Gen X

That Time Middle-Aged TV Stars Got to Act Their Age


The 1990s were the golden age for actresses of a certain age who portrayed women much like themselves: menopausal, world-weary, and invisible to men. And they were successful—until they got canceled.



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Recently I found myself walking down Hollywood Boulevard. Somehow I’d never known, until then, that those stars go on for more than a mile. Big names—Laurence Olivier, Judy Garland, Buster Keaton—share turf with ones less familiar to me, like Binnie Barnes, Warren Hull, and Gale Storm. More than 2,500 stars, so many people who once booked jobs, took meetings, were recognized at the supermarket.

This is the image in the opening credits of Cybill Shepherd’s show Cybill, which ran four seasons, from 1995 to 1998. The Memphis beauty queen had appeared as a young object of desire in The Last Picture Show, The Heartbreak Kid, and Taxi Driver before returning to fame as the beautiful comic lead with Bruce Willis in the will-they-or-won’t-they dramedy Moonlighting. Cybill presented her as a world-weary and beleaguered but still game and beautiful menopausal woman. Scored by Shepherd’s rendition of the Gershwin song “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” heels walk along the Walk of Fame over the stars of Carole Lombard, Lana Turner, Kim Novak, Lassie, and Jean Harlow (all famous blondes). Then, at the end of the row, a skateboarder rolls over a star written in chalk that reads “Cybill.”

That mid to late 1990s period was a golden age for middle-aged women on TV. In the ’80s, middle-aged women were cast as senior citizens. (To wit: When she began as Blanche on Golden Girls, Rue McClanahan, was only 51, and Estelle Getty, at 62, was playing the elderly mother to Dorothy, portrayed by Bea Arthur, who was 63.) Ten years later, 40-something women actually played 40-something characters, and popular ones at that. For the 1994-95 season, among the top 25 shows in the country were Grace Under Fire, Roseanne, Ellen, Murphy Brown, and Cybill—all shows about strong, independent women. 

But by 1998, the year President Bill Clinton was impeached, all those shows were gone; the cultural tide had changed and washed them all away. In the 1990s, Dan Quayle called out Murphy Brown by name for “mocking the importance of fathers, by bearing a child alone, and calling it just another ‘lifestyle choice.’” GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich promoted his Contract With America, which pledged, “It is through the family that we learn values like responsibility, morality, commitment and faith.” He said that our children should be taught to believe in the America of “the Norman Rockwell paintings of the 1940s and 1950s.” Republicans attacked Ellen as part of a nefarious attempt to normalize homosexuality. In 1996, Mississippi Senator Trent Lott opposed a bill that would have protected the rights of gay employees in the workplace, saying it was “part of a larger and more audacious effort to make the public accept behavior that most Americans consider dangerous, unhealthy or just plain wrong.’“

The tough-talking-female-centric shows of the late 1990s were explicitly part of that “audacious” effort to destigmatize the non-Rockwellian lives being led by many middle-aged women in America, and to mine those lives for humor. 

On Cybill, the middle-aged heroine, Cybill Sheridan, is an alternate-universe version of Cybill Shepherd if she’d never broken out. Cybill Sheridan faces the indignities of life in L.A. as an aging actress—and as a twice-divorced mother to a saucy teenager and high-strung newlywed. Her ex-husbands—one a writer, the other a stuntman—are always hanging around. Her best friend, Maryann Thorpe, is an often-drunk, bitterly divorced socialite played by scene-stealing Christine Baranski. The slapstick show’s tagline: “A comedy about the best ten years of a woman’s life … between 39 and 40.”

Cybill Sheridan speaks frankly about aging and even about menopause. In the first episode of the second season, she says to Maryann, “I used to have such dreams. Now I’m a big old, sloppy, floppy failure. I used to know who I was, where my life was going. Now I feel lost … I’m an asterisk, a footnote, a blonde afterthought … Family doesn’t fill the void. Work doesn’t fill the void. It’s been a year since a man filled the …” [Pause for laughs.]

On another episode, she says, “Sometimes my period’s regular. Sometimes I skip a month. But lately I’ve been spotting a lot … No way am I becoming invisible. When the wolf whistles stop, I am going to become one brassy in-your-face menopause mama!” With that, she whips off her shirt and pours ice water down her camisole. 

In her 2000 memoir, Cybill Disobedience, Shepherd wrote, “I was the first baby-boomer to have a prime-time hot flash, and we skewered the injustice of a culture that pretends women over 40 are invisible.” Shepherd told People: “I believe, as Germaine Greer does, that what society wants to do to women as we age is to make us invisible. They want us to shut up. And that’s why I’m speaking out.” [About The Female Eunuch author Germaine Greer, in People!] 

