TIME Television

Like Your TV With Strong Female Characters? Thank Murphy Brown

Murphy Brown cover
The Sept. 21, 1992, cover of TIME Cover Credit: FIROOZ ZAHEDI

Gender issues on TV get lots of media attention, but we've forgotten to give credit where credit's due

This week brings the debut of ABC’s Marvel’s Agent Carter, an action series starring Hayley Atwell as a woman who’s underestimated by her male colleagues despite her incredible acumen as a spy. It’s a period piece, set in the 1940s, but one hardly needs to look back that far to find women on TV whose strength in the workplace and self-confidence defined them and befuddled critics.

Murphy Brown, the hardworking, single title character of a CBS sitcom starring Candice Bergen and the subject of a 1992 TIME cover, had been on-air for three seasons when, in 1991, she discovered she was pregnant and decided to keep the baby. It was a predicament not just for the character but for a TV show that, though unafraid of political controversy, was now going far beyond traditional parameters. TIME compared Bergen’s character to Lucille Ball’s on I Love Lucy after Murphy decided to keep the baby: “And to think, Lucy couldn’t even say pregnant on TV.” Even despite the electoral gains by women in the Senate that got 1992 dubbed “the Year of the Woman,” Brown may have been the most-talked-about female political figure of the year.

Murphy Brown’s televised pregnancy and her decision to raise her child as a single mother were a flashpoint in the 1992 election — and changed the role of women on TV. Today, from Scandal to The Good Wife, TV’s packed with strong and complex female characters; thanks, Murphy! Though Murphy Brown is rarely watched or invoked today, the high point of its relevance made a lasting impact on the way we talk about television, and about motherhood.

The show had made waves in the years before Murphy Brown’s pregnancy with, as TIME critic Richard Zoglin put it in May 1992, “the smarts and the moxie to take pokes at everything from gossip-mongering tabloids to the Anita Hill hearings.” Bergen’s character, a recovering alcoholic working for a Washington-based TV news magazine show, was unafraid to be unlikable; the show, and its dependence on sharp, pop-culture-centric comebacks, struck Zoglin as “cleverly written, but in a smug, soulless, metallic way.”

Viewers disagreed. Murphy Brown went into its big fourth-season pregnancy plot line in the Nielsen ratings top ten and with a shelf full of Emmys, including one for best comedy and two for Bergen’s performance. But while viewers and critics were accustomed to the show’s sharply political tone and its acidity, the pregnancy plot touched upon a third rail of sorts. The show foregrounded the question of working motherhood, with a fictional baby shower for Murphy attended by real-world TV news stars from Katie Couric to Joan Lunden. It was a pointed argument that work-life balance was possible (though Zoglin hastened to point out, in his May 1992 take, that more serious journalists like Diane Sawyer, the ones “who Murphy is really modeled after,” skipped the shower).

The fourth season ended with the birth of baby boy Avery — but the controversy was only beginning.

In a May 1992 speech about the breakdown of the American family in San Francisco, Vice President Dan Quayle decried Murphy Brown’s decision to raise her child alone: “It doesn’t help matters when prime-time TV has Murphy Brown — a character who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid professional woman — mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another ‘life-style choice.’”

Quayle came in for more criticism from Hollywood — and from TIME. Zoglin characterized the treatment of the incumbent veep, up for re-election, at the 1992 Emmy Awards as “a Rodney King beating by the Hollywood elite,” noting that Bergen thanked Quayle sarcastically in her third best actress speech. The show’s creator, Diane English, told TIME that Murphy Brown was “a liberal Democrat because in fact that’s what I am” and lead actress Bergen described Quayle as “Bush’s buffoon” in the TIME cover package.

But this sort of rhetoric was nothing new: Earlier that year, President George H.W. Bush had urged American families to be “a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons.” But even The Simpsons were, at the end of each episode, a traditional nuclear family; they even went to church. Murphy Brown was making a reproductive and family decision that stood in opposition to far more than mere matters of taste: As Zoglin pointed out in a June 1992 piece responding to Quayle’s complaint, “prime-time TV these days is boosting family values more aggressively than it has in decades,” citing everything from Home Improvement to Roseanne. It turned out that Murphy Brown was worth highlighting in a Vice-Presidential speech not because it represented the state of television and the culture in general but because, in the particulars of Murphy’s choice, it was so far outside the mores of its day.

But — in a twist that did not go unremarked-upon at the time — once one got past the specifics of how baby Avery came into the world, Murphy Brown was not so outside the mainstream at all. It was a show that followed the vogue at the time in portraying the family bond, however one found it, as an ideal. “It took a Top 10 network series that will undoubtedly be around for years to grab the Vice President’s attention,” wrote Zoglin. “Now he needs to do some channel switching.”

There’s no question that Murphy Brown was attention-grabbing — but, decades later, the show is markedly absent from much of the discussion about great television of the ’80s and ’90s. Perhaps it was the ties to Quayle, and to Bush I-era Republicanism, that spelled a slow death for Murphy Brown, a show whose central mother-son relationship, after all, was as life-affirming as anything on Home Improvement. The show was hardly in immediate danger of cancellation. And yet Quayle’s speech, which TIME columnist Michael Kinsley called in 1994 “the best-remembered speech of the Bush presidency” may well have consigned Murphy Brown to be remembered within the context of the Bush presidency. The show lost some heat off its fastball once the President and Vice President left office in the middle of the fifth season. Every subsequent season fell lower and lower in the ratings — not shocking for a long-running TV series, but proof positive, perhaps, that Murphy Brown’s formula of explicit political discourse, something the series indulged more and more post-baby, was a turn-off for some.

