Almost since the birth of television, the birth of TV children has been used as an audience-grabbing ploy. The tradition began in 1953, when Lucy and Ricky Ricardo (Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz) incorporated the real-life arrival of Ricky Jr. into 1 Love Lucy—and ratings soared. Since then, such TV moms as Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) on The Dick Van Dyke Show, Carla (Rhea Perlman) on Cheers and Elise (Meredith Baxter-Birney) on Family Ties have followed suit. And just last year, CBS’s popular Designing Women had its highestrated episode of the season when Charlene (Jean Smart) gave birth. Now, the sitcom baby boom is being given a decidedly feminist twist: pregnancy without marriage. With the new fall season only a month old, four of prime-time television’s most high-profile unmarried characters have already faced the possibility—and in some cases, the certainty—that they are pregnant.
Diane English, co-executive producer of Murphy Brown, said that executives at CBS had a simple reason for making the independent, overachieving Brown a prospective single mother. Said English: “We wanted to give her the ultimate challenge.” Brown, played by actress Candice Bergen (who is not pregnant), has decided to keep the child that she realized she was carrying in last season’s final episode. Others, meanwhile, have been facing the prospect of single motherhood with feelings ranging from maternal longing to quiet despair. Interior decorator Mary Jo (Annie Potts) of Designing Women, a divorced and unattached mother of two teenagers, turned to a sperm bank—only to miscarry soon after conception. On NBC’s Cheers, wisecracking bar manager Rebecca (Kirstie Alley) has begun trying to conceive—with the help of sometime boyfriend Sam (Ted Danson), who says that his best child-rearing days are slipping away. And journalist Hannah Garnie Lee Curtis) on ABC’s A nything but Love launched into wedding plans with boyfriend Marty (Richard Lewis) when a pregnancy test gave a surprise positive reading—only to discover it had been a false alarm.
As unattached thirtyand fortysomething characters flirt with adding motherhood to their résumés, media watchers and women’s advocates are debating the reasons why. One obvious influence, say some, is that many reallife women are deciding to put their professional lives on hold in order to beat their biological clocks. Although 45-year-old CBS newscaster Connie Chung is married, her decision last year to leave her job to concentrate—so far, unsuccessfully—on conceiving her first child influenced Murphy Brown’s creators, according to English. In Canada, neither CTV nor the CBC is planning to introduce similar plot developments this season, but CBC dramatic head Nada Harcourt said that single motherhood is a logical story line for writers grappling with real social trends.
Others point to a more general impatience on the part of TV audiences with one-dimensional, hard-bitten female role models. Dina Lieberman, vice-president of Toronto Women in Film and Television, an association that promotes women in the industry, said that she sees the new trend in small-screen single motherhood as part of a general social backlash against two decades of women’s liberation. Characters like Murphy Brown, said Lieberman, “represent the maturing of an entire generation of women who for two decades chanted, ‘Me, me, me’—and of viewers who are tired of it all.” But others suggested just the opposite, contending that the
However, one issue that prime-time shows are still shying away from is abortion. Although one of the four adult, female siblings in a recent episode of the NBC one-hour drama Sisters made it as far as an abortion-clinic waiting room before deciding to opt out of the procedure, industry watchers question whether any half-hour sitcom will ever be ready for such a sensitive topic. “Even with enormously excellent writing,” said CBC’s Harcourt, “it is very tough to deal with such difficult issues in shorthand form.”
phenomenon represents another step forward for the women’s movement. Said Christina Starr, a spokesman for Toronto-based Media Watch, which monitors images of women in various media: “TV executives are finally creating women who feel free to say, ‘We’re not going to hide just because we’re single and pregnant.’ ”
Still, Noreen Golsman, who teaches women’s studies at Memorial University in St. John’s, Nfld., pointed out that such controversial subjects as single motherhood and homosexuality were common fare on daytime soap operas long before they made it into the plot lines of nighttime comedies. Noting that abortion has already become a staple of those afternoon serials, Golsman added that the subject may be “on the distant horizon” of prime time.
For now, Murphy Brown faces the prospect of learning to change diapers—and network executives are, as usual, keeping an eye on the bottom line. Last month’s cliff-hanging opening episode of Murphy Brown drew an impressive 35 per cent of the available U.S. audience—up 13 percentage points from its usual healthy average. Such numbers are clearly not lost on network bosses. Brown’s baby is scheduled to arrive during the show’s season finale next May—just in time for the spring ratings sweep.
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