Feminist Fandom: part 1 of 6

What’s the point of having a blog if you can’t engage in a little intellectual wankerage every now and again? I thought maybe I should post up some of my academic writing, for no other reason than I’m proud of it. This is my undergrad dissertation, for which I received one of my highest-ever marks, and which I enjoyed writing tremendously, although I don’t necessarily stand by all my conclusions (but I’m not sure which ones I no longer stand by). As I’m treading into pastures new this year (I’m planning on writing my postgrad diss on film and theology, of course), this is probably the last piece of formal writing I’ll do on the topic of feminism, so there’s a little bit of nostalgia involved here. I’ll be posting it in 6 sections based on the dissertation’s structure, and probably on a weekly basis. So, without any further ado, I hereby present (the abstract and introduction to):

Feminist Fandom: Exploring the precarious relationship between third-wave feminism and television, with reference to Sex and the City and The L Word.

Abstract

This paper engages in a creative, analytical exploration of the various tensions between third-wave feminism and the media by focussing on the recent television series’ Sex and the City (SatC) and The L Word (TLW). Both texts interact with contemporary feminism and queer theory in different and often interesting ways; although, despite many noted similarities between the two, few have undertaken a comparative analysis. While acknowledging the media’s much-theorized potential for misogyny, this dissertation attempts to elucidate some of the pleasures inherent in textual exegesis for specifically feminist viewers.

After tracing the specifics of the ‘pleasure/danger’ dichotomy, I investigate the appeal that SatC and TLW have for viewers. In acknowledging the issues that affect women, the texts allow the female spectator to navigate discourses in modern society. The programmes also present certain pleasures for specifically feminist viewers – that of having their concerns directly or indirectly acknowledged and engaged with in the unexpected setting of prime-time television. Following this is a comprehensive exploration of two issues that are particularly pertinent to third-wave feminism – sex and fashion – as they are communicated by both texts. Both SatC and TLW, in their handling of these issues, demonstrate a startling alignment with explicitly third-wave feminist discourses. Nonetheless, economic factors may compromise the honesty of both series’ portrayal of female sexuality – particularly on TLW, which has a need to secure a straight male audience.

After acknowledging the potential blind spots that fandom necessarily creates, this paper concludes that although the progressive elements of both programmes are matched by moments of containment, they represent an effort on the part of popular culture to engage with specifically third wave feminist issues. Both texts are extremely rich territory for feminist analysis and it is possible for feminist viewers to sustain critical awareness and viewing pleasure simultaneously.

Introduction

…when feminism is disseminated by and interpreted through capitalist-controlled institutions, you get a clash of ideologies and interests. Something’s gotta give.[1]

Once seen as rife with potential for misogyny, popular culture is being re-examined by a new generation of feminists. Television, as a profit-driven form of mass-media, has a volatile relationship with feminist cultural studies and has often been viewed as not only an unlikely site of viable feminist messages, but as a means of maintaining patriarchal culture – feminism’s “bad object”.[2] However, although (as the above quote demonstrates) contemporary feminists continue to critique popular embodiments of feminist ideals, the past two decades have seen a shift in thinking in both feminist thought and cultural studies, a shift which has resulted in a more nuanced view of television spectatorship.

The potential existence of feminist messages within the series’ The L Word and Sex and the City[3] have been widely and quickly picked up on – if not necessarily embraced – by academics, television critics, bloggers, journalists and the viewing public. In this essay, I examine these programmes in relation to contemporary debates about feminism’s relationship to popular culture.

Originally airing on HBO between 1998 and 2004, Sex and the City (SatC) is a highly successful television series centring on newspaper columnist Carrie Bradshaw and her three friends[4], all in their thirties and forties, as they navigate the complications of dating in Manhattan. Each episode is structured around Carrie’s narration as she ponders various relationship quandaries. The series provoked “astonishing”[5] reactions and enjoyed remarkably high ratings as well as winning numerous awards.[6]

In 2004, as SatC’s final season was coming to an end, the U.S. subscription cable channel Showtime began broadcasting The L Word (TLW), the first ever drama series centred on a community of lesbian characters. Using SatC as both a loose paradigm for content and form and a reference point for marketing (‘Same Sex. Different City.’[7]), TLW has nurtured a “polymorphous audience”,[8] enticing straight viewers with sexual content and intimating a similar calibre to the HBO series as well as by default offering queer viewers the pleasures afforded by representation. TLW’s success, while not as momentous as that of SatC, has nevertheless been noteworthy – it was “a breakout hit for Showtime, earning the fastest show renewal in the network’s history”.[9]

