Prime-Time Feminism: Television, Media Culture, and the Women's Movement since 1970

by Bonnie J. Dow; University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996

For many feminists, the 1980s as a whole represent a depressing time for feminism. This view has gained credence from the persuasive arguments in Susan Faludi's successful book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women ( 1991). Faludi extends her arguments about the backlash against feminism to prime-time television, excoriating popular and critically acclaimed programming such as thirtysomething ( 1987-91) for its regressive politics Faludi makes a powerful case for the decline of television's interest in and support for feminism, pointing out that in the 1980s, unlike the 1970s, shows built around single career women almost vanished entirely (a point that helps explain the intense reaction to the appearance of Murphy Brown in 1988), or, like Cagney and Lacey , faced constant pressure to mute their feminist implications.

The discussion in this chapter thus far creates the impression of virtual postfeminist hegemony in 1980s popular television. That is not entirely the case. The categories and characteristics I have discussed exclude 1980s programming such as Cagney and Lacey ( 1982-88), Kate and Allie ( 1984-89), and Designing Women ( 1986-93), all of which have been linked to feminism by the popular press and by television critics and all of which were part of television's 1980s campaign to attract a workingwoman audience (see D'Acci, 1994, p. 103).

All three of these programs have in common an element missing from postfeminist programming: female bonding or sisterhood. Each also contains some postfeminist elements. Andrea Press includes Kate and Allie and Designing Women as examples of "postfeminist 'postfamily' television." Although she notes that these sitcom "glorify female bonding and alternative family forms," she dismisses their importance by arguing that their "potentially radical perspective is undercut by their continued trivialization of the obstacles real women would face if actually attempting to achieve these goals". Press also includes Cagney and Lacey as postfeminist in tone, basing this assessment largely on the argument that the gender related issues raised in the drama "are often posed as the problems of individual women rather than of women as a collective group" . The trouble with calling Cagney and Lacey postfeminist on this basis is that this characteristic is not unique to postfeminist television. Television has always individualized social problems; indeed, previous chapters have analyzed this characteristic in 1970s feminist television such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show and One Day at a Time.

In contrast, judging from the amount of attention it has received from feminist television critics, Cagney and Lacey would have to be judged the most explicitly feminist program in prime-time television during the 1980s.

Popular press coverage also made explicit connections between Cagney and Lacey and feminism, helped no doubt, by the fact that Gloria Steinem was an outspoken advocate of the drama . Cagney and Lacey's feminist aspirations did not go unquestioned, leading to the show's troubled history on prime-time and a gradual softening of its politics, a process beautifully documented and analyzed by Julie D'Acci in Defining Women: Television and the Case of Cagney and Lacey ( 1994). D'Acci partially links the program's troubles to the backlash against feminism in the 1980s. She argues that Cagney and Lacey's representation of feminism "changed . . . from a criticism of institutional inequities (sexism, racism, and, to a lesser degree, classism) to an examination of women's issues (or what the industry imagined as such issues) that had the potential for dramatic intensity and exploitability".

One of the points that D'Acci makes about the negotiation of feminism during this period was that the networks somehow learned their lesson from the Cagney and Lacey controversies and found it safer to represent feminism in sitcom, "which attracted the working women's audience with far less risk" . As I argued in Chapter 1, I too believe that comedy offers space for representing social controversy and social change that might be too threatening when encoded as realist drama. This is no doubt one of the reasons why the programming form representing feminism that has been the most long-lived on television historically has been situation comedy. D'Acci's study of Cagney and Lacey's audience makes clear that many female viewers in the 1980s desired something more than the muted acknowledgment of women's progress offered in postfeminist family television. Although Cagney and Lacey's sometimes explicit (for television) feminist stance had almost no peers in dramatic programming, it had some company in comedy, specifically in Designing Women.

Cagney and Lacey and Designing Women have some common characteristics. Both built episodes around "women's issues." Both faced cancellation early in their runs on prime-time and were saved by viewer protest. Finally, both shows emphasized female bonding, a rarity in 1980s television. Indeed, Designing Women and Cagney and Lacey were considered similar enough that, in portions of the 1986, 1987, and 1988 seasons, they were both part of the Monday evening "woman's night" counterprogramming strategy on CBS designed to provide an alternative to Monday night football. Importantly, Designing Women was part of a lineup which contained the programming that in the network's judgment would attract the coveted working-women's audience (and it did). Moreover, this scheduling also meant that Designing Women was contextualized, from the beginning, by television programming that was consistently singled out by the popular press for its progressive portrayals of women's lives-- Cagney and Lacey and Kate and Allie. Although Cagney and Lacey was canceled by the fall of 1988, Murphy Brown joined the CBS Monday night lineup that same season.

While Designing Women is female centered, like its companions on "women's night," it does not have the "markers" of feminist import that characterize such programs as Cagney and Lacey, Murphy Brown, or even Kate and Allie. A sitcom focusing on the interior-design partnership of four women, Designing Women is not about women trying to make it in a "man's world" (e.g., law enforcement or journalism), and it does not play upon the "emerging woman" theme that characterized One Day at a Time and, to an extent, Kate and Allie. The decidedly feminine setting of Designing Women also indicates accommodation to postfeminist attitudes.

