In "Situation Comedy, Feminism, and Freud: Discourses of Gracie and Lucy", Patricia Mellencamp describes the ways that the sitcom (specifically I Love Lucy and the Allen and Gracie Show) reestablishes women's containment place in the home at this particular historical moment. I know that pointing out identity absences is sort of the easy way out, and that this article is written at a time where pointing out racial identity isn't necessarily the first instance, but I do want to put out a reminder that black women's expectations was very different from white women's expectations as housewives.
One TV show that shows this role expectation is the The Beulah Show, which aired on ABC from 1950-1952. First starting as a radio show, It is often considered the first sitcom starring a Black American actress. The story tells of Beulah, who's a maid for the white family, the Hendersens. Usually, the Hendersen's get into some sort of trouble with wise Beulah somehow saving the day.
As Mellencamp points out, "Containment operated through laughter- a release which might have held women in their place, rather than "liberating" them in the way Freud says jokes liberate their tellers and auditors" (pg. 87). Just like the sitcom contained white women in the home, Beulah contained black women to other's home in their rightful place- that as a service to white people when needed, without threatening the racial hierarchy, and, more importantly, not threatening the white family model.
Tuesday, January 31, 2017
For my blog post this week, I wanted to use this opportunity to continue with a project I began last semester in my Los Angeles cinema class and that I will be presenting at PCA this coming April as many of the topics from this week’s reading relate to my research. In particular I would like to focus on the practice of consumerism in suburban families and the ways in which television functions in establishing the “other” in relation to mainstream society. I will be focusing on George Lipsitz’s article, “The Meaning of Memory: Family, Class, and Ethnicity in Early Network Television Programs” in order to examine the social construction of suburbia through the coming-of age narrative in the Fox television series The O.C.. I know my ideas are not fully flushed out just yet, but I thought this would be a good excuse to rethink some of my earlier thoughts from a TV Theory perspective.
As Lipsitz says in his article, the popularity of the ethnic, working class sit-coms of the late 1940s and 1950s was quite unusual based on the commercial funded network programming in place (71). Because a mass audience was required in order for networks to attract the necessary advertisers to pay for the programming and make a profit themselves, the programs produced at this time worked to encourage a “depiction of homogenized mass society, not the particularities and peculiarities of working-class communities” (Lipsitz 71-72). This tradition carries on through to today, in which the majority of television features middle- or upper middle-class individuals and families, because these are the types of families to which the television producers believe the largest number of viewers will relate. Because the TV family is in many ways similar to the real-life American family, this resemblance between television family life and family relations resemble life and relations in real families allows for “television families often comprise the lexicon used to discuss real families” as well as being “frequently seen to narrate, or even cause, changes in real family life” (Douglas, 164). While it is recognized that Cohens and Coopers of The O.C. are not factual representations of family life, these characters can be used as a method of examining the ways in which television families are now portrayed as well as granting us new insights into our understanding of what growing-up and living in suburbia holds. As Lipsitz claims, it was this connection to the television characters through real life, identifiable issues- albeit in “truncated and idealize” forms- that allowed the audience to sympathize with these characters and the networks to maintain their large viewing numbers (86-87). I would argue that in the same ways the working-class, ethnic sit-coms of the 50s were able to negotiate the unattractive aspects of the working class characters, the upper-class character in The O.C. were handled in a similar way. In fact, more than anything these characters presented the ultimate aspirational lifestyle for viewers.
While many associate the rise of consumerism with mass production during the industrial revolution, this trend can be traced back to more recent developments following the years of sacrifice following the Great Depression and the two World Wars. One major source of this new consumer attitude arose based on the increasingly widespread acceptance of television with it’s heavily pro-consumption content. For the first time in American history, instead of comparing “one’s life to neighbors, coworkers and friends, television characters and lifestyles became the new benchmark for consumerist goals” (Bindig and Bergstrom, 87). As Lipsitz explains in his article, television of the 50s functioned as a tool used for the legitimation of emerging consumer lifestyles (75). By seeing relatable characters on television acquire and benefit from a vast number of consumer products, viewers in turn would come to accept the new consumerist lifestyle of the post-war era and turn away from the frugal traditions of the past (75). In the upper class Newport Beach of The O.C., consumerism is ever present and completely engrained within the lives of all the characters. This trait is brought to light when Seth comments in the pilot, “Why do they even need a fashion show? Everyday is a fashion show for these people.” And keeping up with the latest trends and designers can be a lot of pressure for these young characters. According to a 2007 study by Molnar and Boninger, teens represent one of the largest consumer demographics, making up approximately $200 billion in spending power, which also means these young adults feel the effects of consumerism more directly (Bindig and Bergstrom, 87). In addition to the financial burden of consumer culture, it has been shown that these kinds of consumerist mentalities can often negatively impact the “physical, mental, social, and emotional health of youth” (Bindig and Bergstrom, 88).
