Syndication 203: A Waxy Queer Buildup
Taylor Cole Miller / University of Georgia


The title character of 'Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman' sits at her kitchen table writing in her journal

This column is part of an ongoing series. The previous installment of this series can be viewed here.

Mary Hartman sits at her kitchen table grasping a notebook of pink paper. She dons her iconic prairie minidress with its Peter Pan collar and optimistic shoulders, but her hair falls unraveled from its signature braids offering hints that something is undone. “Dear Journal: What I’ve been thinking about lately is being bisexual. Bi, as in bicentennial, only, a little dirtier.” Probably the most common refrain conjured for TV historians and journalists about Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman is that the 1976-77 syndicated serial was ahead of its time. But its star Louise Lasser always echoes the same retort: “Mary Hartman wasn’t ahead of its time; it was its time.” And perhaps the show never proves that sentiment better than by inviting us to join her at the kitchen table as she records these thoughts on culture, feminism, and sexuality in the 1970s.[ (( Mary is writing these journal entries for a memoir by Gore Vidal, no less. ))]

In this installment of my series, I discuss the potential that television syndication has offered queerness over the years through a case study of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Whereas the TV history canon we tend to cling to emphasizes the networks and their practice of least objectionable programming, a turn toward histories of local or first-run syndication exposes a very different picture of television’s past. And while there are plenty of decidedly normative syndie shows, queer sexuality, gender, and genre often epitomized the practice of first-run syndication like in hit daytime talk shows where queer people first spoke for themselves as well as in queer darlings like Xena, He-Man, and Jem. While scholars have written sporadically about the queerness of such TV, the unexamined element throughout each that I bridge here is an introduction to how the syndicatedness of those shows encouraged their queerest aspects.


San Antonio Express review of Mary Hartman
San Antonio Express‘s review of Mary Hartman notes how the syndie serial skirted traditional network censorship.

Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman focuses on the eponymous blue-collar housewife, a mother enduring a reality of failed promises—everything from the floor polish that accretes a waxy yellow buildup beneath her feet to a lifetime of unrequited sexual desire and unfulfilled happiness. Piercing through her continuous struggle to reproduce the perfectly gendered life she watches on her kitchen television set, Mary’s ennui bubbles up in involuntary vocalized gasps so heartbreaking and familiar to me as a queer person, it feels like they expose my darkest secrets while shredding me down to the bone. She’s at odds with everything, yet trying not to be.

Author’s Instagram compilation video of Mary Hartman’s gasps

Mary Hartman started life as a failure. At the time he pitched the show, creator Norman Lear was producing five of the top ten highest-rated network shows on television. Despite his recorded successes, however, all three networks passed because Mary Hartman was “too weird” with its unstable genre that mixed conventions of the sitcom, drama, and soap opera with Lear’s frank depictions of social issues, specifically here, those related to sexuality. So Lear took it to television’s last refuge of failure, syndication, and there it became a phenomenal success for the mostly independent stations that picked it up. Newsweek called it a “sort of video Rorschach test for the mass audience”[ (( Waters and Kasindorf, “The Mary Hartman Craze.” Newsweek, May 3, 1976. ))] while Ms. Magazine’s review said that its “melodramatic pileup of calamities is outrageous.”[ (( Harrington, Stephanie.“Mary Hartman: The Unedited, All-American Unconscious.” Ms. Magazine, May 1976. ))]

Lear’s network shows like All in the Family, The Jeffersons, and Maude certainly pushed the cultural boundaries of television with “very special episodes,” but his syndicated shows serialized taboo stories into more comprehensive characterizations. Whereas “very special episodes” engender a patriarchal tradition of capturing and restraining potentially subversive content that could challenge a heteronormative order, the serial rarely finishes and a return to sitcom stasis is indefinitely deferred. Mary Hartman’s director Joan Darling once hilariously described this delayed gratification and extended queer time saying “it’s like screwing forever and never being able to come.”[ (( McCormack, Ed.“BB Shot Wounds, Whiplash, Storms of Weeping, Traumas That Shouldn’t Happen to a Dog! They’re All Part of the Real-Life Story of Mary Hartman’s Secret Recipe for Mock Cornball Surprise.” Rolling Stone, March 25, 1976. ))] Without network brass to contend with, in syndication Lear and his writers could really explore experimentation, genre, and identity play.


Magazine cover with Linda Murkland
After Mary Hartman’s quick success in first-run syndication, Norman Lear and Ann Marcus created a new show called All That Glitters in which the cultural power of the sexes was always already inverted and women ruled the world. It featured Linda Gray in the role of Linda Murkland, a trans woman and model for the diegetic ultra-feminine Wilmington Woman Ale campaign, the show’s upside down version of our ultra-masculine Marlboro Man.

Over the course of dozens of episodes, Mary Hartman alone serializes the coming-out stories of a gay couple, a throuple, and at least three different bisexual characters all eventually leading up to a same-sex kiss shared by Mary and another woman—17 years before Roseanne did it with great fanfare in a “very special episode” on ABC. Lear’s second syndie serial All That Glitters (most often paired with Mary Hartman), meanwhile, featured a trans character in a leading role—an achievement American television would not reproduce for nearly 40 years—granting her 15 episodes to serialize her struggles against the cultural norms of gender identity and sexual liberation in the 1970s with an additional 36 episodes dedicated to her subsequent relationship and eventual marriage.

