“C’mon Get Happy!” Partridge Family Values

by: Allison McCracken / DePaul University

The Partridge Family

The Partridge Family

Perhaps no program fulfilled what Richard Dyer has called the “utopian promise of entertainment” for its time more than The Partridge Family. A half-hour generic hybrid of the backstage musical and the family sitcom, loosely based on the real-life singing family The Cowsills, The Partridge Family aired on ABC on Friday nights from 1970 to 73, and on Saturday nights from 1973-74. Unlike its frequent lead-in show, The Brady Bunch, which never broke the top 30 in its original run, The Partridge Family was a top 20 program and gave birth to a huge national star, teen singing sensation David Cassidy. While memories of the show invariably focus on Cassidy and the teenage girls who screamed for him (and a remarkable outpouring it was), the release of the show’s first season on DVD offers an opportunity to reflect on the program as a whole. Much more than the Bradys, who became much more popular in syndication, the Partridges were of their time. The Partridge Family balanced countercultural and traditional values, offering all sides in the nascent culture wars the fantasy of a community brought together through song that was incredibly appealing. The program crossed generations as families watched together; 38% of viewers were children, 15% teenagers 28% women over 19, 19% adult men. Watching the first season has made me appreciate all over again the way in which the Partridges used bubblegum pop music as both a balm and an inspiration for a tense, divided society. It’s the best kind of fantasy entertainment because the program doesn’t ignore the cultural tensions of the time or suggest that they don’t exist. Rather, The Partridge Family explicitly foregrounds social problems, tying the characters to the historical context of the 1970s but suggesting that music can, if only temporarily, make things better and offer hope for the future.

As a proto-cultural studies child, I infinitely preferred the world of the Partridges to that of the Bradys. First of all, the Partridges offer a functional alternative to the traditional nuclear family, in which women are the main sources of strength. Shirley Partridge (played by the wonderful Shirley Jones, who had turned down the role of Carol Brady) is a pragmatic single mother, whose husband has conveniently died before the pilot opens. The lack of a patriarch is never a problem, and dead dad is never spoken of or missed by any of the five children. Moreover, the children look nothing alike, and it is easy to fantasize, as a friend of mine did, that the children have multiple fathers. Elder son Keith (David Cassidy) is the dreamy-eyed crooner, while elder daughter Laurie (Susan Dey) is the serious social activist, my first feminist model and one of the first portrayals of a self-identified feminist on narrative television. Precocious middle son Danny (Danny Bonaduce) is the resident smart-aleck younger brother and comic foil, the conservative minority in a household of liberals (the two youngest children are seen but happily largely unheard). Even manager Reuben Kincaid is far too ineffectual to have any real authority, and functions primarily as comic relief. In the Partridge family, feminine social values of cooperation are foregrounded; decisions are made democratically, and children are given an extraordinary amount of freedom to manage their lives and make their own mistakes.

The lack of nuclear insularity also gives the Partridges more freedom to be socially aware and involved. Unlike the Bradys, who live in some nameless generic white suburb outside of LA, the Partridges seem to really live in San Pueblo, their fictional northern California town (suspiciously close to Berkeley!). They are part of a larger community of people, rather than sealed off into a smothering little Freudian bubble. The Partridges frequently walk through downtown streets, and constantly interact with a variety of community members, including neighbors, school staff, business people, police, protestors, and audience members. The demographics of the community mirror the demographics of a Northern California town with its mix of different classes, ethnicities, races and religions. The liberal producer of the program, Bernard Slade, also created the Catholic/Jewish sitcom Bridget loves Bernie and was known for foregrounding social difference within his programs (often with controversial results, but not here).

The Partridge’s professional status as traveling musicians also gives them unusual mobility for a family “situation” comedy, which has traditionally focused on the home environment. Even the Brady’s take to the road only for family vacations, but the Partridges often tour across the country, interacting with a variety of people and, in so doing, encountering many in need of help. The first season focuses on the adventures of the family’s first cross-country tour, which gets them out of San Pueblo and takes them (sometimes literally and sometimes on the Hollywood back lot) to Hollywood, Las Vegas, Albuquerque, Detroit, and a federal penitentiary. As Laurie’s extraordinary assertion in the pilot suggests, traveling does indeed offer the family “a good way to find out exactly what’s wrong with this country!” On the road, they become enmeshed in a labor strike at their hotel, pick up a young female hitchhiker and help her renegotiate her custody arrangements, and help African-American inner city Detroit residents (headed by Richard Pryor and Lou Gossett, Jr!) save their community nightclub, even attempting to adapt their musical sound to better suit the tastes of the community (the result is more pop-“African” than soul). This last episode shows both the strengths and limitations of the program. Shirley’s attitude toward Gossett and Pryor can only be termed maternalistic, and the Partridges are clearly the protagonists; they come into this neighborhood and save the day (in family fashion, by organizing a block party). Nevertheless, the sense of cross-cultural solidarity and empathy with the communities of troubled people they encounter is remarkable, and perhaps best summed up in Shirley Partridge’s assertion at a prison benefit: “I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a convict, but I think in some real way, we’re all prisoners.”