During the Christmukkah episode (S1, E13) Marissa tells Ryan how the mall makes her feel like everything is going to be all right. She calls it perfect and says, “You walk out feeling like all your troubles can be solved by the right nail polish or a new pair of shoes.” However, her troubles are just beginning because after the fallout of her father’s embezzling scandal, Marissa can no longer afford the trappings of her former life. This since of loss pushes Marissa to shoplift several items from the mall. The effect of all this consumerism on the characters is especially apparent among the female characters of the show. For Julie Cooper life has always been about keeping up appearances. In her Juicy Couture track-suits and manicured nails, Julie is the self-proclaimed “Queen of the Nupesies.” Julie’s and her family’s consumerism and constant spending are the primary reasons that pushed Jimmy to embezzle money from his clients’ hedge funds. It was important to the Cooper family to keep up the appearance of wealth, even when they were left with almost nothing. Julie would often name drop designers and tell Marissa what to wear or how to do her hair, thus pushing her own consumerist ideas onto her daughter. Julie’s behaviors are very similar to many of the original critiques of suburban living. It was perceived that “suburbanites drank too much and were too hungry for status. They ruined their own lives, then forced their children into the same competitive mold” (Marsh and Kaplan, 43). Keeping up appearances is important in this environment. As long as the teens were able to maintain the façade of togetherness, then the parents leave them for the most part to do as they please.
Throughout the series, The O.C. continually perpetuates the idea that working class individuals are in some way more likely to fall into criminal patterns of behaviour. By continually reinforcing this connection, the show is in many ways suggesting that crime is inescapable for children growing up in this environment (Binding and Bergstrom, 50). For the character of Ryan Attwood, his broken home life is often taken as one of the reasons surrounding his sometimes-violent outbursts. In addition to having an absent and incarcerated father, Ryan’s older brother, Trey, also serves as a bad influence on his younger brother. Surrounded as Ryan is by these criminal male role models and with an “addiction-addled mother who fails to intervene in any substantive way, the criminality of Ryan’s working-class family appears to be pathological and dysfunctional” and the characters in the series see these as valid reasons for Ryan’s anger and violent reactions (Binding and Bergstrom, 50). However, in The O.C. crime does not disappear once you enter the affluent, suburban safe-haven of Newport Beach, the crime just changes. Where Ryan and his biological brother, Trey, were arrested for sealing a car, Jimmy Cooper was caught embezzling money from his client’s hedge funds. Newport Beach is therefore not devoid of crime, it’s criminals are just more “white-collar” criminals like Jimmy Cooper or the crime is masked, like in the case of real estate mogul and Kirsten Cohen’s father, Caleb Nichol, who uses backroom deals and extortion to build his real estate empire. Therefore, it is no surprise that both of these characters are wealthy and white because according to bell hooks, “class and race are intertwined, and analyzing how the institutional structures benefit the white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy” leads us to an understanding of how crime is perceived and represented among these differing communities and perpetrators (Binding and Bergstrom, 47). In the case of Ryan and Trey, the series portrays crime as being all around them and therefore their involvement is not unusual. In the cases of Jimmy and Caleb, their criminal acts are often interpreted as singularities within the community and are always justified by each man repeatedly saying they committed their various crimes in order to better provide for their families.
