Lately I’ve been spending time in 1999 and 1964. Part anthropological study, part guilty pleasure, binge-watching old TV shows is fun. I can immerse myself in a different world and catch up on long-deferred viewing.
Watching The West Wing, I’m reliving the late 90’s and early 2000’s. (We had a “homework night TV ban”, so lots of TV escaped my notice then.) The perspective of the staff, the clash of personalities, and the pace of any given day form a rich slice of White House life. I’m so engrossed, I wonder about the characters’ lives even when I’m not watching. The national and international issues seem like they’re ripped from today’s headlines – international unrest, nuclear crisis, party polarization. And since my social studies and history classes were a long time ago, I feel like this show is teaching me how government works – maybe a dangerous assumption, like using Facebook as your key news source.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. inhabits 1964, in all its black-and-white, 007-imitating glory. I was spurred to revisit this show, a childhood favorite, after a movie remake was released this year. The episodes seem like quaint set-pieces, presenting an idealized secret agent’s world to cold-war era viewers. The intrepid agents, in their sharp suits, are protecting everyday Americans from easily contained evil. They use cutting edge communication and tracking devices, travel to exotic locales, make jokes while waving their guns around, and are occasionally, temporarily, caught in some outlandish snare by an megalomaniac planning world domination. Yep, it’s fabulous.
While viewing these shows in the same month, I’m most struck by how women are portrayed. U.N.C.L.E headquarters is filled with primarily decorative, beautiful women with guns holstered at their small waists. Napoleon Solo regularly ogles them as they walk away. They answer phones, take notes, hand out security badges, and, curiously, sometimes knit or darn socks at their desks. One intrepid translator played by Barbara Feldon (the future Agent 99 in Get Smart), manages to bungle her way through a mission she was assigned to, as a prank, only to run back to the safety of her quiet office. Outside of headquarters, women are either damsels in distress, or evil masterminds.
Thirty-five years later the women are different. The West Wing has multiple, prominent female characters in positions of authority. Even the administrative assistants have extraordinary skill and influence over the orbit around the Oval office. And while these characters have weaknesses, they don’t appear to suffer from being dismissed and objectified. I’m more comfortable in the 1999 world, but I recognize the 1964 world. It’s not that far removed from offices in the late 70’s – expect for the gun holsters.
I’m climbing back into my time machine (aka the comfy couch) with a firm grip on the remote, mulling my next classic TV destination – Twilight Zone? Mad Men? Downton Abbey? Where ever I go, I’m sure there will be women to admire.