“That’s how old I was when I was producing That Girl,” Marlo Thomas tells me when I say I’m 24 years old. And like that, I’m riddled with self-consciousness and doubt. She sits polished in a hip yet age-appropriate (age-defying, really, for 76 ) leather jacket, and hoop earrings. Even her hair is perfectly coiffed. Meanwhile, I sit in my wrinkled, ill-fitting blazer, sweaty from nerves and running to get to this interview on time.
It’s hard not to feel like a large failure next to Thomas, especially when you can barely control the cockroach problem in your apartment and remember to pay your rent on time. I am not starring and producing in my own television show. I live just 45 minutes from my childhood home, so I am hardly the pillar of independence. To this, Thomas says, “That's what Ann Marie did. Her family lived in Brewster, and she lived in the big city.” The comparison to her famous television character sets me off in a completely unprofessional fit of giggles, but she smiles again and says “You’re doing it. You’re doing great. You are.”
This is not the response I expected. Before Thomas got to the swank restaurant by Rockefeller Center, I sat wondering if I was more anxious about meeting the feminist pioneer because she created my childhood favorite Free to Be...You and Me or because she had given life to the iconic That Girl, whose charm and cheer I not-so-secretly aspired to emulate. Or because, well, it was freaking Marlo Thomas, a major voice in Women's Lib who marched with Gloria Steinem and managed to have multiple careers as an actress, producer, writer, and activist over nearly five decades.
“One of the most important things women need to think is that they are their own resources,” she tells me in her matter-of-fact voice. She brings her own tea bags in a neat Ziploc bag, and I am mildly awed at her preparedness and chutzpah. “You're not going to be rescued by someone else. It ain’t going to happen.” She's explaining why she felt it was important to show women stories of successful self-reliance in later years in her new book It Ain't Over... Till It's Over: Reinventing Your Life—and Realizing Your Dreams—Anytime, at Any Age, a collection of stories about women who rebooted their lives in their 40s, 50s, and 60s.
Though she's speaking about women decades older than I am, it feels like Thomas is speaking to me and every other twentysomething woman who has wondered if finding the right guy would somehow solve the other problems in our lives. “The prince is not going to come along with a glass slipper,” Thomas says. “You really have to do it yourself.”
In fact, as I read It Ain’t Over I find myself relating to the women in their 40s, 50s, and 60s struggling to figure out how to start a second or third chapter in their professional, romantic, and spiritual lives. I’m actually struggling to carve out my first. My own anxiety about the future and that secret desire to be rescued—if not by a man, then just by something—is always present. Thomas doesn’t let women indulge in these feelings. “You have to do it yourself. Figure out yourself what you want and find a way to get it.”
This pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality may seem to stand in contrast to Thomas’s sugary sweet persona as Ann Marie in the light-as-air That Girl. A young, beautiful actress with a doctor boyfriend-later-fiancé and doting father, Ann Marie doesn’t just seem tame by today’s standards; she seems old-fashioned as the prototypical good girl.
Yet, it is often forgotten how radical That Girl was for the television landscape when it premiered in 1966. The dominating television shows with women starring on them were Bewitched—about a witch trying her hardest to be a traditional homemaker for her husband and children—and I Dream of Jeannie—about an attractive genie devoted to serving the astronaut she calls “master” (and later marries). Ann Marie may not have been burning her bras or enjoying free love, but being a single woman with no desire to marry was enough to keep Thomas, an executive producer of That Girl, battling with ABC executives.
“They were concerned,” she says. “How would America feel about a young woman saying ‘I want to think about my career, and I don't want to get married.’ That was very controversial. They felt America was uncomfortable with a girl who didn't live in a family unit. Family unit was the word,” Thomas remembers. She cites other popular television series starring men to point out how different the standards were for female characters. “I said, ‘David Janssen doesn’t even have a city in The Fugitive. Why do I have to have a family unit?’”
Just as Thomas preaches today, when she wrapped That Girl in 1971 she was determined that Ann Marie remain solidly single to show women all over America that they didn’t need to live happily ever after with Prince Charming to be happy with themselves. Thomas butted heads with higher-ups who wanted the series finale to be Ann Marie marrying her fiancé, Donald. “I couldn’t do it. I really couldn’t,” she says. “I felt that it would be such a betrayal to all the girls who loved Ann Marie and looked up to her. To get married at the end of the show meant that I was saying it was the only happy ending. Every show ends that way. There’s got to be one show that doesn’t end with a wedding. One show that says ‘Well, we'll see.’”
Unfortunately, that relationship-ambiguous ending is still almost as rare today for modern female protagonists as it was when That Girl ended in 1971. In the series finale of Sex and the City, Carrie Bradshaw, the ultimate sexually liberated, confident single woman only found her real happy ending when Mr. Big flew to Paris and whisked her back home in his arms. Sex and the City said being single wasn’t good enough for its beloved heroine, and in doing so, suggested it wasn’t sufficient for its ardent female fans, either. “That show was a lot about having a boyfriend, Mr. Big coming in and going out,” says Thomas. In contrast to that finale, That Girl ends with Ann Marie taking her fiancé to a Women's Lib meeting. Boo-yah.
But Thomas has compliments for the new girls on television. “There are so many girls now!” she laughs. Of all of those shows, “New Girl is probably more on the That Girl wave.” Indeed, compared to the acerbic humor of 2 Broke Girls, New Girl's more traditional sitcom style and its protagonist Jess’s sweet nature and innocence makes the show far closer to the spirit of That Girl.
I pause and hesitate to ask Thomas for her thoughts on Lena Dunham’s Girls, not only because That Girl's creator Bill Persky soundly denounced the series last year, but because I see more of myself in the sloppy, confused Hannah Horvath than the neatly organized Ann Marie. Persky slammed Girls for showing young women who dealt with their problems by “diving into a quart of Haagen-Dazs” or “sleeping with the pizza delivery guy.” To hear Thomas similarly rebuke Girls would feel like a personal criticism on my own shortcomings.
Thomas, however, reveals she is actually far more understanding in her appraisal of Girls. “I think it’s brave,” she says. “That is how some people feel. You know, not everyone feels like That Girl.” It’s admirable that she doesn’t admonish a show that abandons the role model protagonist template of That Girl, something so close to her heart and her success. Instead, she recognizes what a show like Girls can offer women: empathetic examples of messy lives that they can relate to or, to be honest, make them feel better about their own existence.Kind and encouraging as her words are, it’s hard to imagine Thomas has actually ever resorted to drowning her feelings in illicit behavior like Hannah Horvath (or other women who shall not be named). But, when she hugs me goodbye and waltzes out of the restaurant, and as I triple-check that I haven’t accidentally deleted the recording of our interview, I feel a little better about my scattered life. Maybe not good enough to fly a kite with my face on it through Central Park, but better.