I eagerly watched a late night PBS show about television comediennes (no we don’t really need a feminization of the word comedian), happy to catch a glimpse the classic bits of humour that filled the airwaves as I was coming of age. Carol Burnett’s parody of Gone With The Wind in which she wears curtains complete with the curtain rods is still genius. Betty White has endured for a very good reason: she’s got amazing timing and an amazing face. The show even managed to include African Americans—Marla Gibbs, who appeared on The Jeffersons and 227, and a quick mention of the legendary vaudeville comic, Moms Mabley, who had a show briefly (see recent Whoopi Goldberg doc on her).
It was fantastic to see the team that surrounded Mary Tyler Moore on both The Dick Van Dyke Show and The MTM Show; in both cases I loved the ensembles more than I did her. The acerbic wit of Cloris Leachman and Ann Marie were more to my tastes. But what MTM and other female sitcom stars symbolized for women’s liberation in the 1970s & 1980s was immensely valuable. On a mainstream broadcast every week they made the case for women’s independence in the workplace and rejected subservience in the home. At the time the public and media critics hotly debated MTM’s honor as if she worked as a professional kidnapper not a production assistant at a TV station. So as un-radical as the shows were in retrospect, for audiences they represented a liberated view of women in the world.
I was sorry the documentary also didn’t include Roseanne or much about Lucille Ball. And that it didn’t go further back to two of my favorites: Gale Storm who had two shows in the 1950s & 1960s in which she played a career woman and had one of the funniest sidekicks, Zazu Pitts. And then my first crush, Eve Arden. She often played the fast talking, sharp-tongued best friend as she did in the fabulous Joan Crawford film, Mildred Pierce. But she was so good as a teacher in the series Our Miss Brooks (on radio 1948-57 and on TV 1952-1956) she was made an honorary member of the National Education Association! No one could bend a vowel like her and make you feel you were caught in a vise. And she was gorgeous and smart.
Overshadowing the joy of being reminded of these amazing comic performers was that so many of the surviving female stars who were interviewed had had plastic surgery! I recognized Mary Tyler Moore’s and Carol Burnett’s voices but I could barely recognize them. It was great to be reminded of the struggle for women in TV by the most political voice among them, Joan Rivers. She talked eloquently about how women were dismissed and denigrated as comic performers. She’d led the way and was cheated out of her chance to take over for Johnny Carson…who stopped speaking to her when she got her own show. But the face work! She looks like a Kabuki mask.
As unsettling as her face it was also disappointing to learn that Mary Tyler Moore, who made her mark playing an emerging career woman, never really believed that women needed a chance in the work place. She personally thought women should stay at home taking care of kids. Fortunately Joan Rivers, whose humour was often self denigrating and bitchy, would never be caught making that kind of retro statement.
If face work gave women the possibility of looking like themselves rather than masks maybe it wouldn’t be so disturbing. It was painful to watch these amazing pioneers—MTM, Carol Burnett, Phyllis Diller, Marlo Thomas—all be so cut and pasted they look nothing like themselves. And doubly odd that it was never mentioned.
I know that working in looksist and ageist media leaves everyone (especially women) extremely self-conscious about their appearance. I imagine that wanting a career each felt this was the way to go as they aged. But I feel cheated out of seeing them as the older women they are so I could continue to identify with them. I would have liked to enjoy their mature looks as I do Betty White. Cloris Leachman, whose still working in TV, looks her age—that is to say fabulous; so does Marla Gibbs.
When I look in the mirror and remember the young girl I’ve been I sometimes wish I had that fresh and dewy face of my 30s and 40; I’m not even trying to have a career in front of a camera! Fortunately we’ll always have YouTube to go back and see what the real genius’ looked like in their heyday! I know the weight of being a pioneer can be a lot to bear so I won’t be too harsh; just sad.
Jewelle Gomez is featured in Beauty in Truth. She is the author of 7 books including the lesbian vampire classic novel, The Gilda Stories. Follow her on Twitter: VampyreVamp. Or her website: www.jewellegomez.com