Sunday, January 29, 2017

Core Response for Week 4

While I found all of the readings this week quite engaging, I was most compelled and convinced by Tania Modleski’s “The Rhythms of Reception: Daytime Television and Women’s Work.” In it, Modeleski outlines the way that daytime television--speaking specifically of soap operas and game shows--interacted with, captivated, and affected the by-in-large female audience watching them (this sex-breakdown of the audience has to do with the time of day the shows were on--because they appeared in the afternoon, it is the housewife that the shows were targeting). And indeed, the housewife was targeted not only by the shows, which includes their format and content, but also by the commercials. Modleski argues that the flow--or rather the the interruptive segments--of both the content of the television shows and the commercials led to a state of distraction--distraction from both watching the show on display and from the often dull and monotonous work the housewife which the housewife must do. She writes, “Individual programs like soap operas as well as the flow of various programs and commercials tend to make repetition, interruption and distraction pleasurable” (73). While this statement can come off a little conspiracy theory-ly, Modleski, I think, aptly points to one of the effects of television--that is, its lulling into complacency. Of course, this is quite a large generalization and television has many effects, but I remain hesitantly convinced--perhaps simplistically so-- by Modleski’s claim which links the use of television as an outlet with the bored housewife.

Also in her piece, Modleski analyzes the use of close ups in soap operas, a move she locates as taking full force within this television genre. She writes, “Soap operas appear to be the one visual art which activates the gaze of the mother--but in order to provoke anxiety (an anxiety never allayed by narrative closure) about the welfare of others. Close-ups provide the spectator with training in “reading’ other people, in being sensitive to their (unspoken) feelings at any given moment” (70). If I hesitantly agreed with Modleski’s overarching claim above, I remain moreso convinced of her analysis of the use use of close-ups in soap operas. Close-ups, she states, train the housewife on how to read people, that is on how to figure out what people in her family are really thinking (this lack of knowing her family’s real thoughts and feelings is a problem that is also constructed in many daytime commercials, Modleski also claims, that target housewives as well).

While I have never before considered the use of close-ups psychologically, Modleski’s take seems to ring true outside of just the daytime soap opera. When I think back on my beloved pre-teen night-time soap opera, Dawson’s Creek, the use of close-ups was superfluous. Moreover, the entire point of the show seemed to center around the attempt to figure out what the characters were thinking: does Dawson love Jen and not Joey, does Joey love Pacey and not Dawson, is Jack dating Joey as a way to hide his homosexuality? These questions were all answered first, not verbally, but with the minute facial expressions of repetitive close-ups. In fact, I would venture that all of the night-time teenage soap operas of the late 90s / early 2000s make use of the close-up in this way. Thinking back on shows like Gilmore Girls, Everwood, and The OC, the close-up could have been another full character (but that’s for a longer paper another time).


  1. The psychological effects of the close-up in soap operas is definitely an intriguing observation Modleski makes. Her discussion of Williams's flow was also interesting to think about, especially in considering my own tv watching experience. I haven't watched any soap operas but I have had the experience of accidentally stumbling upon the beginning of episodes. As soon as the morning news broadcast ends, the soap opera begins immediately afterwards. There isn't even a commercial break to segment these shows, and the soap opera begins with a cold open. It usually takes me a few minutes to realize that this isn't a commercial and new content has begun. This viewing experience takes you directly from the real world to the fictional world of the soap opera instantaneously. Choice becomes irrelevant when it comes to what to watch because the news network has done this for you. No channel surfing is necessary in this case, which plays into Modleski's idea of programming and flow being beneficial to the housewife in a patriarchal society. She can stay informed on the real world while engaging with her interest in the soap operas with no delay and no interruption to her duties.

  2. I’m with you in finding most of Modleski’s arguments in "The Rhythms of Reception” quite compelling while often times thinking there might be some qualifications missing or different aspects of a phenomenon to draw attention to. I would like to join the conversation on the issue of close-ups in soap operas [from now on: SO]. I found that quote by Dennis Porter from 1977 Modleski uses pretty lovely and rich: “A face in close-up is what before the age of film only a lover or a mother [a (primary) caretaker of a child, we could say; and, consequently, we could add children, too] ever saw” –indeed, the quintessential or super close-up, i.e. a very narrow framing of the human face provides the viewer with a sight that would occur, in real life (in the given context), in relatively specific situations only. In other words, it is only in fairly or very intimate situations that we are so close to someone physically that from our point of view basically nothing else than their faces would be framed. The context of romantic love, sexual situations, parent-child relations, and close friendship would be typical examples of real-life close-ups to occur. So far, so good. However, I found Modleski’s exclusive emphasis on the evocation of the position of the mother (while dropping "the lover", for instance, from the conversation) somewhat unfounded. I’d say the illusion or vicarious experience of other forms of intimacies (such as passionate love, close friendships, whatever) a SO and its primary visual economy of close-ups could offer may be equally significant for the presupposed viewer, i.e. the housewife doing, for long hours on a daily basis, her repetitive domestic work in isolation. Emotional expressivity (in its heightened, exaggerated forms characteristic of SOs) might alleviate the sense of loneliness, isolation, and just a general hunger for a more intense and extensive affective life. I do not think the SO and its close-ups primarily or simply train housewives to be better at their role of caretakers—what is also significant, I would assume, is that SOs also offer escapist fantasies from that role, in the form of a more adventurous life, and of the sort of "passions" housewives might not experience too frequently in their domesticated life, yet for which they were made sensitive as part of the promises of what romantic love should be like... Furthermore, instead of offering lessons in how to read people properly, I would rather say SOs offer somewhat of a relief from that very need/expectation in the sense that SO characters are made to be way too easy to read (in their exaggerated reactions, or through their private reactions made visible which would be, in real life, inaccessible for other people). Like: “Finally, an (unrealistic!) space where I do not need to try and read people’s minds because in this SO universe, the intentions and feelings are obvious and I have a privileged, easy access to them!” So, to me, close-ups in this context are more about offering an illusionary epistemological certainty and privilege, and offering escapist pleasure from everyday, domestic dullness, than directly reinforcing the very expectations of the dullness, i.e. some of the burdens of femininity.
    Thus, while I am, in general, in agreement with the main lines of argumentations Modleski offers here, I might want to put the emphases differently. I find her highlighting the anxiety-inducing potential of close-ups, and their being meant to “train” mothers/housewives in “reading other people” and to reiterate the expectation put on them to be attentive to others’ needs a less plausible explanation (or a very partial one at best). Modelski herself brings up, later on, the issue of the sense of “nearness” (though I would not use this in the sense Irigaray does—I do not think that is valid for the kind of relationality we talk about here)—I’d say this "nearness"/intimacy is more relevant as a motivational, incentive factor in explaining the appeal of SO close-ups than where Modleski puts her emphasis.