But for Lear, going for it was as much about strategic programming as it was creative expression. Like the syndie tabloid talk shows before him learned, the easiest way to compete with network budgets was to venture into the kind of programming they never would. Headwriter Ann Marcus even recorded in her autobiography that Lear’s most common direction for them was to “be as outrageous as possible.”[ (( Marcus, Ann. Whistling Girl: A Memoir. Los Angeles: Mulholland Pacific Publishing. 1998. ))] Mary Kay Place, who plays Loretta Haggers on the show, had previously worked with Lear in the writers’ room of his network shows and was struck by the difference between the productions. “Because we were syndicated, we didn’t have the box of Standards and Practices that the networks had … We had freedom to create. We were bad. We were good. But we did amazing stuff.”[ (( Wszalek, Arlene. Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman: Inside the Funhouse Mirror. Documentary. Authorized Pictures, 2008. ))]

Out from under the watchful eye of a centralized network, its stifling censors, and typical S&P advertisers (as a syndie show filled by local commercial time), the writers answered only to themselves and the syndicating stations, which both Lear and Lasser told me only requested one edit in a 325-episode run. Queer issues and explicit stories about feminism and sexuality became dependable go-tos for garnering more viewers in the 1970s, be they fans or hate-watchers. One station manager reportedly called Lear to cheerfully report, “I’ve got 75 people marching on my station this afternoon to protest Mary Hartman. I love it!” [ (( O’Hallaren, Bill. “A Cute Tomato, A Couple Slices of Baloney, Some Sour Grapes, A Few Nuts …” TV Guide, June 19, 1976. ))]

Every bit as much as the show flourishes in the liminal spaces between traditional television genres, its syndicatedness freed producers and station managers from bearing the network burden of audience ubiquity in television’s famously gendered programming line-up. Although Mary Hartman is typically described as a late-night show, its original local listings don’t exactly bear that out and illustrate how different stations experimented with different kinds of audiences in a television schedule that has always been highly gendered.


Syndicated TV listings for the show
Syndicated TV listings for Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman

In many markets, it counter-programmed the news or late-night talk shows. But in New Hampshire and San Francisco, it ran opposite Porky Pig, in North Carolina opposite Sesame Street, in Orlando against reruns of Hopalong Cassidy, and in Des Moines it originally took The Mickey Mouse Club’s spot. Mostly missing primetime, syndicated programming like Mary Hartman has to be flexible enough to succeed in a variety of time slots—to function both as narrowcasting and as broader-casting—which make it prime for queer audiences and latchkey kids watching television without parental supervision. As a result, producers of syndie programming commonly explore different kinds of identities and genres for their shows and characters. Xena: Warrior Princess, for instance (which I watched as a teenager on Saturdays after Soul Train) featured a silly parody of the movie Clue in one episode and in the following week, Romans crucified Xena and her ambiguously lesbian partner Gabrielle. Battle on, Xena![ (( Xena: Warrior Princess parodies many different films besides Clue, like Footloose, Groundhog Day, and Indiana Jones). It plays with various genres (dramas, serials, westerns, Kung Fu films, screwball comedies, talk shows, religious, and musicals) and subversively revises important cultural events such that Xena becomes their central figure, including David’s defeat of Goliath, the fall of Julius Caesar, the Trojan War, the wild west, the unchaining of Prometheus, the story of Pandora, the discovery of electricity, the rise of Christianity, and the events of A Christmas Carol, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Odyssey. ))]


image description
Xena: Warrior Princess is mostly an episodic series, but it serializes a storyline of the characters’ growing relationship as subtextual lovers. Pictured is their child, immaculately conceived by Xena and a female angel.

In serving the marginalized schedule and the oddball audience, syndication itself has been analogous to queerness in many ways. It is liminal, flexible, on the outskirts, in between, bordering, surrounding, apart from, and peripheral. It can seem silly, forgettable, unworthy, but also scandalizing and debased. It can and does transgress or subvert ideologies and intervene in cultural discourses. It can defy categories even as it can also cement them. While neither Mary Hartman nor All That Glitters were the first scripted syndies, they did beget a number of genre-bending, glittery, and excessively provocative programming that characterized much of the syndie offerings proliferating in the 1980s and early ‘90s. And while we are quick to herald the queer pioneering of streaming television today, a cultural history of syndication reveals a kind of synergy between syndication and queerness that streamers are really borrowing—from their numerous reboots to pick-ups of network rejects and even based-ons like Glow. Syndie TV was not so much ahead of its time but of its time and like regular television, only, “a little dirtier.”



Image Credits:

  1. “Episode 177” from DVD boxset of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (author’s screengrab)
  2. San Antonio Express’ review of Mary Hartman notes how the syndie serial skirted traditional network censorship. (author’s personal collection)
  3. Author’s Instagram compilation video of Mary Hartman’s gasps
  4. After Mary Hartman’s quick success in first-run syndication, Norman Lear and Ann Marcus created a new show called All That Glitters in which the cultural power of the sexes was always already inverted and women ruled the world. It featured Linda Gray in the role of Linda Murkland, a trans woman and model for the diegetic ultra-feminine Wilmington Woman Ale campaign, the show’s upside down version of our ultra-masculine Marlboro Man. Cover of the author’s copy of TV Showtime from The Cleveland Press, Apr. 29-May 6, 1977. (author’s personal collection)
  5. Syndicated TV listings for Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (author’s graphic)
  6. Xena: Warrior Princess is mostly an episodic series, but it serializes a storyline of the characters’ growing relationship as subtextual lovers. Pictured is their child, immaculately conceived by Xena and a female angel. Picture from https://xenagateguard.tumblr.com/post/75102795836/xena-gabrielle-baby-eve


References:




Syndication 202: Make Reruns Great Again
Taylor Cole Miller / University of Georgia


Edited still from Home Alone 2
The CBC came under fire recently for cutting Donald Trump’s cameo in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.

This column is part of an ongoing series. The previous installment of this series can be viewed here.

As Father Time dragged his cold, atrophied body across the finish line of 2019, shriveled by a year of crippling political scandals, the news cycle found one final story to bludgeon him dead: The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation viciously cut Donald J. Trump’s 7-second cameo from Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. Don, Jr. called the edit “pathetic,” Fox News accused the network of “censorship,” and a former member of the Canadian parliament labeled it “politically charged bias,” tweeting “DEFUND. CBC. NOW.

In response, the network released a statement attempting to explain what is really a standard industry practice for second-run syndication or rerunning: editing or post-post production and the importance of version specificity, which is the topic of this column. Snipping a joke here and there, cutting down audience applause, or even slightly speeding up the playback all add up to make more time for commercials, and the art form of this editing work is to make as many changes as possible without gaining attention. The CBC said Trump’s casualty was part of 8 total minutes eliminated in 2014. Another example from my recent research is a Viacom version of Bewitched finding a way to add more than five full minutes of commercial time to a 1966 episode, clocking 10 minutes and 37 seconds of total commercial time in a 30-minute episode – that’s talent.

