Television and Women's Culture: The Politics of the Popular

Mary Ellen Brown

Television and Women's Culture represents a welcome addition to the rapidly growing body of literature on television theory as well as to the development of feminist television-based criticism. These interrelated projects evolved, in part, as reactions against the "strong textual emphasis" of film theory of the 1970s and early 1980s, and in response to claims to a narrative and contextual specificity for television. Each article in this volume is indebted to three notable influences. First, to British cultural studies; second, to feminist psychoanalytic film theory; and, third, to the women's movement of the 1970s which provided a critique of cultural activity and generated an interest in "women's culture." The specific strand of feminist television criticism delineated here is what Brown calls "feminist culturalist" which shares a number of speculative assumptions with the post-critical terrain of "resistance theory" (p. 12).

The book is divided into three sections. Part One focuses on the development of an audience-based television criticism. Virginia Nightingale's essay argues that the family has been used to define the interests of women as an audience in ways which both limit the kinds of texts offered to them whilst working to define "women's culture." According to Caren Deming, the development of an audience-responsive television criticism can learn a great deal from insights provided by feminist theory. Dorothy Hobson attempts to understand how the pleasures of the paid work force might be connected with those derived from talking about television with co-workers.

Part 2 looks at what is called "feminine reading positions." As a follow-up to her study of the American soap opera Dallas, Ien Ang contemplates the pleasures attached to women's identification with both "positive" and "negative" feminine role models. Lisa Lewis' article investigates what she calls "consumer girl culture" and argues that it may provide a gendered support system for girls. Sally Stockbridge endeavours to reformulate Laura Mulvey's notions of spectatorship and the gaze in film to account for both male and female performance in rock video.

Part 3 largely examines specific television programs within what are defined as "women's genres" (i.e., soap opera, quiz shows). The one exception to this is an article by Beverley Poynton & John Hartley which looks at how women negotiate readings within the overtly super-masculine discourse of Australian Rules Football as it is presented on television. Danae Clark's article on the detective program Cagney and Lacey suggests that its appeal is based in the empowerment and pleasure of women representing themselves to themselves. Examining television game shows, John Fiske argues that in the "act of making do" with what if offered on television, women "play" with the discourses of subordination turning them into a form of empowerment. Andrea Press asserts that there are clear class-based differences in American women's identification with soap operas such as Dynasty. Mary Ellen Brown contends that women's genre television programs are often used to parody and critique patriarchal culture.

This research is an unquestionably important intervention in the area of feminist television-based theory for the primary reason that it seriously considers the ways in which popular television genres are intimately imbricated with the everyday lives of a great number of women. However, as Charlotte Brunsdon has argued effectively in her chapter in Patricia Mellancamp's The Logics of Television: Essays in Cultural Criticism, recent scholarship in this area has often tended to take a "sideways step away from the question" of value or judgment about television content. In doing so, critics have set aside such concerns to look simply at what people watch and how they use it. Whilst the shift from what some regarded as an overemphasis on television texts to a greater accent on audiences has in some ways been useful as a constraint on a tendency towards theoreticism, it has also worked to "further disperse the text as an analytic category" providing a growing number of studies which do no more than "accumulate an ethnography of particular practices." A good deal of this research has led us to what Brunsdon calls "the postmodern haven of insignificance" characterized by "the pursuit of the audience as a search for authenticity, for an anchoring moment in a sea of signification. Just like television, academics are obsessed with `real people.' "

My principal criticism of this collection is not so much centred on the book itself as it is against a certain type of culturalist and ethnographic audience-based inquiry, and its attendant "redemptive reading" strategies. More importantly, however, I am dismayed by the absence of contributions from authors looking at questions of race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Edited volumes such as The Female Gaze: Women as Viewers of Popular Culture (1988) and Female Spectators: Looking at Film and Television (1988) squarely place the interconnected concerns around notions of gender, class, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation on the feminist agenda for the 1990s. The indistinct political project of Television and Women's Culture seems to be generally devoid of any desire or hope to improve the lives of women (and men). As Brown herself states, the aim of the book is "not necessarily to change the world" (p. 22).

Nevertheless, I would recommend Television and Women's Culture as I believe that, despite its shortcomings, it represents a significant contribution to the study of popular culture, mass communication, and women's studies. I do so conditionally, however, as I would want to ensure that its largely undergraduate audience is made directly aware of the principal critiques of such research. This collection provides an important forum for debate around the issues of audiences, women's culture, and television theory, and, as such, deserves close and critical reading.



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We wish to acknowledge the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for their financial support through theAid to Scholarly Journals Program.

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