Get Happy Banner

Get Happy Banner

The Partridge’s family problems are also a reflection of their social context. While The Brady Bunch focuses almost exclusively on problems within the family that are personal and psychological in nature (Jan is jealous of Marcia, Greg’s ego is too big), the Partridges’ problems are more often refractions of larger social issues: how to address the problem of teenage runaways, how to cope with social disapproval from conservative neighbors, how to get through the military’s ridiculous red-tape, how to draw attention to the poor living conditions on reservations, how to help solve the energy crisis, how to cope with an intruder (no need to call the police!). The extended family is also addressed in several episodes devoted to Shirley’s father’s fears about being no longer relevant to society (another ineffectual patriarch). While The Partridge Family addresses the requisite teenage traumas (dating, braces, overnight fame), it does so in a way that always ties the public with the private, making the child aware of the way in which his/her troubles occur within an extended family and larger community context. The public status of the Partridges facilitates this continual consciousness about themselves as family participants and community citizens as well as individuals, and encourages a sense of shared social responsibility. Laurie copes with her embarrassment at having to wear braces because the family needs her to perform; Keith’s relationship with a young feminist results in his committing the family to performing at a feminist rally, resulting in community controversy. Dating and school problems are invariably framed by current sexual politics, where equal rights triumphs and male chauvinism is explicitly rebuked.

While The Partridge Family offers good-hearted if unsophisticated solutions to social conflicts, its primary comfort is a musical one – the ability of popular love songs to bring communities together and offer a sense of, in Dyer’s phrase, “what utopia would feel like rather than how it would be organized.” (Dyer, Entertainment and Utopia, 20). The feeling of well-being that the family’s smiling faces and Keith’s enthusiastic crooning conveys are all the more pleasurable and meaningful because of the way in which the program situates its musical healing explicitly within a divided social context. The best example of this from the first season is “My Son, the Feminist” (mentioned above) in which the Partridges perform at a “POW” (Power of Women) rally. After they agree to appear, Shirley is attacked by a group of “Moral Watchdogs” (Phyllis Schlaflys-lite), who threaten to ostracize her from the community, enraging her. At the rally, Keith performs the show’s biggest hit “I Think I love You,” soothing the hurt feelings of his feminist girlfriend and winning over half of the Moral Watchdogs, who have shown up to protest: “Believe Me/I Only Want to Make You Happy,” croons David/Keith. And he does. In this context, what is apolitical and escapist music becomes more resonant because of its attachment to social issues and its function as a mediator, alleviating the tensions created by the narrative and offering hope for community consensus. In these moments, the personal is indeed political as the diverse citizenry, inspired by the Partridge’s, also unites and harmonizes together. The Partridge Family, through blissful music and sheer good will, makes such reconciliation possible.

Partridge Family Unofficial Website
Laurie Partridge, Budding Feminist

Image Credits:
1. The Partridge Family
2. Get Happy Banner

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Evaluating TV Smarts in the Public Sphere

by: Allison McCracken / DePaul University

Book Cover
Everything Bad is Good for You

The April 24th edition of The New York Times Magazine carried an intriguingly titled article, “Watching TV Makes You Smarter.” As is common to the Times, the article was an excerpt from a new book by cultural critic Steven Johnson, Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter. Since the Times piece, the book has become the media darling of many in the liberal media establishment, which has run feature stories and positive reviews of Johnson’s “provocative” and even “brilliant” thesis: that television is valuable because of the “cognitive workout” its formal complexities offer the viewer. Johnson’s defense of popular media is, not surprisingly, a welcome relief for liberals weary of most media effects studies, which serve both high cultural elitists and conservatives by emphasizing television’s infantilizing properties and/or its promotion of violence and indecency.

But what interests me about the public embrace of Johnson’s work and why I think it is important to examine, are the terms of his defense of television and what they reveal about the place of television studies in the public sphere. Unlike television critics who want to endorse certain programs as art or as ethically or morally superior, Johnson’s approach offers a cognitive blueprint for television studies that evaluates programs based on their structural complexity and their promotion of strategy skills. This approach certainly has its shortcomings as a method (its almost exclusively textual focus and ahistorical nature), but it could valuably be employed to shake up the current television canon. After all, if we’re going to utilize an approach that removes the industrial, generic, historical and political context of television programs to focus on formal elements, shouldn’t that make possible a new kind of textual adultery that would question or at least expose our assumptions about television quality? In such a study, soap operas and Court TV could be considered as the structural equals of prime time dramas and children’s programming could be evaluated against the ABC Evening News (I suspect Blue’s Clues would fare very well). Sounds promising, yes?

