It’s Deja Vu: ‘Network’ Still Has a Finger on the Pulse of Culture, 36 Years Later

I just watched a wonderfully over-the-top movie with the students in my communication writing class at Boston University. It satirized nearly every aspect of American society: the economic recession, high gas prices, conflicts raging in the Middle East, a president under attack by fringe elements, the ratings-oriented news culture, corporate domination of the world, and women fighting for their identities and rights.

The movie? Network. The year of its release? 1976.

Maybe Hollywood should make Network: The Sequel—after all, they could use the same script. They could even promote it using the same catchphrase that helped make the Sidney Lumet movie iconic: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.” In the movie, winner of four Academy Awards, the phrase is uttered by just-fired news anchor Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch), who exhorts his viewers to run to their windows, throw them open, and shout it out into the night.

Today, the anger-baiting comes from Republican politicians who stir up a frightened and angry electorate by telling them to “take our country back.” Sure, the phrase is not as eloquent as the one crafted by screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, but it’s resonated with certain people, nonetheless.

In the movie, while the old guard tries to keep network news out of the money-making clutches of the entertainment division, they can’t fight so-called progress. Diana Christensen (played by Faye Dunaway) is an insanely driven programming executive with a brilliant idea: have people intending to do newsworthy, controversial things film themselves doing them, submit the footage to the network news desk, and then come into the studio for a follow-up interview.

Filming oneself and broadcasting it to the world? Today, that’s called Reality TV and YouTube.

Faye Dunaway in Network (1976)

Most interestingly to me, in the movie, the hard-boiled news guy who’s suffering a mid-life crisis, Max Schumacher (played by William Holden), is struggling to choose between Diana, the young, exciting, ruthless femme fatale-ish career woman he’s having an affair with, and his warm, loving wife and mother of his children, who presumably does not work outside the home.

If you were to tell women in 1976 that, a full 36 years later, women who work exclusively in the home and those who also work outside the home would be pitted against each other, they wouldn’t have believed it.

And yet, here we are in the current election year with CNN political commentator and Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen criticizing Mitt Romney for using his wife, Ann, as a legitimate representative of all women when she “has actually never worked a day in her life.” And the Romney campaign capitalizing on this golden opportunity by having Ann go on the counter-attack with the statement that raising five sons is indeed hard work.

And that’s the least of what’s been happening in the “war on women” in recent months. Here’s a quick review of the highlights (or should I saw lowlights):

  • The Susan B. Komen Foundation for the Cure, America’s largest breast cancer charity, made changes to their funding criteria that would have cut out funding of Planned Parenthood for breast cancer screenings. Mitt Romney jumped in, saying he wanted to “get rid of” Planned Parenthood.
  • For a few months, Rick Santorum served as a serious challenge to Romney, based on his ultra-conservative anti-abortion, anti-contraception values.
  • Rush Limbaugh called a female law student who testified before the congressional committee on birth control, a “slut” and a “prostitute” for advocating for health care coverage for contraceptive pills. He then taunted her to videotape herself having sex since, after all, the American people would be paying for contraception, which he equated with a license to have sex frequently. While President Obama called the woman to offer support, Romney simply said he wouldn’t have used the same words as Limbaugh. There’s Milquetoast Mitt for ya.

For a while, these flagrant attacks on women reinvigorated the fight for women’s rights in a way that was reminiscent of the ’70s, when I grew up. Back then, there were amazing women role models leading the charge or inspiring by example.

Carole King’s Tapestry album was like nothing we’d heard before, like a memoir of a woman’s life (love, sex, divorce, friendship) set to catchy—but not poppy—tunes. (King has just released an actual memoir). The Mary Tyler Moore show captured the struggle of women to be people pleasers and at the same time assert themselves in a way nothing has before or since. And, in 1973, when Billie Jean set out to play “male chauvinist pig” Bobby Riggs in a highly anticipated tennis match, it felt like the future of feminism hinged on the outcome (she won!). It was an exhilarating time to be coming of age as a woman.

Some of that fighting spirit is back, with social media serving as the wind beneath its wings:

  • The executive at Komen who made the funding decision resigned, and the foundation reversed its position on funding.
  • While Rush Limbaugh remains on the air, his program lost multiple sponsors in response to his incendiary remarks.
  • Santorum’s out of the running. And various polls show Romney trailing President Obama by 15-19 percentage points among women in the upcoming general election.

So, there have been victories of late, to be sure. But, with the latest political news out of Arizona, it’s hard to feel exuberant about the strides made in the decades since Network. In fact, sometimes it feels like we’re moving backwards.

The Arizona state legislature just passed a law, which Governor Jan Brewer signed, not only making it illegal for a woman to get an abortion after 18 weeks of pregnancy, but also determining that life begins on the first day of the woman’s last period. In other words, they decided that life begins before conception. Huh?

It’s no wonder that when I asked my students if they felt Network is dated, they said no, not for the most part. While they objected to some of the old-fashioned speechifying done by a few of the characters, they agreed that the script otherwise felt fresh and was surprisingly prescient about today’s media world.

As for the portrayals of women as either careerists or moms? That didn’t ring so true to them in today’s world. They grew up believing women can have it all, as the saying goes, and still believe that despite the current attacks on women’s rights they’re seeing, these days. Let’s just hope they’re right.