JILLY BOYCE KAY and CAT MAHONEY
University of Warwick
15th-17th May, 2013
When television is discussed, in both academic and popular discourse, it is often implicitly constructed as a ‘feminised’ medium because of its associations with passivity, consumption and the domestic sphere (D’Acci, 2004). Whilst this gendering of the medium is so often implied, assumed and taken-for-granted, there remains a large gap in our understanding of the specific ways in which television has addressed women, what television “for women” might look like, and how this has changed historically.
At the culmination of the AHRC-funded project ‘A history of television for women in Britain, 1947-89’ (jointly carried out by De Montfort and Warwick Universities) the Television for Women conference sought to “open up and internationalise debate about the past, present and future of television programming for women”. The project team – made up of Rachel Moseley, Helen Wheatley and Mary Irwin at Warwick, and Helen Wood and Hazel Collie at De Montfort – had begun the important work of addressing the gaps in scholarly knowledge and understanding about the relationships between women and television; the conference opened up these questions to wider academic discussion. The result was three days of high-quality papers that were methodologically and theoretically diverse, and yet cohered in such a way to produce an excellent forum for inquiry, debate and collaboration.
The debate was indeed internationalised, with contributions from scholars from Italy, Australia, Turkey, India, the US, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Israel, and other countries. The range of genres that were analysed, the historical periods under scrutiny, and the various ways in which the idea of ‘television for women’ was interpreted further contributed to the sense of how rich, diverse and important the work being done in this area is. The mixture of established scholars and postgraduate and early-career researchers made for an atmosphere that was both intellectually stimulating and, simultaneously, supportive.
The range of panels encompassed the genres of news and documentary, drama, sports, comedy, afternoon magazine programmes, and many more. The well-over-fifty papers addressed topics and texts as diverse as: television’s role in feminine desire (Hazel Collie); Scandinavian birthing shows (Sofia Bull); 1950s American public affairs programmes (Leigh Goldstein); Lena Durham’s Girls (Faye Woods); the representation of lesbianism in the 1970s British television play The Golden Road (Billy Smart); and Israeli women’s responses to TV commercials for feminine hygiene products (Sigal Barak Brandes).
The opening double plenary saw Kathleen Rowe Karlyn discussing the ways in which representations of ageing women in visual culture – and particularly of mothers – have contributed to a problematic political context in which different generations of women are pitted against one another, even within feminism. The critical questions that she posed emphasised the explicitly feminist agenda of the conference. Lynn Spigel’s plenary talk explored her remarkable collection of over two thousand family snapshots of people posing in front of their TV sets in the 1950s and 60s. Her fascinating and detailed analysis underscored the cultural importance of doing television history, as well as the highly complex spatial, emotional and gendered relationships that people have had with their television sets.
Later on, the second plenary session saw Charlotte Brunsdon and Christine Geraghty in conversation with Vicky Ball. The wide-ranging discussion was particularly compelling for the insights it gave into the historical development of feminist television studies, both within and outside of academic institutions. The discussion gave a real sense of the challenges, struggles and difficult work that feminists had taken on to establish feminist television studies as an accepted mode and object of analysis within higher education. This theme was taken up again in the closing roundtable; in this, Andrea Press and Jane Feuer discussed with Helen Wood and Rachel Moseley how the contemporary context urgently requires a renewed political engagement to ensure that both feminism and television remain on the research agenda.
In this closing roundtable, questions were also raised about what ‘Television for Women’ might mean, particularly in relation to the unstable category of ‘women’ and its class, race and sexual dimensions. Whilst no one definition of ‘television for women’ can be arrived at (and the conference was not seeking to fix a singular definition), simply by naming the idea of television for women, a hitherto underexplored area of research, debate and discussion was opened up. The intellectual breadth and depth of this conceptual space, and the quality and vitality of the conference, indicate how important this research is, as well as the feminism that underpins it.