Life Among The Heffalumps - Kathi Wolfe Scene4 Magazine

February 2014

Just a Little Respect: Murphy Brown Lives!

Years ago, before everyone overshared on Facebook, I called my (late) partner at her office, a non-profit advocacy group for blind people.  Not knowing that her phone had been accidentally placed on "speaker," I shouted from our home, "I need chocolate now!!!!  I have PMS!"

Later, Anne, through a translator, explained PMS to five bemused male scholars from China visiting the United States.  "They seemed more nervous about periods than about blind people," Anne wryly observed to me after chastising me for "broadcasting my personal stuff to the world."

Why am I oversharing this with you now?  Because recently, while channel surfing, I caught a clip of "Murphy Brown," the engaging, funny, often moving, spot-on sit-com about feminism, politics and other hot button issues of the day sitcom which aired on CBS from 1988 to 1998.  The show, set in Washington, D.C., whose stories often incorporated real-life headlines and news anchors, was created by Diane English.  Its writers were superb and its cast, led by Candice Bergen, as Murphy Brown, the tough-as-nails with a deeply hidden heart, anchor of the fictional TV news magazine, "FYI," was stellar.  In the scene that I saw the other day, Miles, the producer of "FYI," is reprimanding Murphy for not listening to him.  Never one to care about if she's offended a powerful news source, Murphy has, yet again, broken the rules.  After saying she wouldn't ask "the question," Murphy's asked a gentleman, if he's had an affair with a married women, who's a (fictional) vice-presidential candidate. "I had to," she tells Miles, "I had to be me and I have PMS!"

Why do I relate to "Murphy Brown," which first aired just over twenty-five years ago?  Because of the show's unsentimental, yet poignant honesty.  When we first meet Murphy, she's 40, single, and just coming back to "FYI," after spending a month in rehab at the Betty Ford Center. Murphy's worried not only about continuing her recovery from alcohol and smoking: she's scared that she's lost her mojo. No wonder, over the next ten years, we saw her so often sucking on no. 2 pencils.  (She had to have something to take the place of her cigarettes!) 

Even today, women still have it harder than men in the TV news business.  Unlike their male counterparts, they have to worry continually about their looks – are they getting too old (over 40–let alone over 50!) – to be on air?  Just a few years ago, they weren't taken as seriously as male anchors.  One reason why so many news hounds swooned over "Murphy Brown" was its accuracy.  The show's creators regularly consulted with women news anchors from Diane Sawyer to Linda Ellerbee (who Murphy was partly based on).  During the "Murphy" years, women news anchors had to fight hard –for air time – to be treated equally with the boys.

Newsrooms are some of the most dysfunctional, energetic, productive, and in a warped way, caring places on earth.  "Murphy Brown" captured the manic intensity of newsrooms and the warm friendships that develop among eccentric, talented, often koo-koo, newsies, who bond under deadlines and pressure.  "I hate it that I like you," Murphy confesses to Miles, after the producer receives a death threat from a source.

Murphy and her colleague Frank discuss the possibility of Frank becoming a sperm donor– so she, a single woman, can have a child.  She warns Corky, a former Miss America, who's been hired to up "FYI's" ratings, not to ever wear the same dress or upstage her on air again. (Corky has read the intro to Murphy's ground-breaking investigative report – forcing Murphy to introduce a report about pet spas.)  "If you do that again, I'll get a hit man," Murphy tells Corky, "that's not an exaggeration.  I know people!"

"She thinks Camus is a bar of soap," Murphy snaps to her colleagues about Corky.

Yet, despite herself, Murphy can't keep from being helpful to Corky, or to Miles (who, at 25, has just become "FYI's" producer).  "Don't let it get around," she admonishes him.

Then there's the music for the show.  Eschewing a theme song, "Murphy Brown," opened every episode with a fab Motown song.  From the moment you heard "Respect" in the pilot, you were drawn into the show. Like Newton and the apple, English, driving her car, got the idea for "Murphy Brown" while listening to "Respect" – the great Aretha classic. 