It’s hard for pathbreakers. By the time it left the air, Murphy Brown was a footnote. But two months after its cancellation, Calista Flockhart appeared on the cover of TIME in service of her character Ally McBeal, a single woman whose pursuit of a career hardly stood in the way of her desire to be a mother. Indeed, Ally’s biological clock was the very text of Ally McBeal. And two years after that, the women of Sex and the City would be on TIME’s cover, asking “Who Needs a Husband?” (Soon enough, cover subject Cynthia Nixon’s character Miranda would carry a baby to term without the intention of getting married.) Today, the (anti?-)heroines of Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder define themselves through their acuity at work, with the biological clock left entirely aside; Claire Underwood of House of Cards is the most fascinating character, male or female, on television, and one whose decision not to have a child is presented matter-of-factly and with little agonization.

Neither Ally McBeal nor Sex and the City – nor Desperate Housewives, whose star, Teri Hatcher, played a single mother and appeared on TIME’s cover in 2005– would end up becoming political talking points the way Murphy had. Carrie Bradshaw is the one who still makes news, but someone had to blaze a trail. Later series just learned that specific political references burn quickly – and benefited from Bergen’s character going through a political maelstrom so none of them had to.

TIME feminism

Kaley Cuoco Says Feminism Comments Taken Out of Context

"I'm completely blessed and grateful that strong women have paved the way for my success," she says

Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting took to Instagram Thursday to defend herself against criticism of a Redbook interview in which she said she’s not a feminist.

“If any of you are In the ‘biz’ you are well aware of how words can be taken out of context,” she wrote. “I’m completely blessed and grateful that strong women have paved the way for my success along with many others. I apologize if anyone was offended.”

The Big Bang Theory actress is one of the highest-paid women on television, raking in $1 million per episode.

“I’m so in control of my work,” Cuoco-Sweeting said in the Redbook interview, “that I like coming home and serving [my husband].”

[Us Weekly]

TIME feminism

A Better Feminism for 2015

Emma Watson United Nations Speech
Emma Watson and Ban Ki-Moon attend the launch of the HeForShe Campaign at the United Nations in September of 2014 in New York. Steve Sands—WireImage/Getty Images

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine.

Half of successful advocacy is knowing to pick one’s battles

Was 2014 the year feminism won the gender war, or jumped the shark? One could say it has had a pretty good year, with celebrity endorsements from the likes of Beyoncé Knowles and Emma Watson and with gender issues often dominating the news.

And yet all too often, the publicity backfired.

The campaign to nix the word “bossy” as a putdown of assertive girls was criticized and mocked not only by conservatives but by liberal and left-wing feminists. The #YesAllWomen Twitter hashtag created in response to Elliot Rodger’s shooting spree and his YouTube rants about female rejection elicited a groundswell of sympathy for women’s stories of violence and sexism—but also unease from pro-feminist men and women who felt all males were being unjustly shamed. A social media group called Women Against Feminism sprung up, many of its members stressing that they were for equality but against male-bashing, gender warfare, and contempt for traditional choices. Even the movement to curb sexual assault on college campuses faltered late when diverse critics voiced concerns about the rights of the accused—while the unraveling of a sensational magazine account of fraternity rape exposed the troubling zealotry of advocates for whom believing rape claims is somewhat akin to a matter of religious faith.

Do we still need feminism in 2015 and beyond—and if so, what kind? Advocacy for women’s basic rights clearly remains an urgent issue in many places around the world. Even in the United States and other advanced democracies, a movement for gender equality still has valid issues to address. Here are a few guideposts to keep such a movement from turning irrelevant, toxic, or both.

Intellectual diversity is important; labels are not. Some leading feminists are so concerned with ideological purity that they fret over too many people embracing the term while failing various litmus tests. But supporting feminism, in its dictionary sense of the equality of the sexes, doesn’t bind you to any particular position on gun control, capitalism, or the environment. Even respectful dialogue with people who consider themselves pro-life feminists would benefit both sides.

Conversely, if some people are pro-equality but won’t call themselves feminists because of they don’t like the word’s connotations, chastising them or explaining why they are “really” feminists is unhelpful and arrogant. Feminists, humanists, egalitarians, even (gasp!) men’s rights activists—why not work with anyone who shares one’s overall goals? A gender equality movement can only have a future if it’s a big tent.

Equality should not mean that men and women must be identical in everything—it should mean treating people as individuals regardless of their gender. Too often, the debate about biology and gender pits dogmatic denial of any innate behavioral or psychological differences between the sexes against broad Mars-versus-Venus stereotypes and claims that traditional sex roles are nature’s way. It’s entirely possible that even absent any gender-specific social pressures, women would be much more likely to become full-time parents, nurses, or kindergarten teachers, while men would be much more likely to become CEOs, professional athletes, or engineers. But while many differences in personality traits and cognitive patterns may be innate, they are tendencies, not absolutes. Flexibility is part of human nature, too; and, just as many feminists exaggerate the role of socialization, many conservative critics of feminism underestimate the impact of cultural biases. We can work to reduce such biases and ensure that nontraditional choices are not stigmatized or discouraged—without demanding 50-50 parity in everything.

The other side of sexism must be recognized. Former Jezebel editor Lindy West has argued that such “men’s rights” problems as unequal treatment of fathers in family courts or bias against male domestic violence victims are rooted in patriarchy and that feminism is already addressing them. Unfortunately, facts say otherwise. On these and other issues, feminist activists and commentators have tended to side with women, oppose measures to help men, and promote women-as-victims, men-as-bad-guys narratives. Such double standards need to be confronted.

Despite protestations that feminism helps both sexes, West and many others also claim that our society systematically empowers and advantages men at women’s expense. This is a gross distortion of contemporary Western reality. Biases rooted in traditional norms affect both sexes (and are perpetuated by both sexes). Women may get less support for pursuing high-paying careers; men have less leeway to choose fulfilling but lower-paying work. Women may be unfairly stereotyped as weaker; men, as more violent. While British feminist writer Laurie Penny asserts that our culture “hates women,” researchers including feminist psychologist Alice Eagly find that if anything, both sexes view women more favorably than men.

