Monday, October 31, 2016

She's got a lot of things on her mind.

[Spoiler warning: we usually don't give a spoiler warning for our Monday posts, but this piece pretty prominently features a neat little twist in this week's second WKRP episode, so if you were planning to watch "Daydreams" in advance of our podcast, you may want to skip this post.]

So we've got a good pair of Bailey Quarters episodes this week in "The Painting" and "Daydreams." "The Painting" heavily features Bailey, who eventually gets the better of Herb Tarlek in an increasingly complex and Mamet-esque series of business transactions surrounding a painting from a church sale. But it's the tiny scenelet in "Daydreams" that grabs our attention this week, eight days before an historic Cincinnati City Council 2016 Presidential election.

"Daydreams" sees our cast listening to the practice run of a Big Guy speech and drifting off into their own little fantasy worlds in the process. Part of the fun of recording this podcast was using each vignette to further analyze the cast's psyches. And Bailey's fantasy, where she's in bed with Johnny and we very slowly and gradually learn that Bailey is now the President of the United States, could not be more pertinent on the eve of America possibly electing its first chief executive with the title "Madame President."

We'll leave off analyzing the implications of Johnny being the First Gentleman for our Wednesday podcast, but for now, let's quickly look at the "far-future woman President" trope in television and films in this period. It's interesting that in the 1980s, it was at least taken as an inevitability that America would eventually elect a female Commander-in-Chief; there are several examples of this besides Bailey's admittedly lightweight fantasy sequence. The short-lived 1985 ABC mid-season replacement sitcom Hail to the Chief, starring Patty Duke (and created by Soap helmer and future The Golden Girls creator Susan Harris, last mentioned in HMOTD 029), put the first woman President in a Dr. Strangelove situation of all things in its pilot, all while she needs to balance the needs of her husband and children in a traditional zany sitcom setup. Just as with Soap, we can see Harris struggling with the limitations of what kinds of representation could be allowed on network TV at the time (Patty Duke's President Mansfield also quite interestingly has an openly gay Secret Service agent, who is a recurring character). Given that Hail to the Chief was canceled after seven episodes, even these modest steps forward weren't really smiled upon by the powers-that-be in television in the mid-'80s.

In the '00s and beyond we've been spoiled by depictions of Laura Roslin and Allison Taylor and Selina Meyer; three-dimensional chief executives with a full spectrum of character traits, including flaws. But in the 1980s, the woman President, while inevitable, was still primarily an object of fun, helping male writers in working out their anxieties of the possible "benign violation" of the office of President. But even just that sense of inevitability is still very interesting. It's hard to deny the progress of women in politics globally when the United Kingdom elects a Margaret Thatcher (herself an archconservative) or figures like Golda Meir and Indira Gandhi from earlier in the 1970s. What makes America different? Why have we lagged behind the rest of the world? To answer this, we need to take a closer look at Bailey Quarters, and a little bumpersticker on her desk.

Bailey has always been our "woman trying to make her way in a man's world" proxy, of course. By Season 3, she's boldly out-dealing and out-conning Herb Tarlek and fantasizing about the challenges of being America's first woman chief executive. She's always been politically and socially conscious too; remember the ERA bumpersticker on Bailey's desk? Prior to the wave election of 1980 and the 1981 entry of Ronald Reagan into the Oval Office and the concomitant rise of the influence of his Evangelical allies, the passage of an Equal Rights Amendment was considered a fait accompli across the political spectrum. But all that changed in the late 1970s with the rise of vigorous ERA opposition. Even given an extension for passage into 1982, the ERA would die on the vine, the country's conservative psyche wanting to return to traditional gender roles in the face of the societal turmoil of the 1970s.

Led by prominent antifeminists like the recently-deceased Phyllis Schlafly, who channeled grassroots reactionary opposition to the ERA (and got an explicit ERA opposition plank added to Reagan's 1980 Republican platform), the women's rights movement ended up being dealt a massive counterblow in the 1980s, in large part by men using, as their public allies and faces... other women. To quote the afterword of Margaret Atwood's definitive statement on the Reagan era's antifeminism, The Handmaid's Tale, "the best and most cost-effective way to control women for reproductive and other purposes was through women themselves." (Schlafly and the wives of the 1980s' various televangelists in fact inspired Atwood's depiction of the Commander's wife, Serena Joy.)

We've talked about the 1980 election as the beginning of a sea change, a shift that has formed so many of the features of 2016's political, social, and economic landscape... from media consolidation, to massive deregulation, to union-busting, to today's overall runaway neoliberal consensus. But here, on the feminism side of things, we see the establishment of an explicit antifeminist strain in American politics, one that has interestingly led directly to next Tuesday's election.

What was 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton up to in early 1981 when this episode of WKRP aired, aside from just having given birth to a daughter? Bill Clinton had just been defeated for Governor in the 1980 election; even in traditionally Democratic Arkansas, Clinton could not form a bulwark against the Reagan Revolution. In the two years (1981 and 1982) that Bill Clinton was out of the Governor's mansion, Hillary Rodham was battling for her Carter-era appointment to head a federal organization called the Legal Services Corporation. The Legal Services Corporation was established in 1974 (by the Nixon administration!) to provide legal assistance to underprivileged Americans in civil legal cases, as an equal access issue of civil rights. Under the watchful eyes of the strict constructionists of the Reagan era, though, the LSC was ideologically suspect. Similar Civil Rights Act-era programs designed to provide legal aid to the poor had been one of Reagan's greatest bugbears as Governor of California. Throughout Reagan's first term, the LSC was directly in Reagan's sights. When removing its funding didn't work thanks to Congressional opposition, Reagan sought to stack the LSC with appointees who would essentially destroy the LSC through neglect. Rodham lobbied Congress, worked against Reagan's recess LSC appointments, and otherwise helped save the LSC from oblivion. (The LSC survived the Reagan years, as George H.W. Bush largely decided to dispense with the ideological-purge mentality of his predecessor.)

When Hillary Rodham returned to the Governor's mansion with her husband in 1983, Ms. Rodham was now officially going by the name Hillary Rodham Clinton. I'm sure this was entirely unrelated to the antifeminist mood in the country at the time. As was, I'm sure, the consistent decision by early-'80s syndicators to cut and broadcast a version of "Daydreams" that was missing the one daydream segment that happened to feature Bailey Quarters (Caravella) as a competent, in-charge, take-no-nonsense, be-pigtailed President of the United States.

To paraphrase Jimmy Carter, there are wounds here, ones that have never been healed.


  1. Your look back at future US women presidents reminded me of this cringe-worthy magazine cover from 1972 England:

    1. Eeesh. That reminds me, that we didn't get a chance to mention in HMOTD 029 or in the Show Notes during our discussion of blackface and minstrel shows that in the UK, right up into 1978, there was a nationally-broadcast variety show on the BBC called, yes, The Black and White Minstrel Show which prominently featured blackface. It had to be on the mind of Spike Lee as he wrote Bamboozled. Obviously, the UK does not have the same culturally-fraught history with blackface but it still seems bizarre to contemplate. And yet, the Les bit in "A Mile in My Shoes" happened in the US in 1980.