Would that were the case. Instead, we find ourselves with yet another argument as to why The Sopranos is the best show in television history (and do we really need another one?) Far from breaking new ground with his analysis, Johnson’s argument replicates and reinforces existing social hierarchies in television discourse by providing yet another method with which to validate an elitist, masculinist, capitalist view of what is valuable about the box and its audience. Johnson’s biases – ones shared by many tv critics, viewers and, I’ll warrant, more than a few scholars – are most obvious in his definitions of “complexity and “intelligence,” as well as the kinds of “strategies” and “pleasures” he argues TV teaches and the value judgments he attaches to his results.

To wit:
Complexity and Intelligence: A television text is complex, according to Johnson, based on how many narrative threads it has operating at any one time, its degree of seriality, how much information it conveys, and the number of characters in motion. Quantity over quality is important here — the more plot threads, the more info, the more characters, the more intensely serial — the more complex and therefore better the text. Soap operas, which get drive-by mention here as important original texts in this regard, have been replaced by “smarter” programs with more narrative threads, more characters, and more plot. This scheme results in Johnson’s elevating a ludicrously overplotted program like 24 to Shakespearean proportions, while giving no acknowledgment of the kinds of complexity that are defined by depth rather than breadth. Depth is most easily demonstrated in programs that focus on relationships between people or single ethical or social dilemmas rather than a relentless move through plot points. And depth is often difficult to achieve in programs that are overpopulated. Simply having many characters does not make for a “complex social network,” especially if those characters are thinly drawn (as in 24). Johnson fails to recognize that the psychological shifts in individuals and the social reverberations taking place among couples and small groups also constitute complexity, just as the presentation of an ethical or social problem on any non-serial program can solicit complex analyses. Roseanne may only have six characters, yet the relationships between them and the cultural critique the program offers is as or more complex as any episode of The Sopranos.

It’s no coincidence, of course, that character depth and relationship complexity are considered feminine tv territory, and “social problem” or genre programs generally mass or low art. But more than a gender or low art bias seems to be at work when Johnson neglects to mention HBO’s Oz or The Wire — surely the most complex of serial/action programs according to Johnson’s criteria. The critiques of normative white masculinity these shows offer (reflected in the class, racial and sexual diversity of their casts) would seem to make them arguably more complex than The Sopranos, yet Johnson follows the lead of many critics by neglecting to mention or promote them. This omission suggests that the level of social critique a program makes is not a marker of complexity in Johnson’s schema, and therefore tellingly not a factor in determining whether the program should be recommended to smarten audiences.

Intelligence and Strategy: Johnson provocatively states that most programs associated with quality television don’t actually help make you smarter because “there’s no intellectual labor involved,” since the intelligence in programs like Mary Tyler Moore and Frasier is already on the screen. Thus, intelligence here, again, is not about relationship depth or complexity or social critique (upon which much comedy depends), or even the kinds of social knowledge some audiences might be getting by watching Will and Grace. Such narrative fictions are merely “absorbed,” according to Johnson, but overpopulated serials and reality programs “engage the mind.” Johnson’s argument about reality programs is particularly revealing because he suggests that reality tv (like the video games he also defends) encourages its audience to strategize and evaluate the strategies of others. At long last, emotion makes an appearance when Johnson argues that reality programs encourage a kind of “emotional intelligence,” but only so audiences can better read the emotions of contestants in order to figure out who’s going to win. Reality television, concludes Johnson, is thus more engaging and makes us smarter than traditional narratives which also “trigger emotional connections to characters” because “traditional narratives aren’t about strategy.”

The social values being promoted here are clear: attention to emotion and social relationships on television (feminine values) is only really good for us if it is linked in some way to strategy and competition (masculine values). Certainly, strategic thinking “engages the mind”– but what does it engage the mind to do? Apparently, it teaches us to better read people’s emotions so we can more efficiently leave them in our dust as we climb the ladder of success. But do we really want to be training a nation of Karl Roves? Because Johnson’s “smart” television privileges the individual over the community, he never suggests the ways in which emotional or social awareness might also be valuable because it offers insight into other people, ways to build community, to bridge difference, and to create mutual understanding. Instead, Johnson’s television follows the good old-fashioned Protestant work ethic, in which the “mental labor” of watching the Apprentice pays off handsomely in the Big Boardroom of Life.

Pleasure: Although primarily concerned with the text, Johnson does at times address the existence of an audience. Not surprisingly, television’s “smart” viewers are interested in “challenging their minds” by “solving puzzles, detecting patterns, or unpacking complex narrative systems.” As proof, Johnson points to the many television internet chat sites where audiences dissect the plot points of “more complicated shows” like Lost or Alias. In this claim, Johnson ignores a whole history of creative fan activity surrounding television, in which underground fanzines as well as other types of creative activity have been flourishing for years. But such evidence doesn’t fit into an argument about “smart” tv which depends on the evolution of “complex” texts worthy of being decoded at length. The fact that most television fans have been 1) female, 2) engaged with narrative pleasures other than strategy and structural complexity, 3) not afraid to call themselves fans (a term Johnson never employs), and 4) unconcerned with proving their “smarts” indicates the exclusiveness and narrowness of Johnson’s argument.