The perception of pervasive, one-sided male power and advantage can create a disturbing blindness to injustices toward men—even potentially life-ruining ones such as false accusations of rape. A true equality movement should address all gender-based wrongs, not create new ones.

Justice knows no gender—and demands concern for both accuser and accused. There is a real history of legalized sexism toward women seeking recourse for sexual and domestic violence. But achieving justice in cases that hinge on conflicting and often ambiguous accounts is an extremely difficult balance. Choosing sides on the basis of gender is textbook sexism—and insisting that women are entitled to belief is a feminist version of the old-fashioned pedestal.

The personal is not always political. Men behaving badly to women in personal relationships—unless such behavior has social and institutional support—is not necessarily a gender issue. Neither gender has a monopoly on insensitivity, rudeness, manipulation, dishonesty, or entitlement. What’s more, policing relationships in the name of ideology—for instance, trying to dictate how people should express consent to sex—is always a bad idea. Let us by all means have a conversation on changing sexual norms; but this can be done without using coercion and penalties to enforce someone’s version of healthy interaction, or focusing almost exclusively on male mistreatment of women.

A narrative is only as good as its facts. From “women earn 77 cents to a man’s dollar for the same work” to “one in five college women are sexually assaulted by graduation,” a number of statistics commonly used by women’s advocates have withered under scrutiny. So have some recent tales of alleged misogynist infamy, such as the University of Virginia gang rape and cover-up or the supposedly sexist firing of New York Times editor Jill Abramson. Too often, the feminist response to such debunkings has amounted to declarations that the big picture matters more than specific facts and figures. But the big picture had better be made up of accurate details. Campus rape certainly happens; so does workplace sexism. But addressing real problems requires solid research and reporting. We badly need more of both when it comes to gender issues.

Trivial pursuit is not the path to equity. Feminism is now battling the alleged scourge of men who take up too much space on public transit by spreading their legs? Not only is this selective male-shaming (social media users quickly noted that female riders are guilty of different-but-equal sins), it is also a comically petty grievance that could suggests the aggrieved have no real issues. Half of successful advocacy is knowing to pick one’s battles.

The biggest unfinished business of gender equality in the West is “work-life balance” and caregiving. This point was eloquently made by Judith Shulevitz in a recent New Republic debate on feminism’s future. Whatever role discrimination may play, childbearing has a major effect on gender disparities in career achievement. Even women who are satisfied with these trade-offs often feel the conflict acutely. But this tension is not just a women’s issue. In a Pew poll last year, almost as many working fathers as working mothers (50% versus 56%) said it was it difficult to balance work and parenthood. Overall, twice as many fathers as mothers—46% versus 23%—felt they spent too little time with their children.

Like many feminists, Shulevitz sees mainly government solutions. Others would counter that the flexibility and creativity of markets and civil society offer far better answers. But this is the kind of debate people should be having in the big tent of a true equality movement.

Could such a movement get its start in 2015? In the waning days of 2014, it looks like an idea whose time has come.

 

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME feminism

This May Have Been the Best Year for Women Since the Dawn of Time

2014 MTV Video Music Awards - Fixed Show
Beyoncé performs onstage at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards at the Forum in Inglewood, Calif., on Aug. 24, 2014 Jason LaVeris—FilmMagic

But there's a long way to go

It’s the end of the year, which means ’tis the season for grandiose hyperbole. So let’s go there: since the dinosaurs roamed, since the pyramids were built, since the locomotive was invented, there has never been a better year for women than 2014.

That doesn’t mean things were great for all American women in 2014. Actually, a lot of things really sucked. But “not great, and never been better” is the rallying cry of a movement in progress, and that’s where women have been this year.

Think about it. Frozen, a sister-love story, became the highest-grossing animated film of all time. While performing songs from her 2013 surprise album, Beyoncé quoted Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s thoughts on feminism in front of a live audience at this year’s VMAs. For the first time ever, a woman (Maryam Mirzakhani, a Stanford professor) won the prestigious Fields Medal for Mathematics, widely considered the “Nobel Prize” of math. Janet Yellen became the first female chair of the Federal Reserve; GM and American Apparel both got female CEOS; and Apple and Facebook offered to cover elective egg freezing for their employees. A 17-year-old girl became the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

But those are just the victories, and 2014 wasn’t necessarily so important because of all the “firsts” or “bests.” Instead, 2014 was characterized by loud, frustrating, and often unresolved discussions about justice for women that reached an unprecedented volume. We didn’t necessarily “win” any of these battles — and when it comes to debates over sexual assaults, domestic violence and contraceptive coverage, it’s hard to know what “winning” looks like — but we fought them harder and louder than ever before.

Take, for example, the ever thorny issue of sexual assault on college campuses. These assaults have been happening for years, rarely acknowledged and barely addressed. But this year, we’ve gone from whispering about sexual assault to shouting about it. In January, President Obama established a White House task force to protect students from sexual assault, and the spearheaded campaigns like 1 Is 2 Many and Not Alone to raise awareness about campus assault. In May, the Department of Education released a list of universities under investigation for mishandling sexual-assault cases. And in late July, Senators Claire McCaskill (D., Mo.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.) led a bipartisan coalition to introduce the Campus Safety and Accountability Act to reform the way colleges investigate and punish sexual assaults.

And that’s just the government activity. On the ground, students have been staging protests to demand justice (like Emma Sulkowicz at Columbia, who is carrying her mattress around with her until her alleged rapist is expelled). Twitter has become an open platform for survivors to speak out about their experiences using hashtags like #YesAllWomen and #RapeCultureIsWhen. The media missteps this year, from Rolling Stone’s UVA debacle to the Washington Post column in which George Will called rape survival a “coveted status,” have been troubling. But they’ve also sparked larger, louder, online conversations about how we treat sexual-assault survivors than we’ve ever had before.

