Enduring Values: Women in Popular Culture

by June Sochen; Praeger Publishers, 1987

"Cagney and Lacey," a show featuring two women detectives for the New York Police Department, debuted in 1982 and after a shaky start became a popular television series. Cagney, played by Sharon Gless, was blonde, attractive, single, and a feminist while Lacey, played by Tyne Daley, was married, a mother of three (she became pregnant and had the child during the 1986 season), and more traditional. The contrasts, as well as the frequent compromises they agreed upon, provided an exciting and dramatic setting for the weekly episodes. "Cagney and Lacey" dealt with difficult social issues as well: breast cancer, abortion, homosexuality, and alcoholism. The personality and philosophical differences between the protagonists reflected the multiple perspectives of women in the 1980s. This show captured the diversity within the adventure format.

The continued success of "Cagney and Lacey," a sole representative of women adventurers without supporting men in the late 1980s, only attests to its atypicality. Women adventurers are novelties, not essential or expected images in popular culture. Despite the success of many aspects of the women's movement in the 1960s and 1970s, the fundamental conservatism of the culture asserts itself in its popular cultural offerings. Real-life women may study karate and tai kwon do, but fantasy women do not.

The snobbery persists that TV work is hurried, down-scale, and inferior. Movies are where serious actresses or ambitious showbiz personalities should go."

Thomson pointed to the careers of Goldie Hawn (who has not equaled her fame on Rowan and Martin's "Laugh-In"), Tyne Daley (whose screen career never matched her success on "Cagney and Lacey"), Shelley Long (whose work on "Cheers" made the show popular), and Ann Margret (whose most serious performances have been in TV films rather than theatrical features where she played a sex-pot). 3 Despite this interesting view, and despite the fact that movies continued to be made in record quantities, women sought screen roles but did not find them.

"Cagney and Lacey," for example, began slowly, was canceled due to low ratings, and only returned to prime time television after a concerted letter-writing campaign to the network by its small, but loyal, following. Its history, however, is unusual. A canceled show is usually lost and forgotten very quickly.

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