Whatever Happened to Murphy Brown?

The most feminist character to appear on a network TV sitcom has disappeared from pop-cultural memory. Can Candice Bergen’s new memoir, “A Fine Romance," restore her legacy?

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Thanks to Candice Bergen, one of the TV’s greatest feminist characters, Murphy Brown, is back in prime time. Bergen’s memoir, A Fine Romance, is a billet­-doux to her first husband, director Louis Malle, who died in 1995, their daughter, Chloé, and to her second husband Marshall Rose, the New York real-estate developer and philanthropist she married in 2000.

Her story can’t help but be enveloped in the golden glow of Hollywood, but it’s also the story of what it was like, in real life, to be the working mother who for a decade played the role of the country’s snarkiest feminist and single mother.

Her life in those years—when her show was at the top of the Nielsen charts and she won five Emmys and two Golden Globe awards—couldn’t have been at all like Murphy’s, right? Bergen recounts being utterly besotted by motherhood at 39, but also of struggling to retain her sense of self and recalibrate her marriage. A year after her daughter’s birth, she realized that without work of her own “she was going a little crazy.”

So when Bergen was handed a script for a sharp new sitcom, she went for it. Over 40, she was up against Heather Locklear and the long shot. But the show’s creator, Diane English, went to the mat for Bergen. And so she went back to work, as the mother of a small child and with a husband who had a demanding career of his own.

But “the having-it-all thing was way more complicated than the women who seemed to have it all made it sound,” she writes, which also sounds like something Murphy would say. Like the rest of us, she figured out how to make it work. She moved from New York, where she had been living with Malle, to L.A., with their daughter, to do the show. She was a mostly single parent. Malle commuted to L.A. regularly, but it was a painful compromise that left a lasting imprint on the family when he became sick. Bergen kept working through his illness and after his death. Meanwhile, her prime-time doppelganger grappled with single motherhood by choice. It must have been funnier, and easier, than widowhood.

What else was Bergen doing—and Murphy too, for that matter—but leaning in?

Katha Pollitt once called Murphy Brown “the most feminist sitcom in TV history.” If Mary Tyler Moore‘s Mary Richards was America’s sweetheart, then Murphy Brown was America’s piece of work—the ball-busting and deeply flawed anchor of a 60 Minutes-style TV. She was a recovering alcoholic. And she went through more secretaries than Mad Men‘s Don Draper—93 to be exact. Feminists saw Brown as the poster woman for second-wave liberal feminism championed by Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, Bella Abzug, and NOW. Murphy didn’t need a man for anything—well, maybe sex—but she had worked so hard to make it in a man’s world she was barely capable of intimacy.

So why has Murphy Brown disappeared from the popular consciousness? To start, “shows lose their longevity when they are not constantly circulating,” explained Bonnie J. Dow, who wrote about Murphy Brown in her book, Prime Time Feminism: Television, Media Culture, and the Women’s Movement Since 1970. Warner Bros. only issued one season on DVD and the show just recently made it into syndication—it’s on Encore between 2 and 3 in the morning.

But the real reason Murphy has faded from view is that feminist progress in the 1980s and 90s was such a mixed bag. The sun was thankfully setting on Reagan’s Morning in America, but the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings made the limits of women’s liberation depressingly clear. The year 1992 was dubbed “The Year of the Woman” as more than 60 million women voters helped put 24 women in the House and five in the Senate. But the Gingrich Revolution in ’94 aimed its anti-family rhetoric of “family values” at every woman who earned a paycheck and viewed access to birth control and legal abortion as civil rights. The pendulum has been swinging back and forth ever since. We have 20 women in the Senate and we had a victory with United States v. Windsor, but we also have “religious exemptions” for dispensing birth control and wedding cakes.

Let’s not forget that even as Murphy was embraced as a feminist icon, the show had an equally strong post-feminist message. Murphy was so tough she didn’t need Eisenstadt v. Baird, Title IX, Roe v. Wade, or the Equal Rights Amendment, just her own steely will to make it to the top. Murphy leaned in—hard—while Sheryl Sandberg was still at Harvard, learning to play hard ball from Larry Summers, the man who attributed the lack of women in science to innate differences between the sexes.

The show was also a lesson in the dangers—and impossibilities—of feminism. Just one look at the suits Murphy wore—a flashback to Casual Corner—and you could see how success masculinized her. Her foil, Corky Sherwood Forest, a former Miss America, wasn’t afraid of her femininity—evidenced by her lilting Louisiana drawl, her bleached-blonde hair, her high heels, and her soft, girly journalism. Again and again, Murphy was on wrong side of the male-female divide: competitive, uncooperative, ambitious instead of nurturing, a workaholic, without home or husband.

Her redemption? Motherhood. After her son Avery was born, Murphy bemoaned the fact that all the men in her life were better mothers than she was, but the biological imperative emancipated her. In the show’s pilot, when Murphy sang along with Aretha Franklin to “you make me feel like a natural woman,” it was the single woman’s wishful anthem. When she sang it to her infant son, it was a lullaby to essentialism.

When bad speller and second-string conservative Dan Quayle set his sights on Murphy’s moral failure as a single mom, it seemed like the show was a slam dunk for feminism, especially when it closed out its run with a breast cancer survivor story.

It’s clearer now in hindsight that the show was working out  the meaning of feminism and post-feminism. Did we still need feminism, or had it done what we needed it to do? But as Jane Gerhard, author of Desiring Revolution: Second-Wave Feminism and the Rewriting of American Sexual Thought, 1920-1982, said to me, “The problem with feminism is that it’s not linear. And the problem with post-feminism is that it can look a lot like pre-feminism.” So another reason Murphy receded into history is because without her we can forget what a long, uneven slog it’s been.

Just look around: Title IX, once used to open locker rooms for female athletes, is now the muscle behind wide-scale efforts to enforce sexual harassment and sexual-assault policies in higher education. But the rhetoric of opting out and leaning in attributes women’s responses to workplace sexism and gender inequity to individual choice instead of, as Dow puts it bluntly, “patriarchy.” Sometimes—like when a major news magazine opines on the estrogen levels of a highly qualified presidential candidate—the last two decades feel like a feminist version of Groundhog’s Day.

For more than half the time Murphy Brown was on the air, misogynist pundits projected the same political and sexual anxieties Quayle had directed at Murphy onto another prominent media figure—only she wasn’t fictional. Like Murphy, Hillary Clinton was caught between femininity and feminism. When she changed hairstyles, she was frivolous. When she weighed in on national policy, she was Lady Macbeth. That she stayed married to Bill after a humiliating scandal was just further proof of her cold ambition, instead of testament to her belief in marriage.

There were no Hollywood writers to help Hillary navigate the pitfalls of feminism, although many times we probably wished there were. She redeemed herself through six years in the Senate, by her service in the Obama administration as secretary of State, and, yes, by becoming a grandmother. For all those reasons, she’s a contender this time. But the feminist backlash is back, this time in the form of the biological advantages to having a post-menopausal president. If Murphy Brown was a moody bitch before menopause, imagine what she’d be like now. Who else but Murphy could take to the airwaves and give Time the scolding it deserves?


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