February 3, 2011
By Colleen Barrett
I grew up watching Murphy Brown peripherally: too young to fully get it or care to get it, but exposed to it when my parents watched it. I knew it was an important show, though. In its 10-year run, it was nominated for 62 Emmy awards and won 18. Candice Bergen won Best Lead Actress in a Comedy five times — the standing record for a continuing role — and she withdrew her name for consideration after the fifth. It was one of the first shows to make a woman over 40 the main character, and the fact she was a powerful, unmarried journalist who eventually became a single mom was a scandalous game-changer.
Last night Candice and the show’s creator Diane English sat down to talk about the impact of Murphy Brown (Connie Chung was supposed to moderate, but the weather kept her in New York) as part of the SF Sketchfest in San Francisco. It began with a viewing of the series’ most famous and notorious episode — where Murphy has her baby — and then Candice and Diane talked like old friends in front of 300 or so people for an hour. And as someone who thought Murphy Brown was a real person for most of the ’90s, I learned at least five things.
Brought middle-age women to TV: While CBS pushed for someone young and fun — Heather Locklear was the network’s favorite — Diane English felt it was vital that Murphy be 40-ish. “There were no women over 40 on TV at the time,” she said, “except the Golden Girls.”
Merged current affairs into TV: “My goal was always to blend fiction and nonfiction, said Diane, “to make Candice Murphy Brown.” They made fake covers of Time and Newsweek with journalist Murphy Brown on the covers, and eventually that became reality, as Candice covered the same magazines. Real journalists and politicians guest-starred, and each week DC bigwigs hoped to be name checked on the political satire. In fact, when Diane Sawyer left 60 Minutes, The New York Times ran a poll — Who Should Take Her Place? — and Murphy Brown won.
Provided a new role model for women: Women immediately took to Murphy, even before the show became hugely popular. “She had none of the traditional disease to please,” said Candice. “She would just speak her mind and didn’t care whether she was liked.”
Improved women’s position in TV industry: With Diane behind the scenes, it’s no surprise Murphy Brown’s writer’s room had an even estrogen-testosterone balance, but that was still rare in 1988 when the show began. Diane said the opportunities for women in TV have improved drastically in the last 20 years because “men are no longer uncomfortable with women in the writer’s room.” Film, however, is still an old boys’ club, she said, “I could spend another panel talking about women in film.”
But the most lasting impact of all came when this fictional character dared to have a baby on her own, and the Republican Party took single motherhood on as its cause célèbre. Read about it below.
Inadvertently launched “family values” as a Republican platform: Apparently nobody ever used the word “family values” until Vice President Dan Quayle said it in a speech after Murphy became a single mom. He cited it as an example of how pop culture contributed to the “poverty of values,” saying that an intelligent, professional woman bringing a child into the world alone was “mocking the importance of fathers” and “calling it just another ‘lifestyle choice.’”
Candice recalled newspaper headlines the next day, from “Quayle Says Murphy You Slut” to “Murphy Has Baby, Quayle Has Cow.” She never formally spoke to the press, but Diane was advised to give one statement and be done. So she gave possibly the most perfect comeback I’ve ever heard: “If the vice president thinks it’s disgraceful for an unmarried woman to bear a child, and if he believes that a woman cannot adequately raise a child without a father, then he’d better make sure that abortion remains safe and legal.”
The issue is still brought up today. In her book, Sarah Palin wrote that Bristol Palin was a better role model for single moms than Murphy Brown. Diane English heard that message loud and clear, joking last night that if Sarah Palin runs for president, “I will call CBS and beg to put Murphy Brown back on the air.”