It should also be noted that ethnic minorities are for the most part not shown in The O.C., which is more than can be said regarding working class individuals who are largely portrayed in a negative light. Where you do see more diversity is only when you venture inland from the coast from Newport Beach. According to urban studies scholars, Mary Brooks and Paul Davidoff, from the earliest development of suburbs this separation along racial and economic lines has always existed within suburban environments. For Brooks and Davidoff, the creation of protected or defended suburbs has been one of the methods employed to separate rich communities from poor, “to protect rich Americans and their children from contact with poor and even middle-class Americans and their children, and to separate black Americans from white Americans. From an urban nation we have become predominantly a suburban one, and this shift of population and of lifestyle has helped to sharpen the race and class cleavages among us” (Davidoff and Brooks, 137). This separation applies to the teenage characters represented on The O.C. as well.
In general, lower class teens are not portrayed as multi-dimensional characters and are instead confined to the neoliberal representations of race, crime, and poverty demonstrated on the show. For example, the Hispanic character of Eddie who appears in the first season was originally depicted as someone who was “making it” in Chino. He had a steady job, an apartment, and was not caught up in criminal activity unlike many of his peers. However, it was later reveled that Eddie was abusive to his girlfriend, Theresa. While Eddie initially seems to subvert the cultural norms placed on him based on his race and social standing, eventually he conformed. “By depicting the working class [and ethnic minorities] as more dysfunctional than the upper class, the media are subtly suggesting that there are individual reasons for their economic situation rather than structural ones” which further sets the white, wealthy, characters apart from the rest of society-sequestered away from the riff-raff in their gated communities (Bindig and Bergstrom, 51). All of these things continually reinforce the neoliberal slant of the show meaning that by repeatedly representing crime to be linked to the working class, The O.C. consistently reinforces the notion that the inherent dysfunction of the working class is in some way a cause of their own unhappiness (Binding and Bergstrom, 51). Upon reading Lipsitz’s account of working-class, ethnic minorities in shows such as Amos ‘n’ Andy, it appears as if The O.C. does not fall in the same category. According to Lipsitz, “the working class depicted in urban, ethnic working class situation comedies of the 1950s bore only a superficial resemblance to the historical American working class” (92). In this way, ethnic minorities and the working class were presented as a ‘made for TV” version of their true representations. This makes me wonder what exactly caused this shift in television’s representation of these groups and what we can learn from this ever-changing perception?
Well, that’s all I have for now. Thanks for reading all my ramblings and if you have any thoughts or suggestions I would love to hear them because as I mentioned this is a work in progress for PCA coming up in a few months.
Monday, January 30, 2017
Bringing the World Into Your Living Room: A Parody of TV Utopias
An important set of topics recurring in our readings is how television has been imagined to be a sphere of liveness and presence, offering an (almost) instant and (almost) unmediated access to reality. It is supposed to overcome physical distance, and thus, in a way, override certain bodily and material-financial limitations on part of the viewer.
I would like to offer an example of a self-reflexive parody of TV utopias (which example also illuminates some of the social and cultural aspects of watching television in Hungary in the late 1960s): the very first episode of a highly successful Hungarian sci-fi-comedy animation series revolving around the life of the Mézga family*. They are a white, lower-middle class nuclear family, who are able to communicate with their distant relative living in the far future, whom they regularly contact to ask for his help in all sorts of everyday matters. In the very first episode called “Tele-Repair” (1968), their television set won’t work; after some failed attempts, Köbüki, the distant relative from the future, sends a device that “broadcasts reality-images”…
The episode is 24-min long and comes with English subtitles (while a great deal of humor is lost in translation, the translator still did a great job), but the most relevant, 1-min long scene starts at 22:43.
*Actually, there have been several different animation series with different titles using the same characters in 1968-9, in 1972, and in 1978, and a couple of more episodes were made in the 2000s that have not gained, however, much publicity, let alone popularity.
The Industrial Revolution radically transformed American labour in the general direction of regulation and securing workers rights, propelled along the way by the direct actions and legal challenges mobilized in response to atrocities and massacres against workers. In his chapter on ‘ethnic’ working-class sit-coms, George Lipsitz marks the 1930s and 1940s as an era during which widespread labour organizing led to major victories that improved the standard of living for the average worker. One of the crowning achievements of 30s-40s labour organizing was the institution of the 8-hour day and the 40-hour workweek, enshrined by Congress in 1940. For Lipsitz, TV became capital’s antidote to the threat of sustained postwar class consciousness into the Cold War, redirecting potentially revolutionary energy towards the seductive commodity. While the 40-hour workweek structured the temporality of public working life in the contours of 9-to-5, TV registered this absence in the domestic sphere and broadcast programming directed towards women accordingly. As Patricia Mellencamp notes, the Cold War policy of containment was also aimed at containing women to the domestic sphere.
