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!”