a two-part article written for TV Guide in 1964, best-selling
author of The Feminine Mystique Betty Friedan claimed that
television has represented the American woman as a "stupid, unattractive,
insecure little household drudge who spends her martyred, mindless,
boring days dreaming of love--and plotting nasty revenge against
her husband." Almost thirty years later, Pulitzer Prize winning
journalist Susan Faludi suggested that the practices and programming
of network television in the 1980s were an attempt to get back to
those earlier stereotypes of women, thereby countering the effects
of the women's movement that Friedan's messages had inspired in
the late 1960s and 1970s.
the analyses of Friedan and Faludi are undeniable on many levels,
it is important to remember that television provides less than realistic
stereotypes of men as well (although these stereotypes embody qualities--courage,
stoicism, rationality--that society values) and the images of femininity
justifiably disturbing to Friedan and Faludi are not necessarily
read by female viewers in the ways intended by program producers
and advertisers. Recent scholarship has studied not only female
fan groups that rework television texts in their own writings, but
has also suggested that narratives and images are polyvalent and
dependent on contextual situations for meaning. For example, television
scholar Andrea Press studied women's responses to I Love Lucy,
finding that middle-class women drew strength from Lucy Ricardo's
subversion of her husband's dominance and Lucille Ball's performing
talents, while working-class women tended to find Ball as Lucy Ricardo
funny, but thought the character was silly, unrealistic, and manipulative.
scholarship such as Press's, motivated by an agenda of understanding
cultural products and practices, attempts to understand how audiences
negotiate the meanings of gender and class in their encounters with
television, commercial broadcasting also has a history of research
into audience composition and desires. Of course its agenda is mainly
focused on understanding the audience as consumers, since the economic
basis of commercial broadcasting is selling consumers to advertisers.
As early as the late 1920s, market research suggested to advertisers
the importance of the middle-class female consumer in terms of her
primary role in making decisions regarding family purchases. Early
radio programs included some targeted to the female listener. Advertisers
found success with how-to and self-help programs that could highlight
the use of a food, cosmetic, or cleaning product in their generous
doses of advice patter. By the early 1930s, household product advertisers
successfully underwrote serialized dramas ("soap operas") in the
daytime hours, and their assumptions that women were the primary
listeners during those hours meant that narratives often revolved
around central female characters and that segmentation of story
and commercial must conform to the working woman's activities as
of the popular radio soap operas made the transition to television,
with many new ones created for the medium which would eventually
eclipse radio in audience numbers. As with their radio predecessors,
these shows were programmed for the daytime hours and featured commercials
aimed at the housewife, that "drudge" Friedan described as the stereotype
of the post-war American culture. Daytime hours on television also
included game and talk/advice shows, whose rhetorical strategies
assumed women's capacity as caretaker of the family's economic and
emotional resources. The make-up of daytime programming on the broadcast
networks has stayed remarkably the same over the years, although
soap opera plots seem to take into account the presence of male
viewers (not only making male characters more important, but mixing
action genre ingredients into the narratives). Perhaps even more
significantly as programming strategy, game shows have given way
on the schedule to talk shows.
latter trend began with the tremendous success of Donahue,
which started in 1967 as a local, Dayton call-in talk show aimed
at women. Host Phil Donahue was interested in serving the needs
of the woman at home who was intelligent and politically sophisticated,
but unrecognized by other media. Appearing at a time of considerable
political and gender unrest and change, by 1980 it was carried on
218 stations around the country, delivering the "right numbers"
to advertisers--women aged 18 to 49. Oprah Winfrey also started
locally (in Chicago) and two years later, in 1986, The Oprah
Winfrey Show went national, not only beating Donahue
in the ratings, but also becoming the third-highest rated show in
syndication. Winfrey is now one of the wealthiest working women
in the country, and has her own production company to produce theatrical
and television films, often about African American women. Like Donahue,
Winfrey aims her show at intelligent women at home, but she attempts
more intimacy with her viewers by relating her guests' problems
to her own difficulties with weight, drugs, and sexual abuse. The
success of Donahue and Winfrey led to a glut of talk shows on daytime
television, and the fierce competition among them has resulted in
an exploration (some would say exploitation) of once-unspoken or
repressed experiences of gender and sexuality (transvestitism, homosexuality,
prostitution, incest, adultery, abortion, etc.).
