Cracks in the Pedestal: Ideology and Gender in Hollywood

by Philip Green; University of Massachusetts Press, 1998

Having it both ways" is usually not just a joke, and can be much more complex than that. The long-running "feminist" series Cagney and Lacey offers a perfect example of this technique at work. From one standpoint, I should not have scare quotes around the ideological signifier in the previous sentence. Certainly the creators of Cagney and Lacey intended it to offer a different kind of representation of women on television, and they were successful enough that in our household, at least, it was the only television series we watched regularly and faithfully while it was on the tube. On the other hand, we were never unaware of what was also going on in the guise of cultural innovation. "Having it both ways" meant that to 'a certain extent we were being had. In what manner becomes clear when we consider the iconography of this series.

Lacey the family woman, played by Tyne Daly in a frumpish mode, is also the liberal feminist. Cagney the single woman, played by Sharon Gless looking and dressing as though shed just dropped in from the Miss Universe contest next door, is the hard-nosed upholder of "law and order," and derider of constitutional rights for accused persons. She is also the victim of gender discrimination, and has (at times) a Jewish boyfriend from the American Civil Liberties Union. There is something for everyone here; correlatively, this means that we cannot make consistent sense of these women politically. Familialism is split away from conservatism, "liberated" sexuality, from liberalism, and the cross-everything affair between Gless and Steve Macht tells us that politics is not important enough to interfere with sex. (Obviously sometimes it isn't. But often it is—and this narrative choice makes an ideological choice. It's not as though Steve Macht and Sharon Gless have an unslakable mutual passion: they're just characters in a fiction.) Any viewer who could detect her own political stance amid this deliberate confusion must have wanted to do so very badly. In the end, "feminism" attached to an uncritical conception of the law and the police, and detached from any critique of the nuclear family, is barely feminism at all. Here, to say that the show has it both ways is to say that it both has and does not have its putative feminism.

Beyond all of these examples, which could be multiplied forever (as there are several new ones every night on television), there is a recurrent master theme: the absence of recognizable politics from the presentation and ultimate disavowal of opposition, dissidence, or disturbance. The examples I've given are mostly oblique, but Hollywood is also quite direct when need be. On an episode of Empty Nest that seems at first to be escaping the carefully guarded boundaries of Cagney and Lacey, feminine caring is opposed to a conception of tough law and order (clearly coded as masculine): a snobbish professional woman hires an ex-convict in an attempt to "rehabilitate" him by molding him to her design. She of course fails as he wins the battle of wits between them by playing on her liberal guilt. So the cynicism of "law and order" is vindicated, and opposition is made to seem inauthentic.

All these examples suggest two things. First, there is a perceived need in visual culture to rein in women who appear as independent moral actors. Second, and even more profound, it is not so much the denial of politics that is at stake as the denial of the possibility of meaningful political alliances. This is only necessary, of course, if we, are expecting them: not on Homicide, for example, but very definitely on Cagney and Lacey, whose producers had always to work for an appeal to other than feminists. In general, this denial of a common politics is such a commonplace on television that it has become almost a reflex, to have rapists defended by women, accused blacks prosecuted by blacks, and so on. (See also the movie The Color of Night). In particular, whenever there is a socially sensitive trial, casting is carefully arranged so that white men are not seen to be oppressing women or minorities, in the role of judge or district attorney: an astonishing number of whom, in the Age of Reagan, therefore turn out to be black, Latino, female, and so forth. On the one hand this could be viewed as a laudable effort to overcome stereotyping, but its latent function is quite different, in that on shows such as L.A. Law, and Law and Order, lectures about "law and order" are seen being given by the very people who are actually the object of its oppressiveness.

For television the effects of market structure on the consumer side are matched by the effects of market structure on the producer side. Exceptions stay firmly within the bounds of humanistic naturalism, do not stray far ideologically, and refuse any possibility of formal innovation such as might confuse viewers who understand television as a site of relaxation and passive enjoyment. ( Steve Bochco's early version of N.Y.P.D. Blue, which imitated the British Pennies from Heaven by adopting a Greek Chorus approach of occasional musical interruptions, was quickly shot down by its network). The caustic wit of Roseanne, the quirky multiculturalism of Northern. Exposure, the sometime feminism of Cagney and Lacey, the racial consciousness of Frank's Place or A Different World, the counterideological "movie of the week" productions of Robert Greenwald and his successors, have stretched TV's boundaries slightly.

