Why Murder She Wrote is the Feminist Show For People Who Don’t Think of Themselves as Feminist

Yaaaaay, a non-Indian review/recommendation! And I swear, this is so good that you will enjoy it even if you are all snobby and “I only want to watch Indian stuff”.

Let’s talk Angela Lansbury! She was raised by a single mother who fled England to escape an abusive partner. She went to work as a teenager in the same profession her mother had (acting). She divorced her first husband but remained friendly with him, and her second marriage lasted 54 years, to a man in the same profession as she but less successful. During her very long career, she was not only a film, TV, and stage actress, she was also a producer and business woman who controlled her own career with her husband’s support as co-parent and business partner. This is what a feminist looks like, she made her own choices and controlled her life in every way. She did not care what patriarchal society thought of her (divorced, working mother, executive with power over her own husband). But she also wore nice blouses and pantyhose and got her hair “done” every week. And she never used foul language, she didn’t talk about sex, she didn’t “burn bras” or march in rallies. She just quietly went about her life as though the world was fair and equal and ignored anything that said it wasn’t.

Classic Movie Hub on Twitter: "just because :) Angela Lansbury, The Court  Jester… "

In the 1980s, Angela Lansbury became famous all of a sudden after years of steady work on film and stage for a TV role in the show Murder She Wrote. This was the golden age of episodic TV mysteries, really good plots, really good guest stars, really interesting settings, every single week. The concept for Murder She Wrote is a famous crime novelist who is pulled into investigating a real crime every week, usually in order to prove the innocence of a good friend who is wrongfully accused. One week she will be in Paris helping a high school friend achieve her dream of launching a fashion line and then clearing her name when her scuzzy French financial backer is killed. Next week she will be back in her small home town of Cabot Cove Maine solving the murder of the owner of the local shoe factory. After 5 years on the show, Lansbury renegotiated her contract and ended up as executive producer with total creative control. Even before that, she already had strong input into the script and general direction of the show. Especially her character, Jessica Fletcher.

Jessica Fletcher is a widow with no children who worked as an English teacher for years. She has a wide variety of very close female friendships with women ranging from college professors to business executives to fashion designers, some of them married and some of them single, most of them middle-aged or older. And Jessica Fletcher herself became a bestselling author of murder mysteries in her retirement, eventually a respected lecturer on criminology.

So here is a woman who experienced life both with and without a romantic partner and was almost equally happy either way. Who never had children and is no worse off for that, no less loving and wise. Who worked her whole life at jobs she took seriously and which she exceled at. And who is a faithful loyal friend to women all over the world. And yes, she also goes by her married name, loved her husband deeply, likes to cook, keeps a nice house, wears make-up and dresses properly, is always polite and says “please” and “thank you”, and all the other signs of a “nice” woman.

Murder, She Wrote' Fashion 101: Jessica Fletcher Style - New York Daily News
She goes to her local salon once a week. Which is how she knows more about what is happening in town than the sheriff.

What’s wonderful about the show “Murder She Wrote” is that it approaches feminism as simply “women are interesting people”. The writers didn’t sit down and say “this episode will be about a successful cookie company executive who is being brought down by her dumb ex-husband and crooked employees because of The Patriarchy”. They said “our heroine is an intelligent interesting woman of a certain age, we just read an article about the female founder of a cookie company, that is the kind of person our heroine would be friends with. And the kind of problem the female founder of a cookie company would have is a lazy ex-husband and crooked employees”. It’s not about making a statement, it is simply about following a logical conclusion of a character.

I’ll put it another way. If you want to make a product that has a social message, there are two general common approaches. First is to show an idealized world. Something aspirational, something that makes the audience think “YES! We can DO IT!!!!” The alternative is to make folks angry, to show them all the flaws of the current world, make them think “we need to fix this!” Think like 9 to 5, the first half was all the flaws that make you angry, the second half was all the “YES! We can fix it!” solutions. But Murder She Wrote is unique, it found a third way. What Murder She Wrote does is show the world as it actually is, but force you to see the truth that is already there.

9 to 5 (film) - Wikipedia

There are successful female crime authors, loads of them. And there are successful female executives and computer programmers and college professors and all kinds of things. This isn’t fiction, this isn’t a scary feminist statement, this is just showing nice middle-aged women quietly and competently going about their lives. If I am watching Murder She Wrote as a man, I am going to see all these nice women who talk and look and act like my mother or my aunt or my grandmother, and I am also going to see how they are very good at their jobs and often have to deal with men who dismiss them just because they are women. And I am going to identify with the “nice” men, the smart police officers who appreciate Jessica Fletcher and listen to her, or the supportive husband of the successful woman. If I am watching Murder She Wrote as a woman, I am going to see my life. I’m not out there marching for change necessarily, or being abused in some dramatic darkly lit way, but I am struggling to get that promotion at work because my boss doesn’t appreciate me the way he should, just like this week’s guest star, and if Jessica Fletcher encourages her to stand up for herself, I should stand up for myself too.