Ironically, primetime television, once considered more "serious"
than daytime programming, has continued to cause controversy in
the 1980s and 1990s when dealing with issues (abortion, homosexuality)
now regularly discussed on daytime talk shows. Primetime television
has been considered by the networks and media critics and historians
as more serious because of the presumedly "adult" dramas, mostly
with male characters as central figures, scheduled during the late,
9:00-11:00 P.M. time slots. Of course, the unspoken here is that
these shows are serious because they appeal to male viewers, who
are stereotyped as more interested in violence, the law, and the
sometimes socially relevant aspects of nightime drama.
primetime dramas of the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s drew on the
"masculine" emphasis of genres successful in other, prior media
forms--novels, films, and radio. The western, the detective/police
thriller, science fiction, and the medical drama featured controlling
male characters, having adventures, braving danger, solving problems
through reason and/or violence. Many critics have pointed to the
goal-oriented nature of these generic forms, as opposed to the more
open-ended, process-orientation of the serialized melodrama assumed
to appeal to the female viewer. Yet the primetime dramas addressing
the male audience have never precluded the development of characters
and community. Some of the primary pleasures of westerns, such as
Gunsmoke and Wagon Train, derived from their emphasis
on community and the "feminine" values of civilization over the
male hero alone in the wilderness. Yet, Wagon Train and two
other long-running westerns, Rawhide and Bonanza,
had no regular female characters. Likewise, medical dramas of the
period, such as Dr. Kildare, Ben Casey, and Marcus
Welby, had rational male doctors diagnosing hysterical female
patients and, as in the western Bonanza or the sci-fi show
Star Trek, whenever a serious relationship developed between
a female character and one of the shows' heros, she would usually
die before the episode concluded.
detective and cop thriller tended to fit most securely within the
action-oriented, goal-driven narrative form assumed to be compatible
with stereotypes of masculine characteristics. From the police procedural
Dragnet to the buddy cop thrillers Starsky and Hutch and
Streets of San Francisco, women were usually criminals or
distractions. In many ways, these were men's worlds.
was born out in the statistics gathered by media researchers: in
1952, 68% of characters in primetime dramas were male; in 1973,
74% of characters in these shows were male. These kinds of numbers,
as well as the qualities of the portrayals of women, spurred the
National Organization for Women (NOW) to action in 1970. NOW formed
a task force to study and change the derogatory stereotypes of women
on television, and in 1972 they challenged the licenses of two network-owned
stations on the basis of their sexist programming and advertising
practices. Although they were unsuccessful in this latter strategy,
NOW and other women's groups provided much needed pressure when
CBS tried to cancel Cagney and Lacey, a "buddy" cop show and the
first primetime drama to star two women. Conceived in 1974 by Barbara
Corday and Barbara Avedon, two women inspired by critic Molly Haskell's
study of women's portrayal in film, Cagney and Lacey was originally
turned down by all three networks, only getting on the air after
eight years. Producer Barney Rosenzweig worked closely with organized
women's groups and female fans to support the show during threats
of cancellation, after CBS fired the first actress to portray Christine
Cagney because she was not considered "feminine enough," and during
periods when the show aired controversial episodes on such topics
as abortion clinic bombings.
the controversy over Cagney and Lacey, by the time it got
on the air, there were already other changes in primetime dramas
that reflected the impact of the women's movement and networks increasing
desire to capture the female market in primetime. Hill Street
Blues, St. Elsewhere, even the detective thriller, Magnum
P.I. with its Vietnam vet hero, had begun to emphasize characters'
emotional developments over action, with the former two programs
adopting the serialized form once more common in the daytime soap
operas (NYPD Blue and Homicide inherit these changes
in the 1990s). Made-for-television movies, scheduled almost every
night of the week during the 1970s and 1980s often featured female
characters in central roles, causing many critics to suggest that
they filled the void of women's pictures now vanished from the theatrical
feature film world. In the mid to late 1980s, shows such as China
Beach (about nurses in Vietnam), Heartbeat (women doctors
at a women's health clinic), L.A. Law (with both male and
female lawyer partners) suggested new trends in primetime drama.
Yet, in 1987, 66% of characters in primetime were still male.
The situation comedy, which filled the early primetime hours from
the early fifties to the present, has tended to be more hospitable
to female characters, at least in terms of numbers. In terms of
their portrayals of women and femininity, situation comedies are
more of a mixed bag. Because most comedy shows focused on the family,
women were mainly seen as wives, mothers, and daughters. Within
that context, the programs might center on the value of the mother's
nurturance and work, as in Mama or The Goldbergs (for
which star Gertrude Berg acted as producer), or marginalize her
in decision making about the family's resources and children, as
in Leave it To Beaver (the mother in The Brady Bunch
of the late 1960s-1970s is heir to June Cleaver in that regard).
Zany wives, who continually acted against their husband's wishes,
were featured in I Love Lucy, I Married Joan, and My Favorite
Husband; while Private Secretary and Our Miss Brooks
represented single working women as only slightly less irrational.
