- Wallowing in Sex: The New Sexual Culture of 1970s American Television
Because it fills two significant gaps in scholarly literature, Elana Levine's Wallowing in Sex will surely be heavily read and cited for years to come. And because it engages with the "new sexual culture" of 1970s American television with expansive research and analytical acumen, it merits the attention.
While numerous articles have addressed various aspects of 1970s TV, the period has not received the sustained, book-length attention that other periods have, as witnessed by the roster in the Console-ing Passions series published by Duke University Press, which Levine's book joins. While Aniko Bodroghkozy's Groove Tube narrativizes 1960s television in regard to youth rebellion and Jane Feuer's Seeing Through the Eighties situates that decade's TV efforts as a dialogue with Reaganism, Wallowing in Sex now frames the seventies as a decade in which networks struggled to assimilate, and ultimately contain, the ongoing sexual revolution, which at least seemingly threatened to restructure American culture and society.1 As such, the book provides an overview of tremendous importance for television historians.
More broadly, though, it also provides a necessary corrective for historians of the sexual revolution who have collectively failed to assign television a place of prominence among the standard litany of phenomena that define the period. The breakdown of censorship and university in loco parentis restrictions, the birth control pill and increased reproductive rights, the women's and gay liberation movements, and the sexualized cultures of pornography, rock music, and disco have all received extensive attention, but television has generally occupied a marginal role at best in published narratives of the sexual revolution. Levine makes her case for its importance quickly and persuasively, arguing that TV did "as much as any cultural form to bring an acceptance of sexual change to the American mainstream" (2). While going to a movie theater and watching The Devil in Miss Jones and dancing at Studio 54 served as markers of participation in the emerging cultural formations of the sexual revolution, she notes, many more Americans encountered these changes via their TV sets. Because of this cultural centrality, TV became the medium through which many Americans negotiated challenges to the sexual status quo. Its legacy, Levine contends, is mixed: while television helped normalize recognition of youth and queer sexuality, for instance, it also toned down any radical components, rendering counternormative sexualities palatable to mainstream audiences. Ultimately, this dilution served the interests of preserving the traditional hegemony of [End Page 347] heterosexual sex within marriage, as sexual dissent was simply commodified and assimilated into a consumerist representational economy.
Levine begins with a useful industrial overview, charting the general shape of 1970s American television network history as perpetually third-ranked ABC made a stunning mid-decade ascension to claim the top from established industry champion CBS. This quick rise, she argues, was fueled by its use of sex to attract viewers; while all three major U.S. networks (ABC, NBC, CBS) had begun to recognize the use-value of sexuality by the early 1970s, Fred Silverman's defection from CBS to the presidency of ABC's Entertainment Division in May 1975 spearheaded a concerted effort, reliant on so-called jiggle TV, to capitalize on sex, which paid off when ABC took the lead in the 1976–77 season. By 1978 even the once-hesitant CBS had adopted the tag line, "Turn us on, we'll turn you on" (36). In describing this corporate sex frenzy, Levine deftly conveys the oligopolistic industrial structure of the networks, in which ostensible competition substantively amounted to mutual benefits all around. Because Wallowing in Sex will surely reach general readers, she might have explained relationships between networks and local affiliates a bit more clearly, but attentive readers should be able to ferret out the general outline, and Levine more than compensates with some wonderfully attentive research, even going back to Silverman's 1959 Ohio State University master's thesis to uncover his...