Have we fixed the problem of sexual assault on campus? Definitely not. Are we making progress? More than ever.

Or look at domestic violence in the NFL. In 2013, there were seven NFL players arrested for domestic violence, down from nine in 2008, according to USA Today’s Player Arrests database (these are the years with the highest concentration of recorded domestic-violence arrests in the NFL, and this is just the women who call the police). Only four NFL players were arrested in 2014 for beating up their wives or girlfriends, but Ray Rice was one of them.

When a video emerged in September that showed Rice punching his then girlfriend Janay Rice in the face, it sparked a massive dialogue about domestic violence and NFL codes of conduct. Ray Rice was suspended indefinitely by the NFL (a suspension that has since been vacated after a successful appeal), and the organization was under so much scrutiny that some were calling for commissioner Roger Goodell to resign. Under increased pressure from feminists and survivors (including some using the hashtag #WhyIStayed), the NFL was forced to finally grapple with a problem it had long tolerated with an uneasy silence. Goodell hired three female advisers — Lisa Friel (a former sex-crimes prosecutor), Jane Randel (co-founder of No More) and Rita Smith (a former executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence) — to help reshape the league’s domestic-violence policy.

Since October, the NFL has announced multiple initiatives, including educating players and their families and updating its personal-conduct policy, in order to address domestic violence in the league. And the social-media response has made it clear that the public is not happy with NFL players beating up women and continuing to play. Even players like Eli Manning and Cris Carter have participated in PSAs to get the public talking about sexual assault.

Has the NFL effectively addressed their problem with domestic violence? Hell no. Has there been progress? More than ever.

Consider Bill Cosby. People had been whispering about the (formerly) beloved comedian’s habit of drugging and raping women for years — there was even a joke on 30 Rock about it five years ago. In 2005, more than 10 anonymous “Jane Doe” victims agreed to testify against Cosby in a lawsuit that was ultimately settled out of court, and even after it was reported in the press, there was little public outrage. But when comedian Hannibal Buress mentioned the rape allegations in a stand-up routine this year, the public finally took the allegations seriously. More than 16 women have come forward to share remarkably similar stories, and many of them say they were drugged before Cosby assaulted them. Despite the years of whispered rumors, it was only in 2014 that Cosby’s reputation as “America’s Dad” started to tarnish.

Do we always take rape victims seriously when they accuse powerful men of assaulting them? Not really. Are we making progress? More than ever.

Yes, a lot of things still sucked for women in 2014. The Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling was a blow to reproductive rights, we still don’t have a comprehensive family-leave policy, and women are still paid less than men for doing the same work.

So 2014 has been a year of setbacks, indignities and outrage. It’s not been great. But it’s better than ever.

TIME women

I’ve Won a Tony, But I Still Get Announced as Simply the ‘Plus-Size Dancer’

Actress Marissa Jaret Winokur at Brass Ring Awards Dinner 2014 in Beverly Hills, Ca. on Jun. 3, 2014.
Actress Marissa Jaret Winokur at Brass Ring Awards Dinner 2014 in Beverly Hills, Ca. on Jun. 3, 2014. Valerie Macon—Getty Images

"What is it like to be a 'plus-size role model'?"

xojane

I never considered myself “plus-size.” Never. Oh sure, a size 14 was snug, and I was always able to find XL clothes with spandex that worked just fine. Or sometimes, I found those amazing stores that carry XXL or XXXL but sold them in the same section as the “normal clothes,” rather than in the back of the store where the plus-size clothes always live. You know, the place that never gets vacuumed and looks like an explosion of colorful beach cover-ups?

Here’s a quick question: Why do plus-size clothes always have crazy insane colorful large prints? It’s like the designers somehow think, “Oh, that big girl is so gonna want to walk in the room and make sure everyone sees her.” Listen up, plus-size designers, I am here to tell you, “They see us.”

I never really saw myself as plus-size until “Hairspray” opened on Broadway. Playing Tracy Turnblad was the role of a lifetime! It was all my dreams wrapped up in one. I will never forget one of my first interviews about the show. It was on CBS news, and I was sitting across from a very established middle-aged male host. I was so excited I was going to be on TV! I sat during the commercial break putting on new lip gloss and felt so giddy wondering if everyone that I went to high school with was watching.

Then, the interview began.

“Marissa, I have to ask you. What is it like to be a ‘plus-size role model’?” he asked me.

I remember my face getting warm as I blushed and inside I just wanted to scream, “Did you just call me fat?” I don’t remember how I answered that question that day. All I remember is thinking, “Did Jason, a high school boyfriend of mine, just hear that a man called me fat ON TELEVISION? Did everyone hear that?”

Honestly, I wanted to crawl under the chair. I thought to myself, “Tracy Turnblad was a plus-size role model! I’m just the actress playing her! And P.S.: Why did he just call me fat?”

Then every night, outside the stage door of “Hairspray,” young girls of all shapes and sizes would wait for photos or autographs. I would listen to what they were saying and what they weren’t saying. They weren’t saying, “I love your voice you sing so good.” They weren’t saying, “You are the best actress in the world.”

They were saying: “You make me feel so good. You give me hope that I can be an actress when I grow up. We look like sisters. I can’t stop smiling. I cried throughout the whole show. You are my hero.”

What these girls were saying was “You make me feel OK to be me.”

The character I played made them feel like they could get the guy, they could be the leading lady, they were OK! So after the first few months of the show, and thousands of women telling me they felt empowered because of “Hairspray,” a plus-size role model was born.

I didn’t care about the weird passive-aggressive innuendo from that TV reporter. I just thought about those girls and how much they meant to me.

I loved having a platform that sent a healthy message. But I still had this insane inner struggle where secretly I would dream of losing 20 pounds. Not even 5, but 20!