Channel executives need that extra commercial revenue to pay for their leased rerun programs, which in turn generate enough money and brand identity to support their original productions. Thus, while the study of a “quality” cable drama might be important in its own right, an added consideration of its channel’s second-run syndie fare would enrich the analysis since those reruns both helped pay for the original programming and carved out the channel’s identity for viewers in the first place.

The post-post-production practices of the syndication industry are an invisible labor that hopes to hide its tracks well enough most people never notice. In that way, it is also a creative labor with meaningful implications for text and authorship that we should account for when identifying our actual objects of study (e.g. “In this piece, I am using a TBS rerun of the Sex and the City episode “Four Women and a Funeral” that aired on …”). Academic publishing styles that ostensibly assure responsible citations really demand imprecise ones. When citing a TV text, the Chicago Manual of Style, for instance, requests original director, writer, and “year of original air date” regardless of which version of an episode one is actually analyzing, while MLA format requires the original network and the original broadcast date in its citations.


The Golden Girls on Hulu
On Hulu, every episode of The Golden Girls is stamped with an ABC TV logo and begins with an unskippable ABC TV title card.

Be careful, though, because even with these very general details, the industry will try to trick you. Disney, for instance, originally produced The Golden Girls under its Touchstone Television label renamed ABC Television Studios more than two decades later. It wants you to forget that The Golden Girls originally aired on NBC. Now, all officially licensed Golden Girls merchandise includes the ABC TV logo. An unskippable title card featuring the ABC logo plays before each episode on Disney majority-owned Hulu (the thumbnails for which are also stamped with the ABC logo). The show’s Comic Con presence was called ABC’s The Golden Girls. And if you go to Amazon to purchase downloads for the show, the network listed in the official details? ABC.


Images of the Twin Towers removed from reruns of Sex and the City and The Simpsons after 9/11
After 9/11, numerous syndicators of New York shows like Sex and the City and Will & Grace chose to temporarily erase the Twin Towers from the opening credits and establishing shots of the city to preserve the watchability of their material. The Simpsons, meanwhile, for a number of years removed its World Trade Center themed episode “The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson” from its packages.

Beyond the number of extra- or paratextual elements surrounding an episode in its second and successive lives (that we have come to theorize as part of the total televisual text), there can be and often are numerous changes to the content of that episode which are made by more and more authors all snowballing into our selected objects of study, which is why I recommend instituting different citational guidelines for our field. They include editors, cultural/content analysts, timers, colorists, music supervisors, mixers/ADR specialists, foreign language voice actors, and censor experts who all make numerous edits including medium changes (pan and scan, tilt and scan, telecine, music licensing issues), technological changes (advent of color TV, prepping for streaming, remastering for HD and 4k), cultural changes (erasing/censoring sensitive content, removing offensive episodes from packages), etc. The post-post production process also offers new commercial possibilities. How I Met Your Mother reruns, for instance, recently included new product placements opportunities in already aired episodes


The promotional poster for FXX's marathon of The Simpsons
FXX came under fire for its remastered edits of The Simpsons. The cable channel tilt-and-scanned early episodes to fit a widescreen aspect ratio, cropping out several of the show’s visual jokes.

Between the original airing of the aforementioned Bewitched and Viacom’s, what changed? Among other things, they removed the only role played by a black actor — an early African American representation on television consigned to syndication’s dustbin. If you think DVDs are a safe backup, consider that the syndie prints of both Roseanne and Alf were unwittingly used for home video release, while fans have noted that Hulu’s recent acquisition of Designing Women appears to use some syndie versions of episodes as well. I Love Lucy’s famous satin heart? Added later for syndication. And that’s not to say anything of music licensing issues created for shows like Daria and The Wonder Years that viewers argue changes their textual value. Dawson’s Creek even lost its iconic theme song for a run on Netflix. Doo doo doo do doo.


The cast of Dawson’s Creek tries to remember the show’s opening title song.

Speaking of streaming, watching Home Alone 2 is something of a new tradition in my family. This year, I braced extra hard for a cameo Canadians might have been expecting, but that never came. Sad. Who scratched Donald J. Trump from Home Alone 2? Who approved that edit? Did viewers notice? How did that impact their experience of it? Did its absence create or prevent any uncomfortable conversations? My goal in this piece is not to fetishize the “original” of anything. Rather, my interest in investigating reruns as new texts stems from such infinite and exciting research possibilities that such an understanding opens up for new analyses in textuality, industry/production practices, and particularly audiences and their pleasures. For a more thorough discussion of this televisual phenomenon I’ve called retextuality, see my chapter on Roseanne in the second edition of How to Watch Television.

As television’s grout, both reruns and first-run syndie fare take up devalued time on the TV schedule, fill it, and try to fashion something out of nothing. In serving the marginalized schedule, they often serve the marginalized audience and thus create new infinite textual meanings and research paths. In the next and final installment, I’ll discuss the creative and progressive possibilities in terms of content afforded by first-run syndication.



Image Credits:

  1. The CBC came under fire recently for cutting Donald Trump’s cameo in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. (Author’s photo illustration from a screengrab of Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.)
  2. On Hulu, every episode of The Golden Girls is stamped with an ABC TV logo and begins with an unskippable ABC TV title card. (Author’s screengrab from Hulu.com)
  3. After 9/11, numerous syndicators of New York shows like Sex and the City and Will & Grace chose to temporarily erase the Twin Towers from the opening credits and establishing shots of the city to preserve the watchability of their material. The Simpsons, meanwhile, for a number of years removed its World Trade Center themed episode “The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson” from its packages. (Author’s composite. A screengrab from the opening credits of Sex and the City and an animation cel for the 1997 episode of The Simpsons, both from here.)
  4. FXX came under fire for its remastered edits of The Simpsons. The cable channel tilt-and-scanned early episodes to fit a widescreen aspect ratio, cropping out several of the show’s visual jokes. Art for the FXX marathon of The Simpsons from FX’s website, here.




