Finding Feminist Media Studies
As Antenna begins a new series devoted to feminist media studies, I want to consider what it might mean to have such a series and why it might be necessary. You see, in my way of thinking about media studies and, more specifically, about television studies, feminism is not just an approach one might take. It’s kind of the point.
I recognize that this way of thinking about media studies may be limited, and that television studies in particular has changed somewhat in recent years. But I think it is worthwhile to consider how and why I might have this perspective and how and why the field has changed to make feminism a perspective to choose, to take on (or, presumably, off) at will.
To be trained in media and cultural studies, with a focus on television studies, in the 1980s and 1990s (as I was) was a feminist enterprise. The humanistic study of television at that time was heavily indebted to cultural studies, especially British cultural studies and its politicized view of media culture. This perspective understands all media and culture as sites of struggle over power. This power may at times take on conventional political-economic forms but it also includes the negotiation of social position and identity, matters we might more typically associate with feminism. I hope it is no stretch to say that this feminism is one not only concerned with gender as a locus of struggle but also sexuality, race, class, age, nation, ability, etc., all of which are inevitably intertwined with one another, and with gender. The question of gender is particularly significant in the study of television in the U.S., in that the medium’s primarily domestic location, its blatant commercialism, and its propensity for “lowest common denominator” programming are traits that have connected it historically to the feminine (as well as to the underclass). That a substantial body of television scholarship has focused on the feminization of the medium, and on soap opera as a feminized product of that feminized medium, also established the centrality of gender and a feminist approach to the study of TV. Television is a feminized medium, thus the very act of studying it, of taking it seriously as a space for meaning making and social struggle, is a feminist act.
Except that so much has changed in the media landscape, in the social positioning of television, and in dominant constructions of feminism and femininity, that this foundational belief has been challenged. With convergence, “television” is much less clearly bounded, media of all kinds have been digitized, and new institutions, technologies, and experiences have expanded what “media” may mean. As Michael Z. Newman and I argue in our book, Legitimating Television: Media Convergence and Cultural Status, these developments have been crucial partners to the cultural legitimation of the medium both within and outside the academy. Now, some television programs are seen as art, some television technologies are seen as high-tech and cutting edge, and some television viewers are seen as discerning tastemakers. This emerging cultural discourse puts the discussion of television, both academic and otherwise, onto different terrain, associating some dimensions of TV with the masculine and the upscale, even as the feminized and denigrated standing of the medium persists and the social hierarchies upon which these categorizations have been built continue to thrive.
The changes in and around television have been accompanied by social and political shifts that may also make it seem as if matters of cultural struggle, particularly over gender, are in the past. Central here is what many have labeled postfeminist culture, a new, hegemonic common sense that assumes that because various social movements have accomplished some of their goals (feminism, to be sure, but we can also consider post-race or post-gay rights perspectives similarly), that the work of such movements is done. A “post” perspective thereby assumes that inequalities no longer exist, and any mention of them—or of the movements that strive for justice in their name—take us backward, doing more harm than good. That postfeminist culture has become dominant alongside processes of legitimation and convergence has made it even more difficult for a feminist and politicized media studies to be the assumed norm. Postfeminist perspectives combined with the masculinizing discourse of legitimation may seem to evacuate feminist concerns from the study of TV—a troubling notion, to say the least.
What, then, might a feminist media studies series of blog posts offer us? For one, it might remind us of the terms that have motivated and animated television, media, and cultural studies. My hope is to see questions of gender and the other categories of identity with which gender intersects directing the questions we ask and the analyses we offer. This may mean talking about representations of women, or women working behind the scenes, or women users and audiences. But the kind of foundational feminist media studies I am championing understands feminism more broadly than this. It encompasses the gendered address of various media, the gendering of media in popular and industrial discourse, and constructions of masculinity alongside those of femininity, as well as a limitless number of other questions that take on the intersectional nature of social identity and power. Together, such inquiry insists upon the vital relevance of feminism for media studies, now, and always.