The Mary Tyler Moore Show, American Television, and the Slow Pace of Social Change
Elana Levine / University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee

Figure 2

Ed Asner and Mary Tyler Moore on The MTM Show

There are few better sites through which to understand the incremental nature of social change than American television. Because the medium has been structured to earn profits for corporations and to resonate with a diverse public, it necessarily wavers between minimizing risk and engaging with the emergent, and potentially disruptive, interests of everyday people. In the present, it is difficult to see the ways these tensions can result in the small and often partial steps that might eventually build to progressive social change. Such developments are more visible from the perspective of history.

Both The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77) and its eponymous co-owner/star were linchpins of social change in terms of television’s representation of women, and of real-world changes in beliefs about and experiences of gender. By representing women’s role in both public and private spheres differently from most instances of television’s past, The MTM Show and Moore herself set the tone for what might be possible in TV depictions of women in the years to come. These possibilities allowed for progressive change in some respects, but linked those changes to conventions of femininity that would moderate their impact; there are no revolutions when it comes to American television.

The social intervention of The MTM Show was a result of the many forces that combine to create TV and that shape its resonance. As a range of scholars have documented, the show was in part an outcome of the move by the TV industry and its advertisers to target young, upscale viewers in urban centers rather than the broad mass assumed to be the inevitable audiences of the network era. As part of the “turn to relevance,” The MTM Show had permission to speak to contemporary social changes, in this case new ideas about women’s roles. It also was able to benefit from the freedoms of independent program production. The Financial Interest and Syndication Rules gave a company like MTM Enterprises, unaffiliated with a major studio or network, the opportunity to become financially solvent while licensing its shows to the networks. [ (( Jane Feuer, Paul Kerr, and Tise Vahimagi, MTM: “Quality Television” (London: BFI Pub, 1984). Todd Gitlin, Inside Prime Time (New York: Pantheon Books, 1983). Aniko Bodroghkozy, Groove Tube: Sixties Television and the Youth Rebellion (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2001). ))] (The company even commented on its independence by substituting a meowing cat in its logo for the roaring lion in the MGM logo it referenced.) The production was hardly free from the many constraints of the American TV business, but it deserves some credit for its ability to introduce new dimensions of women’s experience to prime time, in part due to the presence of “feminist conscience” Treva Silverman on the show’s writing staff, one of the few women in such positions at the time. [ (( On Silverman’s role, see also Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic (Simon and Schuster, 2013). ))]

These conditions were paired with the advertising industry’s growing realization that changes in women’s roles encouraged by the Women’s Liberation Movement meant a re-evaluation of the traditional ways products were pitched to women. Paired with an array of protests over and investigations into media treatments of women, the different approach The MTM Show offered was an ideal fit for its cultural moment, a moment when a mainstream publication like TV Guide sought to explain, “Why the Feminists Condemn Television.” [ (( Edith Efron, “Is Television Making a Mockery of the American Woman?” TV Guide Aug. 8, 1970, 8.  For more discussion of this cultural context, see Elana Levine, Wallowing in Sex : The New Sexual Culture of 1970s American Television (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 128-130. ))] Although US network prime time had seen women leads of sitcoms in the past, those women were typically contained by their domestic roles (I Love Lucy, Bewitched) or, like TV Guide’s cover girl, Marlo Thomas’ Anne Marie of That Girl, were occasionally allowed to be single and pursuing a career as long as they were more actively pursuing marriage.

