Ask any woman in her 50’s who she wanted to be when she was older and you will hear “That Girl!”
From 1966 to 1971, Marlo Thomas played an appealingly goofy young aspiring actress named Ann Marie. She had cute clothes, a cute apartment, six layers of eyelashes and a cute boyfriend named Donald who was supportive but not pushy. We all wanted to be Ann Marie. Interestingly, we really weren’t interested in Marlo Thomas. In fact, Thomas took care to hide her identity behind the character. Although Thomas was the show’s executive producer as head of Daisy Productions, she kept her executive status a secret and did not appear in the credits as executive producer.
Little did we know that Thomas’ story was even more appealing than her character’s. Thomas actually was That Girl. She owned the company that created and produced the show, in an era and an industry dominated by white males. In fact, the show itself was her idea. “There were no young girls on television at the time,” she remembers thinking. So she proposed a new show about a young woman like her, who wanted to be an actress but whose parents just wanted to see get married “a girl with a dream who really wants something.” (When the ABC executives) wanted Ann and Donald to get married in the final episode, Thomas refused. “I felt that would be unfair to the girls who’d watched us and believed in us. I felt that one show had to not end in a wedding.”
Times have changed. Now it’s difficult to find many positive, aspirational characters on television, although it’s easy to find negative ones.Here’s a list of the 10 worst female role models on TV. Commonsense also provides a list of the 10 Worst TV Role Models. I don’t think these fictional people are terribly damaging as their characters are more stereotypes than real. Still I wish there were more positive characters to balance them out.
Another way things have changed is that young people today are more likely to identify with the celebrity actor than the character they portray. Are young women more interested in being Carrie Bradshaw or Sarah Jessica Parker? Hannah Montana or Miley Cyrus? Liz Lemon or Tina Fey? In each case, the celebrity outshines the character.
A TIME magazine article describes how the Disney star-creation ‘factory’ uses this insight to turn out legions of teen celebs. Also leveraging this insight, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert created personas rather than characters. (I only know of one instance when Colbert gave an interview out of character, an interview with Terry Gross on NPR). These celebrities literally are their characters and as a result, actually are role models for young people. Who doesn’t admire Jon Stewart?
I am a fan of the new Fox show, Glee. According to the high school student authored blog, Academic Perspective, Glee features a group of “Gleeks”, a term that is gaining popularity:
The “Gleeks,” a portmanteau of the word “Glee” and “geek,” are gaining in number every week with each new episode of the admittedly adorable FOX television show “Glee” . In this show, a motley crew of diverse teenagers from every background comes together over song and dance while learning about themselves, love, and life.
In an essay, J. Maureen Henderson suggests that the character Rachel Berry (played by actress Lea Michele) may actually be a ‘damn fine role model‘. According to Henderson, Rachel “rings true as complicated young woman who knows exactly who she is, but still struggles to balance meeting her own self-imposed type-A expectations with her desire for peer acceptance and friendship.” She goes on to say ” TV and especially young women who watch TV need more Rachel Berry’s to relate to.” Here’s why:
“How utterly refreshing is it to see a young female primetime character whose entire focus or major story arc doesn’t revolve around relationship drama and/or getting/keeping/deceiving/ditching a boy? Sure, Rachel pines for the sweetly dumb Finn, but she’s pragmatically resigned to his current status as Quinn’s baby daddy-to-be. And Rachel has bigger fish to fry anyway. She’s convinced that she’s going to be a star and damned if girl doesn’t have the ambition, confidence and straight-up vocal chops to back up her Broadway dreams.”
That sounds a lot like Thomas’ Ann Marie. I love Rachel Berry, too. I didn’t realize why until I read Henderson’s essay: Rachel is That Girl! updated for the Millennial generation.