Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Core Response #4: Gender and Genre in the Era of "Prestige TV"

In film theory last term, we learned through Patrice Petro's work that the study of TV was very looked down upon by cinema scholars, mostly male because it was considered a mass medium, a lower medium. We all know this also was the case for Cinema, when scholars of art and literature were apprehensive of this new medium. The cycle goes on.

Tara and Michael Kackman's pieces both touch on how popular discourse on legitimating TV is done through a masculinization of a feminized medium. Kackman concludes his Flow piece:

While much recent television scholarship has seemingly moved beyond the field’s roots in feminist media criticism, it often does so by re-embracing the gendered hierarchies that made the medium an object of critical and popular scorn. And while “quality television” is a complicated aggregation of industry discourses, aesthetic norms, audience practices and politics, it’s also, at least historically, a political demand – a kind of Jamesonian hermeneutic dream of being… different. I’d like to urge some skepticism about celebrating television’s new golden age of aesthetic quality. By becoming “legitimate,” we risk eliding our field’s history of politically and culturally invested scholarship. And as the characters of Lost might yet one day learn, the search for legitimacy entails great cost, while illegitimacy has intriguing rewards.

More often than not, when it comes to cable programming, this masculinization is achieved through a likeliness to Cinema, or going away from being called not "Just TV," as Kackman shows the HBO slogan was a return to "elitist aesthetics." IF you think about a series like the Sopranos, about a well-off family with questionable morals, it's a long form, serialized, soap opera take on the gangster film. If it has a higher production value, its aesthetics is "cinematic." A formal analysis of TV's aesthethics and its narrative became very popular. The tendency towards highly serialized AKA narratively complex came from the soap opera, which came from the melodrama, another maligned genre often called "women's film." 

Kackman rightly argues that the feminist roots of TV study simply can't be forgotten or undermined because a seemingly new "era" of the medium occurred. And Tara discusses all the different ways 24 tries not to align itself with the melodrama: "old fashioned technologies like 'hero television' and the intrepid, lone-wolf masculinity, stylistically and formally it sculpts a loving look at the dispersion of screen languages into everyday life." (p.118) It's great to see how the description of 24, its narrative and aesthetic, reads so much like the media texts Jane Feuer discusses, with a tradition firmly rooted in melodrama.

Twin Peaks is another great example of quality TV and cinema: David Lynch's aesthetic blended with Mark Frost's Hill Street Blues abilities, and I'm sure Frost was doing a lot of the managerial stuff given his experience working in TV. The story was very soapy, very dishy. But it had Lynch's cool aesthetic to a network TV product, so it's quality. The subsequent hipster appropriation and fandom we see today of Twin Peaks is really incredible to see.

Emily Nussbaum, The New Yorker's TV critic, has often written on the gendered dynamics of television representations. In this article, a response to Matt Zoller Seitz's call for a more formal, aesthetic take on TV, she unfortunately does not draw on the gendered politics of this:

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