Figure 1

Marlo Thomas’ Anne Marie of That Girl

The MTM Show’s protagonist, Mary Richards, was in her early thirties, single, and fresh off a break-up, a choice different from the original conception of the character as a divorcée, to which CBS had balked. Moving to the “big city” of Minneapolis and pursuing a career in TV news, Mary is hired by her curmudgeonly, sexist boss, Lou Grant, as an associate producer, a more impressive title for a lower salary than the job for which she had applied. Between her “family” of female neighbors in her new apartment and the workplace family to which she quickly acclimates, Mary becomes the caring, moral center of her communities, the “Mom” to those around her. Multiple critics have analyzed this representation, largely agreeing that the character’s independence and status both in her career and as a (somewhat ambiguously depicted) sexually active single woman amounted to a “compromised and contradictory feminism.” [ (( Bonnie J. Dow, Prime-Time Feminism: Television, Media Culture, and the Women’s Movement since 1970 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996), 51. ))] Mary could be the “New Woman” advertisers believed the changing society was calling for, but the potential disruptiveness of this identity could be tempered by her “‘girl-next-door’ sweetness.” [ (( Ella Taylor, Prime-Time Families: Television Culture in Postwar America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 124. ))]

Figure 2

Mary Richards interviewing with Lou Grant on The MTM Show

Crucial to this precarious position was the star image of Mary Tyler Moore herself. She was seen as an appealing figure to both men and women. As one critic wrote of her, and of Mary Richards, with whom she was conflated, “Men, whose taste in women runs from Tammy Wynette to Gloria Steinem, think she would make the perfect girlfriend. Women like the fact that she’s the star without being a sex queen or a loser.” [ (( T. Johnston, “Why 30 Million Are Mad About Mary,” New York Times Magazine April 7, 1974, 96. ))] The reference to Steinem here is crucial, for Steinem shared the Marys’ conventional physical attractiveness while nonetheless reading as threatening to the status quo in her feminist activism. Both Marys could seem amenable to a (moderate) Women’s Liberation platform but without the threat that an overt activist such as Steinem posed. Indeed. CBS executive Perry Lafferty noted of Moore, “I think it’s her vulnerability that makes her particularly appealing . . . she’s beautiful and all that without being threatening.” [ (( Ibid., 30. ))]

Figure 3Figure 4

Mary Richards; Gloria Steinem

The popularity of The MTM Show led to spin-off series, a number of ultimately failed imitators, and more durable successors, including Maude, One Day at a Time, and Alice, and all of which featured unconventional women leads — an older, married woman who espoused explicitly liberal and feminist views; a divorceé; and a widow raising a son. That Bea Arthur portrayed Maude made her different from most female sitcom leads but also permitted her politically activist stances. Her deeper voice, grayer hair, and larger bodily frame than a “sweetheart” star like Moore kept conventionally attractive heterosexual femininity from being too closely associated with feminism proper.

Figure 5Figure 6Figure 7

Bea Arthur as Maude Findlay; Bonnie Franklin as Ann Romano; Linda Lavin as Alice Hyatt

Indeed, American prime time television of the 1970s would shift toward action-adventure series with “sex symbol” female leads as its primary means of pairing conventionally valued forms of femininity with gestures toward feminism. In programs such as Charlie’s Angels and Wonder Woman, sexy young women took on duties like crime fighting, typically associated with men, sometimes in the name of women’s rights. But the assurances these programs offered of their heroines’ status as objects of desire helped these versions of the New Woman follow in the path of The MTM Show in the limited nature of their gestures toward change. The types of women such series depicted, and the generic constraints within which they operated, differed from The MTM Show. But their ultimate contribution to the medium’s participation in processes of social change was much the same.

Figure 8Figure 9

Time cover of Charlie’s Angels; TV Week cover of Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman

The incremental and compromised progress in representations of women’s changing status in 1970s television was initiated and modeled by The MTM Show. The program, its star, and its viewership deserve kudos for this intervention; the economic, cultural, and political structures within which they emerged deserve our ongoing critique.

Image Credits:

1. Ed Asner and Mary Tyler Moore on The MTM Show
2. Marlo Thomas’ Anne Marie of That Girl
3. Mary Richards interviewing with Lou Grant on The MTM Show
4. Mary Richards
5. Gloria Steinem
6. Bea Arthur as Maude Findlay
7. Bonnie Franklin as Ann Romano
8. Linda Lavin as Alice Hyatt
9. Time cover of Charlie’s Angels
10. TV Week cover of Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman

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The New Soaps? Laguna Beach, The Hills, and the Gendered Politics of Reality “Drama”

