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Beverly Hills, 90210

Television, Gender, and Identity

By E. Graham McKinley

Publication Year: 1997

In 1990 the fledgling Fox television network debuted its prime-time soap opera Beverly Hills, 90210, which was intended to appeal to viewers in their late teens and early twenties. Before long, not only did the network have a genuine hit with a large and devoted audience but the program had evolved into a cultural phenomenon as well, becoming a lens through which its youthful viewers defined much of their own sense of themselves.

By an overwhelming majority the fans were female-young women between eleven and twenty-five whose experience of the program was addictive and intensely communal. They met in small groups to watch the program, discussing its plot and characters against the backdrops of their own ongoing lives.

Wondering what this talk accomplished and what role it played in the construction of young female viewers' identities, Graham McKinley found several groups who watched the program and questioned them about the program's significance. Extracting generously from actual interviews, McKinley's investigation has the urgency of a heart-to-heart conversation, with rich anecdotal moments and revelations of self.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Feminist Cultural Studies, the Media, and Political Culture


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pp. vii-viii

This book would never have been written without the support of many whom I would humbly and appreciatively like to recognize: My Rider University colleague Dr. Thomas Simonet, who copy-edited the manuscript, offered insightful suggestions, and supplied constant encouragement; The members of the First Presbyterian Church of Matawan and the Rev. Charles Cureton, who listened endlessly...

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Chapter 1. The Enthusiastic Voices

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pp. 1-12

Across the United States for most of the 1990s, millions of girls and young women gave special importance to Wednesday evening, when Beverly Hills, 90210 aired. This prime-time soap opera chronicled the lives of a group of upscale students who attended two fictitious schools in glamorous southern California: posh West Beverly Hills High School (the numbers in the title refer to its envied ZIP code), then enticing California University...

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Chapter 2. Watching Beverly Hills, 90210

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pp. 13-30

They negotiated with brothers and sisters for shower time. They unplugged the phone. Some avoided Wednesday night college classes, no matter what the content; others simply left night class early. All the girls and young women I interviewed during the spring 1994 season of Beverly Hills, 90210 reported making an effort, sometimes a considerable one, to protect their viewing time...

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Chapter 3. Cultural Studies: Agency, Community, and Pleasure

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pp. 31-47

In sifting through reams of material written about the ubiquitous and mysterious "idiot box," I decided to base my analysis on the cultural studies research tradition because it has focused on the interaction of both females and young people with media. Founded in Great Britain, this school pioneered the move to study television viewing, not quantitatively in the laboratory...

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Chapter 4. Social Construction: The Discursive Self

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pp. 48-67

On turning to poststructuralist and postmodern theory with my research agenda in mind, I discovered-as in the mass communication fielda wide range of theories addressing the issues that interested me. As I delved into the literature, I decided to focus on the social constructionists for two reasons. (1) These theorists grounded their work on giants of European thought whose insights generated...

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Chapter 5. Appearance: Expertise and the Community of Viewers

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pp. 68-82

As 90210 fans and I settled down to watch an episode, one of the first things viewers did was to cheer or jeer a character's appearance-in particular, a female character's hairstyle or clothing. Viewing time was peppered with such comments, voiced in a striking tone of authority. Because of my interest in female identity, I decided to focus my analysis on comments about the women's appearance, which were unquestionably the most frequent...

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Chapter 6. Characterizations: Community with the Characters

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pp. 83-114

Rivaling talk about appearance in its frequency and intensity was talk dissecting and exploring the characters' personalities. As I studied the almost overwhelming variety of examples of this talk, I again was initially struck by the way it demonstrated empirically the polysemy of the television text as described by Fiske (1987). Like talk about appearance, at first glance this talk seemed to support convincingly the notion that it was the viewers who "read" the text...

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Chapter 7. Narrative: Playing Pundit

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pp. 115-136

In addition to talk about appearance and characterizations, the girls and young women I talked to often spontaneously recited plots. By their own reports, this happened frequently in their private conversations: When I asked what they talked about when they discussed the show, they typically responded: "I just mainly talk about what happened"; "Sometimes like, you know, we'll go out, and it'll be a couple...

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Chapter 8. Talk About TV Effects: Enculturation

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pp. 137-153

To my mind, these conversations sent up some red flags that media literacy proponents may wish to attend to. I also hope this chapter might prove thoughtprovoking for viewers and readers in general in our media encounters. The last several chapters have shown how viewers analyzed, critiqued, and memorized aspects of 90210; as reported in Chapter 2, they also said they arranged shower and homework time, turned down...

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Chapter 9. Issues: Closing Down the Moral Voice

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pp. 154-188

An up side of arguing that 90210 is implicated in reproducing culture might reasonably be cogent viewer discussion of the issues it addresses. As mentioned in the chapter on the show, 90210 has been touted in the media as important because of its treatment of topics such as pregnancy, abortion, and drug abuse. Following this hype, I thought that much of the spontaneous talk would...

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Chapter 10. Dating: The Passive Female

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pp. 189-216

If talk about the moral implications of drug addiction and animal rights was academic and dispassionate, conversation about characters' romantic relationships was the opposite. This type of talk resonated with the intensity and excitement that conversations about issues lacked. Here sounded the passionate and enthusiastic voices that had attracted my attention...

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Chapter 11. Guessing: The Microprocesses of Hegemony

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pp. 217-234

The previous chapter examined the way the hegemonic process works to win consent to the notion that females should be passive-pretty and nice-in their relationships with men, even as these relationships define them in key ways. An even more striking forum in which to see the hegemonic process at work was the viewers...

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Chapter 12. Conclusion: Swimming with the Tide

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pp. 235-242

In listening to the voices of 36 girls and young women as they laughed, cringed, guessed, and criticized in an excited, vital community built around Beverly Hills, 90210, I arrived at some dismaying conclusions. Gathering and analyzing empirical evidence of the ways the microprocesses of hegemony play out in talk about...

Appendix: Data Collection and Subjects

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pp. 243-250


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pp. 251-259


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pp. 261-268


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pp. 269-283

E-ISBN-13: 9780812200751
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812216233

Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 1997

Series Title: Feminist Cultural Studies, the Media, and Political Culture

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Subject Headings

  • Beverly Hills, 90210 (Television program).
  • Television viewers -- United States -- Psychology.
  • Television programs -- Social aspects -- United States.
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