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Backlash in Action

Article by Lisa Jervis, appeared in issue Issue #2; published in 1996; filed under Broadcast; tagged backlash, Murphy Brown, stereotypes, tv women, victimization, women's studies.
The Supposedly Feminist Murphy Brown

Murphy Brown's a feminist show, right? I know it seems pretty old hat by now, but featuring a successful single mother and criticizing the Vice President is big stuff—for a sitcom, that is. Sometimes we have to take whatever we can get. Murphy even identifies as feminist. None of that ridiculous I'm-not-a-feminist-but bullshit for her. So why, when Murphy goes back to her alma mater and sits in on a Women's Studies class, is feminism shown to be a silly game practiced by a bunch of wrongheaded whiny women?

At the start of the class the professor states that "Feminist consciousness is a consciousness of victimization," and the students are off, complaining about all the ways in which they've been victimized that day. One woman felt violated as she walked past some male students playing football. "Even though I wasn't assaulted in any perceptible way," she explains, "I felt victimized." Everyone says that they feel silenced. One woman wants to talk about her period. A lot. Worst of all for Murphy, they don't respect her as a symbol of high achievement for women. She leaves the class disillusioned and upset; she clearly had higher hopes for Women's Studies, and for the students' reactions to her. She goes back to the next class meeting and confronts the students; yelling and lots of unintelligible dialogue ensue. Someone still wants to talk about her period. "While we sit here arguing," Murphy proclaims, "the radical religious right is trying to take away everything we've fought for."

Well, give the woman a cigar—she's made a true statement about an important political reality. Unfortunately, it's still harmful to feminist-friendly tv. With sleight-of-mind worthy of Camille Paglia and Katie Roiphe, the show's writers have engineered Murphy's absolute rightness in the face of arguments, which serves—within the context of the show—to demonstrate the futility and ridiculousness of feminist action, and, in some ways, feminism itself. Those of us who've actually been in Women's Studies classrooms know that this self-indulgent, unintelligent, unintellectual crap is not what the discipline is about, and that menstruation is never on the syllabus. This episode feeds the all-too-common misguided view of contemporary feminism as rooted in weakness rather than strength, passivity rather than activity. But how many viewers have taken Women's Studies and can recognize the pernicious myth being perpetuated?
In its coda, the show manages to duck out of the fight it created by erasing gender as an issue and replacing it with age. Murphy and her colleagues reminisce about what things were like when they were in college—all the late-night discussions, pseudo-meaningful arguments, and fatty snacks in which they can no longer safely indulge. Ah, youth. Like magic, the earlier tension evaporates, leaving nothing but a nostalgic haze. The disagreements Murphy had with the younger feminists become simply a kids-these-days problem: we've fallen into the generation gap. Her genuine concern over the state of feminist thought is gone, and all that's left is the bad taste in a feminist viewer's mouth.

Lisa Jervis doesn't ever want to talk about her period.

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