Syndication 201: Syndication Is Dead. Long Live Syndication.
Taylor Cole Miller / University of Georgia


RuPaul, Tamron Hall, Kelly Clarkson, and Jerry Springer from their new talk shows
New syndies premiering this fall included talk shows for RuPaul, Tamron Hall, Kelly Clarkson, and a court show featuring Jerry Springer.

In 2013, the US government revised how it estimates its GDP to account for, in part, the extraordinary profits of syndication for television because of the viability of daily shows and reruns to provide long-term streams of income. Fast forward to 2018, when Nielsen conservatively estimates that Netflix users streamed 52 billion+ minutes of The Office and 32.6 billion+ minutes of Friends (both shows it has recently lost), the equivalent of 25 hours for every Netflix subscriber in the country—a measurement that only includes TV-set viewing, not including other devices.

Stories abound about the incredible lengths rights-seekers will go to to secure ad-supported and subscription streaming (AVOD and SVOD) syndication rights to shows like Seinfeld ($2.8m/episode for five years) because those shows’ large packages of episodes shore up a subscriber base that in turn pay for streamers’ expensive original programming, a strategy borrowed from cable’s playbook which it borrowed from affiliate and independent broadcasters before that. And television’s digital revolution brought with it compression technologies that enabled us to go from 3-4 networks to more than 50. Not 50 cable channels, but 50 different over-the-air networks, leading Derek Kompare to quip that the “golden age of over-the-air reruns is apparently right now.


Logos of a few of today's over-the-air networks, like MeTV
Just a few of the more than 50 over-the-air networks in existence today.

Meanwhile, despite falling ratings for most traditional cable and broadcasting (or linear TV) overall, Fall 2019 saw its biggest year for first-run syndies in a decade, with more than 40 shows set to air this season alone. TV’s three highest-paid stars are all from first-run syndication: Judge Judy, Ellen DeGeneres, and Dr. Phil. And in addition to being the reliable sugar daddy of the television business, syndication has been technologically pioneering (e.g., innovating filming for television, international co-productions, and color TV) and culturally pioneering (e.g., a same-sex kiss 18 years before Roseanne, a transgender lead character 37 years before Transparent).

And yet, despite its massive economic, technological, and cultural strides, syndication never found its match in scholarship. Indeed, while the importance of “quality TV” and new primetime programming get to be taken for granted as objects worthy of study, journal reviewers constantly insist I set aside paragraphs to justify why a study of syndication is a legitimate project given, as one recently put it, it’s just a slate of “formulaic … programs with so little to commend them”—television’s lowest common denominator and a practice of yore. I don’t take that personally because, except for the excellent Rerun Nation and helpful asides elsewhere, there’s very little in the field or in our students’ textbooks that discuss syndication beyond a basic 101 of how it functions. Routledge has five published editions of The Television Handbook, for instance, only one of which says anything about syndication (the third), and only in its glossary: “syndication—the sale of programs for regional television broadcasters to transmit within their territory.”

The word “syndication” typically is used as a shorthand for one of three things: 1) to explain a particular form of distribution as “the practice of selling [content] directly to stations without going through a network, programs that each station can air at whatever time and with whatever frequency it desires,” either as originals (first-run syndie talk shows like Oprah, Ricki Lake, game shows like Jeopardy! or Wheel of Fortune, court shows like Judge Judy, or scripted originals like Xena: Warrior Princess) or reruns (second-run syndication); 2) with regard to the Financial Interest and Syndication Rules (Fin-Syn) and the Prime Time Access Rule (PTAR) in the 1970s that divided networks from their media libraries and changed what they could air; and 3) in reference to the 100-episode finish line for network series hoping to “make it to syndication” because that’s where television’s real profits lie.

With this 101 under our belt, this post serves as the first installment in a three-part series to provide researchers and students with an intermediate understanding of syndication today—a Syndication 201—to better consider some of syndication’s economic, technological, and cultural contributions in the story of television.

The Syndication Industry:

Simply put, there are three major players in the syndication business: the owners of a media product up for clearance (or a program available to license); the syndicator who the owners hire/lease their rights to as the “representative” of the media product. The syndicator then prepares the program and its contracts for clearance to; the exhibitor or the TV channel or station that airs the product according to its contract.


An example of an ad made by a Judge Judy exhibitor
Judge Judy in Chicago from bbrauer on Vimeo.
An example of an ad made by a Judge Judy exhibitor (a CBS O&O) for its local airing of the show in Chicago.

There are three types of syndication deals: straight cash (a station pays for a show directly), barter/trade (a show is provided for free in exchange for owners taking most of the advertising profits), and cash-plus-trade (a mixture of both). Let’s look at an example:

Oprah Winfrey is so incredibly wealthy not only because she horizontally integrated (The Oprah Show, O The Oprah Magazine, OWN, Harpo Films, Inc.) but also because syndication made it easier for her to vertically integrate (she served as both its executive and on-air talent and she owned the show, the production company, the production team, and the studio) by cutting out all the typical network middlemen and their profit sharing. King World Productions was Oprah’s syndicator meaning it 1) negotiated individual contracts to air the show on stations in all the television markets (currently 210 as divided by county); and 2) it distributed the product (episodes of the show) to these stations through satellites. In small regional markets, Winfrey provided the show for free in exchange for controlling ad revenue while in larger ones, top network affiliates held constant bidding wars to secure her show. In exchange for its on-the-ground negotiations with hundreds of stations and station groups, King World took a cut from the profits she earned from each individual exhibitor.


Oprah Winfrey Show Ad Campaign
An example of a syndication ad campaign by King World for The Oprah Winfrey Show

As its marquee property, Oprah generated 40 percent or more of King World’s operating revenues, and every time Winfrey’s contract with King World was up for renegotiation, she held the future of the show hostage until King World agreed to scale back its cut, eventually leading to an unprecedented salary peak at $315 million in one year. You often can see this kind of negotiation happening in public, as when talk show hosts tease their audiences about potentially ending their shows, like Ellen DeGeneres, who does it all the time and Judge Judy, who has used her negotiations to secure new productions.


Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres on The Ellen DeGeneres Show
Oprah Winfrey appears on Ellen DeGeneres’ syndicated daytime talk show.

The possibility of this inverted control of power—with the independent production company at the top—is part of what makes the syndicatedness of syndies key to the creative latitude they have for the content they air, which has often, in turn, created ideal conditions for queer and otherwise transgressive content to appear on television. In second-run syndication, meanwhile, the owners and syndicators may hire new creative and production professionals to change the content of shows to make them easier to sell, as when Tom & Jerry animated over its Mammy character, and both Will & Grace and Sex and the City edited out the World Trade Center towers. I will discuss these creative aspects of content and the syndication industry in the next installment.



Image Credits:

  1. New syndies premiering this fall included talk shows for RuPaul, Tamron Hall, Kelly Clarkson and a court show featuring Jerry Springer. (author’s composite of screen grabs)
  2. Just a few of the more than 50 over-the-air networks in existence today. (author’s composite of screen grabs)
  3. An example of an ad made by a Judge Judy exhibitor (a CBS O&O) for its local airing of the show in Chicago.
  4. An example of a syndication ad campaign by King World for The Oprah Winfrey Show. (author scan: Broadcasting & Cable, May 1, 1989)
  5. Oprah Winfrey appears on Ellen DeGeneres’ syndicated daytime talk show.




Don’t drop the SOAP: American Television’s Long-Lost Lesbian
Taylor Cole Miller / University of Wisconsin at Madison

Before she was Miss Ida Blankenship, actor Randee Heller was Alice on Soap

Before she was Miss Ida Blankenship on AMC’s Mad Men, actor Randee Heller was Alice on ABC’s hit ’70s sitcom, Soap, American television’s first recurring lesbian character.

Most of Flow’s quality-concerned readers will probably remember actor Randee Heller from her role as Miss Ida Blankenship, Don Draper’s illustrious elderly secretary in the AMC series Mad Men. But long before she was incensing Draper by calling his daughter chubby and announcing his toilet visits, Heller created controversy with a nine-episode arc (( Heller acts in only eight episodes, but her character is referenced twice in a ninth. )) of the half-hour hit ‘70s sitcom, Soap, as American broadcast’s first recurring lesbian character, Alice. I had the opportunity to speak with Heller about the show and her part in it.

Soap originally aired weekly on ABC between 1977 and 1981. The creators of the show (Susan Harris, Paul Junger Witt, and Tony Thomas, who later created The Golden Girls) crafted the primetime sitcom into a parody of the daytime soap opera with a basic serial narrative that followed the lives of two sisters, one wealthy and one working class. As the series evolved, it began to incorporate more and more bizarre and melodramatic plot elements, from demonic possession to alien abduction and everything in between.

Soap: A Quick and Dirty History

Randee Heller as Alice - Meeting the Dallas Family

Randee Heller as Alice in Soap Meeting the Dallas family, 1 March 1979.

Even before it premiered, Soap was controversial on both sides of the fence for its deployment of a homosexual series regular, Jodie Dallas, played by a young Billy Crystal. Jodie was involved with a closeted professional football player, Dennis (Olympic pole vaulter Bob Seagren) and spent much of the first season toying with having a “sex change operation,” as he continually calls it, in order to be able to be with his man openly.

Both gay advocacy groups (such as the National Gay Task Force) and religious conservative groups (Southern Baptists, United Church of Christ, United Methodist Church, National Council of Catholic Bishops, etc.) objected to Jodie’s portrayal.  According to Rodger Streitmatter, the series was reportedly so controversial, it generated 56,000 protest letters by the time it premiered in September 1977. (( Rodger Streitmatter. From “Perverts” to “Fab Five” The Media’s Changing Depciction of Gay Men and Lesbians. New York: Routledge, 2009. pp 39. )) But this controversy also largely inspired its ratings success.

At first news of the series’ potential gay content, the Washington Post wrote, “If this situation comedy makes it into the ABC schedule, it will be a breakthrough in prime-time network television programming” (( ibid. )). Later stories were decidedly more critical: Newsweek called Soap “99 and 44/100% Impure” noting that affiliates were “understandably uneasy,” while the New York Times quoted a minister as saying, “By scheduling this program in prime time, ABC will be exposing children to something they really can’t handle.” In a later published memo, ABC execs allegedly said that as a gay character, Jodie must “at all times be handled without negative stereotyping” ((ibid.)) (even though many scholars and protestors think he was all stereotype), and that his relationship with the football player “should be handled in such a manner that explicit or intimate aspects of homosexuality are avoided entirely.” ((ibid.)) The result was that the two never touch.

Because of the magnitude of the break-out role, the character of Jodie has been extensively explored in most queer histories. Scholars like Larry Gross (Up From Invisibility: Lesbians, Gay Men, and the Media in America (2001)) as well as Stephen Tropiano (The Prime Time Closet: A History of Gays and Lesbians on TV (2002)) are critical of the character’s flamboyance and how it conflates homosexuality with transgenderism. Other scholars, namely Suzanna Danuta Walters (All the Rage: The Story of Gay Visibility in America (2003)) and Steven Capsuto (Alternate Channels: The Uncensored Story of Gay and Lesbian Images on Radio and Television (2000)) applaud the character as non-stereotypical and a welcome role model for isolated gay viewers. Most of these reviews are centrally focused on the first season because even as the series progressed with more and more outlandish storylines, Jodie’s character became increasingly tame: He decides not to have sex reassignment surgery (after a failed suicide attempt), and he and his boyfriend split for good. He never seriously dates another man but becomes confusingly involved with at least three women, one of them a lesbian named Alice.

It Gets Better, Alice

Randee Heller as Alice

Billy Crystal as Jodie Dallas and Randee Heller as Alice in Soap,
on the Triborough Bridge with suicide note in her hand, 18 January 1979.

