symploke 13.1/2 (2006) 349-350
Marsha Cassidy's new book, What Women Watched: Daytime Television in the 1950s, looks at how early television tried to attract women with daytime fare and analyzes what the resultant programming reveals about the state of femininity in fifties America. Offering a feminist reading of early daytime television, Cassidy argues that this programming reflected the ambiguities and contradictions of 1950s femininity and its cultural standards, with depictions of the normative subjugation of women aired right alongside unprecedented instances of female narrative agency and moments of social dissension. While this dualistic theme may sound familiar to those learned in gender studies analyses of film and television texts, the detailed evidence that supports the book's arguments, especially the thorough archival research and the many captivating program anecdotes, as well as the deft incorporation of cultural and economic contexts make What Women Watched a valuable contribution to the field's understanding of the period.
While most equate daytime television with the soap opera, Cassidy illustrates that a variety of other genres dominated this daypart in the 1950s, with quiz and game shows, audience participation programs, and homemaking shows leading the way. Like the soap opera, the daytime incarnations of these genres were critically dismissed as lowbrow, over-commercialized fare that took women away from housework, their primary service to society. Each chapter of What Women Watched explores how television's daytime producers tried to exploit the economic value of these programs, especially their suitability for selling consumer products, while still positioning them as worthwhile, socially productive outlets for otherwise busy housewives. Further, each chapter addresses the many ways in which the frustrations that women felt toward their assigned social roles seeped through television screens during the daytime hours.
One of the book's most compelling chapters, for instance, looks at such "misery shows" as Strike It Rich, a quiz show in which needy contestants confessed their personal problems and then participated in a quiz to earn cash to be put toward solving them. Cassidy highlights one striking consequence of the program: it made visible the usually hidden disenfranchised of society—"the sick, the poor, the unfortunate, and the disabled" (105)—thereby drawing daily attention to the failures of America's social services. But along with this covert indictment came a more overt endorsement of stringent cultural standards of a middle-class life based in consumerism. This juxtaposition provided some astounding sights, such as a single mother answering quiz questions to earn money needed to keep custody of her child followed by a glamorous model cheerily plugging underarm deodorant.
A similar program, Glamour Girls, awarded Hollywood makeovers to despondent women, yoking femininity to consumerism and unattainable standards of glamour yet also producing an undercurrent of subversity. Cassidy incisively writes that "Glamour Girls emphasized the gender rigidities of postwar America by presenting to the nation an assemblage of women who were damaged and trapped by patriarchy. On a daily basis, the program linked misery to the bedraggled body and sanctioned public confessions that exposed the perils of gender inequities" (129-30). Cassidy's research on this program also produced a riveting archival find: a series of memos between network executives weighing their moral responsibility for exploiting human misery against the considerable profits that resulted from so-called "sob shows." Corporate discourse of this nature can be difficult to uncover, and the plethora of such rich research material makes What Women Watched a rewarding read for television historians especially.
The book's chapters proceed roughly chronologically, capturing the industry's maturation from the early production of low-budget local homemaking shows to the elaborate battles for the lucrative daytime advertising dollar carried out by network monoliths CBS and NBC in the late 1950s. A compelling cultural thesis also builds progressively across the book: women at home strongly identified with the mostly female studio audiences and contestants who appeared on these programs, creating "an interspatial community of women that was mobile as well as virtual" (11). Therefore, home viewers would themselves "experience the conundrum of televised femininity" (213), wherein women...