People with a History/CLGH Book Review:
Review of Dow, Prime Time Feminism: Television, Media Culture, and the Womens
Movement since 1970
Anne Rubenstein, History Department, Allegheny College
Review of Bonnie Dow, Prime Time Feminism: Television, Media Culture, and the
Womens Movement since 1970 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press,
Television matters to scholars of lesbian lives and gender ideologies, as we can see by
considering some recent events. Which do you think was the subject of more lesbian
conversation: the Defense of Marriage Act, or that episode of Ellen? But, despite
appearances, TV is not easy to study. Theres just too much of it, while the archival
sources (especially for television made outside the United States or before 1970) are
scanty. Above all, although almost everyone agrees that television is very important,
nobody agrees about why. Does TV reflect what viewers want, or does it shape what they --
we! -- think?
The range of methods for the study of television runs from participant observations of
communities of viewers to physiological experimentation to discover the effects of
specific images on blood pressure. Historians find such studies most useful when they
place TV in a social context when they tell us, that is, how TV shows are produced
and how specific groups of people interpret them. Thus I had high hopes for Bonnie
Dows Prime Time Feminism: Television, Media Culture, and the Womens
Movement since 1970. Unfortunately, Dow tells us almost nothing about the processes of
production and consumption of prime time TV. This book is, for the most part, an exercise
in canon construction. As such it will not be particularly interesting to historians of
gender in the twentieth-century United States.
Prime Time Feminism was written to analyze "the construction of feminism
...[in] popular prime-time television" (p. 19) but that is not what it does. Instead,
it combines Dows attempts to valorize the sitcoms and dramas she loves with a
reasonable but not especially original attack on the anti-feminist backlash of the past
decade. Dow devotes each of the five chapters to one show starring a working woman: Mary
Tyler Moore, One Day at a Time, Designing Women, Murphy Brown, and Dr.
Quinn, Medicine Woman. In these analyses, Dow pays little attention to critical or
popular reception; and she ignores the motivations and intentions of, or constraints upon,
the creators of these shows. She writes as if the shows themselves were conscious
historical actors. Given that assumption, she clearly and convincingly describes the
gender politics of each series, concentrating on their stances toward women at work.
Sexuality is marginal to her discussion, and to a surprising extent, so is politics
itself. Dow tells us little about how these series represent (or fail to represent)
feminists, feminist politics, or even female participation in political processes. Thus,
there is no chapter on Roseanne since that sitcom placed heterosexual
responses to lesbians and gay men at the center of its comedy and none on Maude,
still the only American TV show ever about a self-proclaimed, active feminist.
Beyond describing each series, Dow tries to place them in a historical moment in the
development of feminism and "post-feminism" in the United States. But Dow seems
to view this process as entirely rhetorical. She draws parallels between arguments taking
place in the semi-popular press and what she sees on the television screen, but fails to
connect one to the other. For example, in her discussion of Mary Tyler Moore, Dow
points out that Phyllis Schlaflys contemporaneous vision of feminism (man-hating,
anti-domestic) does not match up with Mary Tyler Moores version, in which the
workplace becomes a second domestic sphere (pp. 53-54). This juxtaposition amounts to
little, in the end. Why Schafly? Why Mary Tyler Moore? Was Schafly responding
specifically to the TV show, or did the TV show ever respond directly to her? If there was
no direct connection, why not bring in some or all of the rest of the voices in the broad
argument around the ERA in that moment?
Prime Time Television is an enjoyable read, a sophisticated version of the kinds
of conversations we might have with each other about, say, Seinfeld. But it does
not advance our understanding of media or gender in the United States; it should not be
added to the already long list of books we might want to assign undergraduates studying
© The Committee for Lesbian and Gay History [CLGH] is an affiliated organization of the American Historical Association devoted to
promoting the study of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans* history, and the interaction of
scholars working in the field.
Twice a year CLGH publishes a Newsletter which contains extensive reviews of recent books in LGBT studies. This document contains a
review from the CLGH Newsletter. Primary citations should be to
the Newsletter [and to this site if you wish].
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with a History. People with a History is a www site
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© Paul Halsall, November 1998