Redesigning Women: Television after the Network Era

Redesigning Women: Television after the Network Era

by Amanda D. Lotz

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Redesigning Women provides a highly sophisticated, expertly handled explication of the social and industrial conditions surrounding the emergence of female-centered dramatic series in the late 1990s. . . . Lotz's earnest argumentation and evocative writing style make Redesigning Women an engaging, convincing read and significant research tool for scholars interested in the industrial production of media texts, particularly those that contribute to the always-evolving cultural canon of women's representations."—Jhistory

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University of Illinois Press
Publication date:
Feminist Studies and Media Culture Series
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)
Age Range:
13 - 18 Years

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Redesigning Women

Television after the Network Era

University of Illinois Press

Copyright © 2006 Amanda D. Lotz
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-252-07310-X


Female-Centered Dramas after the Network Era

In the fall of 1997, the prime-time television season began much like every other year. September arrived, and audiences greeted a range of new series amidst hype and fanfare, although most of these programs disappeared from the screen in less than a year. One member of the 1997 class surpassed the competition in popular accounts of the new television offerings. Ally McBeal initially mesmerized critics. Its playful form, quirky lead character, and some quality that no one could quite pinpoint-was it the tone, the actress, the digital graphics?-earned it a place on many "must see" lists. But as her audience grew to know her, fascination with the title character turned to debate. Due largely to the singular yet complexly contradictory voice that the writer and executive producer, David E. Kelley, gave to her and the rest of the cast, Ally and her real-life counterpart, the actor Calista Flockhart, found themselves at the center of cultural debates about feminism, femininity, and womanhood.

McBeal and Flockhart-as many popular accounts conflated the two-were initially praised for embodying a curious mixture of success and vulnerability.Described as "imperfection idealized" and "quirky, contradictory, and wonderful," Ally appeared to rewrite popular definitions of the "new woman" character type, with many critics comparing her to television's original new woman, Mary Richards of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Ally appeared as a sort of "new" new woman-she came of age amidst contradictory messages about female success and assumed the career gains that women of Mary's era fought hard to secure. When we first meet Ally, however, she has only partially achieved the utopian destiny supposedly afforded by second-wave feminism. Despite graduating from Harvard Law School and working for a Boston law firm, the lack of a romantic partner imbalances her and leaves her constantly pining for Mr. Right.

And so the debate began. A range of popular and academic feminist critics queried what kind of new new woman Ally was. Her soulful longing over lost and yet-to-be-found love earned her the status of a pariah in many feminist assessments, yet audiences continued tuning in. The high-water mark of the Ally debate came during the summer of 1998, between the first and second seasons of the series, when a Time magazine cover story on the status of feminism in contemporary U.S. society included Ally in a timeline of feminist figures. Ghoulishly disembodied black-and-white head shots of the feminist thinkers Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan, and Gloria Steinem begin the progression, which is concluded by Flockhart as Ally in vivid color. Below the heads, the title caption asks, "Is Feminism Dead?" What had to this point been a random trickle of popular journalism considering Ally and her series now escalated into a tidal wave, with pundits in and out of the United States debating the significance of the series for popular understandings of feminism.

This "Ally mania" followed two years of other noteworthy gains in atypical depictions of female television characters that had yielded a similar renewed attention to the relationships between fictional television characters and the status of women and feminism. The appearance of "warrior women" began two years earlier with Xena: Warrior Princess in 1995 and La Femme Nikita and Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the spring of 1997. Less than a year after the debut of Ally McBeal, Sex and the City, a series about the dating experiences of four women living in New York, appeared on HBO. Subsequent television seasons inaugurated further changes, as an unprecedented proliferation of dramatic series with women protagonists debuted: Any Day Now, Charmed, Providence, Judging Amy, Once and Again, Strong Medicine, That's Life, The Huntress, Dark Angel, Gilmore Girls, The Division, Kate Brasher, Witchblade, Crossing Jordan, Philly, Alias, The American Embassy, The Court, Birds of Prey, Presidio Med, Girls Club, MISSING, Wildcard, Joan of Arcadia, Tru Calling, Cold Case, Karen Sisco, Wonderfalls, The L Word, Veronica Mars, Desperate Housewives, Medium, Grey's Anatomy, The Inside, and The Closer. All of these focus on one or more female character, and networks promote them in ways that are designed particularly to draw female audiences.