The Hills

The Hills

In the last column I wrote for Flow, I talked about the many developments in today’s U.S. daytime soap operas and the rich material these neglected texts offer for television scholarship. In this column, I want to consider a variant on the conventional soap opera, a contemporary television genre that may offer similar, serialized pleasures but that also has significant differences from daytime soaps. Reality soaps, also known as docu-soaps, are best represented by MTV’s Laguna Beach and The Hills. These programs have proven appealing to MTV’s young viewers, unlike the daytime soap operas on the U.S. broadcast networks, which have seen drop-offs in youth audiences in recent years. In this column, I explore some of the similarities and differences between these two genres, including their gendered politics and pleasures.

The premise of Laguna Beach is simple. The show captures the lives and loves of high school students in the affluent eponymous town. The first two seasons have relatively clear narrative arcs–most of the cast are seniors and they are enjoying their last months together before graduating and moving on to new lives. The Hills is a sequel to Laguna. It follows one of the earlier program’s original “characters,” Lauren “LC” Conrad, as she moves to L.A. to attend fashion school and intern at Teen Vogue. This gives The Hills a fundamentally different premise than Laguna, more akin to The Mary Tyler Moore Show or Sex and the City than to The O.C. (the subtitle for Laguna is “The Real Orange County”–the parallels to The O.C. are a deliberate marketing point).

Both series employ a similar structure. Much like daytime soaps, the “plot” may not really advance in any given episode. Instead, each episode revolves around “drama” (the kids’ favorite word, with the exception, perhaps, of “random”), which has the vague meaning of some kind of conflict or emotional upheaval. Although there are specific occurrences in the characters’ lives–high school graduation, Lauren’s internship–the “drama” primarily revolves around romantic relationships. This is a key difference between these series and reality shows such as The Amazing Race or Big Brother, which certainly represent interpersonal relationships but make them the context, the background, for the contests that move the narratives forward. In any given episode of Laguna and The Hills, the cast discusses the “drama,” much as multiple members of fictional daytime soap communities talk about each other’s lives.

In the soaps, these conversations are meant to reveal the implications of plot developments for a host of complexly intertwined characters. On Laguna and The Hills, these conversations conversely work to force a plot around a sequence of somewhat disconnected events and characters. On the first season of Laguna, for instance, passing mentions of the time Lauren spends with Stephen during the gang’s trip to Cabo function to develop the not-entirely-there triangle of Lauren, Stephen, and Stephen’s sort-of girlfriend, Kristin. We get that there is a rivalry between the girls over Stephen because we are privy to every catty remark the girls make about each other, because others talk about Lauren and Stephen or Kristin and Stephen, and because we see a shots of Lauren looking off-screen, followed by shots of Stephen (the Kuleshov effect at work!). In this sort of storytelling, the show follows soap opera conventions without the narrative content or character development to flesh them out.

Although the appeal of these programs is rooted in part in their “reality,” they forego many of the conventions of reality programs. First, there is no justification for the cameras’ attention to these characters, no transformations of home décor, self-display, or lifestyle and no monetary prize for victory. Even these programs’ most likely progenitor in “observational” reality, MTV’s The Real World, offers a reality manufactured around its “seven strangers picked to live in a house” set-up. This makes Laguna and The Hills (as well as ABC’s blink-and-you-missed-it One Ocean View) more like fictional, scripted television than reality TV and more like soaps than like most prime-time fare.1 After all, soaps present the “trials and tribulations of the Bauer, Lewis and Spaulding families,” as my TiVo describes Guiding Light, much as Laguna Beach presents the trials and tribulations of Lauren, Stephen, Kristin, and their classmates (and much unlike the higher-concept situations facing Jack Bauer or even Meredith Grey). MTV’s reality soaps also emphasize the ongoing existence of their worlds, their independence from a manufactured premise, by eliminating the direct-address interviews, the “confessionals,” that are standard to so much reality TV. As a result, the fourth wall is never broken, making the shows more soap-like but also enhancing their reality claims–these events are just happening, we are encouraged to believe, they are not being set-up by producers.

