Women Watching Television: Gender, Class, and Generation in the American Television Experience

by Andrea L. Press; University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991

Television's moment of feminism was brief (and equivocal) indeed. If we mean by "feminism" the fairly explicit representation of women's interests as collective interests (rooted in gender), rather than the articulation of the rights or abilities of particular women as individuals, then feminism is practically nonexistent in television programming of the seventies and eighties. Even some of the most acknowledged feminist shows -- Mary Tyler Moore, for example, or Cagney and Lacey -emphasize, in the tradition of our dominant liberal/utilitarian ideology ( Blum 1982 and Press 1986), women's success as isolated individuals

Network controversy over Cagney and Lacey is a good illustration of the networks' commitment to commercial femininity even when producing a show with explicitly feminist themes and values. Cagney and Lacey is a cop show centering around the adventures of two women police officers, Christine Cagney ( Sharon Gless) and Mary Beth Lacey ( Tyne Daly). It is a rather conventional cop show except for the fact that the two are women; their sex leads them to combat problems not normally raised in male police shows such as sexism, their relationships to their fellow officers, reactions of others to their unorthodox work, problems with unemployed husbands, the problems of working mothers, and a series of other issues related to women's lives, even though these crises are often posed as the problems of individuals rather than of women as a collective group ( Taylor 1989:159).

From the series' beginning in the spring of 1982, CBS found its leading characters lacking in requisite feminine attributes. When ratings were poor, the networks blamed the show's feminism: "'Th[e Cagney and Lacey characters] were too harshly women's lib,' said an unnamed CBS executive in TV Guide , 'too tough, too hard, and not feminine. The American public doesn't respond to the bra burners, the fighters, the women who insist on calling manhole covers peopleholes covers,' he continued. 'I perceived them as dykes'" (quoted in Brooks and Marsh 1985:136). The network forced recasting of Cagney, then played by Meg Foster, by an actress they termed more feminine and glamorous, Sharon Gless. When the ratings remained poor in the 1982-83 season and the series was canceled, there was a great deal of outcry and attention paid to the innovative character of the show. Viewers began to tune in to its reruns that summer, to see what the fuss was about. The show won an Emmy the next fall and, surprisingly, CBS renewed Cagney and Lacey in the spring of 1984.

The Cagney and Lacey incident, as well as Murphy Brown's plots and main character, illustrate the complicated interplay between public views about feminism and feminist representation, public expression of those views, and network perceptions of public opinion and responses to those perceptions. The creators of network television images straddle a wobbly fence as they assess how best to appeal to the largest segment of the public while offending as few as possible, when treating issues that have become as controversial as feminism in our society ( Tuchman et al. 1978; Gitlin 1983).

The growing pervasiveness of postfeminist ideology in our culture, as indicated by its increasing presence in the mass media, is a phenomenon that demands attention from all those interested in women's troubled status in our society's workplaces as well as in our families. Postfeminist thought sanctions current treatment of women in the workplace and holds forth the traditional nuclear family as a societal ideal. Both professional and nonprofessional women, working- class and a middle-class, still experience a variety of forms of discrimination in their respective workplaces which television's current representations not only fail to confront but, indeed, effectively help to mask. Television's female professionals are not shown facing the kinds of discrimination that women in the upper echelons of our professions continue to face.

Nor are they shown experiencing the harsh demands of housework in addition to their working lives, as current sociologists document ( Hochschild 1989). If they are -- as in the shows Cagney and Lacey or the newer thirty-something , for example -- this dilemma is turned into a criticism of women's decision (or need) to work, rather than the critique of a system that demands women choose work or family exclusively or pay a heavy price for having both. Nonprofessional working women, while also experiencing these dual pressures, face even more crippling discrimination in a workplace which, even in the wake of feminist political efforts, continues to deny them not only equal pay and opportunities for promotion but even equivalent pay for jobs of comparable worth to those typically occupied by men ( Kessler- Harris 1989; Blum 1990). By ignoring almost entirely the issues that are centrally important in structuring the real lives of working women, television can only be seen to help glorify and support a status quo that is in many ways oppressive for women. Television's unwillingness to confront, admit, and address so many troublesome aspects of women's situation in our society is unfortunately one of the strongest forces ensuring that it is perpetuated.