SatC and TLW have certain obvious shared stylistic and thematic elements. Both are ensemble dramas “centring on a close-knit group of female friends who regularly enjoy gabfests”.[10] Both involve hybrids of genres including soap opera, comedy and aspects of the women’s film. Both are notable for their sexual content, particularly focussing on female sexuality. Perhaps problematically, both are situated in urban environments and revolve around the lives of upper-class and style conscious characters. Most importantly for this analysis, however, SatC and TLW regularly feature scenes, storylines or discussions that relate to identifiably feminist concerns. TLW and SatC are not the first television texts to tackle feminist issues, but they are landmark in that the feminist discourses they engage with and the perspectives they align themselves with are explicitly third wave in nature. Third wave feminism is a term frequently used to describe the developments in feminism that have occurred since the late nineteen-eighties. According to Hammer and Kellner, it is often associated with “young feminists who were influenced by the legacies of feminism’s second wave, but did not feel fully accounted for by it”.[11]

All media texts operate on the level of ideology and involve negotiations of power. According to Stuart Hall, modern mass media have “colonised the cultural and ideological sphere”.[12] Television is a particularly influential ‘ideological state apparatus’, being:

…a supremely domestic medium, addressing us directly as individuals and members of family groups, in the privacy of the home, which is assumed to be the space in which our identity as individuals and members of family groups is most fully expressed and preserved.[13]

Applied to feminist cultural studies, this concept reveals the value of deconstructing the ways in which television texts operate to maintain or destabilise the status quo as well as their contribution to public understanding of feminist concerns:

The media is a central site of consciousness formation and knowledge production and it plays an important role in the cultural knowledge production of feminist consciousness.[14]

As such, TLW and SatC are deeply significant for feminist critics – not only are these texts stimulus for feminist polemic but a potential source of feminist consciousness in the general public.

Next week: Part 2 – “The Pleasure/Danger Divide”


[1] Manzano, Angie. (2000). ‘Charlie’s Angels: Free Market Feminism’. Off Our Backs. 30 (11): 10.

[2] Brunsdon, Charlotte, D’Acci, Julie & Spigel, Lynn, eds. (1997) Feminist Television Criticism : A Reader, Oxford : Clarendon Press. 1

[3] Although the Sex and the City franchise has been extended to include a feature-length film (Sex and the City: The Movie, 2008) I have chosen to bypass it here for purposes of clarity.

[4] For character bios for both Sex and the City and The L Word, see Appendix.

[5] Akass, Kim and McCabe, Janet (2004a) Reading Sex and the City, London, I. B. Tauris: 1

[6] Akass & McCabe (2004a: 5) highlight some of the series’ many institutional recognitions, including four Emmys and three Golden Globes.

[7] Akass, Kim and McCabe, Janet (2006) Reading the L Word: Outing Contemporary Television. London, I. B. Tauris: xxv

[8] Moore, Candace. (2007). ‘Getting Wet: The Heteroflexibility of Showtime’s The L Word’. In: Johnson, Merri Lisa ed. (2007a) Third Wave Feminism and Television. London, I. B. Tauris: 121

[9] Moore (2007: 121)

[10] Akass & McCabe (2006: xxv)

[11] Hammer, Rhonda & Kellner, Douglas (2007) ‘Foreward’, in Johnson, Merri Lisa (ed.) (2007). Third Wave Feminism and Television. London, I. B. Tauris: ix

[12] Hall, S. (1977) ‘Culture, the Media and the “Ideological Effect”’, in Curran, J, Gurevitch, M & Woollacott, J. (ed.) (1977) Mass Communication and Society. London, Edward Arnold: 119-138

[13] Purvis, Tony and Thornham, Sue (2005) Television Drama: Theories and Identities, Houndmills: Palgrave MacMillan: 76

[14] Garrison, Ednie Kaeh (2007) ‘Contests for the Meaning of Third Wave Feminism: Feminism and Popular Consciousness’ in Gillis, Stacey, Howie, Gillian and Munford, Rebecca (eds.) (2007) Third Wave Feminism: A Critical Exploration, 2nd Edition, Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan: 186

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3 responses

  1. Pingback: Feminist Fandom part 2 of 6 « head into the heavens

  2. Pingback: Feminist Fandom: part 3 of 6 « head into the heavens

  3. Pingback: Feminist Fandom: part 4 of 6 « head into the heavens

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