- Women and Television
In the past few years there has been a flurry of published work on women and television. Some of the books include: Gender Politics and MTV by Lisa A. Lewis; Women Watching Television by Andrea L. Press; the BFI collection Women Viewing Violence; Ann Gray’s Video Playtime; Enterprising Women by Camille Bacon-Smith; Elayne Rapping’s The Movie of the Week; and No End to Her: Soap Opera and the Female Subject by Martha Nochimson.
What most of these books have in common is a preoccupation with analyzing the multifaceted role of women as audiences in various televisual experiences, with many utilizing an ethnographic approach to contemporary situations. This tendency within cultural studies to concentrate on media audiences, and particularly non-elite audiences, has often led to overarching generalizations as to the shaping of subjectivity, audience interpretations, and subcultural resistance to the hegemonic order. Nonetheless, this purview has captured the attention of historians eager to examine working-class life, including the audiences of diverse cultural fare. As Susan Douglas has noted, though, very often we have too much theory without history, and too much history without theory. How then, can we get past this absence in the historical record and “admit that, short of seances, there are simply some questions about the colonization of consciousness that we can never answer. We are, for the most part, restricted to data generated by the producers, not the consumers, of popular culture” (Douglas 135).
What is a good strategy for conducting historical research on the impact and effect of media on audiences? What types of evidence are needed? Where can such artifactual evidence be mined? Carlo Ginzburg suggests that the historian’s knowledge is akin to that of the doctor’s in its reliance on indirect knowledge, “based on signs and scraps of evidence, conjectural” (24). Such a conjectural paradigm, Ginzburg believes, can be used to reconstruct cultural shifts and transformations. There is also the potential for understanding society, not by invoking claims to total systematic knowledge, but by paying attention to the seemingly insignificant, idiosyncratic and often illogical forms of disclosure. “Reality is opaque; but there are certain points—clues, signs—which allow us to decipher it” (29–30).
Lynn Spigel, for one, has made avowed use of Ginzburg’s tactic for following the seemingly inconsequential trace in order to render a significant pattern of past experiences. In her cultural history of the early integration of the television in the American home, Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America, Spigel finds tell-tale evidence of the history of home spectators in discourses that “spoke of the placement of a chair, or the design of a television set in the room” (187). What she dubs a “patchwork history” consists in amassing evidence from popular media accounts that mostly catered to a white middle-class audience, such as representations in magazines, advertisements, newspapers, radio, film, and television. In particular, her insistence on treating women’s home magazines as valuable historical evidence allowed her to supplement traditional broadcast history (with its reliance on questions of industry, regulation, and technological invention), by highlighting the important role women assumed in the domestic, familial sphere as consumers, producers, and technological negotiators.
Spigel employs a diverse range of historical material to examine how television was represented in the context of the wider social and cultural milieu of the postwar period, such as the entrenchment of women within the domestic arena, the proliferation of the nuclear family sensibility amidst cold-war rhetoric, and the burgeoning spread of single-family homes in the new Levittowns. Some of the material she examines was culled from women’s magazines, industry trade journals, popular magazines, social scientific studies, the corporate records of the National Broadcasting Company, advertisements, and television programs.
In the first chapter, Spigel briefly examines past ideals for family entertainment and leisure, from the Victorian era to Post World War II...