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

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.

“My opinions often conflict with the views on the show, but I keep it to myself,” Cheng said. “My job here is, whatever the story is, to back it up with sets.” For example, most of the Asian women portrayed on “Tour of Duty” are prostitutes. “I make them wear short dresses, big breasts, because that’s what the audience wants to see,” Cheng said. “But that’s not correct from the time period. Women were fighters, they were revolutionaries.

“I’m vegetarian,” she went on, “but I love to design for horror movies. Kidneys, brains, blood--that’s art. The morality of it--that’s my personal life.”

On the other hand, “China Beach’s” high-rolling, leather- and turquoise-clad supervising producer, Georgia Jeffries, believes she can improve society by changing the way television presents people and issues.

“A lot of what I do in my writing is to try to break the confining issues around women,” she said. “I’m a writer who can never separate the fact that she’s a woman from her work, and yet one who absolutely abhors labels that define me as a woman.”

Jeffries came of age when jobs in TV’s creative ranks had barely begun to be opened to women. After earning a degree in history from the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1972, she took a position as a promotional copywriter at KPIX-TV in San Francisco.

“I was working for three men, all of whom looked at me as this young, 21-year-old kid who should be thanking my lucky stars to have this job, even if I did have to type their expense reports,” Jeffries said. “The head of the department told me, ‘I know you want to be creative. Do you know what my wife does with that urge? She makes beautiful ties.’ ”

Today, Jeffries presides over a plush corner office in the Warner Bros. producers building where “China Beach” is headquartered. The only tie in view is the enormous turquoise bolo around her neck, but the room does have its own basketball hoop and a pair of matching couches.


With three years as a producer for “Cagney & Lacey” behind her and about 10 years as a free-lance journalist behind that, Jeffries projects the image of a woman who knows just what she wants to do and how to get it. She is actually capable of presenting a picture of businesslike efficiency while wearing boots, black leather pants and that jacket.

The clothing, she said, was that day’s version of what she called her “uniform.” It was clothing designed to present her image, she explained, and as such was little different from the uniforms worn by her women characters in “China Beach” and, earlier, in the police show “Cagney & Lacey.”

“I don’t think that writing about women in war is any different, because we’re all in uniform,” Jeffries said. “We all live in a man’s world and have had to learn the ropes.”

Learning the ropes for these women has meant everything from cultivating an effective image--Cheng cut her long hair after co-workers on “Tour of Duty” teased her about being too feminine for the job--to finding some way to learn the tools of the trade.

Mimi Leder, a producer and director on “China Beach,” spent six years as a script supervisor before she got a shot at producing an episode of “L.A. Law,” even though she had a degree in directing and a lifetime of exposure to the craft through her father, director Paul Leder.

More difficult than learning, Leder said, was proving that she knew something.

Leder saw two men move from script supervisor to director during a stint at “Hill Street Blues,” she said, but she never got a shot herself. In the end, she spent her own money to make and direct a short film.

“I had to go out and make a film, and the guys who got hired on ‘Hill Street Blues’ didn’t have to go out and do that,” Leder said. “I don’t think I was taken seriously until I went out and made a film.”

For “Tour of Duty’s” Mendelsohn, learning the ropes has also meant knowing when to leave a job as much as knowing how to get one. “Women writers more often have to move out to move up,” Mendelsohn explained. “The old boys’ network is still for men.”

Dark-haired and vibrant, Mendelsohn is one of the few women who write action-adventure programs. The interest comes from childhood days when she “watched television 54 hours a week” and made up scripts for “The Big Valley” and “The Virginian.”

Once, she attended a Writers Guild seminar on why women weren’t better represented in action-adventure, only to discover that most women had never even submitted scripts in the genre.

“There aren’t a lot of women in it because I don’t think a lot of women want to be in it,” said action-adventure producer Babs Greyhosky, who conducted that seminar. “I asked the women in the audience who had submitted scripts, and there were no hands,” said Greyhosky, a 34-year-old native Texan whose credits include “Riptide,” “Magnum, P.I.” and “The A-Team.” “I could hear some of the women in the audience kind of scoffing because I was not championing their cause.”

Similarly, “China Beach” executive producer John Sacret Young said that he tried to make half of his directing staff female, but could not find enough women directors. Instead, about 30% of his directors are women.

“China Beach” does have four women among its six staff writers, but that’s partly because Young brought women up through the ranks. Carol Flint, a silver-haired former playwright, started as a UC Davis student intern on the show. She was promoted to executive story editor and staff writer at the end of her internship.

But Young acknowledges that it was not simply altruism that prompted him to hire so many women. “The show is about women,” he said. “I needed a woman’s voice.”

And there are limits to the successes that can be achieved through affirmative action alone. Sometimes producers think that once they’ve got one female or minority employee, that’s enough.

“I went to an interview on another show, and I didn’t get hired,” said “China Beach” writer and executive script consultant Lydia Woodward. “I heard afterward that I didn’t get hired because they’d already hired ‘the woman writer.’ ”

Woodward, lanky and tall in black cowboy boots and a black skirt, acknowledges that her first break--on the NBC series “St. Elsewhere"--was the result of network pressure, but said she would prefer to be hired and promoted on the basis of talent, not sex.

“I wouldn’t be happy if I ever thought I didn’t get a job because I was a woman and if I did get a job because I was a woman,” Woodward said.

And while affirmative-action programs may help women and minorities to get started, they do not necessarily ensure promotion.

Indeed, the women of “China Beach” and “Tour of Duty” share another experience with women throughout the business: When it comes down to it, they still are hired and fired by men. The executive producers on both shows are men.

While a number of programs do have women as executive producers, few women have risen to top network programming jobs. Currently, no woman holds a position above vice president at the network level. At CBS, Barbara Corday held the position of executive vice president for prime time programming, but she was forced out of that job in January and left the network. At NBC, senior vice president for corporate communications Betty Hudson is the highest-ranking female.

“There is still a huge glass ceiling up there,” said writer Greyhosky. “It still comes down to a whole bunch of men getting in a room and talking about what shows they think people want to watch.”

“China Beach’s” Jeffries believes that will change. Why? Because, she says, people like her are putting stories about women in leadership positions on television.

“It’s very much hand in glove,” Jeffries said. “The more the image of women changes in the media, the more the attitudes will change and the doors will open.”