On a cold winter’s night, a depressed Jodie stands on the Triborough Bridge above the East River listing woes in a monologue when a woman emerges from the shadows and says she can’t finish her suicide note over all his complaining. Jodie, who says he has no intention to kill himself, tries to talk her out of suicide. “Listen, no matter what has happened to you, it can’t be bad enough to end your life; believe me, I know! What you’re going through can’t be any worse than what I’m going through, and I’d never jump.”

When his trump card of troubles is that he is a homosexual, an unimpressed Alice responds with, “No big deal … me too!” Jodie is shocked, “You don’t look like a lesbian …” he says. “Oh yeah, well, I loaned my black leather outfit to one of the Hell’s Angels,” she says. “Listen, my boss fired me, my lover left me, I’ve got no place to live and no one to talk to. With choices like that you either commit suicide or you kill yourself …”

Alice explains that she decided to take the plunge after coming out to her family. “I figured if we talked about it, they’d understand and maybe I’d feel a bit better about what I was. So, I told them. My mother, a very reserved woman, screamed, spit in my face, and stormed out of the room. My father, a noted psychiatrist, called me a sick twisted pervert and threw me out of the house.” After a pause, she chokes down tears and adds, “I really loved my father.”

Like Jodie, Alice was received poorly not only by conservatives but also by gay rights activists because she was a tragic portrait of the real-world persecution of openly-gay homosexuals. Gay liberationists, who encouraged gay men and women everywhere to come out as a political move, were upset with a portrayal of a homosexual woman who demonstrated the darker side of coming out. Several years later the Boston Herald wrote that Alice’s narrative demonstrated how “the networks have generally depicted lesbians either as suicidal losers or sexual predators.” ((Mark A. Perigard. “Networks’ Record Shows Gay Stereotyping.” Boston Herald, April 30, 1997. pp. 44))

Although I strive to stay away from proclaiming a particular representation as strictly positive or negative (an argument that is unending and fruitless), I read the character, and the intention behind her much differently. While Alice is fraught with suicidal thoughts in her opening scene, the narrative drive behind her character initially seems determined to demonstrate the same thing Dan Savage’s well-intentioned, if problematic, “it gets better” campaign attempts.

In fact, Jodie stops Alice on the bridge by saying, “Listen, I know it sounds pretty bad, and I’m sure it feels pretty bad. But will you believe me when I tell you, it’ll get better?” By featuring her character, Soap attempts to teach its audience about “gay women” who, despite several gay male portrayals or one-off episodes at the time, were mostly missing in prime time television. Alice is, in fact, the first recurring lesbian character in American broadcast, but her story, like many others, is often lost in the history books. ((AfterEllen.com doesn’t list the first recurring lesbian character until 1983 (Donna Pescow as Dr. Lynn Carson on All My Children, four years after Alice.) )) As illustration of the show’s earnestness, in many of the episodes, Jodie argues with his family that lesbianism is not a temporary identity a woman claims until she finds the “right man” as they often joke, but it is as much of an actual identity as being a gay man.

When I spoke with Heller about her involvement with Soap and the process of creating Alice, she told me that the writers very delicately and sensitively created the role aiming not to reproduce negative stereotypes but to craft Alice into a normal character with whom audiences could relate and identify. They created her with earnest intention but were consumed with worry about how she would be received. Of chief importance was Alice’s appearance – especially her hair.

A newly minted actress in Los Angeles from New York, Heller decided to fold to the trend by spending a considerable amount of money having her hair permed. Because the creators wanted to make Alice seem as down to earth and everyday as possible, Heller’s curly locks became an issue for the producers “worried about their sponsors” as she says.

At that time, perms were very big. … They hired me with the perm — they probably thought it was my natural hair … There was a day when [my perm] was such an issue that they wanted to straighten my hair because they were so concerned about Alice’s appearance, and because she was the first homosexual that she can’t be too “out there” like a perm was out there. Like, too hip, or too much like a rock star, whatever it was they attributed to a perm. So they spent the day straightening my hair. … It was just ridiculous, but that’s the way it was in those days. Yet [at the same time] they were so forward and so brave …

Alice and her date

Alice and her date, Maxine (Kit McDonough), 8 March 1979.

Heller said that even though she appreciated the producer’s bravado in creating the character, as an actor she was limited by what she could do on the set. For instance, Jodie invites Alice to live with him in his apartment while she gets back on her feet, and the two become loving, if frustrated, roommates. In one scene, Alice returns from a night with her date, Maxine, (who Heller described as her character’s “girlfriend”) and interrupts Jodie on a date with another man. In the scene neither Jodie nor Alice physically interact with their companions (not even a hug).

I went to kiss her in rehearsals and they said, “No no no … you can’t do that.” I said, “But she’s my girlfriend!”

“No, no no no, we can’t do that, we just cannot do that.” So it was so careful, it was so delicate in those days that you couldn’t really do your thing. … They wanted me to be a heterosexual homosexual … I don’t know! [she laughs]. They wanted me to appear very straight and very middle of the road.

Mutually jealous, both Jodie and Alice end up becoming involved in their own relationship. Alice regularly appears through the end of the second season and again at the beginning of the third season when we learn that the two have lived together for several months. Interrupting their (homo?)normative bliss, however, the Texan grandmother of Jodie’s child (he had a drunken one night stand that resulted in a baby, as they do) offers him custody of his child only if he kicks Alice out. She is uncomfortable with Jodie’s homosexuality, but believes that being raised in the company of two homosexuals will be catastrophic for the baby. Or as she says, “that’s just one homo too many!”

This she can do because, as she says, “no jury in the world” would award custody to a homosexual. Overhearing this conversation, Alice runs off, never to be seen again, and Jodie devolves into yet another confusingly hetero(non)sexual relationship before he is finally hypnotized into a past life as a ninety-year-old Jewish man. Confused? You still will be, even if you watch all the episodes. ((This is my attempt at humor based on the show’s other famous tagline, “Confused? You won’t be after the next episode of Soap.”))

