Up from Invisibility: Lesbians, Gay Men, and the Media in America

by Larry Gross; Columbia University Press, 2001

In October 1981, CBS broadcast a made-for-TV movie starring M*A*S*H veteran Loretta Swit and newcomer Tyne Daly as a team of policewomen who become detectives. The movie was deliberately intended to present a contrast to the "jiggle TV" image of women in such TV hits as Charlie's Angels. It attracted the support of prominent feminists and was featured on the cover of Ms. magazine. The article ended with a message: "If you would like to see Cagney and Lacey expanded into a TV series, write to [an address in Los Angeles]." When the TV movie was a ratings smash, CBS moved quickly to develop it into a series. In the series version of Cagney and Lacey that premiered in March 1982, the role of Chris Cagney was played by Meg Foster, while Tyne Daley continued as Mary Beth Lacey.

Cagney and Lacey was a critical success and achieved respectable ratings, but CBS executives canceled the series. Producer Barney Rosenzweig was eventually told that the price of renewal was to replace Meg Foster as Cagney. Press accounts began to reveal the reasons behind CBS's hesitation when network vice president Harvey Shepard was quoted as saying that "the characterizations of both Cagney and Lacey were too tough." An article in TV Guide helped readers connect the dots: an unnamed CBS programmer had said that the characters were "too tough, too hard, and not feminine…. They were too harshly women's lib…. We perceived them as dykes." The network, clearly uncomfortable with the feminist stance of the series, focused its objections on the person of Meg Foster. Many thought that Foster was singled out because she had earlier played a lesbian character in the 1978 movie A Different Story (and not even a very positive portrayal: in the movie the lesbian and a gay man fall in love and get married).

When the series returned to the air in the fall of 1982, Chris Cagney was played by Sharon Gless, who was described by one reviewer as "blonde, single, and gorgeous." The character was also unmistakably heterosexual. The revised Cagney and Lacey continued to attract a faithful following among women viewers—including lesbians grateful for the rare example of female solidarity—but CBS canceled it once again. This cancellation brought about an avalanche of letters that, combined with the numerous Emmy nominations the series received, once again saved the program. Ultimately, Cagney and Lacey ran until 1988, garnering many awards along with high ratings and a large audience of lesbian viewers.

One of the most extensive opportunities for queer reading of a televisual text was provided by the CBS police series Cagney and Lacey. This long-running (1982–1988), award-winning series about two women police detectives garnered a large and loyal following of lesbians who were able to read the women as lesbian despite the characters' explicit heterosexuality.

In a study utilizing the 1994 TV film Cagney & Lacey: The Return, Tanya Hands explored the interpretations and recollections of lesbian viewers, many of whom had recorded and kept the original series programs. These women had no difficulty reading the detectives as lesbians. As one respondent put it, "I always thought Cagney was a dyke, but they would have her with a guy once in a while…. I just didn't ever see her as a straight woman." Some of the older women recalled planning social events around the program: "We, a bunch of my friends, would get together each week at each other's houses. We'd have dinner, or whatever. Or we would just call each other during the commercials if we weren't together. Sometimes each of us would be on the phone with someone else during the length of the whole show."

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