About the Author
Jane Feuer teaches film studies at the University of Pittsburgh. She is the author of The Hollywood Musical and coeditor of MTM: "Quality Televison."
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Seeing Through the Eighties
Television and Reaganism
By Jane Feuer
Duke University PressCopyright © 1995 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
The Made-for-TV "Trauma Drama": Neoconservative Nightmare or Radical Critique?
An Iowa farm wife takes on the U.S. Army after her son is killed by "friendly fire" in Vietnam; a mother battles the legislature to change the drunk driving laws after her daughter is killed; a father gets Congress to tighten the FBI'S authority to investigate the murders of children after his son is abducted in a shopping mall; a battered wife, cast aside by numerous human welfare bureaucracies, sets fire to her husband's bed; distraught parents battle the medical establishment to stop treatment of their severely impaired child in a neonatal intensive care unit; parents unable to control their wayward drug-addicted son lock him out of the house. This massive loss of faith by individuals in institutions occurred not only in the courts and homes and hospitals of America during the 1980s, but also on its TV screens. Beginning in 1979, a wave of made-for-TV movies known in the trade as "trauma dramas" appeared on the U.S. airwaves, on all three networks and with a variety of creative personnel (see appendix A). The eighties version of the "sociological film" or "public service drama" resolved the traumas of the American family in a rejuvenation of public institutions by the people, the same promise that got Reagan elected.
Although there existed a long tradition of socially realistic literature and film that mirrored social problems in the dilemmas of families, this group of films seemed peculiarly symptomatic of the popular frustrations that brought Reagan to office and fueled the New Right engine of the 1980s. These films invoked a long tradition of American populism, but gave it an inflection that was specific to the Reagan agenda. According to Kevin P. Phillips, the new conservatism of the Reagan era was not really conservatism, in the classic sense, but rather a manifestation with populist and radical roots: "In many ways, populism, not conservatism, is the electoral force unique to our politics.... American populism has gathered force and helped to give ideological direction to the nation when it confronted various historical crossroads" (1983, pp. xxii). Since Phillips believes that the 1960s and 1970s "are second only to the Civil War and the decade preceding it as a time of national breakdown," it is not surprising that the aftermath of this period should see a populist revival (1983, p.18). Although populism is often associated with agrarian issues, even the author of a book focusing on the agrarian dimension of populism in the popular culture of the 1980s agrees that "the strongest expression of populism in the 1980s is not so much the agrarian issues as the overall disillusionment with politics" (Webster 1988, p. 4). It is precisely this populist and anti-institutional rather than specifically conservative ideology that is manifested in the films that I will analyze in this chapter. I hope to show that the frustration expressed in the films reflects the real social frustrations of the times, but that the political inflection of such frustrations is subject to debate—for the new populism as embodied in these films is not unambiguously right wing in sentiment.
Why should the made-for-Tv movie be the televisual form that renders the "center extremist" agenda most clearly? One answer is that it is not. Many forms of television in the eighties expressed frustration with the legal system. The cop show in particular expresses a neoconservative agenda, rife with criminals getting away with murder on legal technicalities based on flawed liberal reasoning. Hill Street Blues endlessly invoked this scenario. So did the news—but the news was not supposed to narrativize too much or identify too blatantly with a particular viewpoint. The made-for-TV movie with its tradition of social realism combines the ideology of the cop show with the reality claims of the news. In fact many of these trauma dramas take the form of the docudrama, by definition a narrative representation of "real people" and "real events." So much of the impact of the trauma drama consists in this badge of authenticity—"this really happened to people just like you." In this sense the docudrama represents the inverse of the typical Hollywood fiction film with its inevitable disclaimer: "any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is unintentional." The claims to truth status appear right up front, often reinforced by being read by an intimidating male voice: "The story you are about to see is true. The names of the principal characters and government officials depicted have not been changed" (Adam, 1983). "On May 3,1980, Cari Lightner was struck by a drunk driver. The following is based on her true story" (M.A.D.D., 1983). "Farrah Fawcett in a powerful drama torn from today's headlines—based on a true story of a woman trapped in a brutal and violent marriage until the night she struck back" (The Burning Bed, 1984). "On March 15,1982, actress Theresa Saldana was viciously attacked and repeatedly stabbed. She barely survived. This is her story" (Victims for Victims, 1984). At times the claim to authenticity approaches the voyeuristic—as when, in Victims for Victims, actress Theresa Saldana reenacts her own traumatic knife attack or when in The Ann Jillian Story (1988) that actress recreates her own encounter with breast cancer. Even in those trauma dramas that are not docudramas—known tellingly as "fictionalized" versions—the level of topicality implies "truth to life." In Toughlove (1985), for example, a fictional family is torn apart by the son's drug habit. The movie's authenticity is affirmed when the parents seek help from the actual organization Toughlove. They too receive a civics lecture indistinguishable from those in docudramas (permissive child rearing has ruined our country—lock your kid out of the house—you have rights too). The fact that even in the "fictionalized" accounts the "problem" may be dealt with after the film by means of what I will call "nonstory" materials lends further authenticity to the trauma. An Early Frost (1985), the AIDS trauma drama, is, technically speaking, fictionalized, and yet the trauma dealt with became the subject of followup segments on the news.
