The Feminism of That Girl and Marlo Thomas: A Brief History Lesson

Growing up I spent my weekends at home with my mother who would reminisce the days of her childhood by marathoning episodes of the 1960s TV show, That Girl on our DVD player.  Little did I really know, was that one of my mother’s favorite childhood shows had changed the future of TV forever, and all the shows I watched when I was a kid would have never been the same without “That Girl.”

That Girl‘s main character, Ann Marie, played by Ms. Thomas, is an aspiring actress in New York City who tries to maintain a number of odd jobs to support herself. The series begins with her leaving the home of her parents in Brewster, New York to move to the city in the hopes of becoming a 
Broadway star. The overbearing and protective character of her parents, especially her father, Lew Marie, is one of the points of humor the show focuses on. “Miss Independent,” was the nickname given to Ann by her father from when she decides to move out and make a life for herself independently in the ‘Big Apple’.

The name, ‘Miss Independent,’ was Marlo Thomas’s original pitch for the show’s title, but had later ended up becoming a major tagline for the branding of the show and for Miss Thomas herself.

Her character, Ann Marie, moves to New York as a single woman, but later meets her boyfriend, Donald Hollinger, a journalist for ‘NewsView’ Magazine. Don Hollinger, played by Ted Bessell, acted alongside Thomas as the co-star of the series. Ann’s beloved boyfriend, Donald, had also served many sources for the show’s humor, such as the male character interactions between Donald and her father, Lew Marie, played by Lew Parker.

Airing from 1966-1971 on ABC, the years in which That Girl was being broadcast on TV had also been the exact same time for America’s ‘Women’s Liberation Movement.’

The decision for Thomas to create and air this television series was no coincidence. Thomas set out to specifically preserve the authenticity and integrity of depicting the life of a real, working, single, woman of the time.

Thomas’s production debut shattered all prior television portrayals of women, by showing an unmarried women living on her own and working to support herself.

The only other show prior to That Girl with a female lead and producer was Lucille Ball’s I Love Lucy. While I Love Lucy was groundbreaking in the 1950s for women in the entertainment industry, the elements of the sitcom still played on the domestic home dynamics of the decade. Said by Marlo to The Los Angeles Times in a feature on the premiere of That Girl in 1966, titled “Danny’s Daughter Marlo Thomas: On Her Own Now,” she explains that the show is not just about starring a girl; “I guess one of the things we’re trying to prove with That Girl is that it isn’t a disgrace to move from home. Our series is not a story about a New York actress but about this girl trying to make good on her own.”

Marlo not only attempted to depict an accurate portrayal of women, but also worked toward hiring women to take on the production roles for her show.

Despite the first season of the show having a team of all male producers and writers, Thomas took over the following season of That Girl and willingly searched for female writers to be a part of her staff.  She commented that she had actually downplayed her power at the time; “so as to not be too threatening (…) Power in a woman in the 60’s was seen as intimidating, and I bought into that. I was concerned that I wouldn’t attract the best and brightest men in comedy to work for me.”

Prior to her acclaimed role as her character, ‘Ann Marie,’ on the 1966 television show, Marlo was raised in Hollywood by her parents of Lebanese and Italian descent. Her father, Danny Thomas, had been a very successful comedic actor and producer in the entertainment business at the time she was growing up in Los Angeles.

Marlo’s book Growing Up Laughing, published in 2010, discusses her childhood with her father’s career and being constantly surrounded by the big entertainment figures from comedy TV sitcoms in her household. Thomas’s childhood was certainly an influence for her future career, as her comedic roots in television motivated her to enter into the business as an actress on a sitcom.

Thomas faced much controversy from the public and the press regarding her career and the influence of her father’s legacy in the industry.  Marlo was criticized by many for her powerful role she had during the production of That Girl, and she was often accused of being a product of nepotism in the industry.

Ms. Thomas addressed these comments and called nepotism an “unnecessary evil” and claims to have never originally intended on working for her father.  Reactions and criticism from the public on Marlo Thomas’s success is only reflective of society’s thoughts on women’s success of the time. It was thought that the success of her father, a man, had been the only reason for Ms. Thomas’s career rather than her own talent and ideas.

Rather than choosing a career path out of nepotism, Marlo Thomas’s creation of That Girl had been her own purposeful creation.  And behind the scenes of That Girl, Marlo Thomas still utilized all of her power of running her own television series and production company to its fullest potential in order to spread her message and deconstruct American society’s gender roles and prejudices towards women.

Thomas claims she was “born a feminist,” and was greatly inspired after reading the 1963 best-selling book by Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique. She even lent her copy of 
Friedan’s book to Ed Scherick, who had been the head of ABC programming, in an effort to have his permission to create the pilot of That Girl; as a result, Thomas successfully convinced Scherick after he read her copy of The Feminine Mystique.

Friedan’s book was a catalyst for millions of women entering into America’s second wave of feminism. The Feminine Mystique’s aim was at breaking down the role of women in American society and how they had gotten to their place in the 1960s, by examining history from the wartime era 1940s, and then to the rising domesticity in the 50s.