The significance of the concurrent appearance and success of so many female-centered dramas is noteworthy in relation to the historical lack of female-centered dramas. Prior to the late 1990s, U.S. network television primarily had confined complex representations of women to situation comedies (I Love Lucy, That Girl, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Roseanne, Murphy Brown) and to individual characters placed in male-dominated dramatic settings (Captain Janeway in Star Trek: Voyager, for example). Female characters first achieved central roles in dramatic narratives that included an emphasis on adventure, such as in Honey West, The Avengers, Police Woman, and Get Christie Love. These characters were central to the narrative, but they were often partnered with a man. By the late 1970s, a trickle of dramas starring women without male partners appeared: Charlie's Angels, Wonder Woman, and The Bionic Woman. They expanded the previous adventure/dramatic roles of female characters, but like their predecessors, they often relied on the sexual appeal of their heroines in promotion while simultaneously trading on the differentiation provided by featuring women in "empowered" roles. A significant shift occurred with the arrival of Cagney and Lacey in 1982. This dramatic representation of able female cops led to Murder, She Wrote (1984-96), China Beach (1988-91), Sisters (1991-96), Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (1993-98), and Touched by an Angel (1994-2003), as a greater diversity of female-centered dramatic series appeared and succeeded in drawing sizable audiences to their stories. These series anticipated the watershed of female-centered dramas that emerged in the mid 1990s, an environment in which more than twenty dramatic series with female protagonists competed for the attention of audiences. As table 1 indicates, female-centered dramas date to television's early years, but many of these series were commercial failures (lasting one season or less), and it was unusual for a plurality of these series to air coterminously until the mid 1990s.

The arrival of all these dramatic series-with their empowered and fantastic action heroines, depictions of single career women, flawed yet authentic professionals struggling with family commitments and occupational demands, and even the continued success of characters depicting a more traditional femininity-indicates unprecedented possibilities for female characters and audiences, as these diverse series exist and succeed contemporaneously. Cable networks specifically addressing women expanded programming targeted to female audiences during this same period. Some of the dramatic series appear on Lifetime, a cable-television network that brands itself as "Television for Women." Lifetime began promoting its female focus in 1994 and has become one of the most profitable U.S. cable networks, ranking as the most watched cable network from the beginning of 2001 through the end of the first quarter of 2003. The value of the female niche has not gone unnoticed; Oxygen Media joined the competition in 2000 as an integrated Web and cable media brand targeted to women with an edgier, more irreverent sensibility; and Rainbow Media relaunched their female-skewing Romance Classics Network as the Women's Entertainment Network (WE) in 2001. Lifetime also repackages its films on a second cable network, the Lifetime Movie Network (LMN), and it launched Lifetime Real Women (LRW) in 2001, a channel designed to specialize in reality programming.

In addition to these cable networks, which explicitly announce themselves as destinations for women, others target female audiences more subtly by programming genres and forms that traditionally have attracted female audiences. ABC debuted SoapNet in 2000 as a forum for a second airing of its daily soap operas as well as off-net, syndicated prime-time soaps such as Falcon Crest and Sisters. As part of the expanded packages available with subscription to the pay-cable network HBO, the service now offers the HBO Signature channel, which is described by a network senior vice president as "the destination for women" and promoted as "entertainment for a woman's heart, mind, and spirit." Cinemax offers WMax, a channel with "movies for every woman," and Showtime programs ShoWomen.

The appearance of so many female-centered dramas and the emergence of three "women's" cable networks invites critical analysis of the institutional environment that made possible the production of diversified female characters and the subsequent production of similarly diversified female audiences-as well as analysis of these forms. This book starts from the empirical fact that a profound increase in programming explicitly targeting women occurred on U.S. television at the end of the twentieth century. Specifically, a particular television form-dramatic series centered on one or more female characters-multiplied to an unprecedented degree in the number of series and the variety of forms taken by these series. The number and range of these series reached a high point in 2000 and began waning in the early years of the twenty-first century, but they remain more pronounced than in previous years. A second relevant phenomenon has occurred simultaneously. Female-targeted cable networks expanded from one (Lifetime) to three (Lifetime, Oxygen, Women's Entertainment) during the late 1990s and early 2000s, while other networks targeting women-although less explicitly-were also launched during this period.

In terms of dramatic structure and setting, the shows airing in the late 1990s are unprecedented in their plurality and diversity. The most similar moment in U.S. television history might be the mid to late 1970s, during which four dramatic series about women aired for a number of seasons: Police Woman, Charlie's Angels, Wonder Woman, and The Bionic Woman. As anyone even vaguely familiar with these shows will recognize, a plurality of shows existed, but they were very similar in form and in the types of stories their action/adventure format allowed. The multiplicity in series types and variation within type among the shows in the late 1990s makes it particularly crucial to consider any one show within the larger context of other shows airing simultaneously. Significantly, the women in these series share a great deal of demographic similarity: most are white, heterosexual, single, employed in highly professionalized careers, and live in upper-middle-class, if not upper-class, worlds. Despite this significant demographic similarity, however, the series explore a new multiplicity of stories about women and their lives.

