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The Women of TV's Vietnam : Females on front lines of 'Tour of Duty' and 'China Beach' wage battle against male-dominated network TV

February 18, 1990|SHARON BERNSTEIN

It's hard to imagine that the grunt's-eye view of Vietnam presented by CBS' drama "Tour of Duty" and the introspective, tormented Vietnam of ABC's "China Beach" weren't drawn by men.

After all, war is a man's story, an age-old, coming-of-age ritual for men.

But behind the scenes of both series--living and working, as their characters do, in a predominantly male world--are a host of female players. They are producers, directors, writers, art directors and casting chiefs. And their personal stories--filled as they are with battles lost and won, of wounds inflicted, sustained or avoided--together provide a nearly perfect snapshot of how women work behind the scenes in network television.

To a degree, that these women would be involved in war programs at all is indicative of the progress that has been made in overcoming stereotypes about the kinds of shows with which women could be involved--particularly as writers. With the success of programs such as "Hill Street Blues" and "Cagney & Lacey," the networks have come to believe that audiences are responding more to programs about human relationships and social issues than pure action and strategy. And women, so the common wisdom goes, are as capable as men of writing about relationships--even in a war setting.

"I come at my stories from the emotional end--then I fit my action in," said Carol Mendelsohn, a writer and co-producer on "Tour of Duty." "I don't really care about guns. I don't care about the military moves per se, and I don't care to write 47 minutes of action."

In truth, the move to hire women came from more than just creative concerns. A number of the women on the two war shows owe their start to affirmative action, plain and simple. "There was pressure from the networks to have a woman's voice," acknowledged Mendelsohn, who gave up a career as a Washington lawyer to come to Hollywood and write television scripts.

Last year, the Writers Guild of America, West, released a study showing that only 20% of the writers in television were women--and most of them were concentrated in daytime and children's programming. The study showed that eight prime-time programs--including "Murder, She Wrote," a program about a woman--had no female staff writers during the 1986-87 season. ("Murder, She Wrote" has no women staff writers this season, either, although it did have one last year.)

Jeffrey Wallace, the guild's human resources director, said that during the period covered by the study, salaries actually dropped for women in television. While women had been earning 73 cents to every dollar earned by a man in 1986, a year later they were earning only 63 cents. "I think this will be a problem for at least a decade to come," Wallace said.

Still, despite concerns about pay equity and numbers, the eight female writers and creative executives on "China Beach" and "Tour of Duty"--like the women in their war stories--have seen their ranks increase and their roles become more complex.

The oldest of the eight, "Tour of Duty" casting director Barbara Claman, got into television through sheer tenacity and by adopting the no-nonsense veneer that characterizes many women of her generation in business. By going into casting, she entered a part of the entertainment industry that has traditionally been more open than others to women.

Claman, a brisk, businesslike woman who refuses to give her age except to say she's old enough to be a grandmother, has been in the business long enough to remember the lengths to which some women had to go in the old days to get attention. She recalled an old friend in the business, a writer and producer based in New York during television's early days: "She would go to (writers') union meetings in a black push-up bra, and whenever she had a point to make, she would bend over," Claman said.

Then a pause. "It worked."

The youngest woman on the two shows--28-year-old Toni Graphia of "China Beach"--went from opening fan mail to selling scripts in just a few years under a Writers Guild apprenticeship program.

In the generation between is the 44-year-old art director for "Tour of Duty," Mayling Cheng, who is married to the show's executive producer, Zev Braun, and has worked on a number of other projects with him.

A native of Chongqing, China, Cheng has designed a Saigon for "Tour of Duty" that is complete down to the cigarette butts in the ashtrays of the Garden of Eden Cafe. Under her direction, production workers have built two villages, a base camp and four indoor sets.

"When I first started here, I had trouble with my male crew," said Cheng, peering over tiger-print half glasses and from under the brim of a black cap. "They don't like somebody who only weighs 110 pounds and is 5-feet-5 to tell them what to do. But once they trust you, they'll bend over backwards for you."

Cheng is not one to try to change the world through television.

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