Here’s a secret. In my dressing room, there was a fat suit.

Yes, you read that correctly, a fat suit — for my skinnier understudy. They kept a fat suit in my dressing room so she could be fat like me!

Production didn’t hide it or place it in a trunk under lock and key (where it belonged) — it was proudly displayed in my dressing room. I remember once Liza Minnelli — yes the real Liza Minnelli — came backstage to meet me. She took one look at the fat suit hanging in the room and said, “Oh, I knew you were wearing a fat suit, I didn’t think you were that fat!”

I obviously let her believe I wore the fat suit.

A tightrope walk for me was to want to lose weight while inspiring people to just embrace who they are. I would be doing an interview for a fancy magazine and the reporter would ask me, “How are you so confident?” At the same exact time I would still be hearing that little voice in my head screaming, “Did you just call me fat?”

It wasn’t even the words or the label. It was the assignation of judgment and the undercurrent of superiority that got to me.

I was beginning to wonder, would this same reporter ask Reese Witherspoon why she was so confident? No, of course not. I knew what the question meant. My little voice would ask, “Why is this an OK question?” I would answer in a sweet way but basically I was saying, “Why shouldn’t I be confident? I have a great career, a wonderful boyfriend and a beautiful home.”

And yet still, I wanted to lose 20 pounds.

As life went on, I was so excited to be cast in “Dancing with the Stars” for their sixth season. Once again it was yet another dream role for me. I got to dance with a hot guy, wear sexy dresses, and have amazing hair and make-up! It was, in a word, awesome.

The first announcement of the show went something like this: “The Olympic Gold Medalist, The Football Star, The Oscar Winner and the Plus-Size Dancer.”

That was me. Not the Tony Award-winning actress! The plus-size dancer, I was the plus-size dancer.

I also must note that at this point I had lost the 20 pounds I had wanted to lose for 5 years.

I was actually 30 pounds down from my “Hairspray” days, but “Plus-Size Dancer” was my title and it stuck.

That year, my son was born via surrogate. I am a cancer survivor and could not give birth to my son, but that’s for another story on another day. I remember holding my newborn baby and I was excited when people told me how skinny I looked after just having a child. Just like with Liza Minnelli, I let them believe I gave birth. I am not going to lie, it felt good being praised for looking skinny.

Soon after, I went on a crazy diet. Not the one with magic pills and where you eat only grapefruit (trust me, doesn’t work). It was the crazy diet where you work out 6 hours a day and eat under 1,200 calories every day: no cheat day, no break, no joke!

Now some people will say working out every day and eating 1,200 calories every day is not crazy. It’s healthy and very doable. But for this all-or-nothing girl, it’s CRAZY.

I did it, I was committed! I had just finished shooting the hilariously funny body image rom-com “Muffin Top: A Love Story.” The day we wrapped the film, we shot a scene where I ate a huge piece of chocolate cake, french fries and well, since we were there, a shake as well.

The next morning, after we wrapped “Muffin Top,” I went to the doctor and got some blood work done. My cholesterol was so high that my doctor wanted to start me on medication. I asked him to give me six months to see if through diet and exercise, I could lower my numbers.

Let the diet commence! I don’t even remember the exact year — I want to say it was 2012 — because all I did was work out. Like all the time. I was so in it, and the more I lost the more I wanted to lose. When I started the diet, I was back at my “Hairspray” weight and once I lost the same 30 pounds, the 30 pounds I gained back after “DWTS,” I thought I would be happy!

I wasn’t.

I wanted to lose more and was on such a roll. Then I lost 40 pounds! Then 50 pounds, then — OMG — I lost 60! I lost 60 pounds!

You know when people say they wish they were their wedding weight? Well, I was my junior high weight! I was so skinny and happy! Wait, did I say HAPPY? I wasn’t happy. I felt the same. I always thought Skinny = Happy. Except it doesn’t.

Happy = Happy.

OK, so there I was, a supposedly plus-size role model who lost 60 pounds. There are tons of articles all over the media, quoting me saying, “If I can do it, so can you!” I meant it. I couldn’t believe I lost 60 pounds! But listen, I am sorry to tell you: There was no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

I would be on talk shows and they would show before and after photos of me. Every time, I thought I looked great in the before shot! I mean, I like the “after” shot too, but why pick on the before shot? The before shot was strong and confident, and I looked great! The after shot just looked skinny and well…skinny. I really did lose the weight for health reasons, but it was making me mentally crazy and I lost my breast size in this crazy act of getting skinny and I loved my breasts!

Because skinny does not equal happy, I slowly gained back 20 pounds. I was really down on myself and felt like I was out of control. I went to Fitness Ridge in Utah to try to get skinny again. I thought THIS time if I lost the weight, I’ll be happy. I just hadn’t known how to deal with it before.

While I was there I met amazing women and this may sound full of myself to say — but I only share it because of what it meant to me — these ladies would go on to tell me stories of how I changed their lives at one point or another.

It was these women who finally got through to me.

They would tell me how seeing me on TV inspired them. Watching me dance made them start Zumba classes. I went to all the lectures and really listened. At the age of 41, I heard what I was being told. It’s not just working out and eating right, it’s that, plus the emotional stuff. I never tapped in to the emotional management. I mean, who would? That is the hardest part.

You think not eating cake is hard? Try asking yourself why you are eating the cake?

AHHHHHHH NOW I WANT CAKE!

I left Fitness Ridge and for the first time in my life practiced saying, “I am enough.” It’s about being healthy, not skinny and whatever HEALTHY means to you!

Now, the movie “Muffin Top: A Love Story” I filmed when I was at my peak weight (and I love how I look) is in select theaters and on Video On Demand. It’s all about self-image and female empowerment. Most importantly, it’s funny. I have been to many screenings of the movie and the feedback I always hear is how nice it is to see a woman in a movie who act and look like real women.

