Why America is still not ready for Murphy Brown

Published 5:10 PM EST, Sat January 27, 2018

Editor’s Note: Susan Bordo is the Otis A. Singletary Chair in the Humanities and professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Kentucky. Her new book is “The Destruction of Hillary Clinton.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) —  

I get why Laura Bradley of Vanity Fair might opine that a “Murphy Brown” reboot “might actually be perfect for 2018.” With broadcast news coming at us 24/7, jam-packed with political outrages, “fake news” and looming constitutional crises, a newsroom-based sitcom would never lack topical material. And then, too, there’s the 2018 real-world reboot of “the year of the woman,” (yes, we’ve had those before) which would seem to demand prominent female leads who embody the fact that “Time’s Up” for bossy, ego-driven, clueless men.

But are we ready for a bossy, ego-driven, often clueless female lead?

Susan Bordo
Susan Bordo

A whole lot of us were ready in 1988, when Murphy Brown premiered. And part of what made us ready was the freshness of it. We were in the midst of the Reagan era – not exactly a feminist utopia, but it did put a lot of women in business suits with linebacker shoulder pads, brand new briefcases and a lack of guidance as to how to behave in these professional, high-voltage worlds previously barred to us.

And Murphy was an inspiration: the opposite of a pushed-around, silenced woman, she wore those sharply tailored suits and the power that came with them as if born to do so. Unlike her fore-sister Mary Richards, who broke ground for the single workingwoman–but not for the female boss–she didn’t temper her independence with stammers and blushes.

Murphy, unlike Mary, spoke her mind with confidence and obeyed no-one’s marching orders. While a 25-year-old guy nominally ran the newsroom, it was always clear who was emotionally and intellectually the boss. And a very bossy boss, at that.

We loved her in 1988, precisely because she was so boldly and blithely transgressive of feminine norms of deference. She didn’t have to force it, either; it emanated naturally from her character. Murphy didn’t even notice any glass ceilings—she’d already shattered the interior ones that Mary Richards, for all her spunk, kept ramming against. And that still hold women back today.

Was she without faults? Hardly, and mostly those of arrogance. But they were written with such affection it was impossible to dislike her for them.

For many of us, Murphy was not a mirror but a hope: that what Hollywood and television had typically presented as a “bitch” — the ambitious career-woman, the aspiring boss-lady – might someday be more warmly received in the “real world,” her toughness appreciated, her vulnerabilities recognized, her competence valued. Could a women really be as competitive, as driven, as expert in her field as Murphy and still be loved? The show’s creator Diane English and its star Candice Bergen made it seem possible.

That hope, as the election of 2016 demonstrated, is as much a yet-to-be-realized fantasy in 2018 as in 1988. Forget emails, Russia and Comey. Any and all of these may have decided the election.

But the misogynist slogans and signs, the resentment of Hillary Clinton for being “too carefully prepared,” too “establishment” (as though it had not taken women centuries to get there!), and too confident of her chances (who does she think she is?) revealed that too many of us still see female ambition and hyper-competence through misogynist-colored glasses.

And unlike 1988, it’s hard today to savor the future promise of the fantasy-zone. There’s the 2016 defeat that still lingers, one that so devastated so many of us that clinical depression and physical maladies blossomed among us. And we really haven’t come to terms—not yet. Yes, there are the massive protests and increasing numbers of women are running for office. But our most Murphy-like female politicians are still getting whipped for talking too loud, too much, too aggressively.

I’m eager to see what the genius of Diane English will do with all this, in rebooting Candice Bergen as a now Hillary-aged Murphy who some of us hope will be as outspoken about the politics of our day as Murphy (and “Designing Women”) were in the 1990’s. It will take more, though, than iPhones, a more frenzied newsroom setting and the insertion of a few characters of color. It will take giving feminism – not just “me too” feminism, but “I’m mad as hell and sexual misconduct is the least of it” feminism – a leading role again.