Sitcoms from the 1980’s tend to feel tacky, cheesy, and well, just plain dated. The feminist in me always cringes as women are repeatedly undermined, told to get home (or worse, back to the kitchen). But “Murder She Wrote” is different, if only slightly.
Although the show is decidedly sexually conservative, the position articulated about women and their “place” is, I think, progressive during it’s beginning in 1984. The episode I want to focus on is “Who Threw the Barbitals in Mrs. Fletcher’s Chowder?”
In this episode, Sheriff Amos Tucker places an ad looking to hire a new deputy. In walks Marigold Feeney, played by Coleen Camp.
When Feeney walks in demanding the deputy’s job, Amos stumbles over himself, unable to articulate that she wasn’t what he was looking for because of her gender. Feeney helps him along, indicating how disappointed she’d be to find out Amos was biased (what I think was meant here is sexist, but in ’87 “biased” might have been a “kinder” word).
“Murder She Wrote” has continuously (at least until ’88, I haven’t seen the episodes from the ’90s yet) created strong female roles such as Jessica Fletcher’s tact for solving crime and swiftly navigating dangerous situations, and now, Feeney as deputy. In this episode alone Feeney manages two collars, draws her gun twice, and flips a man on his back to bring him into custody.
Despite all this, we are still given a healthy dose of male opinion, especially from characters such as Amos, Seth and the ever changing string of macho male detectives Jessica butts heads with. So what are they doing there, and why do they keep telling us where women ought to be?
In many ways the benevolent sexism articulated by characters such as Amos and Seth act as reminders of popular opinion. Both nice, friendly guys, you don’t want to hate them, but you can’t help but notice the latent sexism in their behaviour, not to mention the (blatant) sexism in what they say.
In many ways, Jessica Fletcher can also be seen as a benevolent sexist. She always tries to be open minded, but when confronted with issues of sexuality, or a woman who is described as “controlling” or “strong minded” (despite being described this way herself), ideals of how women ought to behave begin to shine through. In “Who Threw the Barbitals in Mrs. Fletcher’s Chowder?” the audience is confronted with Amos’s sister, Winnie, who has fled from her abusive husband, Elmo. Despite Winnie’s reluctance to see or speak to Elmo, Jessica coaxes her into having a dinner party, convincing her that things might reach an understanding if they could only talk it over after a nice meal.
Although Elmo ends up dead, it is very clear what Winnie (and women in general) are encouraged to do in this situation. Winnie, despite being terrified, should be willing to give Elmo a second chance, or at the very least, talk it over with him.
While yes, “Murder She Wrote” takes important steps concerning female roles in ’80s television, it’s clear there are still boundaries which are not only concerned with gender (I haven’t even begun to discuss problems of race, religion, sexuality, etc.).
So, for these reasons, I love you, and I hate you, “Murder She Wrote”.