- What Women Watched: Daytime Television in the 1950s, and: Redesigning Women: Television after the Network Era, and: Women and the Media: Diverse Perspectives
These books complement each other well. What Women Watched and Redesigning Woman, in that order, provide a history of gender-and-television from television’s early and recent years, from fading remnants of first-wave feminism to the shifting textual norms in the third wave, while touching ends of the second wave. Women and the Media, an anthology in four parts, ranges across issues of race, gender, class, ethnicity, sexuality, and includes global and historical perspectives.
What Women Watched, treating the period from 1945 to 1960 as transitional from first-wave to second-wave feminism, focuses on daytime television programs aimed at women during the 1950s. Author Marsha Cassidy, an award-winning teacher of media studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, demonstrates that daytime programs during television’s formative years offered what developers believed appealed to women. With convincing statistics, she shows that women were virtually the only daytime viewers, especially early in the 1950s. Voices of women [End Page 222] viewers are missing, of course, except for “programmed” statements of “ordinary” participants drawn from audiences.
Cassidy labels the few women who gained visibility and status—even a facade of power—in early television industry roles as “femcees;” she calls male emcees “charm boys.” An excellent first chapter provides context for the book’s focus on “charm boys” and “femcees,” plus selected programs– including Strike it Rich, Glamour Girl, and Queen for a Day, and others. Cassidy’s analysis of Matinee Theatre, created to counter the “bad-taste” of daytime programs (and edify women) with classic dramas, shows the series tending toward a soap opera genre before its ultimate demise— despite Herculean efforts by distinguished director Albert McCleery and a host of supporters.
Among conclusions, Cassidy says 1950s daytime television reveals an ambiguous and conflicted version of women, but traditional gender norms ultimately triumphed as women–including “femcees”—were consistently objectified. The “charm boys” dominated, shaping what women said on air—often speaking for them while making it appear they spoke for themselves—and kept the focus on women’s appearance and emotions. Women’s opinions on substantive issues were discouraged. Even views of once-outspoken “femcee” Bess Myerson, 1945 Miss America, were squelched to keep the focus on her beauty and apparel. Ultimately, the television industry used women in a way that made femininity all-butequivalent to consumerism, Cassidy concludes.
The author mined valuable sources, including National Broadcasting Company (NBC) memos documenting internal discussions of daytime content, particularly after critics lambasted some programs as immoral, vulgar, and in bad taste. The book is particularly valuable for early television- and-gender history and the skillfully crafted analyses that crystallize gender norms, notions about women, and women’s own efforts and minimal advances in an era Cassidy shows as more significant in women’s experiences than generally presumed.
In Redesigning Women, author Amanda D. Lotz, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Michigan, richly demonstrates changed norms in television programming for women. Focusing on programs and cable networks, such as Lifetime, Oxygen, and WE, that emerged in the late 1990s and featured and targeted women, Lotz says the unprecedented number of these dramas (she names approximately three dozen but concentrates on sixteen) marks a shift in television treatment of women. “Female-centered dramas” of the post-network era focused on women characters for their own sake, in contrast to network programming that conceptualized women as a monolithic group and generally featured them only in situation comedies and as men’s partners in male-dominated dramas. The shift included diverse programs that showed women as multifaceted through...