“I couldn’t help but notice…”: Murder, She Wrote’s Prime Time Feminism

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Nathalie Atkinson is a film critic and culture columnist at The Globe and Mail.

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Murder She Wrote
Image Credit: CBS

First airing in 1984, Murder, She Wrote, about the sexagenarian crime-solving widow Jessica Fletcher [i] (Angela Lansbury), was written—and well-received—as a cozy, satisfying crime procedural. But in the decades since,  the show’s meanings have evolved far beyond its seemingly benign prime-time origins. Thanks to reruns, Murder, She Wrote has seduced a new generation, who watch with a side of irony (like the Tumblr users and bloggers that have jokingly dubbed Fletcher’s hometown, Cabot Cove, “Murder Capital, USA”). Elsewhere, and with a bit more rigour, Fletcher’s adventures have been scrutinized by cultural theorists for their stealth feminism. These alternate ways of watching are by no means mutually exclusive, but the latter recognizes the show for what it most significantly was: a feminist bullet muffled by folksy charm, set to deceptively jaunty Andy Griffith Show-type theme music, that subversively fluttered the feminist flag in prime time.

Because of this subtlety, even to this day the show is largely unheralded as the revolutionary feminist series it was. Murder, She Wrote gives us a self-actualized female character and independent career woman, yet it does not draw attention to those things as unusual or make them the show’s defining identity. It’s thanks to this “low-flying feminism” that Murder, She Wrote infiltrated and endured in prime time. It was enormously popular, earning a slew of Golden Globe wins and Emmy nominations, 20 million viewers every week for five of the series’ 12 seasons, and the prestigious Sunday-night spot following 60 Minutes. The famous two-episode crossover with Magnum, P.I. was designed to bolster his flaccid ratings, not hers—and did. So while Fletcher might not have been on the frontlines of feminist protests, the character did write 24 novels, tend her garden, and volunteer in her community—all while solving 264 crime cases.

Since the show was created for a major network, it’s perhaps not surprising that Murder, She Wrote shares the same creative team as the hit mystery series Columbo (1971-2003)—Richard Levinson and William Link—and several of the same writers, most notably Murder, She Wrote’s third co-creator Peter S. Fischer. But what is more surprising is the genesis of Fletcher. Carla Singer, the senior development executive at CBS who previously developed The Twilight Zone, said she wanted a murder-mystery series with a strong female lead. “She needn’t be particularly young,” was part of the brief, Fischer recounts in his 2013 memoir, Me and Murder, She Wrote.

The network’s first choice for the role, Jean Stapleton, turned the project down, and the creative team had misgivings about Lansbury, the runner-up. Fischer describes the team’s initial February, 1983 meeting with the actor, incredulous about the suggested casting and unsure of what the movie star and Broadway icon had to do with “the bright and charming, delightfully downhome character” he had written:

She was also that snippy little tart in Gaslight that bedeviled Ingrid Bergman and shamelessly batted her baby blues at Charles Boyer. She was the saloon girl in The Harvey Girls who made life miserable for lovely Judy Garland. She was the hard-nosed publisher in State of the Union who caused frostbite to afflict anyone she came near. And worst of all, she was the harridan of a mother to Laurence Harvey in The Manchurian Candidate, whose onscreen presence made Eva Braun seem like Mary Poppins.

Fischer worried that if Lansbury were cast he would have to alter the project. (“How would Shakespeare rewrite Macbeth to star Billy Crystal?”) But he needn’t have worried. Similarly to many of the show’s criminals—and just as often, the authorities—who routinely underestimated Fletcher, so too did Fischer underestimate Lansbury. But the reason the show works is because of what Lansbury brings to it: she plays the widow with equal parts charming comedic airs and take-no-bullshit feminism.

Murder, She Wrote shares one of the mystery genre’s most prominent tropes: the successful sleuth as loner. Think Father Brown, Sherlock (Watson notwithstanding) or Columbo (whose wife seems a fiction); the solo Inspector Morse and Hercule Poirot, or the steely spinster Miss Marple. As Fischer recalls, Fletcher was written as a stand-alone character right from the beginning, because for many reasons she needed to be. Fletcher had to be “unencumbered by children or a husband,” and was inspired by the lone female on this list, Miss Marple. But the idea was to combine Marple’s identity with aspects of her creator, Agatha Christie, to create a meta-sleuth with “a twinkly sense of humour that masks the sharp brain lurking beneath a very attractive hairdo.” By making her a widow in her sixties, the show also sidestepped the need to define a woman in the usual shorthand that dates back to earliest silent cinema—with polarity, as either vamp or virgin.

What makes Fletcher even more interesting for a feminist reading is her age and marital status. Like many women of Lansbury’s generation, the widowed Fletcher would have married after the war. [ii] As opposed to the more swinging, liberated single gals of the 1970s on film and TV, Fletcher was not born into feminism and the benefits it afforded. Still, despite this generation gap, she chooses to follow her own dreams and desires after her husband Frank’s death. She is free to pursue her second career as a crime writer (and her unofficial one as a crime-solver) after a life spent as an English teacher and wife. With an astute realism that reflects the generation from which Fletcher hails, she is written as initially demurring. “I was just filling time after your uncle died!” she tells nephew Grady in the first episode, who has sent a publisher her manuscript because she didn’t yet have the confidence to do so. Or, as she tells an interviewer, along the lines of women’s work trifles, she took up her pen “like some people needlepoint or paint.” But her trepidation is short-lived: by the preface to the opening credits we see her taking care of herself, jogging around the quaint town of Cabot Cove. She is content, capable, energetic—and on her own.