These are not women trying to make it in a man's world; in that sense, Designing Women signals a retreat from the feminist challenge posed by earlier programs such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show or Cagney and Lacey. On the other hand, by sidestepping the "work versus personal life" issue, Designing Women also avoids depicting the misery afflicting women in 1980s professional serial dramas and the Utopian visions of family life depicted in postfeminist family sitcoms. Faludi maintains that such female-centered sitcoms as Designing Women and The Golden Girls ( 1985-92) were the networks' safer alternative to single, working-woman shows, safer because "the heroines were confined to the home in nonthreatening roles in a strictly all-female world".

However, Designing Women is television, after all. Elements of the interaction in the sitcom do not perfectly replicate the identified characteristics of women's talk or those of the consciousness-raising groups of second-wave feminism. For example, the conversation in Designing Women does not always create an atmosphere of pure equality among the participants, as was the goal of leaderless consciousness-raising groups in the 1970s . Even so, what Designing Women accomplishes is a representation of female interaction that functions to create a woman-centered analysis of sexual politics, the ultimate goal of consciousness-raising. Emerging, as it does, from seemingly organic conversation among a group of "ordinary" women (i.e., women not clearly positioned as feminist representations, as opposed to, for example, Cagney and Lacey), this outcome is less threatening than it would be if produced in a different context. In this sense, Designing Women displays the rhetorical negotiation typical of television and of postfeminism. However, as I suggest later, such negotiation may be the prerequisite for the sitcom's engagement with sexual politics.

Although I have labeled the constructions of feminism in earlier chapters as "lifestyle feminism" ( Mary Tyler Moore ), or "therapeutic feminism," ( One Day ), Designing Women does not lend itself as easily to a particular label. It is perhaps closest to what Julie D'Acci has called "women's issue" feminism in her study of Cagney and Lacey . As she describes it, women's-issue feminism "was associated with particular issues that, although they actually signaled major social problems, . . . were presented as specific to women rather than to society as a whole" .

Designing Women does and does not participate in this kind of feminist discourse. The fact that so-called "women's issues" such as sexual harassment, wife abuse, or women's position as sexual objects appear as problems that crop up in an episode, are analyzed, solved on some level, and then disappear, is an indication of the women's-issue approach. This kind of "issue of the week" structure implies that such problems can be solved solely through women's action and that they are anomalies in women's otherwise "normal" lives .

This theme sometimes took the form of a storyline involving unwanted pregnancy. Feminist rhetoric about women's right to control their reproductive choices surfaced in episodes from dramas such as Cagney and Lacey, Spenser for Hire, and St. Elsewhere, but, as Celeste Condit ( 1990) has argued, it was "overlaid with a set of evaluations that described abortion as an action to be avoided wherever possible." Generally, abortion as portrayed in prime-time television "was a woman's choice but morally undesirable, especially as a practice for women in financially secure traditional marriages" .

The number of journal articles and book chapters devoted to analysis of the feminist dimensions of Cagney and Lacey is startling. See, for example, Alcock and Robson, 1990; Ang, 1990; Clark, 1990; D'Acci, 1987, D'Acci, 1992; Fiske, 1987b; Gamman, 1988, 1991; Mayerle, 1987 and White, 1987.

Other female-centered dramas of the 1980s included Moonlighting ( 198589), Scarecrow and Mrs. King ( 1983-87), and Remington Steele ( 1982-87), but each compromised its feminist possibilities in various ways and none was as progressive as Cagney and Lacey . See D'Acci's ( 1994, pp. 143-145) discussion of Remington Steele , Faludi ( 1991, pp. 144, 157) discussion of Moonlighting , and Dowell's ( 1985, p. 48) discussion of Scarecrow and Mrs. King. Designing Women was put on hiatus midway through its first season, and was in danger of being canceled. The outpouring of letters from viewers supporting the return of the show brought it back to prime-time. The drive to keep Designing Women on the air was led by Viewers for Quality Television, the same media interest group that was formed in 1984 during the successful effort to put Cagney and Lacey back on the air after it faced a similar situation. In fact, the response for Designing Women (some 50,000 letters) was substantially larger than the response for Cagney and Lacey. (See Bernstein, 1987, and Yorkshire, 1987.) Designing Women did not become a permanent part of "women's night" until the end of its first season. The sitcom was scheduled on Mondays for the first two months of its run (September to November 1986) but was then moved around the schedule to various slots for the next three months until it came to rest on Monday nights in March of 1987. This haphazard scheduling no doubt contributed to the initially low ratings of the series, leading to its near cancellation midway through the first season.

Cagney and Lacey also had scheduling problems. After its comeback from cancellation in the spring of 1984, it was shown on Monday evenings until December 1987. It was then moved to another night and returned to Monday nights for only two months in 1988 before leaving prime-time in August of that year.

In the fall of 1990, Sharon Gless, one of the stars of Cagney and Lacey, returned to that show's Monday evening slot in The Trials of Rosie O'Neill ( 1990-91), a legal drama about a divorced female public defender in Los Angeles. The Trials of Rosie O'Neill was short-lived, but it certainly fit within the CBS Monday night tradition of progressive programming targeted at working women.

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