This week has seen the passing of two well-known women from two very different ages, Mary Tyler Moore, and Barabara Hale. I therefore thought it would be fitting for me to offer my thoughts about two positive female role models from a period BEFORE the rise of modern feminism, but who became well-known to Generation-X through reruns. One is the recently departed Barbara Hale, of course, who played Della Street on Perry Mason. The other is Noel Neill who played Lois Lane against George Reeves, who died last year in the “great celebrity purge”.
Not that I want this blog to be overtly political, but there is a stereotype out there that says that women before the late 60s were all just happy housewives ala June Cleaver. While it’s true that the suburban housewife was the dominant icon for women in the post-war era, there were exceptions to the rule. Being Generation-X, my exposure to shows from before the 60s was very limited. I did see the 1950s Superman at a young age, but it wasn’t until the mid to late 80s that Perry Mason started showing up in syndication in my area. So you could say Noel Neill was my pre-pubescent exposure to assertive 50s women and Barbara Hale was post-pubescent. Naturally, my perceptions of them are as you would expect…
Noel Neill’s personality, in retrospect, kind of reminds me of a Zoey Deschanel. Her Lois was precocious and quirky, but always exhuding a helpful spirit. In other words, I think she fell into the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype.
Barbara Hale, on the other hand, as Della Street, represented the pinnacle of early middle-aged refinement and poise. Pure class. There was always a calmness to her, despite the fact that these cases involved murder.
What you didn’t get in either of these cases was a lot of character development. The times being what they were, and the genre of (pre Tim Burton) pulpy comic-book superhero and whodunnit just don’t lend themselves to big dramatic moments. Instead what you get is simply a presence as these characters were used for exposition (in the case of Della Street, who is the Watson foil to Perry’s Holmes) or Neill who wasoften asked to become the damsel in distress for Superman.
The overall idea of these two characters, though, is that they are part of a larger team, that they didn’t feel the need to showboat. That sense of cameraderie and loyalty was a hallmark of the 50s. The rise of various protest movements was in large part the rise of individualism. Being a part of a larger team and being at anything else other than the top of the heap was seen as being a sellout or career failure. More modern female icons in the legal profession on television would be someone like Susan Dey as Grace Van Owen in L.A. Law.
In the news industry, Lois Lane of the 1950s could be compared to the Watergate-era whisteblowing of All the President’s Men.
In the 1950s, the prevailing attitude was that the system is inherely good, and the key to that is to simply find your niche and do your job competently, as a team-player. In the modern era the attitude has been that the system is inherently corrupt, and everyone has to, in some way, rock the boat in order to achieve self-actualization (for self) and make the world a better place (for others).
Story in the 1950s tended to be more procedural. Bad guy does bad stuff because he’s bad, system swoops in to restore balance to The Force. Story in the more modern era tends to be more about whistleblowers rooting out injustice within the system itself.
So when I think of Neill and Hale’s signature roles, I’m nostalgic for that era of pre-disillusionment. They represent how a woman could make a meaningful career outside of the home while still staying firmly within the boundaries of the system. It’s a world I never inhabited, having grown up in the 70s. I realize that the social problems during that era were definitely there in the 50s, just buried under the happy surface, and yet those shows presented an attractive fantasy of stability and universally accepted right and wrong that seems hopelessly lost in today’s political polarization and media silos.