When you watch old episodes of Murphy Brown, which I did after CBS announced that the show would be back this year for a 13-episode revival, the first thing you notice is the clothes. A sitcom that premiered in 1988 was naturally a showcase for ‘80s-era fashion, and TV journalist Murphy Brown wore the uniform of the day: enormous, broad-shouldered blazers; billowing blouses; men’s-style ties that signaled Serious Working Woman.
It’s a stark contrast to the form-fitting cocktail party attire that many female TV journalists wear today, whether it’s because they want to or because they have to. Were the old clothes liberating or diminishing? Is the modern wardrobe svelte or oversexualized? Have things progressed for women in TV news, or stalled?
In an age of resurrected 1990s shows, Murphy Brown is a natural choice: It lasted for 10 seasons, perfected the comic art of ripping stories from the headlines, and had enough cachet to earn frequent cameos from politicians and news media stars.
Murphy was an indelible lead character: a hard-charging, hard-living journalist who regularly battled for interviews and scoops with the 60 Minutes crowd. She had real-life analogs, in reporting skill if not in comic abrasiveness: Martha Raddatz, Lesley Stahl, Andrea Mitchell, Diane Sawyer. They were predecessors to today’s rising women stars, fearless reporters like Lara Logan and Lisa Ling.
But if Murphy Brown aimed to put TV news on a cultural trajectory—one that started with Mary Tyler Moore as a lonely woman in a local newsroom, then posited Murphy as a fully-accepted, respected celebrity journalist—it’s hard not to think that the forward motion has stalled. Today’s network nightly newscasts, waning in influence, are all helmed by men. While morning news show audiences are overwhelmingly female, it took until this year—and a sexual harassment scandal—to put a female-only hosting team on NBC’s Today. (One half of that team, Hoda Kotb, also recently told “People” that “I’m not making Matt Lauer money.”) Ann Curry, a serious journalist shoehorned into a prior Today role, was booted in 2013 for not being congenial enough.
And while cable news has given more women more air time, it hasn’t bestowed its biggest rewards on the Murphy Browns of the world. The demands of a 24-hour broadcasting schedule reward a set of skills that are different from simply filing a great story. Cable stars need to command a show for hours at a time as part interrogator, part air traffic controller, part polemic personality. That’s what Rachel Maddow does, with increasing success, and what Megyn Kelly did before she left Fox News for daytime talk. It’s not easy work, but it’s not shoe-leather journalism.
On the other hand, the women who have made it to the top of TV news have more freedom to embrace their femininity, and their biology, than Murphy Brown had in the 1990s. In the show’s fourth season, when Murphy grappled with an unintended pregnancy at 42, she and her coworkers fretted about the impact of a televised pregnancy on her career—not just the work-life tug-of-war, but the very notion that a serious female journalist would procreate.
“Would something happen to me if I became a mother?” Murphy confided to her best friend. “I mean, would I lose my edge? And if I don’t, what kind of mother am I?”
Her choice to raise the child as a single mother hit a cultural nerve in an election year: Dan Quayle criticized the storyline for rewarding a fatherless “lifestyle choice” during the 1992 presidential campaign. The writers worked Quayle’s speech into an episode, complete with an artful rebuke. In fact, the complaint was something the show had already addressed. In the episode that revealed Brown’s pregnancy, Murphy’s executive producer wailed, “How many unmarried pregnant role models have you ever seen on primetime? None!”
The subsequent season grappled with Murphy’s struggles with work-life balance— and the still-unresolved issue of “having it all.” In the fifth season finale, travel snafus forced Murphy to miss her son's first birthday party, and—after listening to a pointed Barry Manilow song—she called her producer, telling him something had to give.
But the show soon moved on to other plotlines, and Murphy seemed to manage fine. (She apparently got some childcare help from her ever-present housepainter.) Despite some high-profile present-day outliers —like the Missouri Senate candidate who doesn’t want his daughters to be “career obsessed banshees” —the world has largely moved on from the question of whether a serious journalist can be a good mother, too.
Even so, the world hasn’t moved on from every gender issue Murphy faced. In a 1995 episode, Murphy chewed out a news executive who sexually harassed her colleague. Twenty-one years later, Gretchen Carlson lodged similar complaints against Roger Ailes and her Fox and Friends co-stars. TV news is now a hotbed of #MeToo complaints, and that doesn’t count the pervasive issue of age-ism.
And then there’s the wardrobe question, epitomized by the stilettoed women who parade across Fox and Friends, but hardly limited to national TV. Last summer, a longtime Boston news anchor griped, in a lifestyle magazine, that women newscasters are forced to address “more provocatively than I feel is appropriate for delivering local news.” The Boston Globe followed up with a story packed with blind complaints from local journalists. One said she was ordered to wear “tighter, smaller, shorter, more revealing clothes,” and that clothespins, outside the camera’s view, were used to make the outfits even tighter. Another said a news director chastised her for wearing a blazer that was “too boxy.”
Journalism is filled with new opportunities for women, and in some ways, fewer obstacles. Role models are plentiful. Motherhood is accepted and unquestioned. But a boxy blazer is one critique Murphy Brown never had to face, and it epitomizes the situation for female TV journalists today. It makes you hope the character’s revival brings back some of the old standards for TV news—and maybe ushers in some new ones.