Friedan thoroughly discusses the autonomy of the 1950s era housewife and highlights examples of how this image was being perpetuated throughout American society, “In the television commercials the pretty housewives still beamed over foaming dishpans and Time’s cover story on ‘The Suburban Wife, an American Phenomenon’ protested: ‘Having too good a time…to believe they should be unhappy.’”

The influence that Friedan had on women of the 60s was substantial; and its effect was emphasized even greater once Marlo Thomas became influenced by Friedan’s writings and went after changing the image of American women through media with all the resources she had in the entertainment industry.

During the time of Women’s Liberation, the feminist movement against bras occurred after a protest at the 1968 Miss America Pageant. A symbolic tossing of bras and other ‘feminine’ items (makeup, household items..etc.) took place by hundreds of protesters at the pageant. Marlo supported this cause as a public figure and represented her stance on That Girl. She remarked, “God created women to bounce, so be it.”And appearing as Ann on television, she stopped wearing a bra in character.

Every character on That Girl had a purpose toward revealing an authentic depiction of the free-spirited, unmarried, working, American woman that was Ann Marie.

“I could see very clearly that I didn’t want to be the wife of somebody, or the secretary of somebody, or the daughter of somebody. I wanted to carry the story as opposed to just being an appendage of the story, which is what women were on television” says Marlo on creating Ann’s character.

The character of Donald Hollinger, Ann’s boyfriend, is debatably an interesting motif that reflects topics in the 1960s-70s societal gender norms and sexuality.

Thomas admittedly explains that Donald’s purpose was to act as a foil for Ann Marie’s character. And the qualities that Donald’s character revealed would most often be Ann’s independence and authority over herself from her boyfriend, as well as father, by often neglecting the advice and direction they would give her.

Interpreting their relationship on camera during the 1960s was still a challenge, since most instances of 
sexuality were still very censored and unacceptable to show on television.

Most episodes ended with Donald saying good-bye to Ann at the end of the night and leaving her apartment, as to not imply any sexual relations.

Although the inclusion of the boyfriend and leading male figures is debatable in terms of ‘feminism.’  Later on leading-female series (beginning in the 1970s), such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, focus more heavily on female friendships with the absence of any long-term male relationships.

For the time That Girl was being aired, the presence of Donald’s character as Anne’s boyfriend was extremely unusual.  Since the premise of Anne’s character, was an unmarried and independent woman being portrayed on television.

Despite Thomas’s control over her own production, social obstacles were still a major source of pressure on her career and the television series.

The show’s outside sponsor, Clairol, and the television network, ABC, insisted on ending the series in 1971 with the marriage of Ann Marie to her boyfriend, Donald Hollinger.

Thomas adamantly refused for the finale of the show to end with a wedding. While she accepted the idea of an engagement (owing only to the possibility of breaking off the engagement), Thomas fought to end the show without a wedding finale.

The idea of Ann getting married was a disgrace to the character she created. She called this idea a betrayal to all of the women who follow the show and a dangerous idea to disseminate; “If we get married in the last show, what we’re saying is that’s the only happy ending there is [for women].”

Network executives urged her to end the show with a wedding for better ratings, however Thomas succeeded in avoiding the wedding episode; and had opted instead for the engagement of Donald and Ann.  With the final scene of the series showing Ann and Donald on their way to a ‘Women’s Liberation’ meeting as an ode to the true message that the series was meant to have for women.

After That Girl’s five-year runtime ended in 1971, Marlo Thomas still continued to be active in the industry and took up a career in activism.

Thomas added to her repertoire of contributions in feminist media with her Free To Be…You and Me children’s books and record album in the 1970s. Ms. Thomas also holds many honorable awards for her wide-range of activism, recently being awarded by President Obama for her work with St. Jude’s Hospital for Children (which was also started by the Thomas Family).

In spite of all the opposing obstacles that Marlo Thomas faced when producing her first series in the 1960s, Thomas broke through all existing societal boundaries against women with her celebrated role as Ann Marie and her own production of That Girl.

Marlo Thomas’s feminist influence on television revolutionized American media to its present form and paved way for the future of all female show-runners and female representation in media.


Gary Brumburgh, “Marlo Thomas,” Internet Movie Database, Apr. 6. 2015 (http://www.imdb.- com/name/nm0005486/bio).

“Nepotism an Unnecessary Evil for Marlo Thomas,” The Chicago Tribune, March 19, 1961, Part VIII.

Hal Humphrey, “Marlo Thomas–that girl goes it alone,” The Los Angeles Times, Sep. 25, 1966.

Marlo Thomas, “Marlo Thomas: First Single Working Woman on Televison,” PBS: Makers video, Feb. 26. 2013 (http://www.makers.com/marlo-thomas).

“She Made It: Marlo Thomas” The Paley Center for Media, Apr. 6. 2015 (http://www.shemadeit.org/meet/biography.aspx?m=57).

Yael Kohen, We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy (Sarah Crichton Books, 2012), 59.

Betty Friedan, “Reawakening: The Feminine Mystique: The Problem That Has No Name,” in Feminism In Our Time: The Essential Writings, World War II to the Present, ed. Miriam Schneir (New York: Vintage Books, 1994).

Teresa Riordan, “Patents, In bra technology, an incremental improvement can translate into comfort,” The New York Times, Oct. 28. 2002.

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