"Marlo Thomas On Making ‘That Girl’ Feminist TV, PBS’s ‘Makers,’ And Where Pop Culture Goes Next"
Last night, PBS aired Makers, a documentary about the history of the feminist movement, exploring everything from the relationship between women’s liberation and the struggles for black and gay civil rights to the rise of the eighties power tie as women entered previously male-dominated professional fields. While some of the subjects may be familiar to those of us who ended up in women’s studies classes at some point, Makers is a reminder of how much feminist history has been forgotten or obscured over the years, starting with the rumors of bra-burning at the Miss America protests. Because part of the goal of Makers was to spark discussions about the state of feminism today, I spoke with one of the subjects whose work is of particular interest to anyone who cares about the portrayal and employment of women in popular culture: Marlo Thomas.
As the star of the groundbreaking sitcom That Girl, Thomas fought to preserve the integrity of the show’s portrayal of a single woman’s life—and to hire more female writers. And as the creator of Free To Be You And Me, the book, album, and television special for children that challenged pre-existing notions of gender norms, Thomas fought to give children entertainment that would change the way they saw their possible futures. We spoke during the Television Critics Association press tour in January about the evolution of sitcom roles for women, Brave and princess myths, and the struggles women—and men—face to have it all. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
I’m excited to talk to you in part because my first job as a critic was when I was eight years old for my local paper—I wrote children’s books.
You were a critic at eight years old? How cute!
I was, my author photo has me in little pink glasses and the world’s largest lace collar. I was proof that women, even at eight years old, aren’t paid enough. I was paid in five-dollar gift certificates to the local bookstore. So I was really curious to talk to you because Free To Be You And Me was inspired by the lack of good books for boys and girls alike. What do you think about the rise of young adult fiction? It seems to me that there are many more options for young female readers today. Have we made enough progress if what young girls get offered is Twilight?
Well, you know, far be it for me to tell people what to write. I must say that after we did Free To Be You And Me, and its phenomenal success, and its continued success, I’m surprised that more and more people aren’t writing about that. I saw the movie Brave, which is taken right from Atalanta [a princess story from Free To Be You And Me], which is exciting to me. And I just wish more people would follow, not just follow the path, but find the path to children’s imaginations that is going to open up their horizons and their minds. It just seems that—my husband has two grandchildren, they’re now 16 and 17, the girl is 16—and I’ve noticed with her stuff, it’s all princesses, and the boy’s stuff is all violence. All violent games from the GameBoy on up. And I look at it, and I try very hard to bring other things in, but that’s what all their friends are reading, and watching, and playing. I’m disappointed, I really am. Somebody, some book company has to make it their job, or part of their imprint, part of their conscientiousness to say “Why aren’t we putting out books that do this?” The Free To Be You And Me classic, when it came ou,t there was nothing like it. We’ve already paved the way. Why doesn’t someone pick it up? I can’t do it all.
I think you’re describing two different challenges. It’s hard to ask individuals to take on all the work for anyone else. And you mentioned the persistence of the pricness myth. I felt conflicted about Brave. I like that she’s a different kind of princess, but the victory at the end is that she gets to choose her own husband, who will still be dyanstically important. A princess is still a princess.
Right. But it’s just that she was athletic, and she ran, and she took some action. That’s a big difference from the other princess, from Cinderella. But it’s true. In our princess story, Atlanta at the end decides not to marry, and go off to explore lands. We were feminists writing that. I don’t know that the people from Brave got our whole message, though they took a lot of it…I don’t know, it’s sort of a surrendering to a happy ending, or what you consider to be a happy ending. When I was doing That Girl, they wanted me to have a wedding at the end of the series. And I refused. I refused to have a wedding, to have her get married at the end of the show. And they said “It’ll be great! It’ll get huge ratings.” And I said, “But then I’m copping out to every girl who loved this show…This was the first girl to say “I don’t want to get married, I want to work. I want to have a career. I want to live in my own apartment.” All of those things. And the mail was extraordinary about girls wanting to be just like her, and grandmothers saying “Don’t marry Donald!” They really were very invested in this single girl. The idea of betraying them at the end of the show and getting married just seemed like a true betrayal. I wouldn’t do it. Even that, Clairol was the sponsor, and they wanted a wedding, and ABC wanted a wedding, the producers wanted a wedding. It took a feminist to say “No, no wedding!”