In Grace Under Fire (1993–1998), the eponymous character, played by Brett Butler, is a divorced mother who works in a factory and delivers zingers about killing her family and stark confessions about having survived an abusive, alcoholic husband. The first episode opens with this voiceover: “I figured I had two choices: I could spend the rest of my life waking up next to a knuckle-dragging, cousin-loving, beer-sucking redneck or I could work like a dog for lousy money while I raised three kids all by myself. Boy, is it nice to have choices.”

From 1988 to 1997, Roseanne presented a portrait of a brash, unapologetic middle-aged woman who says things like, “I consider myself a good judge of people and that’s why I don’t like none of em.”

At the other end of the class spectrum, newswoman Murphy Brown was funny, sexy, and powerful. And, with the help of her house painter, Eldin, she was able to work her intense job while also starting a family on her own. 

The female protagonists in many 1990s middle-aged-women shows were almost absurdly empowered. Just think of how many drag queens can recite from memory Designing Women’s “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia“ monologue, in which a young woman receives a lecture from Julia Sugarbaker, the tough, stylish design-firm president played by Dixie Carter, about disrespecting an older one. Or about how hypersincerely pro-equality the monologues were in Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, which brought a feisty 40-something female doctor played by Jane Seymour to the Wild West. 

By the year 2000, those sorts of characters seemed quaint. 

In Murphy Brown’s final episode, which aired in 1998, Murphy dealt with breast cancer. Candice Bergen told the New York Times that network executives said cancer was too much. “They thought Murphy should just struggle through menopause,” Bergen said. “[Show creator] Diane [English] and I had to tell them menopause is not jeopardizing.Murphy Brown went out on its own terms, with a slew of celebrity cameos after ten seasons. But others went out in a ball of fire. 

Ellen (1994–1998) is mostly remembered for Ellen DeGeneres’s title character coming out in “The Puppy Episode” after hilariously hinting at it for years. There was a media frenzy, and then all hell broke loose. Several episodes were slapped with “parental advisory” cards and then the show was cancelled. On Primetime Live, ABC President Robert Iger said the show “became a program about a lead character who was gay every single week, and I just think that was too much for people.” DeGeneres has been upfront about how tough that time was for her. Adding insult to injury, her show was replaced with Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place. The L.A. Times said “the ‘girl’ (and the ‘two guys,’ for that matter) is young, cute and pleasantly vacuous.”

Cybill’s terrible final episode ends in a baffling cliffhanger in which Cybill and Maryann are taken into police custody for murder. The screen reads “To Be Continued,” but nothing was continued. Grace Under Fire, like Cybill, ended abruptly, with a whimper of a semi-resolved B-plot. According to the press, Butler’s addiction issues were to blame. 

“With few exceptions, American television has become the Bermuda Triangle for females over 40,” wrote Shepherd in 2000. “There was a wide variety of middle-aged women on the air in 1998, but they were all gone by 1999.” She said in a 1999 interview with the New York Post that Hollywood’s ageism was the reason. A case could be made. Among the shows that survived: Ally McBeal (1997–2002), Sex and the City (1998–2004), and Friends (1994–2004). 

But the focus on youth has always been with us. (A source involved in the production of Murphy Brown told me that even back in 1988 execs wanted 40-year-old Murphy to be 30.) The change was bigger than just youth obsession. Those women were conscripted into the culture wars and it was a campaign they decidedly lost. In that Times story about the end of Murphy Brown, the reporter says, “A decade later, however, both feminists and journalism have slipped in the public esteem: 60 Minutes has been supplanted by Jerry Springer, and Ally McBeal’s ticking biological clock now earns ratings gold.”

In 1998, Diane English told the L.A. Times, “Women my age don’t exist on television … The theory is you don’t buy as much … They should look at my MasterCard bill. I am not spending less as I get older. At some point, advertisers will figure out what bull—- that is, and then you will see women in their 40s and 50s playing leads.”

Advertisers still don’t seem to have quite gotten that message. Today the highest-rated TV shows are The Masked Singer, Game of Thrones, This Is Us, The Big Bang Theory, and The Walking Dead. There’s not a whole lot of real talk on prime time about menopause and midlife invisibility. It’s like the opening credits of Cybill taught us: In Hollywood, middle-aged women’s names are written in chalk, not marble. 

By Ada Calhoun, the author of  Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis © The Grove Press, 2020.

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