Murder, She Wrote: Not your grandmother’s Feminism

By: Catherine Gardiner

Once upon a time, in an idyllic town in Maine (see the by-line of Cabot Cove’s tourism bureau), there lived a prolific mystery writer named Jessica Fletcher, a widow former English teacher who turned to writing as a way to pass the time after the death of her husband.  Jessica has more than just book deadlines to worry about, however; Cabot Cove is rife with murder and mayhem just the same as everywhere else she goes! And it’s up to Jessica to set the record straight, getting loved ones out of trouble and solving mischief.

If the above tale tickled your memory instead of your curiosity; you’ve probably seen at least one episode of “Murder, She Wrote”, a popular television series that aired on CBS from 1984 to 1996 that was adapted from the book series of the same name from Coventry House Publishing. Produced by Universal Television and Corymore Productions; the show ran for twelve seasons; and if you don’t recognize it, was probably watched by either your mother or grandmother.

The interesting point about this television series (other than that it was basically marketed at your grandma) is the time it was aired and its feminist agenda. Yeah, you read that correctly – your grandma was a social activist. The show starts off with just-starting-out mystery author Jessica Fletcher. Recently widowed, we now have a main character with no romantic subplot who is not only established as intelligent and capable (former English teacher turned novelist here), but is also a woman.

These days we judge whether a film or television series is appropriately feminist by something called the Bechdel Test – a test for modern film to determine whether or not it is gender biased. The test has three basic elements that a work needs to pass; if there are two or more female characters, who talk to each other about something other than a man, and that the women must be named characters. It is estimated that in 3300 films classified, only 53% percent would pass the test. Under that estimation, 47% of films as gender biased.

The point of feminism is so often contorted to mean that women are better than men; and this is not the case. The point of feminism is equality without gender bias. For film and television; this translates to a work that treats its female characters with the same amount of respect as it treats its male characters, and giving them the same amount of independence and development. It’s interesting to note that, in the twenty first century, with females making up the majority of mainstream-network television audiences, we still have to search for programs that are not gender biased. Let well alone female-centric.

This is why ‘Murder, She Wrote” is interesting. For a show that aired in 1984, one year before the Bechdel test was created in 1985, not only does every episode pass with flying colours – it is also watchable, interesting, and has an audience that spans many generations and both genders. Another interesting thing to note is that “Murder, She Wrote” also passed the Mako Mori test; a test developed after the character of the same name in Guillermo del Toro’s “Pacific Rim”. The Mako Mori test is passed if a film has; at least one female character, which gets her own narrative arc, that is not about supporting a man’s story. The Mako Mori test, created by Tumblr user chaila, is meant to live alongside the Bechdel test as another benchmark. “Murder, She Wrote” passes the Mako Mori test with high marks: every episode we have a female main character (often two or three), who has her own story arc that has nothing at all to do with a man. It is a shame on the film industry that a television series from the 1980’s can pass a feminism test created seventeen years after its last episode aired.