Again, however, I single out Johnson only because his point of view is so representative of pervading trends in liberal television studies. Indeed, his argument is particularly seductive because it justifies the work of TV critics, scholars and quality audiences who have spent their lives arguing for television’s complexity in the face of continual dismissal from cultural authorities. Indeed, even some of my television studies colleagues have argued with me about the superiority of texts like Lost or Alias on the basis of their structural complexity, as if that alone determined their cultural significance. But, ultimately, such an approach seems to me to undermine the original purpose of popular culture studies: to pay attention to that which is not deemed “good for you” in order to validate and better understand the social lives of non-elites.

Image Credits:
1. Everything Bad is Good for You

Center for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image
Television and Cognitive Development

Please feel free to comment.

Boy Soaps: Liberalism Without Women

by: Allison McCracken / DePaul University

What’s old is new again on television, as prime-time boy soap operas like Everwood, Jack and Bobby, Life As We Know It, Summerland, The Mountain, One Tree Hill, Smallville, and The OC have come to replace girl-centered teen dramas like My So-Called Life, Popular, and Buffy. The new boy-centered soap employs “feminine” generic serial elements to explore male adolescence and relationships between males, often focusing around brothers or fathers & sons. Like their female counterparts, these programs offer more character-based drama than most current network television. The combination of seriality and an adolescent focus make for intense storylines which revolve around self discovery, the development of non-familial relationships, sexual exploration, and life lessons, especially liberal “awakenings”. Indeed, the male creators of these programs are among the most liberal on network television — some are even openly gay. The boy soap is as pleasurable a text for female viewers as television offers today. Yet at the same time, these programs consistently give short shrift to female characters and points of view, putting female viewers in the difficult position of cheering on the sidelines in the one generic field where they had dominated.

The reasons for this shift are multiple, but would certainly include the rise to prominence of gay television producers in the 1990s, most prominently Alan Ball of HBO’s Six Feet Under and Kevin Williamson of the WB’s Dawson’s Creek, who were given their first highly publicized opportunities to create television series after they had penned hit movies. Although a welcome change, this development also reflects continuing male industrial dominance, even on smaller networks and subscription channels (straight female and lesbian producers have remained rare, especially as the creators of programs). The consuming power of a white, liberal, educated audience (what television scholar Ron Becker has referred to as “SLUMPIES”) has also helped ensure a loyal gay and gay-friendly viewing community, which is perhaps most evident in the broad popularity of homoerotic “slash” readings of television texts by very vocal and influential internet television communities. At the same time, the general political and industrial shift to the right has resulted in less explicitly feminist or lesbian television texts like Buffy getting the green light; instead, risky behavior and moral heroism have become almost exclusively (white) boy territory, which is more socially acceptable.

Some key characteristics of the genre:

Boy/Boy Focus: Male relationships form the core of these programs and are privileged within the text: father/son on Everwood; brother/brother on The OC, Jack and Bobby, One Tree Hill, Summerland, and The Mountain; and male friendship on Life As We Know It and Smallville, the latter of which focuses on future enemies Clark Kent and Lex Luther, both of whom also have difficult relationships with their daddies. There is very little consistent female solidarity anywhere on these programs, and when it does it exist it is generally constructed as a support or reaction to the central male characters and relationships, i.e. Lana and Mrs. Kent worry about Clark on Smallville.

Gendered Character Growth: While men can be feminine on these programs, women cannot be masculine. Boys are scholars and weepers, leaders and followers. A women who exhibits more masculine qualities is invariably regarded as shrill, cold and dysfunctional. Christine Lahti’s professor mom Grace McCallister on Jack and Bobby is a self-identified feminist, and, as Entertainment Weekly recently noted, the most unlikeable character on the program who “embarrasses herself” with her didacticism and must be taught “lessons in tolerance and motherhood”–in other words, how to be feminine. Such lessons are only necessary for older women, as none of the younger girls seem to have a problem being feminine. They do, however, seem to have a problem being anything else and are often criminally underwritten. Because boys are allowed such a broad range of emotions and girls are not, the girls seem stunted, stuck in an adolescence in which they don’t seem to learn or develop. On-line viewers have complained about the vapidity of Smallville‘s Lana Lang for years, but producers decided that they were simply jealous of Lana’s beauty.

