Monday, March 14, 2011

Feuer - Seeing Through the Eighties

Feuer, Jane. Seeing Through the Eighties: Television and Reaganism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995.

The contradictions in Reaganism of populism/elitism played out in the television of the period. In fact, the victory of Reaganism in the period came from the fact that left critics of television read programs from Dynasty to thirtysomething as presenting a dominant ideology, when in fact a closer reading reveals contradictions within them. Feuer's examination of these programs reveals a variety of subversive readings existing among fans of these shows. Her conclusion is that the left during the 80s failed to recognize the instability of Reaganism - her book is an attempt to belatedly reveal this instability.

She cautions against dismissing these programs as either "mere entertainment" or purely pro-Reaganism texts. She undermines these hasty assumptions not only with an examination of the shows as texts (within their flow, a la BT), but also looks at the promotional tie-ins and related "nonstory materials."

Nitty Gritty
Dynasty - The common perception which Feuer seeks to undermine places the show as a mere glorification of white heterosexual male excess. In fact, Feuer notes the two demographics that made up the strongest fan base for the show were heterosexual females and homosexual males (whose cultural identity was partly formed out of a co-opting of heterosexual female dress). These groups were attracted to the camp factor of the show's women. Thus, while Dynasty fan parties often saw viewers dressing up in second-hand clothing to mimick the style of the characters, an actual Dynasty consumer line was never a success. Feuer notes that from the very beginning the show's creators were aware of the camp aspect of their show, and thus consciously pursued excess melodrama in their plots. In this way, Dynasty thus became even more popular than its sister-show Dallas.

thirtysomething - Feuer points out that no one ever claimed to be a yuppie; it was a derogatory term for others, and it reflected the way thirtysomething became "the show you love to hate." She suggests the aesthetic of the show is "yuppie guilt," which stretches back to 1983's The Big Chill. It is a contradictory show, though, because even as the characters wrestle with the guilt of their compromised baby-boomer radicalism, they find contentment in the "nuclear family" made up of their social network of friends.

postmodernism - thirtysomething, Moonlighting, Miami Vice, and Max Headroom were declared to be cinematic in various ways and thus followed in the footsteps of ultimately modernist, self-reflexive cinema such as Woody Allen. However, they are postmodern because, as ad-driven TV shows situated within the flow of the medium they are referencing, they are simultaneously complicit with and critical of television.

LA Law - Also provides a yuppie for fans to "love to hate" in Arnie Becker. Feuer uses a sequence that seems to celebrate Arnie's yuppie California lifestyle (fancy apartment, fancy cars, corporate wardrobe) but ends with his secretary Roxanne noting the opposite, dark side of the Cal life, undermining Arnie's claim that life is figured out.

Trauma Drama - Realist made-for-TV dramas of the 80s went through a particular form that mirrored both the geographic and the ideological landscape of Reaganism (Sunbelt, Farm Belt, the west -populism, anti-govt, pro-family)...
  1. Family represents ideal and norm of happy American life
  2. Trauma occurs
  3. Victims/parents seek help through institutions
  4. Institutions fail to help
  5. Victims take matters into their own hands
  6. Join a self-help group or form a grassroots organization
  7. New organization is better than established institutions
  8. Normality is restored
Feuer notes that populism is not inherently right-wing, and raises a few examples of trauma dramas that retain a left-wing criticism.

Feuer disagrees with John Fiske's formulation of the relationship between politics and entertainment. Rather than merely seeing subordinate groups making a "resistive" reading of the dominant ideology, she sees them making a "subordinate" reading, which may not necessarily please left-wing critics. In an era when all but white male businessmen could be seen to be subordinate to the Reagan hegemony, this would explain how subordinates might read television shows like Dynasty without a resistance to Reaganism.

Interestingly, Feuer notes that the rise of Hall's theories of negotiated and oppositional reading (more broadly, a shift from theories of text to theories of audience) coincided with the Reaganism/Thatcherism hegemony, suggesting a sort of wishful thinking on the part of leftist critics during a period when they felt helpless to influence the production side. Feuer thus historicizes her project, suggesting a "silent majority" (from Jean Baudrillard) powerless to influence the production yet still able to quietly make a resistive reading. (A la Dynasty's camp reading.)

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