Consider, for example, women's comments on the following images. One woman mentions that she finds the combination of work and careers depicted on the female cop series Cagney and Lacey surprising, although she takes television's word for it that the images are realistic:

Cagney and Lacey, I like that...I like those two gals. Maybe because they're so different from anything I could possibly think that I could have been in those days , maybe because it's such a great difference, I mean, to see these two gals in such activity. That I find interesting. I also find it interesting that she [ Lacey ] can still be a mother of two children and do this type of work. In fact, in my mind sometimes I'm even a little surprised that it can happen. Or again, could this really be the truth, but I won't argue the point since I imagine there must be women who are in the field who can do anything and everything. ( Estelle) [Emphasis added]

Another older woman also found Cagney and Lacey fascinating, for similar reasons:

I watch Cagney and Lacey. I like it because they are two women cops, working, you know -- what they go through. They have to work with mostly men, and they really are getting somewhere. It's an interesting...uh, to me a soap opera is one day this one is in bed with the other one, then the next day she's with somebody else. It's just plain sex. Where these shows, it's very interesting. ( Marilyn)

Marilyn expresses a clear preference for shows that portray women in adventurous situations, where "they work with mostly men" and "really are getting somewhere." She distinguishes this from the much more conventional domestic placing of women that soap operas offer and of which she apparently disapproves because of the amount of sexuality shown. In both cases, it is interesting that the particular combination of work and family depicted in these newer television shows is remarkable to these women, serving in slightly different ways as an example to each of roles that they now believe are real and possible for women.

Some younger women enjoy Cagney and Lacey also, but they comment on their lack of identification with the characters, calling them too "tough," not actually realistic, in line perhaps with most women's disinclination to pursue a career in police work. One woman describes her reaction to the show as follows:

It was exciting, they were really tough. I liked the action. I never really thought of that [police] work as something I'd like to do. ( Nancy)

Another young woman, Lori, comments similarly, "I like watching it, I think the characters are really interesting, but I can't see it for myself." Both Nancy and Lori focus their comments more on their admiration of the show, and their personal distance from its main characters, than do the older women quoted above, who feel much freer to fantasize about Cagney's and Lacey's actual lives, for example the contradictions they might experience (it's "interesting that she [ Lacey ] can still be a mother of two children") and their accomplishments ("they really are getting somewhere"). Younger women speak very differently of the show in a general sense, commenting more than older women do on whether they can actually imagine themselves in many of the positions the characters occupy. Older women fantasize more in relation to these images, make remarks in the form of "what if," while younger women are more concrete in their remarks, more specific in their fantasies, actually attempting to put themselves in the place of the characters they perceive. Of course, in this instance life cycle rather than generational differences may explain the bulk of this variation in response. Younger women are understandably preoccupied with the career choices they are imminently facing, while older women are more apt to look back over their lives and fantasize in a what-if manner.

These passages illustrate, in the case of some older women, a fascination with television women in unconventional, traditionally male dominated fields (law and police work). They are surprised at the form that the combination of work and family roles takes in these characterizations, and they find it explicitly noteworthy that on Cagney and Lacey it is possible for a woman (the character of Mary Beth Lacey, played by Tyne Daly), in postfeminist style, both to successfully hold a traditionally male job and to bring up two children. Older women also find it exciting that three women can perform dangerous work together with the enviable grace of Charlie's three Angels. Television, in depicting situations that are in these instances far from their own experience, here introduces new images and ideas regarding women's roles to the consciousness of women who might otherwise be unaware of such possibilities or, alternately, might be convinced of their impossibility.

The younger women I have quoted notice and choose to comment upon their own lack of identification with the Cagney and Lacey policewomen. While not entirely negative in commenting on the show, young women are uneasy about these images, mentioning that they find it difficult to relate to them and implying that this personal relating, or at least some sense of recognizing themselves or their own possibilities or desires in these television images, should come more easily. Young women seem to expect role models or figures of identification from feminist and postfeminist television and may be uneasy when newer television images thwart their expectations. Thus, their hostility to the Charlie's Angels images, feminist-era women supposedly liberated yet quite governed by commercial notions of glamour. The young women feel that they see through the facade of liberation and are offended by the sexual stereotyping that underlies the image.

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