Homoeroticism: The traditional female-targeted soap promotes men as objects for female consumption, but the teen boy soap takes such objectification up a notch. The WB’s stable of gorgeous former male models offer a degree of youthful beauty and athleticism that is unsurpassed; combined with melodramatic adolescent yearning, the homoerotic content is hardly subtle. Indeed, these programs are “slash-friendly” texts in which producers often deliberately insert gay innuendo to reward viewers (reaching its apotheosis in the first season of Smallville). Most prominent among “slashed” relationships are Seth/Ryan on The OC, Jack and anyone on Jack and Bobby, Dr. Brown and Dr. Abbott on The OC, and, of course, Clark/Lex. Because female relationships are not as developed or given as much screen-time, girl-slash is much less possible, and the characters’ feminine passivity, lack of sexual desire (see below) and narrow emotional range also make erotic “sparkage” much less likely. In addition, the girls are rarely presented as the models of desirability the boys are: Amy’s best friend on Everwood, the starry-eyed and childlike Hannah, is mousy and wears glasses — the nadir of television sexuality and a definite slash-killer.

Gay Inclusiveness: These boy soapers frequently include “out” gay characters or references. Both The OC and Jack and Bobby have featured recurring gay characters and episodes devoted to “outing” and its consequences. Gay identity and gay relationships are taken very seriously: when a boy develops a crush on Jack in Jack and Bobby and tells him about it (“I love you”), the show makes clear that the boy has “outed” himself as gay. The boy, in fact, is so depressed and frustrated by the realization of his homosexuality that he commits suicide. The portrayal of gay identity assumes a fixed gay/straight binary where men don’t experiment, making the show safe for straight boys to watch without feeling anxious. Lesbianism, however, is not taken nearly as seriously; when girls kiss other girls on these soaps, they’re dabbling, experimenting, or “acting out.” Marissa on The OC kissed a girl because she’s rebelling against her mother (the same reason she had an affair with the gardener) — the fact that the kiss occurred during February sweeps also says much about the cynicism at work here. Long-term lesbianism doesn’t exist, and girls don’t struggle with their feelings for other girls the way boys do.

Sexual Desire and Practice: Refreshingly, teens do have sex on these shows, which generally has kept them out of the Parents Television Council’s good graces. However, the treatment reaffirms essentialist traditions, at least for girls: Boys want sex (and sometimes relationships), girls want relationships. These girls seem to have almost no sexual desire for anyone; they view sex as simply a stepping stone in cementing a relationship. And once they have sex, like Amy and Ephram do on Everwood, they don’t seem to need to ever do it again. When women do feel sexual desire, they’re pathologized (unless, of course, they’re married). Inevitably, these desiring unmarried women are past a certain age and, as we know, they’re “desperate,” leading them to make unhealthy sexual choices that lead to personal and professional chaos. Indeed, desire often directly undermines their professional well being: high school teacher Monica Young sleeps with her student on Life As We Know It; Grace McCallister has an affair with her graduate student. Former political radical Rebecca (Kim Delaney) threatens Sandy and Kirsten’s perfect marriage on The OC because apparently, in her 20 years of being “on the run”, she hasn’t had one relationship and is, therefore, desperate.

Reproduction: While the characters do have sex, it inevitably causes more trouble than it seems to be worth. Even though condoms are faithfully used, a pregnancy almost always occurs (although surprisingly, no one ever seems to get an STD). While the dramatic value of an accidental pregnancy is a soap opera standard, the frequency with which pregnancy seems to occur on these programs suggests that the Bush Administration may be right and condoms shouldn’t be trusted. The message seems to be either don’t have sex or don’t have sex with girls (given these boys, the latter seems a much more likely outcome). Pregnancy is viewed here through the eyes of the male heroes, and it clearly has the potential to ruin their entire lives: The OC‘s Ryan moves back to Chino to be with his pregnant girlfriend, Everwood‘s Ephram (spoiler ahead!) misses his Julliard audition once he learns he fathered a child. The women’s reactions to pregnancy are marginalized, since most are supporting characters who leave the show after their wombs have served their dramatic purpose. Abortion is bravely presented by producers as an option, but it is portrayed very negatively, usually in a “closed” episode where it can be dealt with quickly, the offending girl banished, and the ensuing male trauma resolved. Pregnancy, after all, is a man’s crisis.

The scenarios I sketched above are not unusual; indeed, the whole basis for the development of slash fiction writing by women stemmed, in large part, from the lack of strong female characters and relationships on television. It is this very familiarity which makes the boy soap seem to me like a step back (or perhaps “sideways”?), even when producer intentions towards women are clearly honorable.

Please feel free to comment.

Domestic Reality TV

by: Allison McCracken / DePaul University

I have finally found a reality program that I can watch without cringing with embarrassment for the participants and/or becoming enraged at the producers. Not surprisingly, it’s trailing in the ratings and on the brink of cancellation. Although the title is not immediately endearing, ABC’s version of the hit British series Wife Swap hovers somewhere between the infotainment intent and documentary-like structures of the original and the highly constructed shock-and-spectacle of American reality-tv. In part, this is due to the producers’ conflicting desires both to raise social awareness and to provide the high drama expected by American audiences. But the show’s domestic setting and its concentration on female characters is at times also in conflict with reality-tv’s ideological traditions, so well delineated recently on this site by L.S. Kim. Wife Swap reveals the difficulties involved in sustaining a more typically relationship-based “feminine tv” reality show in an American market and, more importantly, the disruptive power of even the most cursory attention to the actual material conditions and social complexities of women’s lives.