I finally understand that no one is calling me fat. They are truly saying, “Thank you for being you.” “Thank you for loving yourself now, not five pounds from now.”

Ten years ago when that reporter first said, “How does it feel to be a plus-size role model?” He wasn’t calling me fat. He was saying, “You are inspirational,” “You are empowering women everywhere.”

I am proud to be a plus-size role model. I am also glad I didn’t listen to my skinny friends when they told me to throw away my fat jeans.

God, they fit good!

Marissa Jaret Winokur is an actress and dancer. Winokur is best known for the role of Tracy Turnblad in the hit Broadway musical Hairspray, a performance for which she won a Tony Award, Drama Desk Award and an Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Actress. This article originally appeared on xoJane.com.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME women

I’m a Body-Positive Feminist and I Had Weight Loss Surgery

woman-thumbs-up
Getty Images

The same philosophy that allowed me to find peace with my fat body also allowed me to make the decision to have weight loss surgery

xojane

OK, so this wasn’t really something that “happened” to me. I made an educated decision about my body and my future.

I have always been fat, and for a long time, I really hated it. I spent more than two decades of my life wishing I would magically wake up “normal.” Until I was in my mid-20s, I didn’t know what it felt like to not wear a heavy cloak of shame and insecurity.

Like so many other fat girls with Internet access, I discovered that body positivity was a thing, and that I could feel good about myself and I didn’t really have to give a fuck about what other people thought. I decided to be happy, regardless of my size. I began identifying as a fat feminist. I actually started feeling okay about my body. I was doing okay and there were people who liked me, even loved me, despite my fatness. At some point, I even started kind of liking myself, and then my fatness became somewhat of a non-issue. Eventually I came to be at peace with my body. It was mine and mine alone, and it was beautiful.

As I moved into my 30s, life happened. I was thriving in a supportive community of folks who embraced me as I was. I got a good job; I found my soul mate; I got engaged. My size was a non-issue, and I was happy.

But I wasn’t healthy. I was on medication to prevent my high blood sugar from turning into diabetes. I slept with a machine attached to my face to keep me breathing at night. I didn’t have the stamina I needed to be able to do my work every day. Polycystic ovary syndrome, which is closely tied to what doctors liked to refer to as my “morbid obesity,” meant I might not be able to have babies, and I was more likely to get diabetes or certain kinds of cancer. Physically, I didn’t feel good. Emotionally, I was at a crossroads.

In short: I could continue not caring about my weight and go about business as usual. Or, I could lose weight. I’d struggled with depression and, yes, even suicidal thoughts in the past, but when I started having health problems, I was at a happy place in my life — and I wanted it to stay that way. I wanted to be my best self, and for me, that didn’t just mean being happy with my physical body, it meant having my physical body be healthy.

My decision to have weight loss surgery was not made lightly. I spent a lot of time trying to reconcile my body-positive politics with my desire to live longer and have babies and be able to walk up the flight of stairs to my office without getting winded. I also spent a lot of time trying to lose weight through more conventional methods, like diet and exercise. My medical conditions made that nearly impossible, and no matter what I did, my health kept declining.

Ultimately, the same philosophy that allowed me to find peace with my fat body also allowed me to make the decision to have weight loss surgery.

I made an educated decision about my body. It was mine, and mine alone.

Yes, weight loss surgery can kill you. And yes, I’m an advocate for health at any size. But, real talk: Being fat was actually, actively killing me. For me, the benefits of weight loss surgery outweighed the risks. Having your guts rearranged is not fun, but overall, my improved quality of life has made this process, albeit difficult, worthwhile.

The experience of losing more than 140 pounds in a very short period of time has been socially and emotionally difficult, too. When you lose weight, everyone starts to pay very close attention to your body. People I barely know now find it appropriate to tell me how happy or impressed they are by my change in appearance, while I often feel judged by the fat-positive community in which I once found comfort and acceptance.

My body was nobody’s business before I had surgery, and it’s nobody’s business now.

For me, weight loss surgery was not an “easy way out.” It was a tool that was available to me, and I made the informed decision to use it to take control of my health. I can’t think of much that’s more empowering — or body positive — than that.

Trisha Harms is a writer, social media strategist, and social justice advocate. This article originally appeared on xoJane.com.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME feminism

Emma Watson Is the Top Celebrity Feminist of 2014

"Noah" - UK Premiere - Red Carpet Arrivals
Emma Watson attends the UK premiere of "Noah" held at the Odeon Leicester Square on March 31, 2014 in London, England. (Karwai Tang--WireImage) Karwai Tang—WireImage

Laverne Cox and Amy Poehler also made the list

The Ms. Foundation and Cosmopolitan.com have released a list of the top feminist celebrities of the year, and actress Emma Watson is number one.

As a UN Goodwill Ambassador, Watson helped found the He for She program this year and made a rousing speech urging men to take up the feminist mantle, telling them, “gender equality is your issue, too.”

MORE Watch Taylor Swift praise Emma Watson for her UN speech

Here is the full list:

  1. Emma Watson
  2. Laverne Cox
  3. Rachel Maddow
  4. Beyoncé
  5. Cher
  6. Amy Poehler
  7. Tina Fey
  8. Meryl Streep
  9. Mindy Kaling
  10. Ann Curry

“We celebrate all feminists every day, but today we’re giving a hat tip to celebrities who are helping to promote women’s equality,” said Ms. Foundation President Teresa Younger said in a statement. “Every celebrity on the list has either embraced the term ‘feminist,’ spoken out for women’s equal rights or battled against sexist oppression.”