The expansion in cable networks targeting women mirrors the contribution of the dramas, as they provide additional venues through which stories about women can be told. These networks also expand the range of stories told about women and their lives through a diversity of programming genres and sensibilities. The distinctive brand identities created by these networks indicate significant psychographic variation in their intended audiences despite similarities in audience demographics.

Much of the increase in addressing female viewers has resulted from changes in the competitive environment of the television industry in the United States and adjustments in the strategies networks and advertisers use to pursue this audience. The expansion of sex-specific niche-audience targeting from cable to broadcast networks illustrates the importance of female audiences, a crucial target of industries now defined by media convergence and corporate conglomeration. Broadcast and cable networks enact intricate program selection and marketing strategies to acknowledge the variation among tastes and ideologies of different groups of women. This market segmentation now expands beyond classification by series to the identification of discrete networks as the primary location for specific subgroups of women. Such labeling may not be as explicit as "Television for Women," but a review of programming schedules and an analysis of series reveals exactly which type of female audience member networks and their advertisers desire.

A variety of institutional changes have altered the conditions under which networks and production studios create programming about and for women. The establishment of a new institutional context and evidence of narrative changes illustrate the need for examining the intertwined questions of what these series suggest about the status of female audiences, under what conditions stories about women are constructed and shared, and what these series indicate about female audiences' narrative preferences. My analysis of female-targeted cable networks and female-centered dramas indicates a new plurality and multiplicity in the stories being told about women's lives on U.S. television, particularly in dramatic genres. This circulation of a multiplicity of stories about women does not categorically suggest a more feminist environment. Rather, my analysis identifies and explores the types of stories about women these series and networks proffer in order to establish the variation among the series, as well as to differentiate these narratives from previous norms. This narrative environment reflects changes in the status of media targeted to women and variation in the dominant stories told about their lives. It also indicates the need for reassessing critical feminist media frameworks and building theories that are able to analyze a robust range of textual context.

This introductory chapter pursues the related work of contextualizing and explaining the expansion of female-centered dramas and female-targeted networks, identifying the causes of this alteration of textual norms, and exploring the consequences for critical media scholarship about gender and television. The evolving institutional structure of U.S. media has enabled many of the textual developments examined here, as industrial reorganization privileges the targeting of niche tastes and narrowcasting. Such changes demand that we interrogate inherited scripts for evaluating media, engage with broader conversations about gender and media, and reevaluate the dominant language of critical discussion.

Targeting the New Woman: "Women's Programs," 1970-95

The widespread emergence of the "working woman" or "new woman" character in the 1970s provides an important precedent in which norms of gender representation can be clearly linked to cultural and institutional changes. The growth of the women's movement and the gradual increase of career options for women contributed to the changing cultural milieu, while industrial factors also supported new attitudes toward women as media consumers. Feminist television scholars, including Eileen Meehan, Jackie Byars, Lauren Rabinovitz, and Julie d'Acci, identified a number of factors occurring in the 1970s that contributed to making white, middle-class women an even more desirable demographic than advertisers had previously considered them to be, the foremost being advertisers' discovery of "working women." Women had always been a primary target of television advertisers because of their perceived influence on most household buying, but their importance increased when many upper-middle-class women entered the workforce. Advertisers believed that career women controlled much of their disposable income and had more of it to spend than housewives.

Rabinovitz argues that programming with a specifically feminist valence emerged in the 1970s because "it was good business," as a result of the organization of new marketing data into a greater number of demographic categories and what she considers a simultaneous coming of age of "a more independently minded female generation." The cultural examination of women's liberation in the 1970s suggested to advertisers that programming targeting the most desirable audience-upscale, career women-could be inscribed with more liberal discourses and representations than previously had been associated with women on television. Rabinovitz contends that "[a] generic address of 'feminism' became an important strategy because it served the needs of American television executives who could cultivate programming that could be identified with target audiences whom they wanted to measure and deliver to advertising agencies." The arrival of feminist discourses in sitcoms such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77), Maude (1972-78), and Rhoda (1974-78) marked networks' attempts to reach women who were experiencing changes in their economic and familial status with stories infused with "lifestyle politics."


Excerpted from Redesigning Women by AMANDA D. LOTZ Copyright © 2006 by Amanda D. Lotz. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Amanda D. Lotz is an assistant professor of communication at the University of Michigan. She has contributed to the Encyclopedia of Television, Second Edition, and other books and journals.

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