Tube Tied: Why Television Is Good For Women, and an Introduction

Hi Bitch blog readers! I'm a sometime blogger (under an assumed name, mostly, but my sorely neglected personal blog is here) and I can't tell you how excited I am to be associated with Bitch even briefly. I am incredibly honored to get to talk to and with you for the next few weeks about women and television, a subject about which I am embarrassed to say I know entirely too much.

I shouldn't be embarrassed, right? But I am. If you are a Bitch reader and a dedicated TV watcher you probably know what I'm talking about. When you are a lefty feminist caterwauler type, and you tend to hang out with other lefty (and frequently feminist) caterwauler types, TV is a thing which one does not confess to watching very much. (And you are not supposed to have cable, ever. Seriously uncool, cable is.) So consumerist! There was that show about paying people to get married! Those horrible Speidi people! Trashy! Pedestrian! You'd so much rather be spending your time reading de Beauvoir or H.D. or hell, at the very least, Naomi Klein and Mother Jones. And your Netflix queue is rife with Truffaut and Antonioni and basically anything that isn't an American movie made in the last twenty years.

The funny thing about this moment in TV culture though, particularly in the United States, is how incredibly rich and diverse television programming just is these days. Oh, the roster isn't perfect, still far too few women and/or people of color and/or the differently-abled. Still far too much product placement and plastic surgery. But as any dedicated TV watcher knows, it's far too hard these days to say anything about television as a genre, because there's simply too many things orbiting around out there. I don't think it's even possible to find some kind of connection between So You Think You Can Dance and Battlestar Galactica.

Although, to contradict myself already, there is one thing I think you can say categorically about television: it's way better for women than any other performing art.

No wait, come back! Hear me out.

The possibilities that television has opened for women are endless. I don't think it's any mistake that when you think of feminist archetypes in popular culture, lots of television characters come to mind immediately: Maude, Mary Richards, Cagney and Lacey, Claire Huxtable, Murphy Brown, Roseanne, C.J. Cregg. What has American film got to match any of those women in the last thirty years? A Melanie Griffith Working Girl here, a Diane Keaton Annie Hall there, but those comparisons seem almost insulting, right?

I'd love for this to be the result of a high number of female producers and writers in television, or even the result of the fact that women watch more tv than men do, but neither of those factors seem to stand in the way of, well, the rest of television. I'm ready to concede there's a hundred and one horrible, misogynistic programs and casting choices and scripts out there in the television universe. Some of the misogyny is literal (Desperate Housewives and basically every reality television show ever made), but a whole lot of it is much more subtle (later on I'll be blogging about misogyny in Lost). And American television is, after all, made in Hollywood, which as we all know isn't much of a woman-lovin' place.

If television is (and it is) still a man's game, what's the explanation? My best guess traces it to the drawn-out nature of narrative in television. When you have 22 hours in which to tell a story, or even a number of stories, cardboard cut-out characters very quickly begin to run thin on interest – for the writers and for the actresses who play them. This can only be of benefit to women, because, as we know, women get the lion's share of the cardboard cut-out characters in our imaginary worlds: in the fictional universes we escape to, women are little more than princesses and hags, sluts and virgins, sassy Girl Fridays and nagging wives.

Television characters, initially, often tend to be many of these things too – keep in mind that Peggy Olson is, on paper, a glorified Girl Friday. But in the patient hands of Elisabeth Moss and the Mad Men writers, she's now something most women can recognize: a woman trying to make her way in a world whose terms are written by men, who doesn't like the hand she got dealt but plays it anyway, who smiles prettily because it's what expected of her and not because it's how she feels.

So while I'm writing here, what I plan to be doing, mostly, is testing that hypothesis against what's on TV now (and to some extent what's been on in the past). I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

by Michelle Dean
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13 Comments Have Been Posted

Nice point about the way

Nice point about the way that telling a story over time allows female characters to expand outside of their cookie-cutter origins. I think this has a lot to do with how dramatic television has changed over the past thirty years, so that we now have a lot of continuing storylines instead of every episode resetting to zero. Because of that, you have characters develop and move beyond the stereotypes. Another example that comes to mind of this is Annie from the BBC Life on Mars - she starts out a lowly policewoman, but ends up a full-fledged detective despite the extreme sexism surrounding her. If the show had reset to zero each episode, she would never have had the chance to prove she was just as good a cop as the men who never had any faith in her. Obviously there are lots of other examples out there, but this one came to mind.

two other reasons why television might be "good" for women

I don't know that the portrayal of women is more positive on television than in any other performing art, but I would add the following two reasons as to why television might be better for women: (1) television is much more of a niche medium than film and music, so that you can have shows that portray women in a manner that is, to varying degrees, an improvement from the lowest-common denominator of mainstream film and music; (2) a minor point: the types of stories and settings that are staples of television shows (family, workplace) are not ones that lend themselves to easily portraying women as mere sex objects (not that women are on these types of shows are representative of the average woman.

