ADVOCACY: TV Still Sidesteps Real Life Struggles
This article originally appeared in Issue# 45
Jessica Fletcher (Angela Lansbury) is a TV character I can admire. A successful mystery writer who can be seen each week in Murder, She Wrote. Ms. Fletcher has warmth, wit and modesty. She sets her own schedule, and has a long list of loving friends and relatives whom she visits just when needed to solve a murder and leaves as soon as the case is solved.
Also she is unflappable and very smart. When young male police officers dismiss her as an old meddler — which they often do — she simply humors them and later gets even by solving the crime.
Television has extraordinary power to shape peoples' expectations. Because Murder, She Wrote surpasses the usual stereotypes of older women, it's worth considering its principal character's attitude toward family, work and society.
In brief, Jessica has none of the typical family problems — no household to run, no demanding kids or spouse, no unpaid bills. Nor does she have a boss, a pension to worry about, or even hassles with her publisher. She's clearly in that five percent of American authors who write their own ticket.
But perhaps most interesting is Ms. Fletcher's attitude toward society, as seen in her encounters with the police. Like Sherlock, she has little use for the ordinary detective and, by extension, tries to avoid contact with institutions.
What message can be found here? The typical television image of an older woman is a Hausfrau clown. Murder, She Wrote offers a third model, in which aging gracefully requires that a woman be a major success, live alone, work for no one and have little contact with the wider society.
For many viewers, perhaps, Jessica's independence and self-reliance represent a refreshing change from lives overburdened with financial concern, health problems and dependence on others. But in real life, the flip side of freedom may well be loneliness.
While I will continue admiring both Jessica Fletcher and the programmers and writers who created her, I'm still waiting for a recognition that a productive old age can coexist with a Social Security check, a pension allotment and an annual checkup. And when writers learn to create characters who can show their strength by dealing with normal human relationships, the problems of daily living and maybe even their own personal struggle to improve society, then I'll really sit up and cheer.