But nothing on network television can equal, or could possibly equal, the visual terrorism of Psycho, the nightmarish nihilism of Jacob's Ladder, the elegiac look and tone of Unforgiven, the unrepentant vengefulness of I Spit on Your Grave or even Thelma and Louise, or the sexual transgressiveness of Basic Instinct.

Central to Mulvey's thesis is that not just any woman but any woman appearing as visual spectacle (however that may be culturally defined) is the object of the male gaze. In this analysis, no visual cultural commodity of any kind can break out of the (patriarchal) subject/object dyad as long as the female subject is potentially desirable to men. Movies starring Divine may disturb that dyad, but not movies starring Rita Hayworth. The "resistance through charisma" of the great female stars of the "classical" period— Hayworth, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn—is evanescent; really no resistance at all. In the contemporary period seemingly socially critical television series with beautiful stars, such as Cagney and Lacey ( Sharon Gless) or Northern Exposure ( Janine Turner), can only repeat the essential relationship of cultural patriarchy while seeming superficially to question it. Contemporary patriarclialism is a loose rather than rigid social system. It is a system of informal cultural, social, and economic relationships rather than formal legal rules. "Token" women of any kind do not disturb the overall outlines of this system but rather confirm them, and desirable token women all the more so.

"Veronica" (as everyone calls her) is not the Phallic Woman from Hell, who will blow you away as soon as look at you, or another comic-strip version of Wonder Woman (like Kathleen Turner in the V. I. Warshawski travesty of Sara Paretzky's tough-woman detective stories). Again, iconography is crucial. In Cagney and Lacey, as I've noted, Sharon Gless's beauty serves the ideological purpose of reconciling opposites, the "feminine" and the "masculine."

Still, there is a potential difference in just how the social role of violence is expressed (the racism is unrecuperable). We can see this by comparing, for example, Cagney and Lacey, with its liberal feminist pretensions, to the more ostensibly egalitarian (what is erroneously called "postfeminist") USA cable series Silk Stalkings, the longest-running cable network show of the 1990s and television's most visible entry (before Xena) in the female action genre. Silk Stalkings, set in Palm Beach, features two cops, originally Rob Estes and Mitzi Kapture, who solve crimes in the milieu of the rich and famous.

There is no feminist subtext of discrimination, or gender hierarchy; here are just two equals on the go. Each is susceptible to the other, and to outside sexual interests, on an equal basis; each comes to the other's rescue on occasion. (This ostensible equality, which might produce skepticism in the viewer, is given more credibility by the fact that Kapture has about 90 percent of the personality visible on the screen, and the hopelessly bland Estes about 10 percent). The result, however, is that much more so than Cagney and Lacey this show stands for the democratization of uninterrogated violence, of "law and order" as an ideology. Locale and motif—two working stiffs stalking the extraordinarily criminogenic well-to-do—give extra weight to the "classless" component of this ideology.

Cagney and Lacey did succeed from time to time in manifesting a kind of textual ambiguity; Silk Stalkings manifests only conservative smugness. Give Kapture an Hispanic surname, make the partners' commander (now a Jewish male) a black woman with some Asian ancestry, and we could give up civil rights politics altogether: just settle back and watch the show. This is always the intention of visual culture in any event, as evidenced by its consistent intertextuality. A commodity like Silk Stalkings, not in spite of but because of its "egalitarianism," fits in perfectly with that intention. Rather than leading us to question the overall perspective of the male-oriented law and order series, it reinforces that perspective.

Only in the last episodes of a canceled series does a more definitive narrative occasionally (very occasionally) surface, as in the politically paranoid ending of Cagney and Lacey , or the dark tragedy of Under Suspicion . On the other hand, the former was falsified—wiped out as though it had never been—by the production of a television movie sequel a few years later.

The last (two-part) episode of Cagney and Lacey , referred to in Chapter 5, ends with its protagonists not only having failed but on the run. It was impossible not to feel that their victimization at the hands of the police, the mob, the CIA, and every other group even faintly connected with the "power elite," was a final comment by the shows's creators on its own treatment by CBS rather than any literal theories about international conspiracy.

Back to start of Cagney and Lacey section

My Index Page