Defining Women: Television and the Case of Cagney and Lacey

A book by Julie D'Acci, copyright 1994 from The University of North Carolina Press, ISBN 0-8078-4441-1

There have been various people who have written to me about this book, saying that it is one I should read since I like Cagney & Lacey so much. I finally managed to get a copy and so here is my review.

But first, a few words of caution. Some of the statements I make in this review (actually, probably a lot of them) will most likely make you angry. So I want to explain very briefly where "I am coming from."

I am a believer of equal rights for all humans. I have supported the gay/lesbian/bisexual movement for years. I was a "feminist" male long before such terms ever became popular. I have always spoken out against violence against women.

Yet I am also trained in science and I recognize certain biological realities that relate to the evolution of human beings. I realize the importance of sexual attraction to evolution and thus I do not object to women being "sex objects" (as long as they not abused, etc. in the process).

So I am not a "traditional" feminist nor am I a "traditional" macho male.

So, with that in mind, on to my review. This is one massively boring book. It reads like a doctoral thesis; for example, never use a short and simple term when a much longer, and much fancier one, can do. Points as often over and over. The author use slanted praise to really take swipes at those you don't agree with. All of this and more characterize this book.

The author starts off with noting what the book is about: "This book deals with the cultural constructions of gender, the many troubles that underlie them, and U.S. television's place in their overall process." (p.2). So far, so good.

Then she goes on to note that "...gender (like all aspects of the human subject) is not something acquired and settled once and for all at birth or shortly thereafter but is constantly in process, continually being shaped, enacted and reconfigured..." (p. 3) I also agree 100% with this.

On page 5 she notes that Cagney & Lacey was the very first dramatic program in TV history to have two women in the leading roles. She also notes some general descriptions of the characters, noting that Christine was single but had an active sex life and Mary Beth was married and was the sexual initiator with her husband along with being the breadwinner of the family.

From that point on the book dwells on the various "battles" involved in getting the series on the air, keeping it on the air, and how the characters were changed over time as a response to the outcomes of these battles.

One of those major battles, of course, was the replacement of Meg Foster with Sharon Gless for the Christine Cagney character. The general point behind this was that the powers-that-be felt that the show appeared to have two women who were not "feminine" enough. Meg had to go and was replaced with the perceived-to-be more feminine Sharon, a move protested by the National Gay Task Force.

On p. 30 the author goes into more detail about how Meg Foster/Tyne Daly team was associated with lesbianism or implied a lesbian relationship existed or were two dykes or fill-in-the-blank with what your own view might be. The end result actually involved changes at two levels.

On the other hand the same type of relationship was perceived between Sharon Gless/Tyne Daly team later.

The Sharon Gless character even had her socio-economic background changed make her background being of a higher social level than Mary Beth's. Even Tyne Daly's weight became a bone of contention between various persons involved in the making of the program.

The author says that the show was basically influenced by the women's liberal movement although over time it became less liberal in its approach and somewhat more traditional in how it viewed women. It also had a very troubled history, being canceled, brought back, canceled, brought back, canceled, and then brought back as a series of made-for-tv movies.

The author goes on to state that she believes television shows attempt to determine how male and female is defined in our culture, which is a reasonable assumption but an assumption carried almost to "conspiracy-theory" lengths throughout the book.

What the author seems to be skipping over is the very, very bottom-line of all television programs. Do they get and keep advertisers? What their content is in the shows is first of all tailored to reach audiences that will buy the products that the advertisers are selling. Whatever works is whatever is done.

I became somewhat more concerned when she became detailing what constituted "women's issues" and what didn't. Let me take a couple of specific examples.

p.136: "For one thing, TV's criteria for choosing these (women's) issues, as we have seen, skewed toward subject matter that can be tapped for its sensationalism. Whereas other potential issues, such as low wages or discrimination based on race, class, age, appearance, disabilities, and gender are also crucial for women, they may lack exploitation potential and are perhaps more difficult to reduce to an individual level."

For one thing Cagney & Lacey was a show that needed to develop and keep and audience and thus needed to "entertain" people. Documentary-type programs can deal with issues such as these in great detail but they are individual programs and do not stretch years in length. Cagney & Lacey covered many of these issues (and discrimination was dealt with many times during the series, actually), but if this examination of such issues would have been constant, in-depth and totally realistic and accurate the series would have become boring over time and would died much sooner than it did.

On the same page (136) she defines some of what constitutes "designated women's issues" and includes rape, woman-battering, incest and sexual harassment, but she then goes on to complain that designating such things as "women's issues" ends up serving to "contain them, consign them to the domain of 'belonging to women" and once again obscure their more general social, power-oriented and structural characteristics."

In other words she basically complains that issues are not being dealt with but is also complaining that if they are and they are designated as "women's issues" then that is also wrong. Basically, the people making the series could never, under this line of reasoning, satisfy her. They're damned if they do and damned if they don't.