The British series Wife Swap (2003- ) has been enormously popular and won several prestigious awards. Its premise is simple: one wife changes places with the wife of another family for two weeks. During the first week, she follows their “rules” and during the second, they “must obey” her requested changes to their household. The producers’ stated aim is not one of providing exciting competition or reward (the participants are not paid) but of personal enlightenment: “a couple’s opportunity to re-discover why they love each other and decided to marry in the first place” (ABC on Wifeswap). I recently had the opportunity to view the British and American cuts of the same episode of the show and they were markedly different: the British version was much longer and much less sensationalized, with more of a focus on the educational aspects of the show and what the couples learn from their experiences (there was considerable critique of the U.S. way of life from one of the couples, which was cut in the American version).

While the British version reflected the program’s stated goals, the American version was much more uneven. The promos for the American version (which are shown not only before the show as a whole but continually before every commercial break) emphasize the dramatic conflict and contrast between the two couples, who are chosen for the extreme differences in lifestyle (i.e. the working class biker family vs. the middle class environmentalists). While the promos promise continual bitter confrontation and acrimony, the bulk of the program reflects the more feminine values of reconciliation, emotional connection, and mutual understanding. And feedback from participants (widely reported on-line and in the press) suggests there would be even more emphasis on relationship-building if the wives had final cut. Indeed, one participant recently revealed that producers kept encouraging her to be more critical of her new family in order to heighten conflict (which she refused), and that the illuminating 3-hour conversation she had with her temporary spouse to help work through their differences ended up on the cutting room floor.

This tension between the interests of the program’s participants and the commercial expectations of ABC — which encourage the British producers to replicate the arguably masculine, conflict-based aesthetics of American reality — has resulted in confusion and anger among many reality fans. My examination of three different websites for the show suggests that part of the pleasure for many reality tv fans is their expectation of the conflict of opposites that the show promises; their enjoyment also seems to hinge on their desire to judge and feel superior to the people on the screen. The learning and reconciliation aims of the participants undercuts that pleasure, as one self-aware fan on TelevisionWithoutPity.com suggested: “That was a Happy-Go-Lucky episode where people acknowledge and recognize the need for change. I still can’t get used to these happy endings and I don’t want to get used to them. I want hateful, rule resistant people that I can snark on forever and ever. When the couples met they were all so good natured and friendly, it hurts me to like both families. It makes me feel like I’ve failed.”

Some fans welcome the changes, however. The domestic realities of these people’s lives makes it difficult for viewers to divorce the participants’ attitudes from their material reality, which changes the nature of the “conflict” discussions from a typical clash of personalities to more substantial discussions of social difference. Wife Swap reveals the specificity of people’s lives through attention to the mundane, rather than sensational, details that accompany the “wifely” role: cleaning, cooking, child care, spousal negotiations, religious practices, professional responsibilities. The program also foregrounds the variety and complexity of class, race, religion, region and, of course, gender, difference in a way that significantly departs from most reality-tv by eschewing the usual artificial setting of social “equality,” equal opportunity, and middle class norms and values. As a result, the contrasts in social class are revealed since each person’s home and routine is put on display.

Houses are judged by the wives according to both working — and middle-class standards, and the program, stunningly, does not promote one standard over the other. Indeed, one of the program’s most popular and heroic wives, Cristina (a Christian Latina liberal rocker), rejects the dominant notion of the necessity for a “neat and orderly” home by asserting that “we value human relationships above a spotless house.”

Particular objects within each person’s home become symbolically central and take on a rare historical and social dimension. When a black mom, Shelley, objects (politely) to a Mammy cookie jar in her new home, one teenage daughter bursts out, “I am so sick of being called racist just because I’m from Mississippi!” while the other proudly displays the “Mammy” doll both girls have slept with since they were children. In this case, the materiality of the cookie jar and the doll form the core of the show’s conflict, one which results in Shelley (again, a very popular figure with viewers) patiently explaining to her new daughters why she finds the figure of the Mammy offensive. Because Shelley, the heroine here, is both aware that race matters and is permitted to explain her position at length, she brings attention to racial difference and undercuts the ideology of racial equity. The resulting on-line discussion of the episode focused on the cultural and historical meanings of racialized objects, with posters bringing up Marlon Riggs’ film Ethnic Notions as a helpful resource. In this case, difference became a subject of thoughtful discussion rather than serving merely as a source of conflict and eventual ridicule.

