Murphy Brown S1 Warner Bros DVD cover
The cast of Murphy Brown | Season 1 DVD, Warner Bros. (2007)

You Think Feminist Sitcom ‘Murphy Brown’ Had It Tough in the ’90s?

Would the Murphy Brown “Uh Oh” episodes, which addressed abortion, withstand the Texas Heart Beat act and America’s current right-wing cultural climate?

Murphy Brown
Diane English

After Murphy Brown

As mentioned earlier, much of Murphy Brown relied on the familiarity of the audience. We watched the show to laugh but we also watched the show looking for the things we recognized because they felt comfortable. One of the more enduring recurring themes was Murphy’s odd relationship with her housepainter, Eldin (Robert Pastorelli), the ‘Rhoda’ to her ‘Mary’. Eldin was introduced in the first season and the joke behind his character was that he was a brilliant artist who moonlighted as a house painter, seemingly wasting his talent as a laborer.

The relationship between Eldin and Murphy evolved into a deep friendship, as he was the most constant and consistent man in her life. His idiosyncratic approach to house painting meant that he never finished his job. He also kept strange hours. Murphy eventually got used to seeing him pad around the house in his overalls, carrying buckets of paint as she got in after midnight.

So even though Eldin and Murphy developed a deep and meaningful friendship, because this is a sitcom, their mutual (if platonic) love was manifested in an oft-flinty exchange. Unlike many men in her life, Eldin wasn’t intimidated nor offended by Murphy’s brashness; she, in turn, respected and appreciated his honesty and candor. When Murphy shares the news with Eldin, his first reaction was surprise, as he recapped the situation: Murphy is pregnant and single and she’s decided she will keep the baby.

Instead of judging her or reminding her of how hard things will be for a single mother or suggesting that motherhood will change her, he breaks into joyful cries as he embraces his friend, enthusing “this is a good thing! A very good thing!” For the first time in the episode, a loved one is happy for her. But before we think that we’re seeing a new, gushy Eldin, he returns to his tart self when Murphy asks if he thinks she’ll be a good mother. He deftly replies “No, but I will.”

It’s important to note that at the time of the episodes’ airing, Roe v. Wade was less than 20 years old. The landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a woman’s right to choose is protected by the Constitution. Despite the ruling, abortion remained a controversial topic, with conservatives – including activists and politicians – seeking to overturn the decision. At the 1988 Republican National Convention, the GOP adopted a repressive, anti-choice platform that included opposition to choice, looking to apply the 14th Amendment to fetuses.

Coincidentally, three days after the airing of the first installment of “Uh-Oh”, the Supreme Court decided in Rust v. Sullivan that President George H.W. Bush’s Department of Health and Human Services was allowed to prohibit federally-funded family planning clinics from counselling their patients about abortion. The ruling – a 5-4 verdict – was controversial, with many healthcare providers and pro-choice advocates decrying the dangerous implications of the ruling.

In the midst of this loud noise, English stepped into the debate by introducing the topic of abortion and the reaction to this story arc peaked in an absurd and ridiculous way in May of 1992, when then US Vice President Dan Quayle delivered a speech in which, like many reactionary conservatives, he turned to popular culture and the media when trying to point blame at societal ills (instead of being introspective and looking inward). He singled out Murphy Brown and sadly lamented:

It doesn’t help matters when primetime 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 lifestyle choice.

It was a cynical and cheap move on the vice president’s part. The crux of his argument was Murphy Brown was “mocking” the importance of fatherhood by depicting a reality: that some single women, either by choice or circumstance, were mothers. It’s unclear if Quayle ever watched the show because if he had, especially the “Uh-Oh” episodes, he would have seen that English tried very hard to present the situation as difficult.

Indeed, that Quayle felt the show was positing single parenthood as “just another lifestyle choice” betrays an ignorance of Murphy Brown‘s intent. Thanks to Quayle’s dunderheaded pandering, the show earned high ratings, lots of media attention, and Murphy Brown found herself occupying a space on the ascending culture wars that gripped the early ’90s.  

Watching “Uh-Oh” 30 years later, it seems at once odd and depressing that single motherhood is still a hot-button issue and abortion rights are still being debated – even denied. The show’s quippy line about Murphy not knowing if she had a choice was and is funny, but today, there’s a savage irony – or maybe a cruel irony – in the joke, given the deeply conservative makeup of the Supreme Court today. In May of 2021, Texas Governor George Abbot signed the Texas Heartbeat Act, which essentially bans abortion at six weeks of pregnancy. The Supreme court, which includes three appointees from former President Donald Trump, refused to block the Texas law. [Whole Woman’s Health Et Al v. Austin, No. 21A24]

After Murphy Brown, other television shows also broached the subject of reproductive rights and abortion. However, it’s still rare to see lead characters of television shows – especially comedies that rely on audiences’ affection for the characters – have abortions. On a particularly strong episode of Sex and the City, “Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda”, careerist Miranda Hobbs (Cynthia Nixon) discovers she’s pregnant and goes as far as arriving at the clinic before changing her mind. In Lena Dunham’s comedy, Girls, Jessa (Jemima Kirke) decides to have an abortion after becoming pregnant, only to get her period later in the episode (the decision was essentially made for her). But even though Maude (1972-78) presented a lead character in a situation comedy who decided to have an abortion, decades later, the topic is still taboo in mainstream television.

It would be interesting to see what Murphy Brown would have done during its time if its writers had known what women’s reproductive rights in today’s climate are like. Much of the show’s ten seasons looked at the headlines and then filtered events down to the quasi-fictional, somewhat authentic depiction of Washington, D.C. In 2018, Murphy Brown was revived for a short reboot, joining other television nostalgia pieces from the ’80s and ’90s, as English’s way of responding to Trump’s election.

“We wouldn’t have come back if the election had gone differently,” Bergen shared with Stephen Colbert on his The Late Show. In the brief 13-episode run, the show’s writers did what the group of writers did during the show’s original run: look to current affairs and run them through their comedic filter. During the original show’s peak, the Culture Wars saw a partisan divide with conservatives, led by figures like Pat Buchanan, warning their constituents of the deleterious influence of liberalism, particularly on the family. When Buchanan thundered at the 1992 RNC:

The agenda [the Clintons] would impose on America, abortion on demand, a litmus test for the Supreme Court, homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools, women in combat units. That’s change, all right. But it is not the kind of change America wants. It is not the kind of change America needs.

In the polarized environment of the early ’90s, English had a large and loud voice in the debate, and with that voice, she contributed to the conversation by asking important questions about the role of women and motherhood in a society changed by feminism, the sexual revolution, and the gradual change in gendered work. The Murphy Brown in 2018 was operating in a very different, far more polarized environment which was defined by two important forces: 1. social media, which allowed for the suspicious, toxic polarized culture that created a hospitable place for a Trump presidency 2. President Donald Trump.

Though Trump was a major public figure in the ’90s, his fame was largely relegated to pop culture celebrity. Though English tried to look to the Trump-era news for fodder, the show failed to duplicate the kind of smart comedy of its peak in the early ’90s. If Murphy Brown had lasted long enough to address the Supreme Court’s decision on the Texas heartbeat law, it would not have captured the national conversation, nor would it have been part of the zeitgeist.

The original ten seasons of Murphy Brown set out to address world events, journalism, and feminism with humor. The three “Uh-Oh” episodes are a great encapsulation of the show as it bears the trademarks of the sitcom, but English was also stretching what the show was capable of doing – and what television audiences were willing to watch. Indeed, it was an elegant, witty way of turning topical conversations into a stylish half-hour sitcom.