Meanings of the Medium: Perspectives on the Art of Television
by Katherine Usher Henderson, Joseph Anthony Mazzeo; Praeger Publishers, 1990
The obvious case of an explicitly liberal feminist television series is Cagney and Lacey. Conceived as a result of the second wave of the American women's movement in 1974 and written by feminists Barbara Avedon and Barbara Corday, the program was not aired until 1982. Its opening course was rocky, with ratings wavering though the critics were enthusiastic. After remodeling the characters to seem less lesbian and after glamorizing Christine Cagney, the series settled into a steady run, tackling a wide range of controversial issues from job discrimination to abortion.
Cagney and Lacey attempted to balance male dominance on prime time action programming with a show of interest to women, and it defied earlier conventions for presenting women on television. The popular action series of the 1970s, Charlie's Angels, featured strong, beautiful women who operated safely under remote male control. In contrast, the female stars of Cagney and Lacey have all the advantages of their male counterparts on other police shows. The women are well-developed and autonomous actors who succeed as a team of complementary buddies.
Given the network's fear of implying a lesbian relationship between the two women, their heterosexual ties are manifest. Mary Beth Lacey (Tyne Daly) has a supportive, ordinary-looking husband and three children -- two teenaged sons and an infant daughter born during the series. Although her family sometimes produce conflicts like those on situation comedies, conflicts between a politically conservative son and his liberal parents, for example, these issues are rarely central to the program. The series portrays the single Cagney ( Sharon Gless) as a woman with a deep need for autonomy. Her romantic relationships with men break off, and she is curing herself of dependencies -- most obviously on alcohol, but also on her devotion to her alcoholic police officer father, now deceased, and to the coercive bonhomie of the men at the station house.
A program on date rape, in which Cagney herself, not a guest star, was the victim, highlights the single woman's desires for a fulfilling heterosexual relationship in a society where men may be dangerous to women. Through such controversial topics, the liberal show hopes to attract ratings while educating its viewers. The film Broadcast News, in contrast, played the handsome anchorman's lachrymose television special on date rape as the sign of his moral triviality. As an issue, date rape spotlights our society's ambivalence about sexuality. It apparently validates the conservative view that all extramarital sex is dangerous and that women should keep to traditional roles. It is often considered as the inevitable, not too serious, result of the liberal sexual revolution and at the same time as a crime uniquely destructive and humiliating to the victim, since it involves betraying trust and forcing physical intimacy.
The program's opening sequence shows Cagney and Lacey at firing practice, tough, professional, even phallic. Then Cagney meets an attractive, well-to-do professional man who invites her on a date, over which she flutters in happy anticipation. At the end of the evening she bids him goodnight, gives him a light farewell kiss, and tells him that she had a nice time but wants to take things slowly. The sequence ends with her closed door, and the scene switches to the married Laceys snuggling at home in bed. A telephone call from Cagney interrupts this quotidian idyll with her report that "he raped me." Lacey rushes over to her friend's house and hears the story. We do not see it dramatized. We believe Cagney, as we might not believe a supposed victim played by a guest star, because the series has already established Cagney's integrity.
According to Cagney, her date returned to her apartment by inventing an excuse to need her telephone. Although he had no weapon, he threatened to kill her, and Cagney shudders at the hatred in the man's eyes. Lacey acts as the perfect supporter. She praises her partner's courage under assault and reassures her that she could not have responded differently than she did. "I'd do anything to make it this didn't happen," Lacey assures Cagney and hugs her. Lacey's intimacy with Cagney is unquestioning and maternal, and Cagney responds like a daughter growing up in a dangerous world: "I have to learn to be safe here by myself." Lacey accompanies Cagney to the hospital and backs her in the effort to charge and convict the rapist.
Many of the men at the station house blame Cagney. "I guess you couldn't get your gun fast enough," says her boss, implying that a woman who can get raped may not be man enough to be a police officer. But not all men on the show are villains. Cagney's old boyfriend is concerned and responsive. "Thank God you weren't hurt," he breathes warmly, and she replies, "I am hurt. I was raped." The prosecutor assigned to her case warns her that the rapist is an upstanding Mr. Clean who will be hard to convict. Alleging that their intercourse was voluntary, the rapist charges that Cagney was too drunk to remember what happened that night. Since she took a blood test that will show she had not been drinking, the program ends with the presumption that her virtue, not merely her victimization, will ensure that justice is done.
One critic of the series complains that Lacey's marriage has become increasingly central to the program, marginalizing Cagney's single status. 17 However, if the program shows companionate marriage as preferable to romance, it is because it has debunked romance. Romance is no longer the gilded trap that lures women into patriarchal marriage; romance is no longer even attractive. Instead, marriage is the safe haven to which women can flee from the predatory dangers of heterosexual sexuality.
The perfect "marriage" on the program, however, is not the Laceys' but rather the relationship between Cagney and Lacey, a loyal and deep friendship that involves mutual support and common adventure. Despite demurrals from the more restrained Cagney, the two women are intimate, open, and trusting with one another. The episode on date rape illustrates the dangers single women face in assessing whom to trust and contrasts Cagney's trauma both with Lacey's supportive marriage and with her own supportive relationship with Lacey. Even outside the extreme of rape, the program does not show extramarital sex as lastingly romantic or fully satisfying; nor is marriage romantic, though it is sometimes satisfying. Instead, the trust and intimacy between the two women develops within the romanticized context of their professionalism. Their joint police work offers danger, adventure, physical excitement, and immediate intellectual gratifications, and their co-workers value them as a team. The special romance of police work, however, may be a synecdoche for the romance that professionalism itself still holds for women.
A sustained example of ambiguities in prime time romance is the dalliance between the principals on Moonlighting, a beautiful upper-class female boss and her earthier male associate. The program's detective agency setting indicates the characters' fears about committing themselves to traditional sex roles. By making its stars a heterosexual couple rather than the same-sex buddy teams of most cop shows, including Cagney and Lacey, the program seems to solve problems of courtship and intimacy: slow trust can develop between comrades through common adventures. But both Maddie Hayes (played by Cybill Shepherd) and David Addison ( Bruce Willis) are by turns emotionally irresponsible and confused. In their all-tolerant and ambiguous world, no clear guidelines assure them of the other's trust or intentions, not even a sexual relationship. Since the characters don't know their own minds, viewers may feel that they know the characters better than the characters know each other or themselves.
In 1986-87 Golden Girls, a program about four women who share a home in Florida, did dare an episode in which a lesbian visits the "girls" and consternates one of them, Rose, by declaring an attraction, though the two part as friends anyway. But the show's format dares not allow for lesbians among its regular cast. HeartBeat did include an avowedly lesbian couple (nurse practitioner Marilyn and chef Patty) among its main cast of characters before the 1988-89 season. But when the show returned to the air in January of 1989, no new viewer could have known that any of the women at the Women's Medical Arts clinic were gay. The now defunct Cagney and Lacey, one of the few programs to give a fair portrayal of female friendship, almost foundered early in its career because of the network's fear that its title characters might be construed as lesbians. According to an unidentified CBS programmer in TV Guide for 12-18 June 1982, CBS found the characters "too tough, too hard, not feminine" and perceived them as "dykes. " Fears that the program might therefore become associated with lesbianism gave the network a focus for its objections to the nonconventional representations of women. Its characters had to be redesigned to be more "feminine."
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