The most moving example of the way in which Wife Swap both addresses difference and provides examples of reconciliation is in the experience of a woman from a traditional Christian family to Christina’s alternative rocker family. Although also Christians, the rocker children have piercings and wear Goth clothing. Christian mom Wendy is initially very critical of the family, calling them “devil worshippers,” and she eventually breaks down crying, admitting her fear of difference: “It’s culture shock to me. It’s just scary to me. And I know you’re godly, wonderful people, it’s the appearance that scares me to death. I’m sorry I feel this way but it’s very disturbing to me. I’m just totally out on my own here.” By the end of the episode, Wendy has moved beyond external appearances, even allowing the children to dress her up as a Goth chick and singing with them. Her transformation–which is internal more than anything, and in stark contrast to most “Swan-like” transformations — suggests the way in which the program’s attention to difference helps to break down rather than reinforce barriers or hierarchies between people. As a result of the program, Wendy is more able to build a strong relationship with her own daughter. Labels like “redneck,” and “white trash” get unpacked and examined through actual people’s lives, and descriptions like “Christian” are shown to have widely varying meanings.

If anyone is a villain on Wife Swap, it is the inflexible, the intolerant, and the irrational, who most often (surprise!) are personified by the rigid husband of a patriarchal family. The fact that female outsiders are put in charge of traditional male households is remarkable in itself, one of the few instances where women have unrecuperated authority on a television program, reality or otherwise. This moment of take-over is one of the chief pleasures of the program for its fans, whose desire for traditional reality-tv showdowns gets conflated in these instances with those feminist viewers who want to see these women turn patriarchy on its head. These reversals are often also sweetened by race and class critiques: a black women has the opportunity to interrogate and browbeat a white Southern male about his shoddy treatment of his wife until he breaks down and cries; a working-class single mom (gently) takes a wealthy husband to task for his neglect of his children and his need for total control of his environment. Although the changes these women make may be temporary, their critiques offer moments of genuine enlightenment that, I hope, will outlast Wife Swap‘s inevitable cancellation.

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by: Allison McCracken / DePaul University

America is making people disappear. While the “real” casualties of this administration are rarely represented on television, rituals of death are continually replayed and the sense of loss remains, haunting these texts. My subject for this first column is, appropriately, what we have lost and how we’re coping with that loss — on television, anyway. With a fall season marked by the popularity of programs entitled Without a Trace and Lost, the importance of loss as a televisual theme seems rather obvious. We can easily look back on the past few years for confirmation of this trend. For example, competitive reality programs in which the “unchosen” disappear into the night, through a ritual cab ride (as in The Apprentice or The Bachelor) or simply by going “off” camera. Others like Wife Swap exploit fears of spousal disappearance, creating fractured families who long for reconnection. And death, not love, is certainly all around in the crime procedurals that dominate prime time. These programs litter our evenings with corpses, most often women or children, casualties in a domestic war that has no name. Invisible during their lives, such bodies become sites for investigation after their death, as professionals use the latest technology to probe their flesh for clues to their untimely demise. As hard as these investigators work, however, the “losses” continue to pile up. On the one hand, these programs serve as cautionary tales reinforcing the terror warnings: we must be fearful, we must be good consumers, we must not lose the game. If we make a mistake, we shall be erased. On the other hand, these programs also enact a revealing displacement: both domestically and internationally, America is making people disappear. While the “real” casualties of this administration are rarely represented on television, rituals of death are continually replayed and the sense of loss remains, haunting these texts.

In American prime-time, such losses are not exclusively thematic; the industry itself has dramatically changed in the last four years, and the loss of socially progressive programming has been devastating to liberal producers and to the communities they serve. During the 2000 Presidential election, for example, I alternated between watching the returns and reading the reactions to them by Buffy fans on-line. That evening, we had all previously watched a new episode of the program’s 5th season, “Family,” in which Buffy producer Joss Whedon took a firm stance in support of gay couples, to the delight of fans. This year, one week before the Presidential election, Whedon unexpectedly shut down his television production company, Mutant Enemy, because, he said “I have a bitter taste in my mouth with where tv has gone the past five years.” (Variety, Oct.24, 2004). Since the surprise cancellation of Angel this year, all of Mutant Enemy’s programs are now off the air, replaced by sometimes entertaining but largely reactionary boy-centered melodramas like Smallville, Everwood, The O.C., Jack and Bobby, and life as we know it. Aside from a few female-centered programs, none of which offers the innovations Buffy did, girls (and queers) have largely vanished from prime time prominence, along with socially progressive agendas. Television’s experiments in the mid-to-late 90-s,which resulted in such gems as Freaks and Geeks, Homicide, My So-Called Life, Ellen, Oz, Once and Again and Sex and the City seems over. For their audiences, these texts represented a socially liberal space that enabled viewers to connect with alternative forms of community which may not have been available to them otherwise. Their loss (and the lack of comparable replacements) is a potentially profound one for many television viewers, who are no longer permitted the range of discussion or opportunity for community richer, more critical texts made available to them (and often encouraged by producers like Whedon).

