Kate & Allie Aside, It's Far from Prime Time for Women on Television as Airheads Rule the Airwaves

updated 05/07/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/07/1984 01:00AM

If Kate & Allie is taking women one step forward on TV, ABC's Shaping Up is taking them one step back. It's another new sitcom, one with lots of women. But these female hunks are wearing very tight tights to show off their pumped-up pectorals and deflated derrieres. And their dialogue is less than enlightened. "The surefire way to get a man to notice you," one of them says, "is to take off all your clothes and wait for him in his car." Make that two steps back.

Still, there are some bright spots: Viewers fought to resurrect the canceled Cagney and Lacey, a tale of two very real women cops, and CBS listened. On Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere, the chic shows these days, women are capable cops, lawyers and doctors. On Remington Steele and Scarecrow and Mrs. King, women fight bad guys without having to wear bikinis. On Cheers and Family Ties and the canceled Maggie Briggs and One Day at a Time, women can be smart and funny. So much for the bright spots. Elsewhere on the dial...

When Heather Locklear started as a rookie cop on T.J. Hooker, she recalls, "everyone thought I didn't look busty enough. So they had me wear a padded bra." She didn't like it. "It was awful. And the funny thing was, no one could even see the busty look because I was behind the desk all the time." Then the producers came to her suggesting padded panties. "There's no way I'm wearing those," she told them. "And you can take the padded bra with you, too!" She also insisted that in one serious, dramatic scene, she should not have to wear a bikini. She is fighting for her character.

Locklear has won some battles but the war goes on. She's had to go undercover (very skimpy cover) as a go-go detective. "Sure, some of those scenes are strictly to show off what's under the uniform," she concedes. "I'm not wild about that. But it comes with the territory."

Video voyeurism is alive and leering. On Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer, Stacy Keach is forever ogling his clients' assets. The producer of the show, Jay Bernstein (Farrah Fawcett's former Svengali), does not apologize for it. "The cleavage is totally my responsibility," he says. "I happen to believe a woman's bust is a beautiful thing. I would like to see the Jane Russells come back into style. Today's fashion designers seem to be de-emphasizing a woman's bust with two or three layers of clothing. I am bringing it back single-handedly."

Another ogle-fest was We Got It Made, a show about two guys who hired a buxom bunny, Teri Copley, to clean their apartment. How's that for a feminist role model? Copley likes it fine. "If someone says to me, 'You're sexy,' I love it," she says. "To me, that's the biggest compliment." Yet her show was canceled—proving once again that the American viewing public does have taste. "I've taken enough heat for We Got It Made and I'm not going to do another show like that," says Fred Silverman, the executive producer of Made and the man who promoted the whole trend in television T and A with Charlie's Angels and Three's Company.

Another canceled show—but one that's found new life in syndication—is Too Close for Comfort, about a father (Ted Knight) and his two daughters. On a recent episode, the smarter of the daughters decided that she wanted to be more like her dumber sister: She contemplated having breast implants. Another fine role model! But Lydia Cornell, who plays the busty sister, says that at least she's not wearing as many revealing costumes as she used to. "Now I can't stand that showy, sleazy look," she says. "I like the preppy look. I think sex appeal is innate in a character. You don't need to show a woman in tight sweaters." Cornell would like to be on a Kate & Allie or a Cagney and Lacey, to "take your makeup off, play a meaty role." Still, she'll take the role she has now over being "just a token. All those action, adventure shows—talking cars—they just have a girl there and she doesn't do anything. Then there are all those shows where the woman is just on the man's arm, showing cleavage. I'm offended by that."

Cornell has made guest appearances on two of those car shows: Knight Rider and The Dukes of Hazzard. Knight Rider had one woman in the regular cast, Rebecca Holden. She had brains and didn't have to take off her clothes. That, however, didn't leave Holden much to do. So she quit. "I was used in the background," she says. "I left only because I was standing still, and that's moving backwards in this business."

Catherine Bach has more to do and less to wear on Dukes of Hazzard. "Dukes is a long chase with a lot of jokes along the way," she says. "A television series is pop art at best. There will always be stereotypes on TV, Betty Boop women and macho men. It's entertaining." Heather Thomas is in a similar position on The Fall Guy. "Jody is an ancillary character," she has said. "It's Lee Majors' show." That doesn't bother her. "I'm lucky to be working."

