From ‘progressive texts’ to ‘postmodern ambivalence’
The influence of feminist campaigning for equal citizenship rights in the 1970s brought concerns over sexual equality on to the cultural policy agenda. The concept of sex role stereotyping is now widely used to criticize media representations and provides impetus to calls for more ‘positive’ images of women, especially in television advertising. Content analysis of sex role stereotyping has reported on over thirty years of underrepresentation, subordination and sexual objectification in the representation of women on television, although during the 1980s the effects of the women’s liberation movement began to influence portrayals. These changes meant that the aesthetics of the ‘progressive text’ dominated feminist media studies in the 1980s. In these debates, located primarily in film studies and adapted to television, the ideological meanings embedded in the genre conventions of popular forms were of central importance. It was these that reproduced the status quo, and it was therefore these conventions that had to be transformed. When it came to drama it was the question of role reversal that dominated. It was considered important for women to be in central roles as active goal-oriented protagonists whose desires drive the narrative and whose point of view the audience is encouraged to adopt. It was in relation to women’s role in crime series that these issues first emerged. Whereas women had been confined to peripheral roles in crime series, as either victim of the crime or girlfriend to the main male characters, once made central, it was they who were shown in control of the technologies of detection and law enforcement – the car, the gun, the surveillance technologies. Theirs was the active, controlling gaze and it was their knowledge that established the narrative truth. They therefore became the guarantors of the law that underpins social organization.
The important issue here is the limitation in simply reversing male and female roles. Role reversal might allow women characters to escape their stereotypical roles as appendages to men, but the demand for narrative ‘equality’ for women was also criticized as a means to encourage women to slot into the world of work without there being any need to make any changes to accommodate them. Hybridization of crime shows with the conventions of the soap opera went some way to answering these concerns. In Cagney and Lacey (CBS 1982-88), for example, the first police series to be based around a team of two female police detectives, it was an essential step in allowing a feminist critique of the abuse of women’s sexuality to emerge on television crime series. It invited audiences to engage with the politics of sexuality
through the crimes they encountered in their professional roles (such as rape, underage sex, domestic violence, pornography and prostitution). It was the women’s discussions about these cases that drew out their complex implications for women, rather than their remaining, as in so many crime shows in the past, simply a vehicle for a patriarchal discourse of sensationalism, voyeurism and paternalism. This was not achieved without a struggle. Julie D’Acci’s (1994) study of the production history of the series tells of the network’s discomfort with the show and how its survival depended on the intense loyalty of women viewers. Always marginalized in the schedules, it was only through organized campaigns from women’s organizations that it survived at all.
Cagney and Lacey was innovative because it allowed the possibility that the personal and private lives of its central protagonists could be integrated with their professional and public role as policewomen, although not without difficulty. Both women experience the strain of combining a personal life with the demands of a police career. Indeed, the relation between the public and the private formed one of the central issues of the series. In this respect the deployment of gendered spaces was crucial. Not only did we follow the women home after a day spent fighting crime on the streets, and see them tucking up their children in bed or cooking dinner with a new lover, we also followed them into the women’s toilets within the police precinct. This was their women’s space where most of the really significant conversations in the series took place, where they could talk to each other about the job and their personal lives without fear of interruption from the men they worked and lived with. Instead of disavowing the differences between men and women, this series explored their implications (Clark 1990; Newcombe 2004).
Hybridization with the open-ended, multistranded narratives of serial melodrama created an ideologically ambivalent narrative form that made the identification of ‘progressive texts’ far more problematic. It affected factual as well as fictional genres during the 1990s with the rise of what has been termed ‘docusoap’. Ambivalence arises from the multiple perspectives of ensemble casts and story ‘arcs’ that, as they stretch over months or years, allow for the exploration of complex motivations and reversals in ways that more closely mirror everyday life. This formal pluralism was found to be well suited to the mass appeal genres of prime time. Increasingly, however, it also affected ‘quality’ drama in the development of the ‘long format’ drama series. The emotional tone of these series also became more mixed, with shifts between comedy and melodrama creating an instability in the positioning of the audience in relation to the events depicted. These oscillations, allowing an ironic distancing alongside our emotional engagement with the drama, have been identified as the quintessential ideological attitude of the postmodern viewer in consumer culture. The multiple voices and comic ambivalence of these texts have been compared to the ritual symbolism of popular carnival in pre-modern forms of popular culture. The ideological work they do in undoing or reconfirming the disciplinary norms of sexuality and gender is undecidable except as an empirical question in particular local contexts. These questions are pursued further in relation to the melodrama and joking that characterizes the popular response to sex scandals in Chapter 4, and in relation to the ambivalent forms of contemporary television drama in Chapters 7 and 8.