A TV Guide "Commentary" from 1987 is typical of elitist criticism of the docudrama form. Titled "Danger! Please Don't Mix Facts with Fiction," the article has no trouble with the epistemological questions over which theorists agonize: "Too many people, I fear, think these fictionalized movies are true; too many people, I fear, are forming—and then transmitting—their final impressions of the major social and political events of our time on the basis of fictionalized movies, rather than on the basis of historical fact" (TV Guide 1987, p. 12).
Putting aside the author's assurance of the knowability of "facts," I would argue that the nonelite classes have always received their "history" in the form of narrative, making narrative and history mutually reinforcing—the "facts" are made pleasurable through narrative; narrative is made more enlightening through a moralizing discourse. Television's tendency to treat history as narrative is nothing new. In his study of the history of the concept of objectivity in American journalism, Michael Schudson distinguishes between the "story" ideal and the "information" ideal as models for journalism (1978).
Tracing the ascendancy of the New York Times in the 1890s as the model for "accuracy" in journalism, Schudson points out that neither of these competing models has a greater claim to the "truth." The story ideal, embodied in the popular newspapers of Pulitzer and Hearst, fulfilled an "aesthetic" function of storytelling, according to an analysis by George Herbert Mead quoted by Schudson. Here the "consummatory value" of the news is most important. The reporter's object is to get "a story" and to select and frame events into a plot as does any author of narrative fiction. The information ideal—still held up as a standard in the TV Guide article I quoted—assumes that "facts" can be presented unframed. According to Schudson: "Rightly or wrongly the information ideal in journalism is associated with fairness, objectivity, scrupulous dispassion. Newspapers which stress information tend to be seen as more reliable than 'story' papers" (1978, pp. 89–90). Schudson goes on to stress the ideological nature of our preference for the informational ideal—showing that, historically, there has always been a strong link between the educated middle class and information, and the middle and working classes and the story ideal. It is from the ideological perspective of just this "educated middle class" that the abovementioned criticisms of docudrama emanate. Hayden White has suggested that narrative is inherently a moralizing form of historical organization (1980, p. 14), and it may be just this moralizing quality that offends critics of docudrama.
Yet the same moralizing tendency makes the docudrama especially well equipped to represent populist ideology. Margaret Canovan sees populism as "a family of related ideas that usually features agrarian radicalism, antielitism or both, and that invariably puts great emphasis on idealizing or mobilizing the people" (quoted in Phillips 1983, p. 32). The agrarian populist movement of the 1890s tended toward collective action with a socialistic impulse, but populism of the Reagan era was individualistic (see Goodwyn 1978). Although it is very difficult to express collectivity on film (whether because of inherent limits of narrative or historical tradition I'm not equipped to argue here), the expression of individual social action became the hallmark of the 1980s docudrama. Collective action, although implied in the films (see below), did not predominate. "The people" are idealized and mobilized through the actions of a charismatic individual, pointing to a contradiction between individualism and anti-elitism inherent in Reaganite ideology.
This charismatic individual is democratized, however, in a manner separating him or her from the kind of movie-star individualism found elsewhere in 1980s TV and in the White House. If in classical Hollywood narratives, beautiful stars become objects of the gaze, in made-for-Tv social problem movies, these same stars consciously uglify themselves (e.g., Farrah Fawcett in The Burning Bed; Raquel Welch in Right to Die, 1987). We gaze now with morbid fascination rather than lust at faces bruised or wasted by disease. Even comedienne Carol Burnett is cast against type in Friendly Fire (1979), her plainness now exploited for populistic rather than comic gain. Indeed the need not to provide visual pleasure is emphasized when actors are cast in the parts of "real people." In Adam and its sequel (Adam: His Song Continues, 1986), the parts of John and Revé Walsh are filled by the notably average-looking Daniel J. Travanti and JoBeth Williams. The viewer is given a small stab of visual fulfillment near the end of Adam when the real Walshes appear—both notably better-looking than the actors who have portrayed them, both indeed appearing by comparison to be "movie stars" just as the actors appeared "real." Indeed John Walsh did become a TV star, currently gracing the small screen in a reincarnation of his real-life role as the vigilante host of America's Most Wanted. Ironically, by 1991, Walsh's ruggedly handsome all-American face was far more familiar to the viewing public than that of the more ethnic Travanti.
