Differentiated identities and hierarchies of taste
During the 1980s, feminism was criticized for privileging white, heterosexual, middle – class women as the subjects of its discourse, while assuming a universal relevance. The ‘shared experience’ of women or its use as a category of political identity is, in these terms, made more problematic by its articulation with other formative identifications – especially sexual orientation, ‘race’ and ethnicity, and class. The rise of lesbian and gay identity politics, for example, challenged the heterosexual focus of gender politics. Sexuality was brought centrally on to the agenda, and the politics of sexual representation became more complex as the value of representing transgressive sexualities was argued against the more puritan legacy of feminist debates on pornography and the critique of women’s sexual objectification. Campaigns against the cultural invisibility of lesbians and gays arising from the ‘heteronormative’ narratives that dominated television gathered momentum in the 1980s, given greater urgency by the onset of AIDS and the political backlash against gay lifestyles that it instigated. The emphasis on gay and lesbian sexuality as an ‘issue’ was supplemented by calls for an ‘embodied’ sexuality representing homosexual desire. The challenge to heteronormative perspectives in drama is explored in Chapter 7 through a discussion of television drama, which culminates in a discussion of the widely acclaimed Queer as Folk (Channel 4 1999/ 2000; Showtime 2000-), where for the first time all the main characters in a television drama were gay.
At the same time, anti-racist cultural politics drew attention to a very different history of sexual oppression experienced by men and women of colour, in which a hypersexual closeness to ‘nature’ was attributed to black people or a mysterious eroticism to ‘Orientals’. This process of ‘othering’ , it was argued, secured a belief in the restrained, civilized rationality of white people. Disassociated from the body, this ‘anthropological gaze’ was accused of racializing the dominant traditions of film. Understood in psychoanalytic terms, this voyeuristic and fetishized gaze incorporated a complex mix of fear and sadism, desire and disavowal in much the same way that the image of the woman’s body had been theorized in feminist film theory. This strand of analysis is deployed in Chapter 5 in a discussion of the technoscientific gaze of science documentaries, in Chapter 6 in a discussion of the portrayal of ‘foreign’ sex workers in documentaries about the sex industry and in Chapter 7 in a discussion of the black and Asian gay protagonists in British ‘quality’ television drama of the 1980s and 1990s.
The feminist critique of the mainstream media also constructed a damaging gulf between feminists and working-class women whose cultural pleasures were centred on reading romance and watching television melodramas. To denigrate those pleasures as
ideologically suspect was to be complicit with a dominant hierarchy of taste in which women’s culture is labelled as ‘trash’ and marginalized as a consequence. This created an ongoing problem for feminist scholars who are caught between the desire to validate and critique these popular pleasures, and to find a way to reconcile the tastes of the majority of women with their own, politically motivated, and class-specific, criteria of value. Doing so, according to Brunsdon’s (1997) analysis, involved a contradictory defence and repudiation of traditional, domesticated femininity. In the mainstream, the low cultural status of melodrama contributes to fears of trivialization expressed by the cultural elite. The ubiquitous hybridization of all forms of television with the storytelling structures of melodrama fuels widespread concern over the ‘feminization’ of the public sphere and its lack of serious political engagement. These themes are taken up in Chapter 3, where the development of softcore television pornography is discussed in relation to the marginalization of women’s tastes and pleasures, and in Chapter 4, which considers the melodramatic form taken by sex scandals. Meanwhile, the relationship between feminine tastes and cultures of consumption and the address to a ‘quality’ niche market of affluent women is explored in Chapter 8.