 

TIME faith

Meet the Church of England’s First Ever Female Bishop

Reverend Libby Lane poses for pictures during a photo call following the announcement naming her first woman bishop by The Church of England, after a historic change in its rules, in Stockport, northwest England, on Dec. 17, 2014.
Reverend Libby Lane poses for pictures during a photo call following the announcement naming her first woman bishop by The Church of England, after a historic change in its rules, in Stockport, northwest England, on Dec. 17, 2014. Paul Ellis—AFP/Getty Images

In a historic move, Reverend Libby Lane is the first woman in England to be named a bishop

The Church of England’s stained-glass ceiling has been smashed at last.

On Wednesday, the Rev. Elizabeth Lane was named as the first female bishop in the Church of England, just a month after the church made a change to its canon law to allow female bishops. Beginning on Jan. 26, Lane will serve as Bishop of Stockport, an assistant bishop in the Diocese of Chester.

The Church of England first allowed female priests in 1992 and the battle to have female bishops began shortly after. Female bishops are already common in the Anglican churches in Canada, the U.S. and Australia, but in the Church of England traditionalists argued that only men should serve in the role of bishops, claiming it was sanctioned by scripture. Others argued that allowing female bishops was ethical and necessary to keep the church relevant. In July, the church’s legislative body, known as the General Synod, voted to allow female bishops and formally enacted a change to canon law in late November.

So who is the woman who will be the Church of England’s first female bishop?

Lane — who goes by “Libby” — was ordained as a deacon in 1993 and a priest in 1994 after being educated at the University of Oxford and trained for ministry at Cranmer Hall, a theological college at Durham University in north-east England. Since 2010 she has been the Dean of Women in Ministry for the diocese of Chester, a post created to support other women within the church. As a bishop’s selection advisor since 2003, she has spent the last ten years making recommendations to the church about candidates offering themselves for ordination.

Speaking at a town hall on Wednesday in Stockport, Lane said that it was a “remarkable day for me and a historic day for the Church.” She continued: “On this historic day as the Church of England announces the first woman nominated to be bishop I am very conscious of all those who have gone before me, women and men, who for decades have looked forward to this moment.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has backed the push for women bishops. He issued a statement about Lane’s appointment on Wednesday, saying: “Her Christ-centered life, calmness and clear determination to serve the Church and the community make her a wonderful choice. She will be bishop in a diocese that has been outstanding in its development of people, and she will make a major contribution.”

Lane’s appointment, which was approved by the Queen, was also endorsed by the U.K.’s Prime Minister David Cameron, who congratulated Lane in a statement on Wednesday, saying: “This is an historic appointment and an important step forward for the Church towards greater equality in its senior positions.”

While Lane’s appointment is being lauded as a moment of progress, the church still has a way to go until it reaches gender equality. As the Guardian reports: “About half of female clergy are unpaid. They are also less likely to hold senior positions… [and] only three of the 44 English cathedrals are run by women today and the overwhelming majority of female clergy are not running their own parishes.”

But having a woman bishop is a significant first step. For her part, Lane seems to believe her new role could lead to further appointments for women, telling the Telegraph: “Today I pray will not be simply about one woman called up a new ministry in the church but much more than that, an opportunity to acknowledge all that has gone before and to look ahead to what is still to be done.” It’s that resolve to look to the future that allows other women to believe Lane won’t be the Church of England’s only female bishop.

TIME feminism

Dear Aaron Sorkin, If You Don’t Think There Are Enough Good Roles for Actresses, Write One Yourself

Aaron Sorkin
Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin arrives for the premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1' at the Nokia Theatre L.A. Live in Los Angeles on Nov. 17, 2014. Nina Prommer—EPA

Eliana Dockterman is a living, culture and breaking news reporter for TIME in New York City.

Sorkin's writing celebrates the male mind while making women the objects of lust or scorn

Hollywood cheered on Cate Blanchett last year when she critiqued the gender gap in Hollywood and took to task those studio executives “who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films with women at the center are a niche experience.” But, apparently, Aaron Sorkin was not among those celebrating Blanchett’s feminist speech.

The latest piece of information unearthed in the Sony hack is an email sent by award-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin to New York Times writer Maureen Dowd. On March 4, Dowd wrote a column called “Frozen in a Niche?” which built upon Blanchett’s argument that successful female films—like Bridesmaids, Frozen, Gravity or The Hunger Games—are still seen as flukes in the industry. She cited compelling stats: Even though women comprise 52% of moviegoers, only 15% of protagonists and 30% of speaking characters in the top 100 grossing domestic films in 2013 were female.

Blanchett and Dowd are far from the first to notice this trend: Mega-stars like Meryl Streep and Jodie Foster have complained about the problem, as has Sony co-chairman Amy Pascal whom Dowd quotes saying the “whole system is geared for [female filmmakers] to fail.”

But Sorkin disagrees with all these ladies. He wrote to Dowd on March 6:

That was a great and very interesting column today. I’d only take issue with one thing and that’s the idea that something like Bridesmaids is seen as a fluke and that’s why we don’t see more movies like Bridesmaids. There’s an implication that studio heads have a stack of Bridesmaids-quality scripts on their desk that they’re not making and it’s just not true. The scripts aren’t there.

Fair enough. A major part of the gender gap we see onscreen can be attributed to what’s going on behind the screen: Women made up only 6% of directors, 10% of writers, 15% of executive producers, 17% of editors and 3% of cinematographers in the top 250 films in 2013, according to the Center for the study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. With fewer women writing, directing and producing, we see fewer women’s stories on film.

But there are two very simple ways to solve that problem: Executives can seek out, hire and support more women behind the camera, and male writers who already have major influence in Hollywood (say, for instance, Aaron Sorkin) could write credible, interesting, robust roles for women. And yet Sorkin doesn’t.

It’s no secret that Aaron Sorkin often comes under fire for his thin, idiotic or harpy-esque female characters. Let’s take a quick tour of some of his worst hits.