Heller remembers being ambivalent about taking the role because she was aware it was so controversial, it could potentially devastate her career:

When I got the role, I was tentative in accepting it, NOT because I had any issues with … sexuality, but I was worried that it would limit a career that hadn’t even started yet … [Soap] was like the third thing I did, so I was concerned it would be an issue in my career … and I spoke to a few people who were further along in their careers, and then I just said, “Oh, the hell with it! This is a great role, and it’s fun, and I get to be on this fabulous show that is doing things that no other show had the guts to do, and I want to just do it, and see what happens.”

While Alice’s portrayal and narrative trajectory are fraught with issues and activists were critical of the character, Heller says she was warmly received by viewers who were similarly struggling with their sexuality.

“I’ve run into people that have said, you know, ‘Thank God they had your character” and ‘it really helped me.'”

Additionally, we do witness a few things through the harmony of Jodie’s and Alice’s characters we would rarely see on today’s television: By becoming involved in a relationship but continuing to maintain their homosexual identities, both characters demonstrate a kind of sexual fluidity that doesn’t fall within the comfortable rubric of the kind of archetypes token LGBTQ characters seem to have to fit into today. Also, even though by all standards Alice and Jodie are happy as a couple and want to raise the baby as a two-parent family (a homo/hetero/neither? normative relationship), a conservative, gunslingin’ Texan mama splits them up in favor of a gay man raising the child by himself, which, again, you would almost never see on TV today.

On the one hand, Heller’s memories of the creation of Alice demonstrate how the danger of harsh critiques and censure paralyze earnest producers with fear even about things like hair styling. But on the other hand, quite simply, what does it mean if we don’t make demands of our media?

Ultimately, these questions remain and will remain: Did it, in fact, “get better” for Alice? And if we have been throwing this expression out to a presumably suicidal LGBTQ audience for more than 30 years, has it or will it ever “get better”? Have homosexual representations on TV changed for the better or can we project Alice’s limitations onto a couple like Cameron and Mitchell from Modern Family. To take that a step further, even though we now have a sitting president who has vocalized his support of gay marriage (and gay marriage specifically) has our culture really changed for the better, or has it instead only made acceptable a certain kind of “perm-free” gay? Unlike the show’s famous tagline, these questions and more will [not] be answered in the next episode of Soap!

As for Miss Blankenship, Heller says she found the inspiration for the character, “I swear she inhabited me. One day on the set I just felt this spirit come into my body [she laughs].” But Heller remembers working as a young woman on Madison Avenue and believes the experience was very similar. “It was everything you see in Mad Men … and more.”

Listen to my entire interview with the captivating Randee Heller — it includes a special beyond-the-grave message from one Miss Ida Blankenship.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-NWBrjDUl1E[/youtube]

By the way, while there are no Alice Soap clips available on YouTube, please enjoy this video of the Complete Miss Ida Blankenship from Mad Men — all six and a half minutes of her glory (contains spoilers).

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=43vcOBfPzcU[/youtube]

Image Credits:

1. Photo by Bobby Quillard, courtesy of Miss Heller.

2., 3., 4. Screen captures by the author.




Performing Glee: Gay Resistance to Gay Representations and a New Slumpy Class
Taylor Cole Miller / FLOW Senior Editor

kurt1_t
Glee
‘s Flamboyant Gay Character, Kurt Hummel

It can be said with reasonable justification that because we are so programmed to be phobic of our own enduring stereotypes, we have become a generation of self-hating homos. Look on any gay dating website and you will see ad nauseum: “I am interested in masculine men” — “masc-only” — “no fems” — “I’m gay – I don’t want to date girls be masc.” These sorts of statements are typically followed by something like, “I am str8 acting …”

Once I read a profile that went so far as to say that the poster was straight, right before listing that he’s a bottom, likes twinks and … well … a few other things I’m too shy to mention in a post my mom will probably read.

I believe this distaste for male flamboyance is what is happening when gay men tell me they hate Glee’s flamboyantly gay character, Kurt Hummel, who can best be summed up by his response to the question, Is that a men’s sweater? (It’s not.) Kurt says, “Fashion has no gender.” (( Glee Season 2 Episode 1: Audition ))

Although for much of Glee’s first season, Kurt explicitly comes out at least once per episode, the show continues to rely on his clothing, speech, mannerisms, and song choice to code his queerness, a practice of stereotyping bemoaned by gay men, like those above, who think he is an offensive, anachronistic stereotype.

Gay characters in broadcasting have been around since radio’s inception, but because homosexuality was not “sayable” on radio and later television, and programs were strictly prohibited from employing explicitly gay characters, broadcasting appropriated the process of stereotyping to articulate characters’ sexualities. Gayness was, however, still largely omitted or invisible in popular culture, and as such, homosexuality was understood as nothing more than a sick perversion or mental illness.

kurt2_t
Glee
‘s Kurt Dressed as a Lady Gaga Character – with Executive Producer Ryan Murphy

As Richard Dyer explains, “Making gayness visible had to overcome the fact that, apart from actual sexual acts, homosexuality is not something visible.” To overcome this issue, gay advocacy groups such as the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) began and/or cultivated practices of stereotyping in the mass media to respond to, denigrate, or take possession of representation of gayness. Once upon a time there was the practice of “queerspotting” wherein certain elements of a person’s style of dress or mode of speech might “identify” them. “The gay project wanted a more secure visibility, it wanted to make widespread the face, literally, of homosexuality.” (( Dyer, Richard. Gay Icons. London: National Portrait Gallery Publications, 2009. Print. )) In achieving that goal, the gay project perpetuated and heightened flamboyant stereotypes.

But even with a record number of explicit representations of queerness on television today, shows continue to rely on these flamboyant tropes. We have reached terminal velocity with regard to using stereotypes for visibility’s sake and are now subject to them in all characterizations. Gayness, and to an even greater extent queerness, has become so conflated with stereotype, that we have subscribed to a new species of performativity — one that must be carried out flawlessly so our sexuality is not indeterminate. In this process, certain acts, mannerisms, or preferences become arbitrarily associated with sexuality.

For example, watching Glee has become a sort of fag flag. In the new TV Land comedy, Happily Divorced, starring once-gay icon Fran Drescher, when Fran’s husband comes out to her after several years of marriage, she says that his love of Glee suddenly makes sense.