Of course, these shows are meticulously crafted by producers; their choices literally create conflict, “drama,” narrative out of the thinness of the shows’ premises. In one such choice, the producers use musical montages to tell stories; the frequency of these montages makes the series more akin to MTV’s original bread and butter–music videos–than to most reality programming. On Laguna, the luxurious homes, pristine beaches, vivid sunsets, and swimsuit-clad bodies of the high school cast make these montages delicious eye candy. These montages may well be the show’s primary pleasure.

Laguna Beach

Laguna Beach

Another key trick the producers use is their liberal inclusion of long close-ups of the characters’ relatively blank faces, much like the “egg”–the shot at the end of many daytime soap scenes in which an actor holds an expression for several beats until the scene fades out. The egg is an effective technique in soaps because viewers spend so much time with the characters that they learn to read into their faces, to understand that Sonny’s blank look actually displays his fear of hurting his children or his anger at his mafia rival. On the reality soaps, however, viewers spend much less time with the characters, the characters are not nearly as clearly drawn or as complexly represented. We know that Lauren has led a sheltered, privileged life, that she wants to work in fashion, that she cares about her boyfriend even though he has hurt her in the past, that she’s generally a nice person (we know this chiefly because her Laguna rival, Kristin, is constructed as LC’s opposite–a somewhat bitchy tramp). But we don’t really understand what motivates her, what she fears or what she hopes. Most soap viewers could write a 10,000-word essay on what any given soap character wants, hopes, fears, etc. This in-depth knowledge of character history is essential to making meaning of a soap, as anyone who attempts to watch one without such background knowledge will attest. But MTV’s reality soaps can be meaningful without this sort of backstory, as they draw so heavily–in their musical montages and soap-like “eggs”–on pop culture clichés. We get that Lauren is unsure about getting back together with Jason, her philandering ex-boyfriend, because the music and her smile-free face communicate it. But we understand this not so much because we understand who Lauren is but because we’ve seen enough music videos and soap-like scripted drama to read the codes.

This meaning-without-meaning spills over into these shows’ gender politics, particularly when it comes to the politics of heterosexuality. On The Hills, Lauren and Jason reunite when he declares that he misses her and wants her back. In the succeeding episodes, however, Jason repeatedly treats Lauren like crap, clearly disappointing her. This is communicated by her somber expressions and the music that accompanies her scenes. Yet she also continues to take him back, usually in response to his patented apologies, always accompanied by flowers for her. Daytime soaps tell stories about men who treat women poorly, too. Such stories tend to develop in one of two ways: either the woman breaks free of the jerk and establishes a new sense of self (and, eventually, a new romance with someone who treats her better) or the man undergoes a substantial transformation, realizing the error of his ways and truly changing–at least in his behavior toward the woman he loves. But the first season of The Hills did not conclude with either of these potential outcomes. Instead, Lauren turns down a summer internship in Paris to stay with Jason at the Malibu beach house they are renting. Although we are urged to think that Lauren has agonized over her decision, we are also encouraged to believe that she has made the right choice. The season ends with Lauren in Jason’s arms, the Malibu sunset affirming the happily-ever-afterness of her choice. She has not left him and found herself; he is not about to change.

Here is where the differing gender and sexual politics of the reality soaps and the daytime soaps are most clear. With its ongoing storytelling and consequent need for character developments, a daytime soap would have to introduce one of the above turns of events in a story such as Lauren’s and Jason’s. Sure, we’d have watched a multitude of instances just like those on The Hills, in which the man behaves badly and the woman takes him back anyway, but these events would be building toward something that would ultimately generate a substantive change. On The Hills, because it purports to be “real,” and because it has a limited amount of time to tell its story (it’s a half-hour weekly series with an eleven-episode season), Lauren and Jason’s relationship gets a happy ending. They may face lots of “drama” along the way, but that “drama” is offered as a given of heterosexual romance, not as a problematic situation that should change, not only for the sake of storytelling but also for the well-being of those involved. On The Hills, this means Lauren’s well-being, as she is treated disrespectfully, even abusively, and yet seems resigned to a life in which this kind of “drama” is the only reality that counts. Are these the gendered pleasures to which a new generation of viewers are being drawn?