These days a woman is lucky to have any role on TV, let alone a respectable one. On Riptide, the women have names like Candy and Bambi; there's more depth to their lipstick than their characters. They merely decorate the show. There's no decoration on The A-Team now. The token female last season, Melinda Culea, was fired after she fought for more to do on the show. She was replaced by Marla Heasley, but now she's leaving, too. "It's a male show," she explains, "and a girl just isn't needed." With all the shoot-'em-up shows on the tube, TV is becoming a boy's night out.

There are two more problems with women's roles: If they're not sexy, chances are they're stupid or slutty. Alice has been lauded by the National Commission on Working Women because it shows women in a positive light. But it also shows one woman, Vera, played by Beth Howland, to be the dumbest animal on TV since Goofy. "In the beginning, she was always the joke," Howland says. "There were times when I took it personally. I would get hurt by what happened to Vera. I never felt she was dumb, just scared." Howland defends the role; she has tried to change it in her eight years on the show, and she has, though Vera is hardly a member of Mensa.

Then come the nighttime-soap sluts. The queen of them might be Charlene Tilton on Dallas, who'll come on to anything with 10 toes. The soaps are different, though. They're fantasy. "Women watching want to see a fashion show," says Maud Adams, a star on Emerald Point, N.A.S. "It's a feast for the eyes as well as interesting." Everyone on the nighttime soaps is a little one-dimensional. On Dynasty, Linda Evans is so good and Joan Collins is so bad. Collins, it seems, is for women today what Shaft was for blacks a decade ago: retribution, revenge. And it is refreshing to see "older" women—if 50 is old—seen as beautiful and sexy. But even the role of Dynasty's Alexis isn't big enough for Collins. "I don't want to play that kind of role anymore—the sophisticated, hard, cold, glamorous woman," she said last year. "I'd like to do one more like myself—a contemporary woman who has problems, a career and a sense of humor."

Funny, sounds just like Kate & Allie, Cagney and Lacey, Cheers and the other good shows. There is lots of competition for those roles. Meredith Baxter Birney of Family Ties really wanted Shelley Long's part on Cheers because "She was very bright and a college graduate, and it's always interesting to have a kind of history to your character. Very rarely does that come by." Veronica Hamel—who plays Joyce Davenport, the leading lawyer on Hill Street—took a big gamble eight years ago when she turned down Jaclyn Smith's role on Charlie's Angels. "I wouldn't have been able to grow with that character," she said a year ago. "And if I had done Charlie's Angels, I wouldn't have gotten Joyce. It was worth the wait, don't you think?" Mariette Hartley of the late Goodnight, Beantown says it's hard to find good roles outside of soaps and sitcoms. "People seem to be able to accept women as comedy figures," she says, "but have a hard time accepting them if their character is an authority figure. They like to laugh at women and take men seriously."

Programs aren't the only problem area for women on TV. The birth of music videos has led to some strange portrayals—women in chains, for instance. Then there is TV news: It's worth noting that on some networks women correspondents covered Gary Hart's campaign until it took off, then male correspondents took over. And then there are commercials, which have become slightly more subtle in their sexism. Take the Underalls pantyhose ads, which show women in all sorts of professional positions—cop, lawyer, doctor and such—and one rather unprofessional position: wriggling their rumps for the camera.

Women are not, it should be noted, the only victims of TV's infectious idiocy. On Riptide and The A-Team and Dukes of Hazzard and Blue Thunder, women should feel lucky that they don't have big roles. As Marla Heasley analyzes the situation these days: "Now they're exploiting men. Instead of not exploiting women, they're exploiting both."

The moral of the story is, like so much having to do with TV, a cliché The more things change, the more they stay the same. It appears now that Kate, Allie, Cagney and Lacey will survive into next season, saving the day on Mondays. But don't get your hopes up. One show that might make ABC's schedule for next season: Fraud Broads.

Written by JEFF JARVIS, reported by correspondents in Los Angeles and New York

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