The 40-hour work week also contained work time from leisure time. However, as Tania Modleski reminds us in her article on daytime television and ‘women’s work,’ this containment of work-time to a 9-to-5 window was never extended uniformly to all workers. She observes that gendered domestic labour resembles the televisual concept of flow, entailing repetition yet versatility in endless continuity, distinctly different from the product-oriented goals of 9-to-5 labour—at least, in traditional blue collar jobs. However, it strikes me that post-Fordist labour in general has come to increasingly resemble the condition of flow. The 40-hour workweek is rapidly eroding due to shifts in corporate culture and a stagnant minimum wage. Just as streaming has severed televisual viewing practices from the temporal regulation of broadcast, new communications technologies have transformed the workweek, demanding that workers be available around the clock. I’m not only referring to the perpetual white collar connectivity ushered in by the BlackBerry revolution (is that just a Canadian thing?), but also the neoliberal trends of casualization and deregulation that rupture the containment of work time from leisure time for the most precarious workers. This leakage is staged, for instance, in the bizarre direct address product placement that opens The Goldbergs and epitomizes flow’s attempt at seamless suturing. Despite Lynn Spiegel’s suggestion that this ritual’s cinematography and mise-en-scene clearly distinguish between ‘nonfictional’ ad and fictional narrative, it seems clear to me that the ad invites commercial life into the domestic space. To elaborate Lipsitz’s argument, this advertising tactic also deploys Molly Goldberg’s ethnic working class authenticity as capital—a sophisticated (if perverse) maneuver that seems right at home in neoliberal capitalism.
You can probably tell that this is a string of nascent arguments to which I have no conclusion; I’m pretty sure I know where the coherent unifying argument can be found — bringing gender, TV, and 40-hour-labour together — however, I haven’t actually seen the show, so someone is gonna have to help me out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LwDMFOLIHxU.
In her article “Installing the Television Set: Popular Discourses on Television and Domestic Space, 1948-1955”, Lynn Spigel ties the media outlets such as advertising, radio and television to understand the domestic space of the home and the role of the female body in it. Television’s role beyond as a visual storyteller occupied the women’s time and her space as a physical object. The commodification of the television as an object, as a piece of furniture, encouraged its ‘theatricalization’ of the home; thus, through analyzing various advertising from women’s magazines, consumers of television were offered the idea of the domestic space as viable alternative to movement outside of the home, in the real social space of live theatre. One can note that through the commodification of the television set, a women’s role as house-wife remained ingrained.
Spigel notes of the suburban housing boom, addressing the massive migration from the inner city to the occupance of suburban planned communities. The television was the form in which the wife was able to ‘leave’ suburbia without having to physically leave. The space between suburban planning and the city was closed through the images the television broadcast. However, the imaginary social engagement that television promoted didn’t convince housewifes who dreams of movement beyond the domestic space. Spigel notes “this problem of female spatial isolation gave way to what can be called a corrective cycle of commodity purchases” (14). The women is feigned the idea of pleasurably watching television whilst correcting her body into continuous domestic work.
Understanding the confinement of the female body that Spigel writes of, one can transition to the praisal of a narrative that the protagonist devotes its time to breaking from the home into stardom. Tania Modleski writes in “Situation Comedy, Feminism, and Freud” that Lucy Ricardo strived for a life outside of the gendered domestic space of the home. One wonders how this narrative is possible in a time of white nuclear family narratives. Modleski writes that Ricky’s “.. representation as the latin love/bandleader/crooner and slapstick foil for lucy’s pies in the face suggests that Lucy’s resistance to patriarchy might be more palatable because it is mediated by racism which views Ricky as inferior”. The housewife can upstage the male patriarch due to his race in mainstream programming. However, she never succeeds in leaving the domestic space. “She can never be a “real” public performer, except for us: she must narratively remain a housewife” ( Modleski 88). Her ability to move beyond the typical narrative of the housewife in early tv was afforded by her whiteness.
