Melodramatic, Familial, and Feminine

Considering films about television mostly from the 1970s through the 1990s, Wagner and MacLean declare that “A dangerous association with femininity is implied in most films about television” (2008, 103). Of Network, for instance, they write that “Diana (Faye Dunaway) is television” (105), noting the traditional role of femme fatale she plays in threatening Max (William Holden), who in turn “represents imperiled male dominance, equated with reality, love, identity, and nobility—all threatened by television” (107). Studying films predominantly from the 2000s and 2010s, though, we see little change, as television’s sins and indiscretions are still regularly framed in feminizing terms. Operating behind many of these films, in particular, is an obvious—if tired— division of the world into the public sphere of interesting and important things, and the domestic sphere of banal and private things, with approbation shown toward television for focusing on the latter instead of the former. The public sphere is envisioned to be one of action, the latter one of melodrama. And though this distinction was by no means created by these films, and has been well documented elsewhere (Fraser 1992; Hartley 1996), television is thus both associated with a feminine realm of melodrama, discussions about emotions and relationships, and domestic interests, and framed pejoratively because of this association.

The stark disparity of televisual genres on show should already indicate to us that a very specific notion of television is on offer. In particular, most of the television genres under analysis are those that are regularly associated with women: talk shows, reality television, game shows, romantic and/or family sitcoms, and morning news shows. Our only exceptions are Showtime (about a buddy cop reality show), the few movies about kids shows (a genre that, in fairness, is often feminized too), and the films about evening journalism (some of which, as already noted, offer the few laudatory depictions of television and its potential). Actual television includes many shows about policing, the criminal court system, espionage, clashing clans, epic quests, serial killers, dark forces, friend groups walking around cities, superheroes saving those same cities, the undead, political machinations, and more, regularly voyaging into the public sphere in one form or another, yet none of these forays register in the cinematic landscape of television unless we’re looking at journalists. Even reality television, as the most over-represented genre in these films, takes the form of the more sensationalistic reality television of social experiments and bizarre contests, not the form of shows such as Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown (2013-2018) or such as National Geographic Channel series. Of course, these films were all written, directed, and produced by different people, and were never intended to serve as tiles in a complete mosaic of television; but combined the almost complete lack of interest shown in fictional or reality television that enters the “masculine” public sphere results in a conspicuously warped vision of television that seems determined to feminize the medium (and demeaningly to devalue it on that basis).

Dismissive commentary about reality television abounds in the films about reality in particular. Someone in Cinema Verite worries that putting a family’s everyday life on television will look like “five hours of passing the salt,” while in EdTVsomeone insists that toenail clipping is not exciting television. Reality television, in short, is framed as banal from the outset. What is more, though, it is framed as invasive—passing the salt and clipping one’s toenails may be boring for others to watch but they are also private acts, and these films’judgment stems not only from the acts’ boringness but from the belief that people deserve to be able to pass the salt or clip their nails without being watched. This violation of privacy is absolutely central to the critiques of EdTV and The Truman Show in particular, hammered home in countless scenes. Private lives, we’re repeatedly told, should be private, both because they’re not interesting, and because they’re not “meant” to be shared.

Over-sharing is the centerpiece of Welcome to Me, as Alice manifests her poor mental health by needing to share everything with an audience. She eats an entire “meatloaf cake,” keeping the camera on her the whole time, for example, and she calls up her therapist and has a session with him live (unbeknownst to the therapist). At one point, her entire apartment is transported to the set, an act that is clearly meant to suggest her inability to distinguish between private life and television. And this unwellness is directly feminized as she is at several points called a “crazy bitch.” Over-sharing lies at the heart of Little Black Book, too, as protagonist Stacey goes searching for her boyfriend’s exes. The “twist”—that her colleagues have made her the center of the story without her knowing it—only serves to underline the point that nobody is safe from this invasive reality gaze, and that everyone’s secrets and private lives are fodder for television.

