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People with a History/CLGH Book Review:
Anne Rubenstein:
Review of Dow, Prime Time Feminism: Television, Media Culture, and the Women’s Movement since 1970

Anne Rubenstein, History Department, Allegheny College

Review of Bonnie Dow, Prime Time Feminism: Television, Media Culture, and the Women’s Movement since 1970 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996).

Television matters to scholars of lesbian lives and gender ideologies, as we can see by considering some recent events. Which do you think was the subject of more lesbian conversation: the Defense of Marriage Act, or that episode of Ellen? But, despite appearances, TV is not easy to study. There’s just too much of it, while the archival sources (especially for television made outside the United States or before 1970) are scanty. Above all, although almost everyone agrees that television is very important, nobody agrees about why. Does TV reflect what viewers want, or does it shape what they -- we! -- think?

The range of methods for the study of television runs from participant observations of communities of viewers to physiological experimentation to discover the effects of specific images on blood pressure. Historians find such studies most useful when they place TV in a social context — when they tell us, that is, how TV shows are produced and how specific groups of people interpret them. Thus I had high hopes for Bonnie Dow’s Prime Time Feminism: Television, Media Culture, and the Women’s Movement since 1970. Unfortunately, Dow tells us almost nothing about the processes of production and consumption of prime time TV. This book is, for the most part, an exercise in canon construction. As such it will not be particularly interesting to historians of gender in the twentieth-century United States.

Prime Time Feminism was written to analyze "the construction of feminism ...[in] popular prime-time television" (p. 19) but that is not what it does. Instead, it combines Dow’s attempts to valorize the sitcoms and dramas she loves with a reasonable but not especially original attack on the anti-feminist backlash of the past decade. Dow devotes each of the five chapters to one show starring a working woman: Mary Tyler Moore, One Day at a Time, Designing Women, Murphy Brown, and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. In these analyses, Dow pays little attention to critical or popular reception; and she ignores the motivations and intentions of, or constraints upon, the creators of these shows. She writes as if the shows themselves were conscious historical actors. Given that assumption, she clearly and convincingly describes the gender politics of each series, concentrating on their stances toward women at work. Sexuality is marginal to her discussion, and to a surprising extent, so is politics itself. Dow tells us little about how these series represent (or fail to represent) feminists, feminist politics, or even female participation in political processes. Thus, there is no chapter on Roseanne — since that sitcom placed heterosexual responses to lesbians and gay men at the center of its comedy — and none on Maude, still the only American TV show ever about a self-proclaimed, active feminist.

Beyond describing each series, Dow tries to place them in a historical moment in the development of feminism and "post-feminism" in the United States. But Dow seems to view this process as entirely rhetorical. She draws parallels between arguments taking place in the semi-popular press and what she sees on the television screen, but fails to connect one to the other. For example, in her discussion of Mary Tyler Moore, Dow points out that Phyllis Schlafly’s contemporaneous vision of feminism (man-hating, anti-domestic) does not match up with Mary Tyler Moore’s version, in which the workplace becomes a second domestic sphere (pp. 53-54). This juxtaposition amounts to little, in the end. Why Schafly? Why Mary Tyler Moore? Was Schafly responding specifically to the TV show, or did the TV show ever respond directly to her? If there was no direct connection, why not bring in some or all of the rest of the voices in the broad argument around the ERA in that moment?

Prime Time Television is an enjoyable read, a sophisticated version of the kinds of conversations we might have with each other about, say, Seinfeld. But it does not advance our understanding of media or gender in the United States; it should not be added to the already long list of books we might want to assign undergraduates studying these topics.


© The Committee for Lesbian and Gay History [CLGH] is an affiliated organization of the American Historical Association devoted to promoting the study of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans* history, and the interaction of scholars working in the field.

Twice a year CLGH publishes a Newsletter which contains extensive reviews of recent books in LGBT studies. This document contains a review from the CLGH Newsletter. Primary citations should be to the Newsletter [and to this site if you wish].

This text is part of  People with a History. People with a History is a www site presenting history relevant to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered people, through primary sources, secondary discussions, and images..

Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use.

© Paul Halsall, November 1998

The Internet History Sourcebooks Project is located at the History Department of  Fordham University, New York. The Internet Medieval Sourcebook, and other medieval components of the project, are located at the Fordham University Center for Medieval Studies.The IHSP recognizes the contribution of Fordham University, the Fordham University History Department, and the Fordham Center for Medieval Studies in providing web space and server support for the project. The IHSP is a project independent of Fordham University.  Although the IHSP seeks to follow all applicable copyright law, Fordham University is not the institutional owner, and is not liable as the result of any legal action.

© Site Concept and Design: Paul Halsall created 26 Jan 1996: latest revision 2 January 2020 [CV]