Well what struck me about that story, and the story you told about the executive who looked at you like you were speaking Swahili when you talked about putting a woman at the center of the stage, is that we’re still at a point where there are not a lot of women with the power to say no in television production. We have Shonda Rhimes, who can do whatever she wants—
Tina Fey, Lena Dunham. There a lot of them. When I was producing my show, there wasn’t anyone except Lucille Ball. Now there’s a lot of women doing their own shows…Those are the ones who produce their own shows and they star in them. Roseanne Barr did that. And I don’t know who else. Laura Dern is one of the producers on her show. But certainly not to the extent that men are.
Women are something like 23 percent of television writers. We’ve gotten to a place where people understand that more women watch television than men, and there are more stories about women, but a lot of those stories are still controlled by men. Men run 2 Broke Girls. Men are the majority in the writers’ room on Whitney, which was created by Whitney Cummings. Do you think women have become something it’s possible to profit off with any real attention to telling women’s stories from a woman’s perspective?
Well, I think if a woman creates a show, as you just said, 2 Broke Girls, why did she step back?…You have the power, it’s there for you to take. My show, the first year it was on the air, it was all men producers. And after the first season—I had hired the producers, it was my show—I said, “I have to have a female story editor.” There weren’t a lot of female comedy writers. There were two. Carol Burnett had one and Lucille Ball had one. And there were a couple that were in teams, male-female teams, and we used them. But I said “I need a female story editor to help me, because I’m combatting every week, these guys, about what a girl would do, what a girl would not do.” I was constantly saying “A girl would not say that to her father. A girl would not say that. She’d be more diplomatic about this. She doesn’t want to hurt her father’s feelings if she wins the battle. She’s not going to rub his nose in it. That’s not the way girls compete with their fathers.” It was a constant thing. Or, “I don’t think it’s funny to make fun of how Ruth Buzzi looks. I don’t want a joke about an ugly girl. I don’t want to do that joke.” “Oh no, it’s hilarious.” I said “No, it’s not hiilarious. Girls don’t find that funny.” So I said I have to have a female editor. So we found this woman, and believe me, it wasn’t easy, Ruth Brooks Flippen was her name. And she came in and was the story editor for the rest of the series. But, this woman, who you said created two shows and went off and just produced one. She could have said there’s another woman I really would like to produce this. Or here’s two women I want to put on staff. Because if you don’t have some women on the staff, you aren’t going to get a woman’s consciousness into the story. You’re just not…It’s the right thing to do. It’s a smart thing to do. But you’ve got to take the power when you have it. You have to use the power when you have it. Not that many women have power, but when they do, they really have to share it.
I think that’s one of the things that’s been difficult for women in the industry. Melissa Rosenberg, who’s running Red Widow, made sure her writers’ room was half male and half female, and that there were parents because she doesn’t have children and her main character does. I struggle with asking these writers what their obligations are to hire more women.
Maybe that’s not the right question. I don’t feel an obligation. I think it should be more, do you think a show would be a little better if it had more of a female consciousness on it? Or since your show is about women, wouldn’t it be better to have some more women? That may be a better way into it…It’s really about the responsibility to the show, not to women, but to the story. It’s really about whose story you’re going to tell. If it’s a story of a woman, a girl, a woman, and it’s her point of view, you’re going to have to have quite a few women on the show to do it otherwise. It’s not possible to do it otherwise. You can’t leave it to Judd Apatow to figure out what girls do when they’re broke and trying to make it living in the world. It’s going to be different.
You said it was difficult to find your story editor. Were you able to find more women to write for the show as time went by?
We did. We found more writers. But they were few, and they were mostly teams. There was Treva Silverman, who still is a wonderful writer, and we used her. There were so women, but there weren’t a lot of comedy writers in the sixties and seventies.
The women you found, where did you find them?
Well, you looked for them. You called agents and said “What comedy writers do you have that are women? We’re looking for women to write for That Girl.” We’d go to the writers’ agents. Someone would see a name on somebody else’s show and say this stuff’s really good. But when you put out a call like that to agents, agents can’t wait to get jobs for their writers. You say “Send us samples of your women writers.” And most of them were teams with guys.
That still seems to be the case today. I think half the women who sold shows for the new pilot season sold them as part of teams with men.
I don’t know why that is. You’d have to ask them. You’d have to interview every one of them. It would be really interesting to find out why. Is it because of child caring? Needing time?