While reading the four articles assigned this week, Modleski and Mellencamp were the two pieces which brought the most questions to my mind when read together. The viewership between daytime television and nighttime television, and how they interact with women viewership and containment is what intrigues me. Modeleski explains that daytime television, including soap operas, game shows and the like, are meant to "keep her from desiring a focused existence by involving her in the pleasures of a fragmented life” (Modleski 71, italics my own). If Modeleski argues that “the formal properties of daytime television thus accord closely with the rhythms of women's work in the home,” which make 'repetition, interruption and distraction pleasurable' because “viewers reception itself often takes place in a state of distraction,” (Modleski 73) there seems to be an easy lead to this being a form of containment by keeping women from paying attention to the state of affairs of their own life. If they are focused on " a world in which characters deal only with the ‘large’ problems of human existence: crime, love, death and dying," then they are not being directly confronted with the unfairness of their life (Modleski 72). I would argue that daytime television, which only needs to create a form of containment by distracting a female audience, is a form of containment via fragmented stories and distraction, while the primetime television that Mellencamp breaks down, is a different form of containment via dual interpretation because a male audience has been added into the viewership.
Let’s compare this to nighttime television shows, like “I Love Lucy” which aired Mondays from 9 to 9:30 PM Eastern time, and “The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show” which aired Thursdays (and then Mondays) at 8 pm. During these times, the husband of the house was usually home and probably in control of the remote. Although these shows have "idiosyncratic powerful female stars, usually in their late thirties or forties” (Mellencamp 81), Mellencamp argues that they are still under great control of their husbands in some way. For Gracie, even though she “ always wins in the narrative, which thereby validates her story” (Mellencamp 85), “the truth of male vision verifying Gracie’s words is endlessly repeated both in the series and in this program” (85), therefor only giving her power if a man is around to support it. Additionally, “throughout each program, Gracie is blatantly dominated not only by George’s looks at the camera and direct monologues to the audience, but also by his view of the program from the TV set in his den, and by his figure matted or superimposed over the background action as his voice-over comments on marriage, Gracie, her relatives, movies stars show business and the story” ( Mellencamp 85).
Mellencamp cannot resolve the dilemma of “the contradiction of the program and the double bind of the female spectator and comedian--women as both subject and object of the comedy, rather than the mere objects that they are in the Freudian paradigm of jokes” (87) but I see it as a way of using humor and comic pleasure to allow for dual interpretation which keeps the status quo of the world to continue. If we bring Newcomb and Hirsch into the conversation, the concept that “individuals and groups are, for many reasons, involved in making their own meanings from the television text” (Newcomb and Hirsch 569) would allow for both man and wife watching the show to enjoy it together which also getting very different things from it.
A housewife viewer of the show can be entertained by and live vicariously through the comedic and rebellious housewife who often wins the narrative in some way, via being right like Gracie or going against her husband’s wishes and ruining his work, like Lucy. Maybe these small acts of power, while always leaving Gracie the butt of the joke (like in the episode we watched when Gracie decides to close her banking account without realizing her husband was going to force her to do so anyways) or while forcing Lucy back, “often gratefully to domesticity" (Mellencamp 88), give housewife viewers a form of contentment by the way a woman can harness the power in the relationship. As Mellencamp states “humor might have been woman's weapon and tactic of survival, ensuring sanity, the triumph of the ego, and pleasure; after all, “Gracie and Lucy were narcissistically rebellious, refusing “to be hurt” (94).
Alternatively, the husband sitting beside his wife may view the shows as a man baby-sitting his rebellious child/wife. We see this through other codes of the show other than pure narrative: “George is center-frame in the mise-en-scene and by the moving camera; he is taller than all the other characters; and he has access to the audience via his direct looks at the camera. He nods knowingly, with sidelong collusive glances at us (or perhaps at eternal husbands everywhere) ( Mellencamp 85). This husband, watching the show next to his wife, is not seeing the power plays of the wife, but of the childish behavior that is in the end reprimanded or joked about to the audience in a fatherly manner. And although the women of the films get the most laughs, like in the episode of The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show we watched last week, George gets the last laugh. While George is often the straight man, “inevitably, like the male leads in most situation comedies, he got the final and controlling look or laugh. Containment operated through laughter--a release which might have held women to their place, rather than “liberating” them in the way Freud says jokes liberate their tellers and auditors” ( Mellencamp 87). Through this situation, a woman can be pacified by her interpretation of the program, yet contained by her husband’s alternative interpretation and the fact that the show still revolves around a wife who by the end of the episode is happily still stuck being a housewife.