Respect.  R.e.s.p.e.c.t!  It's what women have been fighting for through the ages.  Everyone – women, men or anyone who's been marginialized can identify with Murphy.  Along with Aretha's voice (a wonder of the world!), the beat propels even the most klutzy to dance and to fight not only on Murphy's behalf, but for him or herself – for respect.

Today, in this age of noir – where being despicable is lauded – it's hard to find anyone to like on TV.  Perhaps it's more apt to say that it's difficult to find a moral compass in most people on TV.  Unless you turn to a Hallmark special in which case you'll find not so much of a moral compass – as a preachy sappiness.  Murphy Brown was egotistical, grouchy, often selfish, brash, ruthless – yet we loved her.    Because she cared.  Murphy, who came of age in the 1960's and 1970's, was a good reporter: she wanted to speak truth to power.  At times, Murphy was vulnerable and lonely.  Yet, she didn't sink into self-pity.  Sisterhood on Murphy Brown was comical.  "I realize running my own country is unrealistic," Murphy says to Miles about working to set new goals for her life, "I think I'll just try to get a date on Saturday night."

"Murphy Brown" was an Emmy-award winning sit-com.  Yet it became part of the 1992 presidential campaign when Dan Quayle chided Murphy for raising her son Avery as a single mom.  Prior to the baby's birth, she noted, "several people do not want me to have the baby.  Pat Robertson, Phyllis Schlaffy, half of Utah!"

After Quayle criticized Murphy for "ignoring the importance of fathers by bearing the child alone," the show did an episode highlighting the new modern American family.  No wonder, Bergen thanked Quayle when she won one of her Emmy awards!  Of course, as English says in a commentary on the DVD of the show's first season, "Murphy Brown" was a fictional character and the program was a comedy.   Personally, "nobody agreed with Dan Quayle {about the need for fathers} more than I did," Bergen said in a 2002 interview.

As English and other "Murphy," cast members observe on the DVD, names, hair styles and clothes change, but many of the issues stay the same.  We're still talking about women's reproductive freedom, feminism and post feminism.  Last month, a report on women and poverty, co-written by Maria Shriver and the Center for American Progress, was released.  According to the study, 48 million women and 28 million of their dependent children live in poverty.  "These are not women who are wondering if they can 'have it all,'" Shriver writes in the report's preface, "These are women who are already doing it all – working hard, providing, parenting, and care-giving...yet they and their families can't prosper..."

Times are hard for women and men.  No TV show, poem or other art form can vanquish poverty or sexism.  Yet "Murphy Brown," with its moral compass (buried under fabulous comedy), encourages us to forge ahead.

Post Your Comments
About This Article Here

Share This Page

View other readers' comments in Letters to the Editor

Scene4 Magazine - Kathi Wolfe |
Kathi Wolfe is a writer, poet and a Senior Writer and
Columnist for Scene4. Her reviews and commentary have
also appeared in an array of publications. Her most recent
Book of Poems, The Green Light, has just been published
by Finishing Line Press.
For more of her commentary, articles and poetry,
Check the

Search Kathi Wolfe

©2014 Kathi Wolfe
©2014 Publication Scene4 Magazine


February 2014

Cover | This Issue | inView | infocus | inSight | Perspectives | Blogs | inPrint | Comments Contact Us | Recent Issues | Special Issues | Masthead | Contacts&Links | Submissions Advertising | Subscribe | Books | Your Support | Privacy | Terms | Archives
Search This ISSUE

Search This Issue


Search The Archives

 Share This Page


Share in Facebook



Scene4 (ISSN 1932-3603), published monthly by Scene4 Magazine - International Magazine of Arts and Media. Copyright © 2000-2014 AVIAR-DKA LTD - AVIAR MEDIA LLC. All rights reserved. Now in our 14th year of publication with Worldwide Readership in 118 Countries and comprehensive archives of over 8000 pages.


Hollywood Red: The Autobiography of Lester Cole  ©2013 Scene4 Books
Character Flaws by Les Marcott at
Scene4 Magazine - Thai Airways |