters and cables coming in from all over" slandering her character, she didn't get angry. The famously-philandering Senator Ted Kennedy judged her credibility, and she didn't get angry. Very likely she was angry, but she couldn't show it, because she knew she shouldn't show it.

Anita Hill knew that female anger has no legitimate place in our society. Rarely is female anger taken seriously; when we see it it's classified as "irrational" or a harpy-fit. Logic is not seen as compatible with intense female emotions. The dictionary defines anger as "extreme displeasure, indignation or exasperation toward someone or something." This dictionary definition isn't gender-specific, but society's perspective on anger in the two sexes isn't edited for fairness. Men's anger is recognized as "fortitude," while women's anger is "frenzy." This emotional double standard doesn't just restrict one sex; both are inhibited under gender-defined emotions. This is not, however, a rally-call for an orgy of emotion, to bellow broad-chested while stomping around, "I'm angry, I'm angry! (But feeling much better now thank you!)" This is, rather, a suggestion to use anger as a crude blueprint for candid, direct communication — communication which is civil, but not encumbered by sexist stipulations of "frills for the girls, brawn for the boys."

But it's a bit awkward experimenting with real emotions in real life. However, the nice people at CBS are saving us a lot of trouble by giving us two "what if" programs that offer scenarios for fresh expressions and receptions of female anger. Amid the background of two-dimensional female caricatures in prime time television, we can find decidedly three-dimensional female leads focusing viewer attention: Candice Bergen as Murphy Brown, and Janine Turner as Maggie O'Connell in Northern Exposure.

Television shows are fantasies where social roles and emotions can be amplified without too much personal threat since "it's not real, it's just television." We appreciate the humor, we tolerate the Nyquil commercials — but we do pay attention, and we identify with the characters. These fantasies affect us. After all, Dan Quayle and the White House took the social implications of Murphy Brown's "lifestyle choice" of single motherhood as a direct assault on the Republican "family values" agenda. Why should it matter if a female character decides to keep an unplanned child and raise it on her own? Single-parent families are the fastest-growing household category in America today, and those parents are mostly female.

Maybe on some deep level Dan was afraid. Not afraid as a Vice President, or even as a Republican, but as a man.

For the popularity and mere existence of characters such as Murphy Brown and Maggie O'Connell are manifestations of an evolving female ideology. The ideology says that beyond defining their rights, women will define themselves and their lifestyles — politically, professionally and personally. It's an ideology that's been lurking about since well before the popularized dogma of the Sexual Revolution. But what's the point of defining an original identity, if you're not validated by your community? The point is that the women who are redefining old roles and creating new ones are taken seriously. A clear example of this is on the news every night recently: Hillary Rodham Clinton as a first lady for the 90s, and an unprecedented group of women elected to Congress in the elections of 1992 ("The Year of the Woman").

As more women are visibly in positions of control and authority, will the men begin to squirm? The "Good Ol' Boys" club on Capitol Hill may be biting their lips as they look across at Hillary at a conference on health care reform, but they know how to act in public (or do they?). There is a safety-net of political protocol to direct the lines of communication and keep any resentment at bay. What's at stake here isn't male anxiety over a female power backlash (pushing the boys out, the girls ride into town to have their own fun). Healthy communication between the sexes is the issue. And what about those of us in the cheap seats, the everyday folk, men and women with female bosses or supervisors? In law firms, police stations and construction sites, the terms of male-female interactions are now varied, but the style of communication is often inhibited.

One reason for the inhibition is that we're working with old models here: men lead the companies and the conversations, women react and follow. Traditionally, men were direct in expressing what they wanted and on what terms; women could express themselves but were morally obligated to "be nice" about it. And our TV shows have both reflected and shaped our social conventions. If a female character was aggressive or angry, the situation was diffused: these emotions were taboo, their implications too volatile and threatening. The aggression was downplayed as a cute scheme (Lucy and Ethel trying to get onto Ricky's show), or the anger was trivialized (Sam Malone soothing Diane's ruffled feathers with a sexy smile).

There have been other savvy female leads before Murphy and Maggie: Mary Richards of the 1970s Mary Tyler Moore Show got assertiveness training as a rookie television news producer, and lawyer-mom Claire Huxtable of The Cosby Show presented her domestic arguments with graceful rhetorical ferocity. Yet even at their most frustrated, these characters remained "ladies." But did acting like a "lady" serve their arguments or their situations? Not always. Social etiquette is functional for necessities such as personal hygiene and table manners, but can restrict dialogue serving as the fundamental pathways of exchange between men and women.

Women can be assertive and insistent, but remain under pressure to be equally cordial. It's as if we are speaking through a layer of feminine-pink cellophane — the crinkly kind used to wrap fruit baskets; it sure looks pretty, but it suffocates and diverts attention from the content, from what's being said.

Enter Maggie O'Connell and Murphy Brown. These characters tear through cellophane etiquette like linebackers through the team banner before the game. If Maggie or Murphy is angry, her anger isn't a peripheral emotion: they use the momentum of their anger to focus attention on the terms of a conflict. Instead of draining energy from these women, anger empowers them to use their intelligence and negotiate, argue, discuss — in order to resolve.

