- Television, Historiography, and Cultural Power
When asked to write about three works in television studies that have been particularly significant to my thinking and scholarship, a flood of possibilities came to mind. I decided to narrow things down to three texts whose historiographic methodology, conceptualization of television, and commitment to questions of cultural power and social change inform all of my scholarly work and appear in some form in every course I teach. Each crucially reminds me why I do what I do. These works are: Lynn Spigel's Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America; Steven D. Classen's Watching Jim Crow: The Struggles Over Mississippi TV, 1955–1969; and Ron Becker's Gay TV and Straight America.
As Anna McCarthy recently put it, "In focusing so elegantly on the ephemeral material culture of the medium," Make Room for TV "wrote out a new paradigm for TV studies."1 A paradox of Spigel's book is that it is so clearly and engagingly written and so logically argued that its exhaustive research and stunning originality seem commonsensical and familiar in ways that threaten to obscure its groundbreaking contribution and its field-altering effects on media scholarship since its publication. Indeed, having just started PhD work when Make Room was published, and fortunate enough to have Spigel as my dissertation advisor, Make Room for TV seemed then, and still seems, like the only way to "do" media studies.
Focusing on television's integration into everyday domestic space between 1948 and 1955, Spigel pieces together evidence of everyday struggles over the medium's introduction and its "place" through analysis of popularly available media (particularly women's home magazines), as well as social scientific studies, industry trade journals, architectural design and suburban planning documents, federal housing policy, network policy and program scheduling, and television programming itself. In concert, these discourses unpack the real struggles and active work required to encourage and maintain a broader, immediate "obsession with the reconstruction of family life and domestic [End Page 184] ideals after World War II."2Make Room is a feminist intervention, restoring a "voice" and place, historically, to the figure of the homemaker and her labors within domestic space while simultaneously exposing the vulnerability and highly selective and limited (raced and classed) nature of this postwar familial "ideal."
Of the many critical contributions made by Make Room for TV, one of the most compelling for my own thinking about mythologies of regional identity is Spigel's analysis of the role of cultural fantasy preceding a new medium's introduction and coincident with its standardization. Spigel's insights regarding recurring themes of technology as a "unifying and divisive force"3 through tropes of proximity, distance, isolation, and integration should remain key to contemporary theorization of newer media phenomena such as social networking or handheld media and their revisiting of questions of public and private, technology, and gender.
How does one agitate for change in a climate of terror? Steven Classen's Watching Jim Crow engages this question through a detailed examination of local television and live popular entertainment programs as "strategic battlegrounds" in struggles over civil rights in Jackson, Mississippi, between 1955 and 1969. Using documents from special collections at Tougaloo College, newspapers and alternative news, legal filings and testimony, oral histories and interviews, Classen reconstructs perilous attempts to intervene, politically and culturally, in the face of repressive, censorious media gatekeepers at the local, state, and broader regional levels. Classen parses the connections between local organizations such as the segregationist Citizens' Councils and the State of Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, "watchdog" groups such as Monitor South, and prominent figures in local newspaper, radio, and television management, as well as in banking, local churches, the police department, and the Chamber of Commerce. Structurally and ideologically, Jackson's local media were overtly "aligned at their conception with white supremacist interests" in "an intimidating white power bloc."4
In examining the NAACP's struggles pursuing formal, institutionally recognized avenues of complaint in this climate, Classen notes that the organization's emphasis on "changing laws before taking direct action" led to a dual failure: underestimating "the power, threat, and ready illegality...