Thank you soooo much for

Thank you soooo much for writing that introduction...seriously, I take so much crap from my femme friends about my tv-watching habits. But I love it, and I say you can still be an intelligent feminist woman and watch some vh1...

Good to read you here,

Good to read you here, Michelle! I, too, am a lefty feminist and television addict, though I have only recently come out about the latter. Hard to admit that I spend so much time watching a medium essentially invented to sell stuff. But I now acknowledge my addiction and am no longer ashamed (well, not as ashamed as before). Maybe it is, as you say, that if I think about the cultural influences of my time, particularly of my youth (something I have been thinking about more since I became a mother), television is right up there alongside pop music and children's fiction. The Muppets (though lacking in strong, non-porcine female characters) and some of the shows you mention (Cosby Show, Roseanne) are definitely among them.

I would add the Golden Girls to the list of important shows about women in the last twenty years. Sure, they were not always the most complex of characters, but when will we ever see a show about single women over 60? People go on about how Sex and the City revolutionized television, but Blanche, Rose, Dorothy and Sofia did it a decade earlier. Not sure where the older women are today, even in this television age of genre diversity. I can think of Ruth Fisher on Six Feet Under, but that is about it. Oh, there was Tony Soprano's mother on the Sopranos, but that was some Freudian-style misogyny.

Can't wait to hear about misogyny in Lost (another show I watch avidly)!

I just wanted to say an amen

I just wanted to say an amen to the Golden Girls comment. That show is still the most progressive and feminist sitcom on television.

There's nothing on TV any

There's nothing on TV any good but PBS science series, football and baseball.
Sitcoms suck, movies suck. And how about some other examples - Gwen Ifil of Washington Week, the other ladies of the Newshour, and there are quite a few in the fields of astronomy and physics. They've made their mark and are ideal role models. There have also been photographers, etc. If you want to do something constructive, get after the damned fashion industry that helps promote these myths. And the stupid magazines.
Gamma Orionis

I have to agree. TV has

I have to agree. TV has truly influenced me in a positive way in regards to feminism. I grew up watching shows like Maude and Golden Girls and Murphy Brown with my mom. Shows like Star Trek had a strong black woman character -- on the command bridge of a ship. There have been many shows recently with tough female characters in leadership roles. Women characters are diverse, as they are in real life.

None of them are perfect. And there are a lot of bad bad shows out there. I won't even get started on reality shows.

But they've reached a lot more people than I think music has, more directly. There are some fantastic feminist bands out there, but they don't attract such a diverse audience in such an easy-to-access way. They've been more willing to push the envelop than a lot of other forms of media.

Speaking of Star Trek and

Speaking of Star Trek and TV...I'm curious to get some feminist response to the SciFi Networks' recent conversion to the SyFy Network, which appears on some level to be an attempt to shake its fanboys only image and acknowledge the networks' female fan base. I, for one, am a fan of the new slogan "imagine greater" and the new celeb-tastic ad campaign. But will more die hard fans, male and female, take to it?

I definitely did a double

I definitely did a double take when I read the headline, but I am glad to hear your opinion. I think television is the most current attraction people talk, watch, and listen to these days and it's nice to hear someone appreciating it for a change.

I'm curious to hear yours' and other's thoughts on what television has done to socializing. It's funny, I just moved into a new house and I must say the room without the television/computer is only set foot in when passing through to the kitchen. I am trying to change this. But honestly, how much time (this is mostly a question for TV watchers, which I am) do you spend in a room without a television/computer? Maybe I'm the only one in which I would appreciate suggestions on how to turn this TV-less room into a socializing dome. But I am just wondering, Yes, we are seeing these strong characters, but how many of us are actually being them outside of the screen world?

I hope all of us!

I'm really excited about

I'm really excited about reading your next posts on the topic and what particular characters/television shows you choose to focus on. I agree that there can be a lot of value in television because of the character development that can occur (I think TSCC is a good example of that). And I definitely hear you about television being "not cool" in the lefty communities...

I love TV

Television is more aimed at women than film, and it shows. I love TV, but only go to the movies a few times a year. I must admit that one of my greatest joys is watching hot, heroic MEN on television. Does that make me a bad feminist?

Sigourney Weaver, Mary McDonnell and Regina King agree

There is an interesting set of Emmy roundtable discussions with women nominated in comedy and drama categories on youtube.

Sigourney Weaver, Mary McDonnell and Regina King discuss why tv has more to offer actresses and viewers than Hollywood right now.

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