Thrift on Lotz, 'Redesigning Women: Television after the Network Era'

Author: 
Amanda D. Lotz
Reviewer: 
Samantha Thrift

Amanda D. Lotz. Redesigning Women: Television after the Network Era. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006. x + 224 pp. $25.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-252-07310-6; $50.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-252-03067-3.

Reviewed by Samantha Thrift (Department of Art History and Communication Studies, McGill University) Published on Jhistory (January, 2008)

Dramatic Viewings: The Production of Women's Programming in Late 1990s Television

In Redesigning Women: Television after the Network Era, Amanda D. Lotz identifies a particularly significant moment in the television programming environment from 1997 to 2002, wherein the "male epicenter" was challenged, making way for a plethora of new series offering an unprecedented range of representations and stories for female characters and audiences alike (p. 171). The author is primarily interested in exploring three facets of this phenomenon: how these shows impacted the audiences viewing them at that time; the ways in which television scholars explicate the shows' significance and value; and the legacy engendered by this programming for the future of narrative storytelling about women. Lotz weaves these threads together in her analysis of female-centered dramatic series produced during this period.

Lotz sets the stage for her analyses of dramatic subgenres by first delineating the industrial context of 1990s television programming, foregrounding the shift away from traditional network broadcasting to a multi-channel universe. Lotz cogently explains that, with viewers gaining more choice and control over their viewing selections in the multi-channel world, niche audiences, in this case women, become highly desirable to networks and advertisers. Narrowcasting yielded several readily identifiable, valuable female markets as well as an array of engaging, challenging female protagonists whose diverse dramatic narratives resonated with these viewerships.

Lotz begins her analysis by tracing the development of the "women's" television networks that emerged and gained prominence in the late 1990s: Lifetime, Oxygen Media, and the Women's Entertainment Network (WE). Lotz uses interviews with network executives in conjunction with their programming choices to illustrate the ways in which networks developed and marketed niche brand identities to different female audiences. She notes that, in response to the challenges posed by two upstart networks--Oxygen ("edgy and irreverent") and WE ("traditional femininity for a younger woman")--the long-established Lifetime ("Television for Women") was forced to diversify its programming, ultimately creating original drama series, an online presence, and sister channels, like the Lifetime Movie Network and Lifetime Real Women (pp. 52-59). Lotz describes a ripple effect wherein Lifetime's efforts to stay relevant in the increasingly competitive battle for female audiences fueled the tone of other networks' offerings, thus providing female audiences with a greater variety of stories being told about women than ever before. Lotz argues that the increasingly diversified representations of women on television helps "broaden dominant norms of femininity, the range of 'acceptable' female priorities, and the scope of issues with which women are seen to struggle" (p. 64).

Lotz organizes her analysis according to four dramatic subgenres that she identifies according to "how they tell specific types of stories and address particular female audiences" (p. 35). These are the action drama (such as "Xena: Warrior Princess" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"); comedic drama (such as "Ally McBeal" and "Sex in the City"); protagonist-centered family drama (such as "Judging Amy" and "Any Day Now"); and workplace drama (such as "The Division" and "Strong Medicine"). Lotz conducts a macro-level study of this pattern of programming instead of a close textual analysis of a given program in isolation. And in doing so, she successfully recuperates the feminist value offered by several 1990s dramatic series that many feminist media scholars had previously critiqued as not sufficiently (or consistently) feminist enough in their representations of women. She argues that these shows must be analyzed within the larger context of other shows being broadcast at the same time. As such, her chapters do not provide particularly close readings of these series, but explain how the diversity of women's narratives being produced by the television industry during this brief moment should be recognized for its feminist implications.

One way Lotz makes this point is by expertly situating these series within a history of programming trends, thereby illustrating the socio-cultural and industrial influences on network decisions that, in turn, led to the representational precedents that contextualize the late 1990s programming discussed here. In her analysis of comedic dramas, for instance, Lotz sets forth the cultural significance of "Ally McBeal" and "Sex in the City" by smartly contextualizing them as contemporary incarnations of the "new woman" figure, which was first witnessed in programs such as "That Girl" (1966-71) and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" (1970-77). The author notes that the "new woman" figure-- single, working and urban--has persisted over the decades with title characters from "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd" (1987-91) and "Murphy Brown" (1988-98). In this continuum, Ally McBeal and the women of "Sex in the City" have "inherited" the legacy of Second Wave feminism, with economic stability secured by professional careers. Lotz credibly argues that television programmers' interest in female-centered series is driven by their ability to profit from socio-cultural sea changes: in the 1970s and 1980s, working women's value as consumers rose immeasurably and advertisers strove to pinpoint the types of narratives such a demographic would be willing to watch (p. 26).

Lotz cogently argues that the increase in women-oriented programming culminated in an unprecedented proliferation of narrative possibilities for female characters and audiences. For the author, this multiplicity is remarkable given its potential for "making some [gender] stereotypes uninhabitable to a degree not previously evidenced, or how the range of stories might allow certain depictions (such as motherhood) to take on new meaning" (p. 20). Using a cultural studies framework, Lotz convincingly debunks the pervasive role-model paradigm characteristic of American feminist scholarship as inadequate to deal with the "institutional structures or the complexity of textual production in a system in which art and commerce are inextricably connected" (p. 17)--a feat Redesigning Women accomplishes very successfully.

Another strength of Redesigning Women is its critically balanced approach to its topic. Lotz acknowledges the representational flaws that mar the programming produced in this era. Throughout her text, the author capably discusses the demographic homogeneity that persists in most of the drama series that emerged in the late 1990s. Most notably, "women's" programming consistently presents remarkably similar female protagonists: single, white, heterosexual, middle-to-upper class professionals. This clearly compromises the types and diversity of narratives being told about women and limits audiences' identification with characters. Lotz also questions the real-world impact of these series and their multiple perspectives, given the increasing costs of a multi-channel universe: many viewers simply cannot afford to purchase the cable packages that broadcast the shows in question and are excluded from viewing.

The author herself addresses what would have been this reviewer's only substantial criticism: the lack of audience reception analysis to determine why women choose certain of these shows to watch over others and what pleasures they derive from them. Since one of Lotz's goals is to understand the impact of this programming on female audiences, hearing the voices of some of those viewers would have given that particular aspect of her study more insight and flavor. Given the scope of what could have been achieved in this text, though, the author is quite right: an audience analysis is best considered as a springboard for future research in this area.

At the heart of Lotz's examination is a call for feminist television scholars to redress past modes of analysis, which focus primarily on the textual representation of women on television, and to take into account the socio-economic imperatives driving the industry that produces these representations. Redesigning Women provides a highly sophisticated, expertly handled explication of the social and industrial conditions surrounding the emergence of female-centered dramatic series in the late 1990s. Lotz effectively argues for a new analytical paradigm to take precedence in feminist media studies, while demonstrating a formidable knowledge of the industry conditions influencing programming trends. The informative endnotes and superlative bibliography further evidence the author's extensive knowledge and interdisciplinary use of media, feminist, and cultural studies literatures. Lotz's earnest argumentation and evocative writing style make Redesigning Women an engaging, convincing read and significant research tool for scholars interested in the industrial production of media texts, particularly those that contribute to the always-evolving cultural canon of women's representations.

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Citation: Samantha Thrift. Review of Lotz, Amanda D., Redesigning Women: Television after the Network Era. Jhistory, H-Net Reviews. January, 2008. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=13996

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