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Gracie Allen: The Burns and Allen Show and Gracie’s Independence as Rebellion

Gracie Allen, Mary Tyler Moore, and Amy Poehler, while still central in their shows’ production, did not create the characters they portrayed. Gracie Allen’s character in The Burns and Allen Show (1929-1958) was not her creation, but was written by her husband, George Burns, who routinely credited Allen with the success of the program.[1] Allen was certainly the star of the program, but Burns did most of the writing and scripted Gracie as the “Dumb Dora” when he realized she was getting a lot more laughs than he ever could.

 

Though Allen played a character much more domestic than herself on the program, she was still relatively independent. The audience knew that Allen and Burns were married in real life, but their relationship on the radio program was somewhat unclear. Allen often flirted with visiting male characters and made George jealous; she never submitted to his wishes and was rather independent. She even ran for President in 1940, garnering thousands of write-in votes from American citizens.[2] Interestingly, when The Burns and Allen Program transitioned to television in 1950, Gracie became more domesticated, clearly married to George and rarely leaving the home. Susan Douglas argues that Gracie “delighted in violating the boundaries of femininity” and her rebellion expressed “the deep anxieties over who would wear the pants in postwar America.” By the late 1950s, she argues, strong female leads like these had disappeared and been replaced by “cookie-cutter moms” without much personality. Douglas calls this phenomenon “postwar schizophrenia,” and it can be seen in Gracie’s own evolution from independent radio star to more domesticated television housewife.[3] Still, though more domestic than the real Gracie Allen, the character of Gracie was rather independent; she always rebelled against George’s logic and never submitted to his will.

 

Douglas’s postwar schizophrenia defined most television of the Cold War, but by the 1960’s a new era of American life began to define television. The Women’s Liberation movement explicitly addressed gender inequality in American culture, and independent feminist characters finally made it to television. Feminism is, of course, an issue dealt with, sometimes subtly and sometimes head-on, by all these female-lead sitcoms. In particular Mary Richards – played by Mary Tyler Moore in The Mary Tyler Moore Show – and Leslie Knope – played by Amy Poehler in Parks and Recreation – are feminist icons. While similar leading independent women were portrayed in television dramas, serious working women in comedy shows are still rare.


[1] George Burns, Gracie, A Love Story (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1988), 1.

[2] William Carroll, Gracie for President 1940: Vote with the Surprise Party (San Marcos, CA: Coda Publications, 2000), 14.

[3] Douglas, Where the Girls Are, 50-51.

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