In order to understand how populism works in these movies, it is useful to examine in detail the 1979 film Friendly Fire, arguably the earliest complete example of the type. The opening images of the film invoke the agrarian ideal, reinforced by a printed title: "Iowa, 1969." A young man, Michael Mullen, is spending his last day on the family farm prior to being shipped off to Vietnam; the opening segment of the film emphasizes what his mother will say later on: "My son was a farmer, not a soldier." As if the images of the sunlit land and the amazingly young blond soldier were not enough to establish typicality, the camera soon lingers over a billboard for the nearby town La Porte City, population 2256, "where people count most." Ironically, this image is given under Michael's voice-over reading of letters home from Vietnam. Because we anticipate his death (the film is a docudrama based on a nonfiction book and, besides, TV Guide told us it would happen), the first portion of the film seems even more agonizingly slow than its average shot length would indicate. Yet the death occurs only twenty minutes into the three-hour (with ads) docudrama. The purpose of the first twenty minutes is to establish a lingering afterimage of the normal life the Mullens might have had if the trauma of the son's death in Vietnam had not occurred. This pattern of establishing an all-American normality prior to the traumatic event will persist in every film. But it is the trauma that singles out this family, and therefore the bulk of screen time is devoted to its aftermath. These films are not about the lost or damaged children, rather they focus on the parents' efforts to redress grievances. This is why the charismatic individual is always the parent, in this case, the stalwart farm wife Peg Mullen, movingly played by Carol Burnett. As the film continues, we watch her (and to a lesser extent her husband) being transformed into what can only be described as a true fanatic. She insists that the word "killed" rather than "died" be inscribed on the tombstone and is relentless in her pursuit of the truth. This parental fanaticism is typical and establishes a prototype for future docudramas such as M.A.D.D., Adam, and Shootdown (1988). The major portion of the film depicts Peg's attempts to find out what really happened to her son, a "nonbattle" casualty of fire from "friendly" artillery. As she penetrates more and more layers of lies from the army bureaucracy, Peg moves away from her Iowa community and into the center of a national community of antiwar activists, parents of sons killed in Vietnam. In a telling moment, she informs some friends, "I feel closer to all those fathers and mothers who write to us [than to you]." In the process of taking on the army, Peg achieves personhood and even celebrity, but it is a grim sort of fame that alienates her from the agrarian community. As in Lois Gibbs and the Love Canal (1982) and M.A.D.D. (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers), the ordinary mother finds her voice in the public pursuit of an activism whose motivation is intensely private. Unlike in some of the later films, however, Peg does not mobilize the community behind her until very near the end of the film, when the tide has turned against the war. By the end of the film she seems no less bitter for having learned the truth, and the mood is bittersweet.
It was not until 1983 that the full thrust of the pattern initiated by Friendly Fire would be realized in two crucial and remarkably similar TV movies: M.A.D.D. and Adam. Now, however, several years into the Reagan administration, the frustration with social institutions that had taken on a populist form has acquired a neoconservative bent. Friendly Fire, because it focused on the anti-Vietnam War movement, over by the time the film was made, could inflect its populism in a liberal direction—liberal but not collective. These later films take on the individualistic populism of Friendly Fire and the 1982 Lois Gibbs and the Love Canal, which were directed at the army and the government, respectively; but now invest the antielitist desire in favor of a New Right agenda for victims' rights that will permeate the made-for-Tv movie for the rest of the decade.
In addition, these films stress the triumph of the parents in mobilizing the legal system in favor of victims' rights. They are sagas of idealizing and mobilizing the people, but they retain the focus on the individual effort. By now, however, "the people"—including the implied viewers—are on the side of the parents; it is only the institutions that need to change.
According to Kevin Phillips, the Reagan coalition's regional base consisted of the Sunbelt, the Farm Belt, and the west—"the traditional populist and antielite component of U.S. political geography" (Phillips 1983, p. 15). Strikingly, some of the major populist telefilms occupy the same geographic and ideological landscape. When we move from the anti-Vietnam to the pro-victim paradigm, we shift from the Farm Belt to Sunbelt suburbanites in Florida (Adam) and California (M.A.D.D.), respectively. This serves to identify the charismatic parent figure with the populist core of America. It reinforces the typicality of the normal family shown to us as if for an object lesson at the beginning of each of these films. Since I am taking Adam and M.A.D.D. as paradigmatic, I would like to emphasize these two (but also draw on later films) for an analysis of the plot structure of the 1980s made-for-Tv populist trauma drama, a structure that will occur in a number of significant made-for-TV movies of the era and reoccur, sometimes with variations, in a significant number of the films:
1. The family represents the ideal and norm of happy American family life.
2. A trauma occurs.
3. The victims/parents seek help through established institutions.
4. The institutions are unable to help them and are shown to be totally inadequate.
5. The victims take matters into their own hands.
6. They join a self-help group or form a grass-roots organization.
7. The new organization is better able to cope with the trauma, often having an impact on established institutions.
8. Normality is restored (however inadequately).
Excerpted from Seeing Through the Eighties by Jane Feuer. Copyright © 1995 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents
The made-for-TV 'trauma drama': neoconservative nightmare or radical critique?.- the yuppie spectator.- yuppie envy and yuppie guilt: 'LA Law' and 'Thirtysomething'.- art discourse in 1980s television: modernism as postmodernism.- serial form, melodrama and Reaganite ideology in Eighties TV.- the reception of 'Dynasty'.- overturning the Reagan era.