1CBS has just contracted Laguna‘s producers to create reality TV-like scripted programming, the logic being that they have already successfully produced scripted programming-like reality TV.

Image Credits:

1. The Hills

2. Laguna Beach

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What’s Happening on the Soaps? And Why Should We Care?

Days of Our Lives cast

Cast of Days of Our Lives

O'Neil's dismissive pronouncement expresses a sentiment that I think is quite widespread in contemporary U.S. culture, and perhaps in television studies, as well. Perspectives like this not only reek of a kind of gendered cultural elitism that I believe is fundamentally antithetical to the study of television, but they are inaccurate, besides. Eager, perhaps even desperate, to retain viewers and to attract new–and younger–ones, the U.S. broadcast networks have been quite active in their efforts to give daytime soaps a central place in convergent media culture. In fact, the soaps' industry-sponsored on-line presence has preceded that of prime-time programming in multiple ways. In early 2003, Sony's began to offer downloadable episodes of Sony-owned Days and Y&R, as well as Procter & Gamble-owned ATWT. The downloads, available at $1.99 per episode, presaged the iTunes Music Store's inclusion of TV shows by two and a half years. ABC started its first daytime drama “character blog,” Robin's Daily Dose, by General Hospital character Dr. Robin Scorpio, in October 2005, preceding even ABC's prime-time show blogs (such as those written by two of Grey's Anatomy‘s peripheral characters). And despite the recent flurry of podcasts with actor interviews and behind-the-scenes scoop on offer from many prime-time programs, Guiding Light and As the World Turns are the only U.S. series of which I'm aware that make audio versions of their episodes available as free downloads (commercial-free and tightly edited, you can consume one hour-long episode in half that time). Those media scholars interested in convergence as an industrial and cultural practice would do well to consider the soaps' on-line presence.

Cast of Guiding Light

Cast of Guiding Light

Of course, these new media innovations alone are only part of what’s interesting about the soaps these days. More intriguing is the intersection of these industry-hosted on-line efforts and soap fans' already vibrant on-line culture. Fans' interpretations of the changes in the soaps both on-screen and on-line point out the mismatch between the television industry's conceptions of its audience and that audience's own interests and concerns. ABC thinks it is giving viewers “added value” content by offering them access to Robin's thoughts on her blog. Yet the fans see the blog as a poorly-written substitute for the screen time and meaty story they want Robin to have.

There is much to consider in the soaps' stories, as well. For example, General Hospital's tale of mobster Sonny Corinthos has been airing since 1993. Sonny's dark childhood, mental instability, violent outbursts, and marital woes not only bring to mind another tortured television mobster (albeit one somewhat lacking Sonny's chiseled features and disarming dimples), but also point to a rather startling change in soap storytelling in recent years. On General Hospital, Sonny is the main character; viewers are invited to see the world through his eyes, to sympathize with him as he protects his “business,” alternately seduces and rejects the show's supposed “heroines” (whose stories revolve wholly around him), and monopolizes screen time (hence the fans' anger at not seeing more of Robin Scorpio). Sonny Corinthos is certainly in keeping with a tradition of anti-heroes on soaps (begun on GH in the late 1970s with Luke Spencer). But today's GH, featuring a brooding mob boss and his “magic penis” (so dubbed by viewers for its ability to attract–and often impregnate–any woman character who comes near it), is telling a very different kind of story, with different appeals to viewers and different ideological stakes than the soap of the villainess and ideal mother theorized by Tania Modleski in the 1980s. This soap ain't your mother's soap, for better or worse. For me, that makes it all the more significant to ask what's happening on and around a television genre that still fills forty-two and a half hours of national broadcast network airtime per week, 52 weeks a year. Perhaps we should not ask why we should care but instead wonder why more of us do not.