It’s perhaps no surprise that, amidst such loss, prime-time television has turned to God (like many voters in this year’s election). While in the 90s Buffy re-appropriated religious symbols and icons to serve feminist and queer ends, and Oz acknowledged religious diversity and linked spiritual practices with broader humanitarian concerns, God has reappeared in more traditional forms in recent years, as a wise advisor or institutionalized icon. This shift to God in “straight” form has been particularly hard on female characters. The most obvious example is Joan of Arcadia, whose creator, Barbara Hall, rediscovered God after suffering a sexual assault. Hall created Joan so that adolescent girls and other viewers could turn to God in dealing with the perils of modern life. The program, however, often seems to have the opposite effect for Joan. God tells his handmaiden how to make everyone else’s life better except her own, which is continually disrupted by his bizarre requests (unsurprisingly, Joan is not permitted to know God’s reasons beforehand). Similarly, on the much-heralded new drama Jack and Bobby, future President Bobby recoils from his fiercely secular (and unfortunately shrill) mother to embrace religious life, paving the way to his becoming a minister. And last season on Everwood, local doctor Harold Abbott races to church to confess his sins after performing an abortion for a random teenage girl. While the girl herself never reappears, the point is clear: the fallen woman caused this good man to sin.

Alongside these literal references to God, the desire for supernatural or spiritual intervention has taken hold of more secular-seeming dramas as well, most notably J.J. Abrams’ Lost. Lost begins where most disaster films end — after the plane crash on the deserted tropical island. The program is particularly timely in that it deals both with lost people and feelings of loss generally, especially for a liberal-minded middle-class audience. Lost represents many of those who are normally invisible as protagonists on television (non-Americans, non Anglos, the disabled, the overweight, an Iraqi citizen, a drug user), but it also suggests the world view of American liberals who feel stranded in a land in which they have lost social power, and who are haunted by past events which have brought them to where they are. This is a potentially powerful scenario, but Lost has resisted complex interrogations of liberal alienation or American social violence in favor of more comforting supernatural band-aids.

The most successful episode, “Walkabout,” found fans absolutely overjoyed and in tears when it was revealed that wheel-chair bound Terry O’Quinn had been mysteriously healed by the plane crash. Even on such seemingly secular boards as televisionwithoutpity.com, religious rhetoric was plentiful as fans referred, some in gingerly quotations, to the “miracle” that had occurred. While the quotation marks indicate some possible discomfort with the term, especially in relation to a program coming from generally more progressive Buffy writer David Fury and Alias/Felicity creator J.J. Abrams, they also suggest an increased willingness to entertain religious explanations. Indeed, a recent TV Guide poll revealed that 26% of viewers think that the “survivors” are actually all dead, another 23% that they’re in “Purgatory” (TV Guide, 11/14/04). Perhaps more than anything else, this poll suggests the hopelessness of many audience members who seem willing to embrace, at least televisually, some sign of a divine or at least an easy, solution to a depressing, perhaps intolerable, situation.

Remarkably, I find myself looking to a procedural for representations of the “disappeared” in which conditions of actual social violence are referenced. Without a Trace is unusual for today’s procedurals because it is the only crime program which consistently offers thoughtful characterizations, fallible detectives, failed investigations, and moments of progressive politics. The program recently departed from its procedural format to offer a pretty faithful adaptation of Barbara Ehrenreich’s social critique of the situation of low-wage working women (the episode titles are “Nickel and Dimed, Parts I and II”). In this case, the “vanished” woman is a single mother, trying to make ends meet by working at “Everymart” and cleaning houses on her days off. Desperate for money for her son’s hearing aid, she works as a go-between for drug-dealers, who kidnap and eventually kill her. Single female Detective Samantha Spade empathizes with the women, putting her own life at risk in order to search for her by going undercover as a low-wage worker; Spade’s “break from common procedure” allows the program to further expose these women’s inhumane working and living conditions. In the episode’s thesis statement, the frustrated Spade angrily mourns the missing woman: “It shouldn’t have been so hard for her, you know? She deserved better. This isn’t about records or files or paper trails. The problem is she’s invisible. This woman has vanished into thin air, and if it weren’t for Jake, [her son], it wouldn’t have even made a ripple. I feel like things happen to people like her and no one notices and no one’s held accountable!” Spade’s critique is remarkable in that it exposes the blinders of our culture generally, well represented by television’s other procedurals — their devotion to “paper trails” and elaborate autopsies while larger structural causes are never addressed. While her outburst does not offer a divine or easy solution, it does significantly acknowledge the pervasive losses caused by our social system. And Spade does mourn these losses, at least for a television moment — and such moments may be the only “real” comfort television has to offer for the next four years.

ABC’s Lost Home Page
CBS’s Without a Trace Page
Religion Online
Religion and The Mass Media: Bibilographic Database

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