On Tuesday night, legendary actor, producer and social activist Marlo Thomas joined together with feminist legend Gloria Steinem and fellow TV star Debra Messing (who moderated the panel) to celebrate “That Girl,” Thomas’s 1960s sitcom that revolved around an aspiring actress in the big city. At an event co-presented by The Museum of the Moving Image and the Comedy Hall of Fame, the three influential women commiserated over sexism in the industry, yet remained in a celebratory mood as they discussed how influential the show was on modern television and entertainment. Here are some of the highlights.
“That Girl” had to be true to life.
legendary comedian Danny Thomas, told her “You can take an audience
down any yellow brick road, as long as you never lie to them.”
“And I always
thought about that when we were doing ‘That Girl,'” Thomas said. “Is this true? Would a girl
do this? Would a girl say this to her father? Or a boyfriend? Or a boss? It’s a
wonderful thing to think about in comedy, because you can get a laugh, but if
you get a cheap laugh you’ve lost them.”
Her mother influenced her choices just as much as her father.
gave up a singing and radio career to become a wife and mother. “She didn’t regret having her children of course, but she really regretted
that she walked away from her career. And I had guilt about that for most of
my life. She gave us her whole life, and we really could have done it on half.
We didn’t need to have taken that. So for years when I really became successful,
in interviews I would say that I was my mother’s revenge. And she loved that.”
One of Steinem and Thomas’ first interactions involved sexual harassment.
Gloria Steinem and Marlo Thomas had heard of each other, and met to work on the idea of Thomas playing Steinem in a television movie
about her undercover report as a Playboy Bunny. Planning, however, didn’t go so well. “We go into
this guy’s office, in our glorious 20s,” Thomas said, “and we’re sitting opposite the desk and
we’re sitting there and he looks at us and he says, ‘Oh my god I don’t know
which one of you I want to fuck first!’ We were just flabbergasted. Where do
you go from there? It ruined everything. We left and became fast friends.”
Television of the time did not reflect the reality of the 1960s.
“What was on television was not what was, but what should be, in
the view of censors,” Steinem said. “In order to appeal to women who were divorced, they had
shows about widows. You had to knock off the husband to make it OK for a woman
to be single. Girls could not live alone, it was forbidden. So for Marlo to do
what she did was a big time major revolution.”
How “That Girl” came to be.
Thomas had tested for a pilot that didn’t get bought, but Edgar Scherick
wanted a meeting with her. He said that ABC liked her and
Clairol almost bought the sponsorship for the pilot. So they had a network and a sponsor, but no show. Scherick began sending her scripts. “I said look,
everything you’ve sent me, the girl is either the wife of somebody or the
daughter of somebody, or the secretary of somebody. Have you ever thought about
doing a show where the girl is the somebody? He said would anybody watch a show
like that? I said I think so! And I took out of my bag ‘The Feminine Mystique.’
I said this is where it’s going. If you want to hit a moving target, you have
to aim where it’s going, not at where it’s been.”
But it was hard to get men on board.
Thomas was not
only the lead, but she became the producer essentially because no
one else wanted to do it, because a lot of men
didn’t want to have a female boss. “I had
all the power. It was my company, I signed the checks. I was the boss. There
were meetings in which a male producer would get up and say, ‘I can’t do this!’
They couldn’t do a show where a young woman had the last word. I said, ‘You
guys have to understand, I’m the only authority on being a girl here, and I’m
trying to tell you what a girl would say and what she wouldn’t say.'”
Thomas then hired a female story editor. “From that moment on, there were
two of us! We were a coalition!”
There were definitely some struggles.
In one clip
from the show, Thomas’ character Ann Marie said to her father, “I don’t
know that I want to get married just yet.” Thomas explained that she was
forced to add the words “just yet” to the line: “It was very
revolutionary, no one had ever said, ‘I don’t want to get married, I want a
career.’ Gloria sometimes says that women are embarrassed to say they love
work. They say, ‘I have to work,’ they don’t say, ‘I can’t wait to get to work’
because it somehow puts the family down or puts the husband down or femininity.”
“It took me a while to stop saying that,” Steinem said. “I would say I was on a deadline instead of just saying, ‘I want to write.'”
The sex could not be implied.
Anne Marie’s boyfriend Donald had to
always leave the apartment at the end of the show. “The network executives
got together and said, ‘We think it would be better if we had your aunt move in
with you.’ I said, ‘Why?! That doesn’t happen. Girls go to New York to the big
city, they don’t bring their aunts!’ They said they thought the American public
was uncomfortable with a girl who wasn’t in a family unit. I said, ‘The Fugitive’ doesn’t even have a city! But that brought up the fear of, what kind
of girl would live alone in an apartment and have a boyfriend coming over. So
it had to be clear that he went home every night. Later, when I played Jennifer
Aniston’s mother on ‘Friends,’ they did a whole thing about the wet spot on the
bed. Donald never saw a wet spot in his life!”
Then the fans responded.
of the bags and bags of fan mail that came in from women around the country who
were inspired by the show. People told her, if it hadn’t been for “That
Girl” they wouldn’t have moved to New
York, or gone to law school or engineering. “We were surprised and
thrilled, but what it told me was that ‘That Girl’ was not a revolutionary
figure the way the network thought she was. Every home in America had a ‘That
Girl’ in it.”
make “That Girl” because she was a feminist, “That Girl” is
what turned her into a feminist.
“I didn’t see
myself as a symbol for anything. But then I’d receive mail that said, ‘I’m 16
years old and pregnant and I’m afraid to tell my father, where can I go?’ or
‘I’m 22 and I have two children and my husband beats me. I have no job and no
money, what can I do?” I was completely unprepared for this, because I thought
I was doing a comedy show.” Thomas and her assistants began looking for a place
for these women to go, and found nothing. “There
hadn’t been a women’s movement. There wasn’t such a thing as battered wives.
There wasn’t reproductive freedom. There were no law centers, no safe houses.
No place to go. And that politicized me. I became a radical feminist,” Thomas said.
fight of all was how to end the show.
“The writers wanted a wedding. Clairol wanted a wedding. The network wanted
a wedding, and I said I won’t. I won’t do it. I couldn’t do it. I can’t say to all of these girls
that this is the only happy ending. Everybody else can get married but let this
one show go off without a wedding.” So in the last episode, Anne Marie took Donald
to a women’s lib meeting. “That made nobody happy but me!”