What confused me many times is the author's approach like in the above, complaining about various things, and then her tendency to follow that section of the book with various details of how this-or-that organization or group of people praised the show's dealing with the issues or approaches that she took issue with. It seemed to me like the author was saying over and over that the show's doing a particular thing that did not fit in to the correct feminist mode was wrong despite the fact that many people were very happy that the show dealt with this-or-that particular topic. In other words, the feminist groups know better than the women who are not members of the (somewhat more extreme) feminist groups.

The more I read of the book the more convinced I became that the author's position was that of a feminist extremist. She adds, for example, on page 153 that the show presented some material "that was troublesome and offensive from feminist points of view, among them: the sensational serial murders of women; racist, classiest and sexist slurs; graphic portrayals of women as victims; stereotyped depictions of prostitutes; an overly didactic approach; and white women as enlightened teachers about racism."

Somebody explain to me, please, why presenting serial murders of women as being something that is bad should be offensive to anyone. Doing shows that examine how wrong racism or any other -ism is does not seem to me to be something that is bad or offensive. Also, why can't white women be "enlightened teachers about racism"? One female singer I happen to like quite a bit- Joan Baez- was an "enlightened" opponent of racism and a personal friend of Martin Luther King.

The author does a breakdown of shows which works out like this:

Out of 125 episodes done:

  • 1. 14 were women's issue exploitation programs
  • 2. 36 were exploitation episodes aimed at women but not dealing with women's issues

She then breaks the 14 episode group down in this manner:

4 shows dealt with rape

  • 2 with wife beating
  • 2 with sexual harassment
  • 1 with abortion
  • 1 with incest
  • 2 with child molestation
  • 2 with breast cancer
  • The other 16 covered topics like pornography, child pornography, a male stripper club, an erotic hotline, baby brokering, a bigamy scam, Cagney's pregnancy scare, Lacey's emotional breakdown, Cagney's alcoholism, the birth of Lacey's baby, Cagney's marriage proposals, Lacey's being taken hostage and Cagney getting shot.

    The rest of the programs, she notes, were divided between police episodes, comedy episodes and some political episodes.

    Why is it automatically exploitation to deal with issues like wife-beating and sexual harassment? All of those issues she lists are very, very important. All of them are still problems today. I don't see why they constitute "exploitation" as long as the shows they were featured on were done tastefully and were done in a manner with presented the commission of acts such as sexual harassment as being wrong.

    Further, let's assume that the show dropped all the "exploitation" issues. What would be left of the show? A typical police-drama show at best, a show that would very probably end up being much more male-oriented show of far less importance to women.

    The next part of the book that bothered me was the amount of space devoted to a lesbian interpretation of the Cagney and Lacey relationship. Not that lesbianism bothers me; I'm support it fully. Same for homosexuality. But, where I have a problem with the author and others is that the word "bisexual" seems to be permanently removed from many people's vocabulary. Mary Beth was married and had sex with her husband Harvey. Christine had sex with different men. If they would have ever have had sex with each other then they would have been bisexual, not lesbian. :Yet a bisexual interpretation of the "gazes" (don't ask me to explain) never seems to occur to the author.

    A few pages later the author talks about Christine's character. "Her problems with men and her perpetual jibes at macho masculinity coexisted with her continual heterosexual couplings and her oftentimes submissive, 'needing to be taken care of' behavior in scenes of physical intimacy." Basically it seems the author doesn't really care very much for women having sex with men ("couplings"?) and definitely seems to oppose women in any kind of submissive situation. Forget, of course, that it was entirely voluntary on Christine's part, that she was comfortable with having a diverse personality.

    Again I continue to have problems with the author's criticisms of the people involved in making the show and how the show "exploited" women's issues when at the same time the author produces statistics like these:

    Of 125 total scripts.75 were written or cowritten by women. In other words 60% of the scripts were developed or co-developed by women.

    All 125 episodes had at least one woman in a producer or coproducer capacity. 29 of the episodes were directed by women.

    In other words, women had a great deal of influence in the writing and producing of the episodes. So if women had so much input then why did so much of the show deserve a criticism of exploitation of women's issues? I could understand that argument if men were almost totally in charge of the writing and producing of the show but they weren't. If the shows were so exploitative then why did so many women become involved in actually writing, producing and/or directing them?

    Or were they also tools of the "patriarchy"?

    This type of approach continues throughout the entire book. To me what could have been a good work on the history of women on television and how Cagney & Lacey fit into (and improved) that history instead turns out to be a boring, feminist-extremist work that seems to be self-contradictory. It also reminds me of a principal I once knew who insisted on using the most complicated words that he could. Maybe he was just trying to impress others; maybe he didn't really realize that that was what he was doing but it still came off as pompous self-absorption.

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