The gendered division between television that “matters” and television that doesn’t is more clearly delineated in Morning Glory, in which the battle over the direction of the show sees the women, on one hand, opt for and prefer the feminized realm of “fluff,” while Harrison Ford as paternal, respected journalist, on the other hand, wants a more “nutritious” diet. This diet figures in an argument Rachel McAdams’ Fuller has with Ford’s Pomeroy: Fuller’s brand of light, entertaining news is likened to a donut, while Pomeroy’s preferred serious news is likened to bran cereal. By the end of the film, Pomeroy has had to come around, and his surrender is marked by his promise to viewers to show them how to make a beignet, or a donut as he clarifies and underlines. The film, then, is not wholly critical of entertainment news, allowing it a modicum of respect; but Pomeroy’s defeat is still framed as somewhat regretful, and the gendered stakes in this battle between donuts/entertainment/fluff/feminized stories and bran/“real news”/masculinized stories is clearly rendered.

If Pomeroy must ultimately accept a position between his old school masculinity and Fuller’s feminized realm of televisual success, though, Wagner and MacLean note that The Cable Guy offers a more pronounced suggestion of television’s feminization as demasculinization. As noted above, Chip’s pathological behavior is posed as resulting from the absence of a father in total, and from his single mother leaving him in front of the television all day long. He has thus “had to cobble identifications together through the personalities he saw on television” (2008, 128), and Wagner and MacLean note how often the absurdities of Chip’s behavior are framed in feminizing and/or homosexualizing terms, whereas the more clearly masculine Steven (played by Matthew Broderick, his masculine credibility established intertextually from his Ferris Bueller’s Day Off [1986] fame) is threatened by the obsessive, “womanish” (127) Chip.

The TV Set also frames television as a feminizing medium. We see this at one level in the contrast between the diegetic sitcom’s star and David Duchovny. The television show’s star Zack (Fran Kranz) is inept at wooing Laurel, oscillating between bumbling and outright creepy, and yet he’s framed as the kind of man television loves, while the film’s star David Duchovny bathes in an aura of masculine cool (even if, ironically, that star image was born in television show The X-Files [1993-2002, 2016—2018]). More generally, though, the film offers a stark gender divide between the men dedicated to art and a message, and the women ruining it. Mike has the vision, Richard is one of only two people who get it, and two other male crew members are shown to at least have artistic leanings. But Mike’s vision is destroyed by various women, prominently network exec Lenny and Mike’s manager Alice. Even Lenny’s sense of what works and what doesn’t is revealed to come largely from her 14-year-old daughter’s reactions to whatever Lenny shows her, and ultimately Mike’s capitulation to their demands is required by his wife, who sees his vision but poses that having money for their new family is more important.

Meanwhile, several of the horror movies situate television’s threat in feminized terms to the safety and balance of the home, not the public sphere or world at large. Poltergeist sees the domestic space terrorized by the poltergeist that first communes with Carol Ann, then takes her through the television. Twilight Zone: The Movie offers an image of a grotesque family ruled over by its television-obsessed child. Much of The Ring’s action occurs in the house. Television, in short, is a threat to the home, and to the safety of the family. In the parlance of horror films, the call came from inside the house. Even Pleasantville, though by no means a horror film, poses a threat of family sitcoms to the family, and the concluding sign that David learned this lesson is shown when he makes amends with his mother, accepting that no family is perfect.

Many television shows also mock and deride reality television, talk shows, tabloid news programs, and sitcoms as problematic because of their connections to femininity and the home, so these films are not alone in their criticisms. However, television regularly counter-balances these images with depictions of the television or film and television industries as masculinized. Thus, for example, David Duchovny virtually reprises his cool, masculinized Mike Klein from The TV Set as struggling artist Hank Moody in Californication; Entourage sprays testosterone all over Hollywood, making it a misogynist’s playground; Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip makes heavy use of tropes of masculine creative genius to depict the titular program’s diegetic creators Matt Albie and Danny Tripp (Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford); The TV Set’s feminizing Lenny meets her match in 30 Rock’s heavily masculinized network head jack Donaghy

(Alec Baldwin); and Bojack Horseman’s titular figure follows a journey that is often marked as specifically male, and one of its stronger satirical attacks is on the film and television industries regularly needing to prop up and manicure the egos of many of its male stars. Though rare, too, television has offered a few narratives in which feminization and/or women’s presence in the industry are positively valued, as in Bojack Horseman, Better Things, GLOW (2017-), and to a certain extent UnREAL. Thus, while television’s allegation of feminization is often targeted at specific genres and has occasional moments of reprieve wherein women’s presence and impact upon the industry are valued, film offers a more generalized and crude critique of the entire medium as feminine, domestic, and lesser because of it.

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