The old adage, "It's not what you say but how you say it," applies here. Their dialogue is demystified and direct. It cuts to the chase. "What's your point, Fleischman?" asks Maggie of her rivaled male friend, Joel. Similarly, Murphy Brown's character is defined by negotiation dialogue. One episode has Murphy defining the boundaries of how much she'll let her childish producer Miles Silverberg show off her status to impress his relatives — "O.K., Miles, here's the deal: I'll have lunch with you and your brother. But no more brunches with your cousin from Dubuque, and I'm not calling you MR. SILVERBERG!"

Murphy usually gets her way, but self-interest isn't the point. Maggie and Murphy rant and rave, but their anger is saturated with social implications. The sharp style and wit of the dialogue isn't mean, it's meaningful. Maggie postulates the moral and social philosophies of life for justice. Murphy exposes the status quo in a shrewd crusade for The Truth. The power of the emotion grabs our attention but the depth of the characters holds it. Their respective tirades are two distinct styles, but they implicate the same question. Maggie and Murphy don't ask the audience, "how do women want to be treated?" They ask, "how do women want to act?" And through their behavior they offer the answer that women want to act as all people do: honestly and freely and without the social inhibitions of sexual prejudice.

In spite of operating in a generally cantankerous gear, Maggie and Murphy offend but rarely alienate. Viewers comfortable with the characters might be called "passively progressive." They're not threatened by the "anger" because they recognize it for what it is: direct (if not forceful), intelligent dialogue — not an attempt at a hostile overthrow. We define things by what we already know. And although these characters use anger and aggressiveness as vehicles for verbal exchange free from gender precedents, we must resist seeing them as their emotions. Hear them for what they're saying and how they're saying it.

But if we frame experience by the familiar, we're threatened by the unknown. Maggie and Murphy have popularized the image of a woman comfortable with power. And it can be said that Murphy pumps up "comfortable" to an almost steroid degree of "cocky" and "smug." Indeed, it's convenient to read the direct management of power as a trait as artificial to women as steroid injections. Extending the rationalization, as Murphy's "male" characteristics grew prominent, "female" characteristics diminished. Is some algebraic repression at work?" If she adds on too many masculine traits must there be subtractions from her femininity to balance the equation and keep everyone comfy?

There is evidence of this kind of payback for the characters' endurance. Maggie's sexuality has been cursed; every man she's slept with has died a bizarre, premature death. Recently Joel Fleischman, the town doctor, accused her of being frigid in a yell-match between the two. Maggie's initial response was a fist to his nose. Then they had sex. Murphy has also been denied a real sexuality. Murphy herself remarked last season that she has sex "about as often as we have a Democrat in the White House." Well, we do have a Democrat at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and Murphy now has a baby. Clinton can't claim credit for the boost to Murphy's sex life. She got pregnant during a Republican administration — Murphy Brown benefitting from the "family values" campaign?

As much as these characters are role models of action and intelligence, they are images of power first. America is a culture driven by images; is the unknown reservoir of power in Maggie and Murphy's images threatening to viewers, like some cyber-sister Terminator out of control? Imagine Murphy striding across the "FYI" newsroom floor, staring sinisterly and holding up a picture of Dan Quayle: "Have you seen this boy?"

Control over an image disturbingly like this is a high priority for Hillary Clinton staffers. How often have you heard jokes about Hillary, not Bill, running the country? Understandably, the President must be seen as in control of his leadership of the nation. But this is 1993 — we don't need to see patriarchy in his marriage to see "Presidential" in his character. Indeed, if Clinton sells a socio-economic message of national sacrifice and service — "We're all in this together" — then decision-making with the help of his friends and his wife sets a good example. "But Hillary has more personal aids than Vice President Al Gore! And Hillary spent more time interviewing former candidate for Attorney General Kimba Wood than Bill did!" So what? But let's face it — women in positions of power threaten the traditional male convenience of "business as usual."

To return to Anita Hill, legitimate treatment of her testimony would have been a direct assault on the social fortifications of male hegemony. The message for now seems to be: we're comfortable with women who are comfortable with their own power, but we like to make sure they're still women. Just so we're sure of things, Murphy is now a mother — recently depicted loading her shopping cart, frantically recreating the contents of her son's favorite baby food, assuring us of her maternal instincts. Maggie's gone a bit frantic too, but not over strained peas — over sex. Two consecutive episodes show two consecutive lovers. I guess all that anxiety over her partners' sexual mortality rate works for her as an aphrodisiac. These depictions of the characters' womanhood annoy me because they're intentionally frenzied takes on "together" women, women who assert themselves as men have always done. It's as if there's a safety button somewhere for activating feminine preoccupations with motherhood and romantic mood music.

And once we see these women in familiar, traditional contexts, they won't be so threatening. That was the rationale, at least, behind photgraphing Hillary Rodham Clinton inspecting the china and table floral arrangements at her first White House dinner party. We needed to know that Hillary cares that the table looks pretty. However, this Betty Crocker has an edge. Hillary was wearing Murphy Brown's dress, or rather the same Donna Karan design that Candice Bergen wore to the Emmy Awards show. The image of Hillary picking up plates, smiling and standing in "Murphy Brown's" black bare-shouldered dress, brings an ironic harmony to the tension between these women's poignant assertions of power and society's fixation on familiarity.

Ann Marie Caffrey is a recent graduate of UC Berkeley, and is currently insisting on a career as a free-lance writer.

Copyright © Ann Marie Caffrey. All rights reserved.