It certainly seems like childcare and the hours are big issues for women. If your’e going to run a writers’ room, as people do, where you break story for twenty hours in a row, people have to go home from that because the nanny has to go home. It’s not a regularized profession.
I don’t know that I ever worked with a writing team that were two women. I’ve never worked with them, and I’ve worked with millions of teams, and I’ve never worked with a team that was two women. I mean, I don’t think Norman Lear had a lot of women on his staff, and he had Maude, and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. It would be interesting to know how many female writers Maude had.
It seems to me in certain ways like television has become more conservative for women. Any time someone gets pregnant, they either have the baby and it’s the best decision in the world, or they have a miscarriage. I think we’ve had two abortions on television in five years.
But you’ve got a lot of women as cops, a lot of women who are not domesticated. That, I think, is the big step. When I started with That Girl, women were in the house. There weren’t any Mary Tyler Moores or Murphy Browns. That’s what they were: they were somebody’s secretary, somebody’s daughter, somebody’s wife. So, and as you look at it through the years, I look at situation comedy as a graph, from That Girl, to Kate and Ally, which was huge, to have two single women raising children, and then Roseanne, a mother who kind of hated her children and screamed at them, a female Jackie Gleeson, and then Murphy Brown, unwed, a drunk, screams at her staff. I mean, huge! When you think from That Girl to that…Every person That Girl met or Mary Richards met loved her. The mailman loved her. All the way to Roseanne and then to Murphy, that’s a huge graph.
It certainly seems like we’ve won the right not to be likable on television.
Right. Lena Dunham, she, I read an interview of hers saying “Why do women have to be likeable?” I thought, good for her! You have to defend your character, but you don’t have to make her likable. And if that’s what you want your show to be about, at least you can do that now. You couldn’t do that before. So that’s a huge step. So I htink maybe in situation comedy women are doing better. I mean, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler. I mean, they’re great. And they’re producing their own shows, both of them, and writing them. I know more about situation comedy than I do about the graph of the drama, except I know there are a lot of policewomen, and women with authority, and judges, a lawyer and a judge on Law and Order, there’s more of that.
One thing I thought was interesting that you mentioned in the panel today was the myth of what feminism was about. One thing women my age have struggled with is there are so many options, so what do you choose? And can you choose wrong? I thought that was one of the interesting things that came up at the end of the documentary.
I think it’s rather luxurious to say, “I just have so many choices, I don’t know what to choose.” I’d like to whack you around the room for that. I mean, my goodness. I don’t mean you. I mean any woman who feels “Oh, dear, I have too many options.” It’s like saying “I can buy any dress I want, I just can’t decide which dress I want to buy.” If you have that many choices, a bountiful, bountiful table, then look at it, and what suits you? What do you want? And go after what you want. I think that’s a problem with a lot of people in any age group. If you don’t know what you want, any road will take you there. You’re obviously a young woman who, since you were eight years old, was critiquing things, and I just adore that in your, that at eight years old with your little pink glasses, you were deciding what’s a good children’s book, and today, you’re critiquing with an intelligence that has evolved from having the experience of doing it. I think, wow, what a choice you made? I’m sure along the way, something else interested you.
I did a lot of political work.
So you could be doing that right now. You could be soembody’s campaign manager, you could be on somebody’s staff, you could be running yourself, you could be on City Council. You looked at the world and you said this is the thing I want to do, and your’e doing that. I have to say, look at yourself and take a grip. How many women in the world, how many women in Mali, how many women in Afghanistan have choices? They can’t even go to school. I don’t have patience with anyone who has so many choices they don’t know what to choose.
It’s what we refer to as a First World Problem.
That’s exactly right. God, I wish that were true for every young boy and girl.
Do you think women get trapped by the perceived obligation to have it all?
Women can’t have it all any more than men can have it all….If having it all means, and it seems to mean that you’re married, and you have children, and you have work you love, that can only be done if both people have it all. If you don’t change the domestic arrangement, nothing’s going to happen. Nothing can happen for men, women, or children if we don’t change the domestic arrangement…I had a mother at home and a father who traveled all the time. I could have been better served by a father who was home more often and a mother and father who shared things more equally. My mother was the complete enforcer and my father was the nice man who came home and gave us presents. It was a complete fantasy of what parenting was about.