1John Consoli, “Sun Setting on Net's Key Daytime Demos,” Mediaweek, 14 November 2005,
2Quoted in Mark Davidziak, “As the Bubble Bursts: With one busy life to live, is today's restless viewer willing to tune in tomorrow?” The Plain Dealer, 20 August 2002, E1.

Image Credits:

1. Passions

2. Days of Our Lives

3. Guiding Light

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Kids, TV, and the Life of the TV Scholar/Parent

Teletubbies on PBS

Teletubbies on PBS

Hoping for some insight into my two-year-old son’s increasingly willful and wily ways, I recently attended a group discussion at his daycare center on dealing with the challenges of the toddler years. During this meeting, one woman tentatively raised the issue of television viewing, wondering if it was ok to let her toddler watch, given everything she has read about TV’s deleterious effects. Eager to alleviate this woman’s anxieties, the teacher-facilitators quickly validated her choice, assuring her that toddler TV watching was an effective way to occupy kids and to give parents a chance to get dressed, make dinner, or simply retain their sanity. Other parents echoed the teacher’s assurances and volunteered their own stories about the essential role of TV in their home lives. Shortly thereafter, however, one of the discussion leaders mentioned research claiming that young kids purportedly spend an average of 30 hours a week watching television. “Thirty hours!” gasped the previously TV-loving adults, seemingly horrified at the thought of children logging that many hours in front of the tube. In that instant, the love/hate relationship between Americans and television came to light, and the anxieties with which middle-class American adults conceive of children’s relationships to TV became especially clear. Television could have a valued purpose in one instant (albeit a necessarily practical purpose) but could be a dangerous corrupter the next.

As much as I might react to such a conversation with a degree of critical distance, I’m subject to many of the same anxieties about kids and TV. As a parent, and a feminist, and a television scholar, and a television lover, my own relationship to television, and to my son’s relationship to television, is perpetually fraught. Given who I am and what I do, I would have thought that my attitudes toward my child’s TV viewing would have been clearer, less conflicted, and less anxiety-prone than those of parents who are not part of the .0000000001% of the population who happen to study television for a living. No such luck. If anything, who I am and what I do have made my experiences thus far with parenting and television especially conflicted. Had I spoken up on the subject in the group discussion, I would likely have been more overtly contradictory in my attitudes than anyone else in the room.

I certainly know better than to buy into the prescriptive discourses in American culture about kids and television. I don’t believe that TV rots kids’ brains, makes them fat, or reduces their attention spans to the length of a Chuck E. Cheese commercial. I do believe that television and other popular cultural forms are part of the culture that binds children to each other, that children use television to shape their senses of themselves and others, and that children’s readings of television can occupy a broad ideological range. Thanks to the work of such scholars as Ellen Seiter, David Buckingham, and Heather Hendershot, I have a strong grasp of the place of television in children’s everyday lives and of the stakes of children’s relationship to television for adults. Yet I can’t escape a little voice popping into my head that questions whether I should really be letting my child watch TV. Does he watch too much? How much is too much? Is he surpassing the dreaded 30-hours-a-week mark?

Max & Ruby on NickJr

Max & Ruby on NickJr

On top of the anxieties I face as a middle-class parent, a mother in particular, in a culture excessively anxious about childrearing practices, are the concerns I bring to my son’s viewing as a TV scholar and a feminist. So far, he has been relatively unexposed to commercials, thanks to TiVo (see Jason Mittell’s recent piece), PBS, and Noggin, the Viacom-owned digital cable and satellite channel offering commercial-free programming for pre-schoolers. I’d like to believe that my son’s commercial-free world removes some of the medium’s chief, junior-capitalists-in-training ills. I can believe that, until I admit what I know to be true– that all U.S. television is shaped by consumer capitalism, commercials present or not; that keeping my kid blissfully unaware of McDonald’s can last about as long as his language and social development keep him from having substantive conversations with his peers; and that my child’s early allegiance to Noggin is just what the Viacom execs have planned. (Upon reading this, said execs would surely rub together their hands in glee: “Another one hooked! The little one can be transported effortlessly from Noggin to Nick Jr. to Nickelodeon to MTV to the CW to CBS !!! A life well-lived in the Viacom family!”)

