'Women' pushes a few too many emotional buttons

June 07, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

After some 200 years of women being prisoners to men's notions of beauty, do you know who freed them?

Jane Fonda. And she did it with her workout videos.

That's one of the suggestions of "A Century of Women" -- the three-night, six-hour special narrated by Fonda, which starts tonight at 8:05 on TBS, the cable channel owned by Fonda's husband, Ted Turner.

"A Century of Women" is an ambitious and often powerful production, with a virtual who's who lineup of talent talking about the struggles and accomplishments of women in the 20th century.

But history it isn't.

The Turner press release says "Century" is a "landmark television event that tells the story of women in the 20th century."

It isn't that, either.

What it is, ultimately, is a grab bag of mini-biographies of 20th-century women, whom the producers deem representative, loosely grouped around a series of themes. The themes for tonight's two-hour Act 1 are work and family. Tomorrow night, Act 2 takes up sexuality and social justice. The production concludes Thursday night with Act 3's look at image and popular culture.

That's the nonfiction part of "Century." In terms of overall style, like most nonfiction TV these days, the producers want it to look and feel like Ken Burns' "The Civil War."

But each two-hour segment also has a fictional component -- a make-believe story line that pops up now and then featuring actresses playing several generations of women in a family. The family members spend a weekend together talking about -- it just so happens -- the themes explored in the documentary portions. Justine Bateman, Olympia Dukakis, Jasmine Guy, Talia Shire, Madge Sinclair, Brooke Smith and Teresa Wright are the family members.

"Century" is not quite as hodgepodge as all of this might sound. But this is not a production that's going to be celebrated for clarity, focus or perspective. What "Century" does have is bursts of intense emotion -- moments where the narrative gives a real sense of a woman's aspirations colliding with prejudice and either going down in flames or lighting up the sky in triumph. One makes you mad; the other makes you glad. This is six hours of such emotional button-pushing.

You'll be angry when Fonda tells you how Jo Carol Lafleur, a high school teacher in Cleveland, was forced by her school board to leave the classroom in 1971 because she was pregnant. You'll the vindication when Lafleur talks about how the courts allowed her to return.

You'll be shocked and, maybe, outraged when you hear how Alice Paul was locked in a psychiatric ward because she tried to obtain the right to vote for women. But it only sets you up for the triumph of her release and the passage of the 19th Amendment. The story is made all the more dramatic by Jodie Foster supplying Paul's voice in readings from Paul's diaries.

Other strong moments come during the mini-biographies of labor organizer Pauline Newman, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Margaret Sanger, who fought for reproductive rights. But in the end what you are left with is a bunch of feelings that are impossible to make sense of.

Part of it is the producers seeming inability to see that there's a huge difference between Eleanor Roosevelt's place in history and Fonda's contribution to gender equality with her workout videos.

I am moved when I hear civil rights worker Dorothy Zellner say: "There's a famous picture of me without my shoes. They had turned the water hoses on us at a demonstration and I'm sitting on the curb without my shoes -- I had lost them in the water -- and I'm holding my head. To this day, 33 years later, I can feel the policeman hitting me when I was down. You really do see stars."

But, I'm sorry, it leaves me flat when I am shown pictures of Fonda leading a class in aerobics and am told by Fonda, the narrator, that "Women have experienced a workout revolution. Women have discovered that power can be beautiful."

Actually, it leaves me more than flat. It makes me wonder about the producers, the man paying them and the woman narrating the film. It makes me wonder -- using the word "revolution" in connection with an aerobics video -- what they really know about the struggle women have gone through in this century.

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