Murder, She Wrote also always celebrates Fletcher for who she is on her own terms—a remarkable fact given her age and far-from-Charlie’s-Angels looks. In one episode, on the eve of her first publicity trip to the Big Apple, a well-meaning friend arranges a makeover. Fletcher gets the full treatment at the town’s only fashion boutique, Guillermo’s Dress Shop (“those tweeds have got to go!”): a facial, then the latest style from Coiffure Monthly. Uninterested in the proceedings, Jessica is nose-deep in a book under the hair dryer until, eventually, she loses patience with having to look like someone she isn’t. When we next see her, it’s as she emerges from the train in New York—in a beret and tweeds, looking triumphantly like her familiar self.

Not unlike the ur-example of the solo sleuth, Sherlock Holmes, Fletcher is charming but sometimes awkward, dispensing unsolicited helpful advice. But unlike the man who occupied the bachelor pad at 221B Baker Street, she is not celibate. Though never explicitly spelled out, Murder, She Wrote is filled with hints of Fletcher’s love life. At one point she observes that her dashing publisher looks grey, and suggests apples would improve his complexion—an opening gambit that passes for flirting in Cabot Cove. In a more coy moment she quips, “Well, I could always come as Lady Godiva” as she walks away from one handsome prospect. She grins, shimmies her hips and throws him a deep wink over her shoulder.

While Fletcher has suitors all through the series, there’s no suggestion that it has to be serious, or a focal point of the show. One of her regular friends-with-potential-benefits is the similarly single widower Dr. Seth Hazlitt (William Windom). Episodes sometimes open with Hazlitt and Fletcher in a cozy domestic scene: he’s doing the dishes after a meal while she lingers at the table, or he’s making her morning coffee. Another time she offers a simpatico drifter-slash-handyman she has befriended her late husband’s pipe. “Folks have a way of talking in a little town like this,” the man says, acknowledging what their several days of companionship might look like (and may very well be).

Just as Murder, She Wrote slyly addressed the sexuality of a 60-year-old woman in prime time, politics were also not a verboten subject. The show’s political awareness may have come less from the writer’s room than from Lansbury’s own life. Lansbury’s grandfather had been the leader of Britain’s Labour Party, a member of parliament who resigned his seat in 1912 to campaign for women’s suffrage as a supporter of the militant actions of the Women’s Social and Political Union. Her aunts were also all involved in politics, working with the likes of Sylvia Pankhurst, for the Communist Party, and championing women’s rights to access for abortion and contraception in England.

What does this have to do with Lansbury’s alter-ego sleuth? A lot. Though speculation is a slippery slope, there are grounds to assume Lansbury’s real-life background seeped into Fletcher’s character. Indeed, the three male co-creators’ Colombo-based portfolios hardly suggest they had any feminist leanings. Taking into account Lansbury’s family history might explain, then, another hallmark of Murder, She Wrote: frequent overt and less funny acknowledgments of the era’s misogyny. In the episode “The Error of Her Ways,” a detective rebuffs Fletcher’s offer of help, saying: “Ma’am, do us both a favour. Go back to your hotel, relax for a day or two by the pool until I sort this out.” In another moment, a husband tut-tuts his wife’s intellect, calling it “that fevered little mind of yours.” This character type—the patronizing husband, the incredulous boss—is, if not the actual who in the whodunit, at least due some just desserts. Like in the Washington episode, where in the figure of Fletcher, Mr. Smith meets Norma Rae. When Fletcher arrives to talk politics, she’s told her “biggest problem should be where to have lunch.” In response, she tells the aide off: “We’ll get along just fine if you remember that I’m not your old addled aunt from East Nowhere.” These occasions are when the knives are sharpest beneath the New England niceties. As Fletcher explains to one over-confident adversary with matter-of-fact joviality: “Back in Cabot Cove the only thing we have with claws are lobsters—and we eat ’em.”

Fletcher’s genial catchphrase “I couldn’t help but notice…” may be an innocuous version of Lieutenant Columbo’s “just one more thing.” And like Columbo, she’s confident, polite and even humble about her talents—but not self-effacing. As Fischer had learned, viewers, chauvinists, and murderers should take caution when underestimating Jessica Fletcher as no more than the poster girl for the hip-replacement generation. “I may be wrong,” the sleuth herself has said, ever cordial before sticking the proverbial knife, “but frankly I doubt it.”


[i] Although her everyday appellation among intimates flits from Mrs to Miss to Miz to Jess to Jessie, the choice of pen name is also noteworthy: her authorial initials are J.B. As more than one fanfic site points out, Fletcher shares these with the likes of Jason Bourne, Jack Bauer and James Bond, which is a coincidental curiosity more than anything else. More importantly, the nom de plum is an impulse that both recalls the Oxford literary group The Inklings (writers JRR Tolkien, W.H. Lewis C.S. Lewis, and critic Q.D. Leavis) and the many female writers going undetected by gender on their book covers by initials – such as P.D. James, P.L. Travers J.K. Rowling, E.L. James and Nora Roberts, who for her crime series uses the pseudonym J.D. Robb.

[ii] In Those Girls: Single Women in Sixties and Seventies Popular Culture (2011) Catherine Lehman traces single women from Merritt Andrews’ 1960 Where the Boys Are through 1967’s Valley of the Dolls to Mary Richards and Maude. With few exceptions, almost all these feminists are young, never-married women. If they have adventurous, traditionally male jobs (like Anne Francis in Honey West, Angie Dickinson in Police Woman or the jiggle TV of Charlie’s Angels’ “three little girls”) they were often simultaneously objectified and infantilized—all this and glamour plates, too.

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