On Sports Night, acting like a woman was a constant insult that Casey would fling at Dan. In one episode, when Dan asks Casey if he remembers that it is the anniversary of their first show together, Casey responds, “I remember not thinking at the time that you were a woman.” Meanwhile, the main female character, producer Dana, serves almost exclusively as a love interest: She runs in circles as her show crumbles around her (through no fault of her charming male stars). The few times she succeeds, it’s treated as a miracle.

In A Few Good Men, Demi Moore plays a character who might as well be male (save for the sexist jabs that Jack Nicholson shoots at her). Famed critic Roger Ebert even wrote in his review that he thought the character had originally been conceived as a man “and got changed into a woman for Broadway and Hollywood box office reasons, without ever quite being rewritten into a woman.” Sorkin also doesn’t have to worry about this “woman problem” in Moneyball, which takes place in an almost entirely male world.

In The Social Network—for which Sorkin won an Oscar—women are either lunatics (see: Eduardo Saverin’s girlfriend who sets his bed on fire) or flat symbols. Mark Zuckerberg’s ex-girlfriend is emblematic of everything Zuckerberg cannot have but isn’t fully developed as a character herself.

And then there’s The Newsroom. Most of the show’s main plots revolved around the smarter men man-splaining things to supposedly successful but totally hapless women. (Seriously, MacKenzie reported in war zones but can’t use email?) MacKenzie is obsessed with Will. Maggie is a pathetic waif. Sloan, despite being smart, is strangely socially incompetent. None of Sorkin’s male characters have such flaws. Even in the show’s penultimate episode, a male character man-splains to a female rape victim why he’s “obligated” to believe her “sketchy” alleged rapist instead of her. (One of Sorkin’s writers claimed she was kicked out of the writers’ room for protesting this storyline, which Sorkin essentially confirmed while lambasting her for exposing writers’ room conversations.)

From left: Emily Mortimer as MacKenzie McHale and Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy in The Newsroom HBO

In short, Sorkin celebrates the male mind while making women the objects of lust or scorn. The few women who do make it into Sorkin’s scripts are usually in need of rescue by the men in their lives. The one exception might be C.J. Craig from The West Wing, a character for which Allison Janney won four Emmys. C.J. got her own story lines and was allowed to succeed and fail as often as her male compatriots. Unlike the women on The Newsroom, she was there to accomplish her own goals, not simply prop up her male boss and be lectured by him when she screwed up. Why Sorkin hasn’t written a C.J. since is still a mystery.

This trend of misogyny since his C.J. days is doubly frustrating considering the rest of Sorkin’s email. “That’s why year in and year out, the guy who wins the Oscar for Best Actor has a much higher bar to clear than the woman who wins Best Actress,” he writes. Sorkin goes on to compare performances of various nominees. He asserts that Blanchett’s performance in Blue Jasmine was “nothing close to the degree of difficulty” of all five Best Actor nominees, and that Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook), Natalie Portman (Black Swan) and Julia Roberts (Erin Brockovich) did not measure up to Daniel Day-Lewis, (Lincoln), Colin Firth (The King’s Speech) and Phillip Seymour Hoffman (Capote) in the respective years that they won.

“Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep can play with the boys but there just aren’t that many tour-de-force roles out there for women,” he concludes.

It’s nearly impossible to compare the “difficulty” of performances in an objective way: As The Daily Beast points out, was Colin Firth’s performance in The King’s Speech really harder than that of Natalie Portman in Black Swan? Does Blanchett not measure up to some of the other actors nominated last year like Bruce Dern (Nebraska), Christian Bale (American Hustle) or Leonardo DiCaprio (Wolf of Wall Street)? The answer depends on who you ask.

And if the sexism problem is born from flimsy roles, then why does Sorkin say that only certain actresses, Mirren and Streep, can “play with the boys”? There’s something inherently sexist about Sorkin degrading the talent of other nominees by suggesting only those two women can compete with their male counterparts.

As much as Sorkin’s films can be frustrating, it’s hard to fault the screenwriter for sticking to what he knows. Films like A Few Good Men, Moneyball and The Social Network are lauded because they are interesting, complex depictions of male-dominated worlds. And in between his misogynist comments, Sorkin has indicated that he wants to support female performers and filmmakers. In 2011, Sorkin dedicated his Oscar speech for Best Screenplay (The Social Network) to actresses. “I want to thank all the female nominees tonight for helping demonstrate to my young daughter that elite is not a bad word; it’s an aspirational one,” he concluded. “Honey, look around. Smart girls have more fun, and you’re one of them.”

But this email demonstrates that Sorkin clearly recognizes there’s a sexism problem in Hollywood. And ultimately it’s hard to forgive him for not at least trying to fix it when he is one of very few writers with the power to do so.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Parenting

Jennifer Aniston: People Call Me ‘Selfish’ For Not Being a Mom

"Life Of Crime" Premiere - Arrivals - 2013 Toronto International Film Festival
Actress Jennifer Aniston attends the premiere for "Life Of Crime" at Roy Thomson Hall on September 14, 2013 in Toronto, Canada. ( J. Countess--WireImage) J. Countess—WireImage

And correctly defines "feminism"

Even after years of the prying questions and condescending sympathy, it still bothers Jennifer Aniston when people ask her why she’s not a mom.

“I don’t like [the pressure] that people put on me, on women—that you’ve failed yourself as a female because you haven’t procreated,” she told Allure for their January issue. “I don’t think it’s fair. You may not have a child come out of your vagina, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t mothering—dogs, friends, friends’ children.”

The actress, who has gotten critical praise for her role in the upcoming film Cake, explained that she finds the incessant commentary about her maternal status hurtful. “This continually is said about me: that I was so career-driven and focused on myself; that I don’t want to be a mother, and how selfish that is…Even saying it gets me a little tight in my throat.”

Aniston also seemed well-prepared to answer the now-omnipresent questions about feminism–and why it’s such a complicated issue. “Because people overcomplicate it,” she said. “It’s simply believing in equality between men and women. Pretty basic.”

[Allure]

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