Feminist Television Criticism: A Reader

by Charlotte Brunsdon, Julie P. D'Acci, Lynn P. Spigel; Oxford University Press, 1997

Crime shows such as the US-produced Cagney and Lacey and Britain's Prime Suspect feature action heroines in detective roles (and these genres are also widely available on the export market). Indeed, much of the current entertainment output of television features strong women, single mothers, and female friends and lovers--that is, female types who are integral to feminist critique and culture.

In these studies, it is assumed, for example, that Cagney and Lacey needs to be understood within the more general framework of media portrayals of feminism and the networks' institutionalization of it; or that the black sitcom Julia needs to be understood within the broader field of debates about black single mothers and the politics of civil rights in the 1960s.

Ang considers the appeal of the tougher Christine Cagney (from Cagney and Lacey). She suggests that the often tearfully identification women feel with these characters testifies to the complexity of the task of 'being a woman', while also pointing out that not all, and not only , women like melodrama. She begins to develop the point into an argument that identification is less stereotypically gender-divided than much feminist criticism assumes, an argument she expands in work later than that reproduced here.

CONTEMPORARY POPULAR TELEVISION fiction offers an array of strong and independent female heroines, who seem to defy--not without conflicts and contradictions, to be sure--stereotypical definitions of femininity. Heroines such as Maddie Hayes ( Moonlighting ) and Christine Cagney ( Cagney and Lacey ) do not fit into the traditional ways in which female characters have generally been represented in prime-time television fiction: passive and powerless on the one hand, and sexual objects for men on the other.

Christine Cagney, especially, and her partner Mary-Beth Lacey, are the kind of heroines who have mobilized approval from feminists. Cagney and Lacey can be called a 'socialist realist' series, in which the personal and professional dilemmas of modern working women are dealt with in a serious and 'realistic' way. Cagney explicitly resists sexual objectification by her male colleagues, forcefully challenges the male hierarchy at work, and entertains an adult, respectful, and caring friendship with her 'buddy' Lacey.

Many women enjoy watching series such as Cagney and Lacey and Moonlighting , and it is likely that at least part of their pleasure is related to the 'positive' representations of women that both series offer. But this does not mean that other, more traditional television fictions are less pleasurable for large numbers of women. On the contrary, as is well known, soap operas have traditionally been the female television genre, while prime-time soaps such as Dallas and Dynasty have always had a significantly larger female audience than a male one.

Christine Cagney, too, shares more with Sue Ellen than we might expect. Of course, the manifest dramatic content of Cagney and Lacey is more in line with feminist ideals and concerns, and as such the Cagney and Lacey characters can provide an outlet for identification with fantasies of liberation for women viewers.

Despite the fact that Christine Cagney is an independent career woman who knows where she stands, she too must at times face the unsolvable dilemmas inherent in the lives of modern women: how to combine love and work; how to compete with the boys; how to deal with growing older... Often enough, she encounters frustration and displays a kind of cynical bitchiness not unlike Sue Ellen's. I would argue that some of the most moving moments of Cagney and Lacey are those in which Cagney gives in to the sense of powerlessness so characteristic of the melodramatic heroine.

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