“Baby, if you ever wondered…” WKRP: Jennifer Marlowe

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I would love to be able to watch this show and refresh my memory before writing about it, but it may never come out on DVD – apparently the costs to license some of the pop music used on it would be unbelievable now, and the studio hasn’t thought to dub some cheaper music in and let us have it already. Sigh. I can only hope we’ve all seen it in syndication at some point.

WKRP was a fun little sitcom in the very early 80’s about a bottom-of-the-heap radio station in Cincinnati and the crazy group who ran it. Over the years they got to be like family, and stuck together much longer than would happen in real life. There were two billed female characters – Jennifer Marlowe (Loni Anderson) and Bailey Quarters (Jan Smithers) – and a third recurring character – Mrs. Carlson (Carol Bruce). I’m starting with Jennifer Marlowe.

She was the receptionist. She was ridiculously gorgeous – no one ever understood why she worked at WKRP when she could write her own ticket, and she never really said – and she was an unapologetic gold digger, dating ancient old rich men and profiting wildly from it. She was always in control, always together, and actually seemed to have a lot of hidden talents which she liked to keep hidden, so no one would come to expect things of her. She made $24,000 a year, which was an ungodly sum for a receptionist then (a lot still don’t make that). She was a nice person and a loyal friend, and I came away feeling she earned her keep, both from the station and the old men she dated. She was even a bit chaste, feeling mortally humiliated when a photographer got nude pictures of her in a dressing room.

She was, in effect, the classic bimbo, except that she was the real life version of the stereotype: she used her beauty to make her life work the same way people use their brains or skills. She made her dates feel special and appreciated, which was more valuable to them than their gifts were to her. She used the same charm on friends who needed a boost. She wasn’t presented as a sex object: rather, she presented herself as an object of beauty, like a work of art gracing the lives around her. In a way, she reminds me of Sapphire, from Sapphire & Steel, which is a relief – I’ve been racking my brains trying to think of one American example of a beautiful, feminine, powerful woman.

There was little question Jennifer was smart enough to have gone to school and competed for a more respectable job. But why bother? It was a man’s world, and she was circumventing the competition.

Her relationship with Bailey was interesting. Bailey Quarters was a station reporter with a college degree who was competing in a man’s world for a respectable position. Jennifer was her confidant, who listened to her frustrations and offered suggestions and help. There was no sense of competition between them, and no sense that they judged each other on their very, very different approaches to life.

The other recurring female character, Mrs. Carlson, was the rich tyrant who owned the studio. Most everyone was terrified of her, including her son who nominally ran the studio but was in reality much too gentle to be effective. Mrs. Carlson’s appearance on first glance resembled what Jennifer’s might have become in middle age: refined, elegant, classy. And no doubt Mrs. Carlson was in control. But there the similarity ended.

Mrs. Carlson and Jennifer had a mutual respect. I believe Mrs. Carlson thought they were very much alike, and Jennifer disagreed but saw no reason to debate the point. The main difference between the two women was that Mrs. Carlson sought power over people – Jennifer always gave something in exchange for getting what she wanted. Mrs. Carlson scared people into doing her bidding – Jennifer charmed them, and appreciated their help. When it came down to it, Jennifer stood with the station against Mrs. Carlson, who constantly wanted to change things in bad ways.

I think because I saw this show as a kid, I got the impression that so-called “bimbos” were actually calculating, intelligent women who used their beauty like a skill – not fools who are too stupid to do anything but please men. In real life, there’s no such thing as a bimbo, but there are women who play the role of “bimbo” to get what they want. Hence my confusion when I realized a whole lot o’ people actually believe there are real live women out there who are nothing but an empty, pretty shell, vapid and easily manipulated to suit men.

I’ve yet to meet one. But I’ve met a few Jennifers – not all are as nice as she was, but all of them are as savvy. In fact, even though I’m more of a Bailey myself, I’ve learned to cop Jennifer’s attitude – “Isn’t it enough that I grace you with my fabulous presence?” – in more than a few situations, and gotten great results. People – men and women – actually enjoy basking in the confidence of a strong woman – don’t let anyone tell you differently.

Comments

  1. Anemone Cerridwen says

    No comments?

    I read Loni Anderson’s bio a while back, and she said that they wanted her for the role, but had written it as a dumb blonde, and she would only take the role if they rewrote it as over-the-top smart and over-the-top sexy, rather than just pretty and dumb. So we owe her thanks for asking for that and the producers and writers for delivering.

  2. says

    Thanks for sharing that, Anemone. With Scarlett O’Hara available as a template for what’s really going on behind a pretty face carefully arranged to appear harmless, you’d think more writers would realize “dumb blonde” is just a facade. I can imagine Loni Anderson had special insight into the phenomenon. (On the S1 DVD commentary, she tells an interesting story of how she never got hit on by people she worked with in her entire career, and when they discussed this on the set of WKRP, she was told “It’s because there’s ‘no’ in your eyes.” You’d think people would just assume based on her looks that she was available to anyone, but it seems clear she put off a vibe that transcended all that.)

    And this post has no comments because when I wrote it, the site had an audience of about 100 people. :D

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