Monday, February 2, 2015

“I’m Free”: Exploring the Female Emancipatory Potential of Sitcoms and Melodramas of the 1950s

In comedy and soap opera / melodrama, the two modes discussed in this week’s reading, the possibilities for the female protagonist are seemingly endless and far from normative.  Lucy can exhibit outrageous physical behavior (as analyzed by Pat Mellencamp).  Gracie can subvert the English language (also discussed by Mellencamp).  Soap operas / melodramas can provide heightened drama where exaggerated vice and virtue are played out against the domestic sphere.  But what is the ultimate effect of providing these exaggerated fantasies of escape from domesticity?    Does the space of the home and the space of the domestic sphere, whether conveyed in embedded advertisements (as discussed in the authentically reappropriated working class experience of The Goldbergs, Mama and other shows analyzed by George Lipsitz) or a normalizing conclusion (as we discussed last week with Father Knows Best), suggest these shows are less subversive than they initially appear?  In my view, these shows might be operating on one of two levels.  They might provide just enough of a spectacle of escape, whether in the high-flying drama of Lucy and Ethel’s scheme-of-the-week or the fantasy of outlandish affairs on the day’s episode of Guiding Light, to allow women a fantasy of liberation without actually encouraging them to leave the home (after all, Lucy goes back to her husband, virtue is rewarded and vice is punished in the end).  Or, in a more subversive turn, these shows might, through language or ideological critique, provide subtle alternatives to women, models ideologically counter to the ideal mother / obedient housewife which, despite a pat conclusion or condemnation of “deviance,” hold sway after the final scenes.

In some ways, the space of the home and the centrality of the television as discussed by Lynn Spigel, enforcing female subjugation to the confinement of the home, may be seen to speak to either interpretation.  If a women feels increasingly confined in the act of watching television, she will be increasingly drawn to the liberatory aesthetics of a show like I Love Lucy, which provides images of a woman temporarily free from the home, and thereby providing an “armchair (or stoveside)” view of another life.  This life, however, comes to an end at the end of each episode.  Much in the same way Tania Modleski writes about soaps habituating women for lives of interruption, these sitcom episodes habituating women for lives of only temporary escape, via television, from their “rightful places.”  However, it is notable that what is often most memorable about these shows, as evidenced by Pat Mellencamp’s analysis of jokes in I Love Lucy and The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show is not their endings but the humor.  If the jokes are outlandish or clever enough, then what strikes a viewer might not be the pat conclusion, but the potential for an empowering challenge to normative modes of representation sustained throughout the bulk of these shows.

The question then remains, what defines subversive television?  What is presented (the style of humor, structure of ending, etc.) or how a viewer interprets this information?  It seems, especially for humor or melodrama, much is left to the viewer, whether this reading is in line with or against what the producers / network, etc. may have intended.

-Allison Ross

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