If you want to watch a mystery show that deals with spousal abuse, workplace harassment, lazy husbands, unappreciative bosses, and shows you how you can stand up to all that with intelligence and fearlessness and perfect hair, watch Murder She Wrote.

Also, the mysteries are pretty dang good!!!!

Recalling the unexpected success of Angela Lansbury's 'Murder She Wrote' -  Los Angeles Times
And can I point out that in real life, Angela Lansbury LITERALLY went up against Charles Manson and won? Her teenage daughter was getting pulled into the Manson family, and Angela didn’t stand for that, moved the whole family to Ireland and successfully deprogrammed her. Angela does not mess around and no man can scare her.

Okay, that’s all the stuff to sell you on the show if you haven’t seen it. Now, for those of you who have seen it, what was up with Jessica and Seth? Were they sleeping together or just good friends? And if they were sleeping together, was it exclusive or was she also having flings with Leslie Nielsen, Red Buttons, etc.?

20 thoughts on “Why Murder She Wrote is the Feminist Show For People Who Don’t Think of Themselves as Feminist

  1. Everything you wrote is true, and yet Murder She Wrote, with it’s perfectly coiffed heroine who kept a perfect house while writing books while solving mysteries most likely fed into the the myth that women can do it all. That we could do all the work of a homemaker while excelling in the job market, while maintaining strict beauty standards. It is convenient that the heroine had no children, and no husband. That said, one of the things I love most about the show, is that it is not focused on youth. It is an excellent show

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    • And never raising her voice either. She gets angry and she tells men off, but always in a calm wise intelligent way. Never in a sputtering angry way. That’s wish fulfillment for me (I never think of the perfect thing to say in the moment), but also a bit of a fantasy that might make it harder for normal women who do sputter and fume.

      I love that the show is about interesting people past middle-age, and also that it had this phenomenal cast of older people!!!! All these Oscar nominated super talented actors who just happened to be a bit grey and wrinkled show up and do such a fantastic job in their roles. Soooooooooo much better than the string of pretty young things you usually get in mystery shows as guest stars.

      On Tue, Jan 26, 2021 at 11:33 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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    • Yes! It’s just showing the world, which happens to be patriarchal. Also, Angela Lansbury is a delight and the settings of the episodes are insane (computer game company, Caribbean hotel, something about Voodoo I don’t remember, and so on).

      On Tue, Jan 26, 2021 at 12:43 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. Like a podcast I listened to once said, that show is a blanket made of gravy. For years and years they were always showing it on some TV station here and now that I want it, it’s nowhere to be found. Deeply annoying. I’ve read a bunch of the tie in novels and they are the most relaxing thing for the brain.

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    • I like “a blanket made of gravy”. I am going to choose to interpret it as warm and soothing, but also filling and substantive and salty.

      On Tue, Jan 26, 2021 at 1:35 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  3. Oh yes, this show really is “a blanket made of gravy”.
    The only episodes I don’t like are those with Jessica’s friend who is a spy. He is annoying and ruins the plot. Oh and the only episode I skipped was the one with Magnum. I guess I just like when Jessica is in the center.

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    • Yeah, I don’t much like the spy either. I am a bit fond of the gentleman thief turned insurance investigator. But Seth is really the best, he is Jessica’s perfect match and she should stop wasting her time with these other pretty boys.

      On Wed, Jan 27, 2021 at 4:19 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • The thief was cool. I like his episodes a lot.

        I’m not sure if I like Seth the way you like him. He was ok, but Jessica deserves someone better.

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        • WHAT COULD BE BETTER THAN SETH????? He’s a DOCTOR!!! And a WAR HERO!!!! And he COOKS!!!!!

          Come on MSW people, I need support here. Convince Angie that Seth is the best!!!

          On Wed, Jan 27, 2021 at 9:47 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • I am so sorry but I am with Angie on this one. Seth is great as a best friend/brotherly figure but I just don’t see the romantic chemistry with them. While I really like the chemistry between Jessica and Dennis Stanton (the thief), I would still not pick him as a husband for her.

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          • What about Leslie Neilson, the one episode rascaly old boyfriend?

            On Wed, Jan 27, 2021 at 10:00 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • OOOH YES! I really liked him. Plus, he is a captain of a ship, right? So, he will mostly be a sea and won’t cramp Jessica’s style most of the time but then can come back from time to time to keep her company and make her happy. I think Jessica has lived by herself for too long to all of a sudden start living with a husband full time.

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          • Yes, that is perfect. And unlike all her other little occasional romances, he has a Cabot Cove connection, and can swing right into her harbor, which is nice.

            On Wed, Jan 27, 2021 at 10:38 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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            Liked by 1 person

          • Like Filmikudhi said – he is a nice friend but there isn’t any sexual chemistry between them. They just meet and cook together. In my head they never ever had sex. He is too nice to try.

            Like

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