Shaped By The Screen: Women of 1980’s TV & Film

Diane Keaton in 1987’s “Baby Boom”

*Writer’s Note: This post focuses on American film of the 1980s only, with a career or comedy slant, and there will be further discussion of other decades and foreign films soon!

I was born in 1977 — the year of many incredible films (Star Wars, Annie Hall, Saturday Night Fever) and albums (Elvis Costello, Fleetwood Mac, Billie Joel, Bob Marley, David Bowie, Queen, Ramones, The Clash, Iggy Pop, Sex Pistols). This year also categorizes me as — according to whatever age-box obsessed article you read — a “Xennial”, that select generation that was born in 1977–83, wedged between Gen X and Millennials. We had analogue childhoods, adapted to a digital revolution in adulthood, and hot damn, did we ever love our rapidly growing selection of music videos, television and movies during the eighties. To this day, there is a sweet spot of pop culture references routinely made from this period that speak directly to us though a sly mention or a wink, as many show runners and writer also grew up in that era, and I admit to chuckling when I catch a joke that my young co-workers try hard to mask their confusion about (we can understand a reference from many years ago, but sometimes in the five year difference you can sometimes miss a lot). And yes, I know how petty that is. Just give me the win. I almost spit out my drink in surprise when I saw an episode of ‘Family Guy’ randomly reference the ridiculous 1987 movie “Mannequin”. But I digress….

Recently this wonderful oral history on the making of “Working Girl” came out and inspired a long conversation with my girlfriends about which women of film & television we grew up with, as young impressionable women coming up in an aggressively corporate era (80s), who formed our ideas about taking charge in our own careers, or who displayed real integrity, humor and/or sense of adventure. (This may sound like a stretch, there were certainly many, many incredible women writers and performers well before this time who made a major impact, and much deeper films, and I will be all too happy to write about what they meant to me as well, but for now let’s concentrate on this particular decade in time in my young, impressionable life, shall we?) Something happens as you near tween/teen status, when you take in copious amounts of pop culture and then juxtapose it with your current reality. For a young girl living in the bland suburbs, seeing these actresses in these roles made me reach for more — even if I didn’t know it yet — and eventually had me sprinting for New York City, so I too could be a Vice President or a broadcast journalist or a writer, and hopefully someone who would find adventures around the globe— even if I didn’t know how. The seeds had been planted.

While the movie teens of the eighties were embracing questionable outfits (guilty), the career women in the movies were pushing into the corner office, speaking up against sexist bosses/roles, and almost none of them were particularly concerned with traditional roles of domesticity (which never interested me so I felt a relief). These women rocked power suits and boardrooms, took new chances, had travel adventures, called people out, all while continuing to fighting rampant sexism, misogyny, and the ridiculous physical expectations of those ladies in Robert Palmer’s famous “Addicted to love” video — these were my types of broads I wanted to know, just like so many actresses before them (which I will absolutely write about later). Of course I realize there are a serious number of problematic themes — lack of diversity (in doing research, it is sad/frustrating to see lack of color in any women’s leading comedic roles in this era — Whoopi Goldberg was always one of my favorite exception), categorical racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, turning a blind eye to assault….I could go on (in hindsight, it’s all pretty messy). Let’s just say a lot of that goes over your head when you are really young, ignorant, sheltered and consumed mass amounts of American entertainment.

According to IMDB these were the biggest female movie stars of the 1980s and there are many that are not on this particular list of comedies, adventure or career focused films, but I still adore them. So without delay, I would love to thank these (mostly) fictional characters, and the actresses behind them, for getting me motivated for whatever came my way.

Murphy Brown (Candace Bergen, as Murphy Brown 1988–1998)

Murphy Brown 1988–1998

Baby Boom (Diane Keaton as J.C. Wiatt)

Baby Boom 1987

Working Girl (Melanie Griffith as Tess McGill)

Working Girl 1988

Moonstruck (Cher as Loretta Castorini)

Moonstruck 1987

Pretty In Pink (Molly Ringwald as Andie Walsh)

Pretty In Pink 1986

Bull Durham (Susan Sarandon as Annie Savoy)

Bull Durham 1988

Heathers (Winona Ryder as Veronica Sawyer)

Heathers 1988

Raiders Of The Lost Ark (Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood)

Raiders of the Lost Ark 1981

Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia)

Return of the Jedi 1983

Private Benjamin (Goldie Hawn as Judy Benjamin)

Private Benjamin 1980

Romancing the Stone (Kathleen Turner as Joan Wilder)

Romancing the stone 1984

Gorillas in the mist (Sigourney Weaver as Dian Fossey)

Gorillas in the mist 1988

Out of Africa (Meryl Streep as Karen Blixen)

Out of Africa 1985

9 to 5 (Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton)

9 to 5 1980

Let’s wrap this tribute properly, sing it Carly! (And if you’ve never seen “Working Girl”, don’t even talk to me)

Who is on your list?

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Carrie A. Mitchell

Carrie A. Mitchell

Media & Communications Leader. Founder, Writer, Author, Podcaster. Musings on travel, culture & media +