Then there are the anxieties about what he is watching. I regularly wonder how logging time as a two-year-old in front of Little Bear (developed from the Maurice Sendak and Else Holmelund Minarik books) or Max & Ruby (from Rosemary Wells’ stories) or Teletubbies (originally produced for the BBC) is shaping my son’s senses of himself and others. I’m pretty sure that 3-year-old Max, the little brother bunny on Max & Ruby, is my child’s ego ideal. I’m fond of Max and his show myself, not least for its circa 1940s setting, complete with wooden radio console on which Max listens to his favorite program, a children’s adventure serial called Superbunny! My fondness for the show’s retro tone is matched by my pleasure in its attempts to upset conventional power relations. All of the Max & Ruby stories feature young Max mischievously following his own desire and interests, defying the more adult demands placed upon him by his 7-going-on-40-year-old-sister, Ruby. Ruby’s a bit bossy, but she means well. (Can you tell that I identify with her?) Although she tries to get Max to do things like take a bath and clean up his toys, she can be equally adamant that he help her set up a tea party for her dollies or not mess up her makeshift “beach” in the backyard sandbox. Ruby is the authority figure Max seeks to circumvent, but ultimately she’s a kid, too, and often the stories end with Max’s antics creating more fun than aggravation for his sister. I like the show–and I’m pretty sure my Max-worshipping child does, too–for its recognition of age-based power differentials and its celebration of youthful transgression. Toddlers are natural anarchists, and Max is a toddler-anarchist par excellence.

Little Bear on Noggin

Little Bear on Noggin

As with most television, however, Max & Ruby’s attention to subordinate interests comes bound up with reassertions of dominant ideologies, in this case in terms of gender roles. Although Ruby’s responsible attitude and Max’s devil-may-care response do fall into certain gender-specific traps, what is most troubling about the program’s representation of gender is that it is offered as the secondary–and maybe even underlying–cause for the fundamental difference between Max and Ruby. It is in Ruby’s gendered difference from Max, more so than her age difference, that she becomes the less appealing, less fun-loving, and less admirable character. For example, in one episode, Ruby and her friend Louise wait eagerly for an older, boy bunny, 8-year-old Roger, to come over to play with them. They dither about, trying to find the perfect activity to share with Roger, emphasizing all the while his age and the difficulty of finding a suitably mature way to make sure he has fun. When Roger arrives, he is visibly bored with Ruby and Louise. However, Roger’s attention is captured by Max, who is zipping around in his toy car, the same toy car he had been riding as Ruby and Louise prepared for Roger’s arrival, the same toy car that Ruby deemed too childish for Roger’s interest. Roger eagerly joins the 3-year-old and it quickly becomes clear that the difference that matters between Ruby, Louise, and Roger is not that of age, for Roger and Max, at ages 8 and 3, get along famously. Instead, the difference that matters here is gender. Roger “naturally” bonds with Max over Ruby and Louise because they share something the girls do not, their masculinity. In the end, Ruby and Louise are left feeling rejected while Roger and Max have all the fun. The boys’ play is made to seem preferable to the girls’ (even though their activities are not especially “girly”) and a gendered hierarchy is reinforced.

I don’t know that my own quite young son can read these messages of gender differentiation and hierarchization in the show. For now, I think he is more into the age-based identifications the program offers. But I also know that it is only a matter of time before our gender-differentiated culture sinks in for him. I don’t want to keep him from Max & Ruby, or from any television, for I have both scholarly and personal reasons to believe in the pleasures and rewards that television can provide. But within a culture of anxiety over childrearing in general, and children’s TV viewing in particular, and within a television system in which even sweet little bunnies can be a site of hegemonic struggle, I am pretty much fated to have a perpetually conflicted relationship to my child’s encounters with TV. As a scholar, television’s contradictory impulses make for a rich object of study; as a parent, they make for a worrying presence, one I both welcome and fear.

Image Credits:

1. Teletubbies

2. Max & Ruby

3. Little Bear

Please feel free to comment.