Posted by Nicole Danser at 12:13 PM
Fragmentation and The Universality of Soap Opera Format in 2017
In 2017, the role and definition of daytime television seem to be much more in the air than in previous decades. In reading Tania Modleski’s piece, The Rhythms of Reception, I was particularly compelled by her discussion of flow and its role as a reflection and result of the fragmentation of female domestic life. Modleski’s notion of fragmentation in the domestic setting speaks to a model that may have become more relevant to modern life both inside and outside of the domestic setting, In analyzing the development of television models/formats like that of ‘shondaland,’ one finds an updated model of the soap opera format Modleski describes that illustrates a shift in anticipated audience and therefore, likely demonstrates a change in the cultural landscape and disassociation of fragmentation from femininity and domesticity.
Modleski describes Raymond Williams’ view of daytime television as a “profoundly de-centering experience” (Modelski 71) and one that reflects the female experience. Modleski states, “The housewife, of course, is, in one sense, like the little man at the fun fair, unemployed, but in another sense, she is perpetually employed – in her work, like a soap opera, is never done. Moreover, as I have said, her duties are split among a variety of domestic and familial tasks, and her television programs keep her from desiring a focused existence by involving her in the pleasures of a fragmented life” (Modleski 71). Here, Modleski delves into the concept of interruptability as a reflection of the multitudinous tasks of a housewife. Modleski’s argument points to a need for the division of attention that is catered to by the content of soap operas as well as the flow of the soap opera, in it’s multiple story lines and sense of perpetuity. She continues writing, “The multiple plot lines of soap operas, for example, keep women interested in a number of characters and fates simultaneously” (Modleski 71). Interestingly, in 2017, one finds this model reflected in much of primetime evening viewing. The fascinating part of this comes from the expected audience shifting from housewives alone and engaged in work to entire families and working professionals during their ‘free time.’
Shondaland shows provide the perfect site for the exploration of the shift of fragmentation from a daytime to evening; a viewing time with greater universality. Shows like Grey’s anatomy and how to get away with murder subscribe to precisely the model that Modelski outlines. The sensational stories of these shows follow multiple storylines and continue week after week and season after season. Similarly the commercials cater to notions of interuptability. With the rise of streaming services, these soap opera style shows have even become some of the only shows with extensive live viewership. Might one then question if this increased viewership and reverence for soap opera style speaks to a sort of generalized fragmentation in the modern lifestyle? The housewife is no longer perceived as the person engaged in multiple tasks and sources of distraction, with the rise of multiple screen use and shorter attention spans, this has become the territory of America’s families as a whole. In otherwords, the fragmentation and principle of interruptibility that were once “crucial to the proper functioning of women in the home” (Modleski 71) have now become crucial to the function of everybody in the home and in front of the television screen.
Furthermore, these developments also speak to Lynn Spigel’s notions of “ideological harmony between technological utopias and housing utopias” in Private Screenings, Television and the Female Consumer. Much as Spigel describes the initial rise of television in the domestic setting, this new format serves to bridge the technological needs of the modern individual with the utopic vision of a multitasking, multifaceted domestic life. The stories in shondaland have a perpetual nature and are ongoing, just as the viewer may transition from a television screen in a house to a phone screen on a train. Thus the viewing experience is even more fragmented than it would’ve been during the period of Modelski’s piece. Additionally, Spigel outlines the need for television to serve as a window bridging the domestic with the outside. Presently, one’s television can in fact travel with them, thus, we may see a similar progression in television becoming more fragmented in its attempt to reflect this sort of mutability and mobility in the modern world. The domestic sphere is no longer as isolated as it once was, in fact notions of domesticity are in many ways collapsing and becoming disjointed as members of a family have separate viewing experiences during prime time. Thus the popularization of such fragmented material may serve to reflect this. One might add that the subsequent popularization of streaming formats, in which one has absolute control over pauses and interruptions, also reflects the fragmentation of modern domestic life and leisure time.