It would be wrong to suggest that these shows ignored gender tensions--some
of the programs were fraught with them. In Father Knows Best,
for example, although father Jim Anderson is the moral center of
the show, his intelligent wife Margaret and ambitious daughter Betty
are confronted in more than one episode with some of the agonies
of the polarized choices (wife and mother or career) women faced
in the 1950s. Likewise, Donna Stone of the The Donna Reed Show
questions the connotations of the media's use of "housewife" in
one episode, and Lucy Ricardo of I Love Lucy is probably
the most ambitious and dissatisfied woman in all of television history.
In the 1960s, restlessness with domesticity appears in shows where
the female characters have to literally use magic to leave their
roles, as in Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, or
in the girlish pretensions of would-be actress Ann Marie in That
Girl. Although critics now point to her idealized feminine looks
and her sometimes subserviant response to boss Mr. Grant, Mary Richards
of The Mary Tyler Moore Show was a refreshing relief from
the frustrated women in sitcoms of the 1950s and 1960s. Coming on
the air the same year NOW organized its task force, this show still
stands out in not compromising Mary's single status, in its development
of her career as a news producer, in its portrayal of a character
basically happy as a non-married, working woman. Her smart and sarcastic
(and slightly more man crazy) friend Rhoda was so popular viewers
that she was starred in a spin-off show. While producer Norman Lear's
All in the Family was more successful in satirizing stereotypes
embodied by male than female characters, other Lear productions,
like Maude and One Day at a Time worked against earlier
portrayals of wives and mothers. These women were married more than
once, raised children, stood up for their rights and beliefs. Maude
even had an abortion in one of the most controversial programs in
sitcoms of the 1980s and 1990s, such as Kate and Allie, Designing
Women, Golden Girls, Roseanne, Murphy Brown, Grace Under Fire,
continue the trend of the 1970s in representing working women, female
friendship free from competition, non-traditional family formations,
etc., television producers during this period seemed fond of creating
family sitcoms that banished mothers. Although in reality a statistically
small number of households involve single fathers, Full House,
My Two Dads, Empty Nest, Blossom, The Nanny, I Married Dora
featured men as both mothers and fathers (who sometimes have a great
housekeeper/nanny). Mom was around in The Cosby Show, but
some suggested too much--the program hardly suggested the reality
of a working attorney mother of five. The show's depiction of Claire
Huxtable as free from the tensions of demanding career vs. motherhood
caused some critics to label her character "post-femininist." At
the opposite end of the spectrum, Murphy Brown and Roseanne
have come under fire for depicting motherhood in too "non-traditional"
I Dream of Jeannie
current broadcast network programming arguably presents a greater
variety of representations of women than in previous decades due
to changes in gender roles in society since the women's movement,
this is as much because the "new woman" is recognized as a consuming
audience member as it is because networks feel a responsibility
to break down cultural stereotypes. Such marketplace driven political
correctness even motivated the creation of Lifetime, a cable network
for women, in 1984. At first relying mostly on acquired programming,
which included many primetime reruns from the broadcast networks,
in the late 1980s the channel began producing original TV movies
and programs appealing to women on the basis of central female characters
and behind-the-camera female personnel, such as director-actress
Diane Keaton directing a TV movie. When NBC cancelled The
Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, a "dramedy" about a wistful
divorced, working woman, Lifetime acquired the reruns and produced
30 original episodes of its own. While this decision did not generate
the ratings hoped for, it was great public relaitons, and put the
channel on the map. Morning hours concentrate on advice shows for
young mothers, and the rest of daytime hours are filled with reruns
of shows with proven appeal to women, such as Cagney and Lacey,
The Tracy Ullman Show, and L.A. Law. While the channel
refuses to identify itself as feminist--it only admits to avoiding
programming that "victimizes" women--its existence does suggest
that women are far from ignored by television.
the greatest gaps in television programming's representation of
women probably reside in sports and news. Broadcast networks rarely
cover women's sports (newer sports cable channels do a little better
if only because they have 24 hours of coverage to fill), and when
they do, media scholars have noted that the sportscasters call female
atheletes by first name and use condescending or paternal adjectives
in describing them. Female TV news journalists have had their own
problems in getting airtime, and are usually submitted to sexist
biases about feminine appearance. Women in television news divisions,
both behind and in front of the camera, organized groups in the
1970s and 1980s to pressure executives to give women in these areas
more power and representation. There were well-publicized sex discrimination
and sexual harassment suits at this time, but change has come slowly.
But CNN, a cable channel needing to fill 24 hours has put more women
on the air (including an all women news show, CNN & Co.),
and the profitability of increasing the number of "newsmagazines"
on the air prompted the broadcast networks to include more female
anchors in the early 1990s. Yet women are only used as "experts"
on news shows about 15% of the time, an issue of representation
as important as their presence as news anchors. Many media critics
look to an increase in the use of women as "experts" as a possible
catalyst for change in all areas of television programming. When
women are seen as authority figures in our culture, their representation
in fiction as well as non-fiction media forms will presumedly change
for the better.
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