While many gay men are likely to devalue flamboyant gay characters like Kurt, they continue to perform their sexuality as socially learned by engaging with texts associated with the gay communities. Additionally, what I also learned while writing this post, is that more straight women were engaging with Glee specifically for its gay representations than gay men. A sort of reiteration of the ‘90s “Slumpy class” phenomenon as described by Ron Becker in which what he called Socially Liberal, Urban-Minded Professionals (SLUMPYs) consumed gay programming as “a convenient way to affirm their open-mindedness.” (( Becker, Ron. “Gay-Themed Television and the Slumpy Class: The Affordable Multi-Cultural Politics of the Gay Nineties.” Television & New Media. Vol. 7 No. 2. May 2006. ))

To test my hypothesis, I took a small cursory sample of Glee fans from Facebook and Twitter and asked them to complete a survey about the show. I was more or less vindicated in my theorizations about gay men, but reading the answers straight women gave surprised me, and it was in that moment I realized that perhaps characters like Kurt, and to a greater extent gay media culture, aren’t necessarily targeted toward gay audiences.

The first, mandatory question posed was “How do you identify?” The overwhelming majority, 62 percent, were straight women while gay men accounted for only 18 percent of my sample, showing that perhaps Glee isn’t a “gay-only show.”

Bisexual women accounted for 10 percent and more straight men responded (6 percent), than lesbians (4 percent). No bisexual men or transgendered people responded.

When I filter out all but gay men, I find that the most cherished character is actually Santana, a bitchy, sexually confused former cheerleader, who constantly reiterates her discomfort with being labeled.

<em>Glee</em>'s Santana - Iconicizing the Bitch
Glee‘s Santana – Iconicizing the Bitch

What’s happening here is that in gay men’s resistance of flamboyant male stereotypes, residual appreciation for flamboyancy is shifted onto powerful, deviant, and often flamboyant women. In addition to a disgust for male flamboyance, gay men sour at how routinely gay characters are subjugated and victimized solely for their sexuality. Kurt serves as a prime example. This is the genesis of the contemporary notion of the gay icon, think Barbra Streisand, Madonna, and now (arguably) Lady Gaga, on which Glee attempts to market itself. It is typical of the gay icon to be bitchy, sexually explicit, sometimes fabulous, and aggressive with straight men. Several indicated that Sue Sylvester was either a close second, or used to be their favorite but is no more.

One respondent elaborated, “As Sue Sylvester’s character has been softened and moved into a more supporting role, the writers have upped the number of zingers Santana delivers and her struggle with queerness has been handled with a lighter touch than Kurt’s before her.”

Though Kurt is not the most hated character (surprisingly that’s Rachel Berry, Glee’s failed attempt at Barbra 2.0), a few respondents said: “he seems inauthentic” “I do not like him,” “he constantly feels like a victim,” “if he were less flamboyant, people would like him more,” and “his relationship seems silly and contrived.” One even said, “He reminds me of a whiny muppet. Way too over the top.”

Having said that, many of these respondents also conceded that his story lines are the ones they most look forward to and that he is a positive step in the right direction. One comment says, “I most like Kurt’s relationship with his father. Though Burt has some growing to do, we finally have a story of a kid who can be loved by his parents — especially their father.”

Conversely, Kurt is the overwhelming favorite for the straight female viewers of the show. “His story is compelling,” “He’s authentic with a sense of humor,” “He is exactly what young gay individuals need,” “I love him so much. No, I’m not gay, but I still feel like I can relate to him. His troubles and the way he handles them affect me so much.”

What many of these statements articulate is that, because Glee is identified as a gay-friendly or gay-associative show, these straight women watch Glee to have their finger on the pulse of gay culture. They regard their own struggles with social norms, and I suspect with internal resistance to the postfeminist landscape (in which they are stripped of agency), as running parallel with Kurt’s and the gay communities’, and as such, they watch Glee in a place of greater political spirit than many of their gay peers.

kurt3_t
Commodifying Gay Icons – Sue Sylvester as Madonna

So while the gay men in the survey watched Glee largely for the entertainment value of the show, which has cleverly studied and commodified popular gay icons of the recent past (Rachel Berry as Barbra Streisand, Sue Sylvester as Madonna, etc.) the surveyed straight women preferred to watch Glee and Kurt because they thought he represented a well-intentioned progressive step for young gay audiences, important to them, even though they’re not gay themselves.

A few other comments illustrate this: “It is more effective in showing gay teens that things get better than the recent, well-intentioned ad campaigns.”

“To me, he is a conglomeration of several guys I know/have known over the years. He is flamboyant, but so were they; therefore Kurt is authentic, not a stereotyped clown.”

“His story can really demonstrate what it can be like for gay students in high school and life. Many students do not get to see that. Especially in small towns where it may not be completely OK yet to come out when you are so young. The more people are exposed to something, the less they fear it.” A case for visibility — quantity over quality.

Vocalizing hate for Kurt is a way for gay viewers to continue to engage with Glee as a gay text, while not subscribing to the media’s continued use of stereotype. Aware of this resistance, Glee creators this season shuffled in two new gay characters, a closeted gay bully, Dave Karofsky, and Kurt’s new, more masculine love interest, Blaine. Those surveyed were indifferent to both, with a few comments stating disbelief in the characters’ interest in Kurt as the cause.  However, Glee’s continued marketing as a gay text has fostered its popularity among straight women allies, eager to associate themselves with gay culture through the “fag hag” stereotype, and all of whom love Darren Criss’ Blaine.

Meanwhile, gay resistance to these gay stereotypes has interestingly created a new breed of stereotype, “the bad gay,” seen by many as a badge of pride for the Respectable New Homosexual. Both of these role rewrites are expertly demonstrated by the hilarious YouTube series Disappointing Gay Best Friend.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NYLdM8wXkzM[/youtube]

Disappointing Gay Best Friend

Image Credits:

1. Wallpaper4Me
2. Gleeks United
3. Persephone_tree Photobucket
4. Towle Road