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Masculine Discourse Surrounding Modern Television


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This post originally appeared on the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog on May 21, 2008.

One of my greatest frustrations from Console-ing Passions was that my workshop was scheduled directly against some of the panels most directly relevant to my interests. Now, this is not meant as an attack on the conference planners; I'm keenly aware that there's just no way to avoid this when you're launching a media studies and fandom conference, but it was hard knowing that, next door, there were four interesting research presentations occurring while I was boring audiences with all my blabbing.

Ironically, while I was talking about soap opera audiences outside the target demographic and the ways in which those audiences are devalued in the commodification of audiences, Elana Levine was in the next room, talking about how the masculinization of television in recent years has further devalued more "ephemeral" programming, such as U.S. soaps. Elana was kind enough to forward her research my way, and I found her approach--to look at the increasingly masculine rhetoric surrounding the removal of the television from the domestic and the increasing focus on the technology of television as we move into a flat-panel, digital world--a fresh way to understand how television has begun to overcome many of the cultural biases that have long existed against the products that are broadcast on television and provided through cable.

Foremost, I find it interesting that Elana's compelling argument that television has become increasingly masculinized in rhetoric through emphasis on technology and the escape of domestic spaces exists alongside the growing trend for primetime television to adopt many of the storytelling tactics of daytime soaps. For instance, I was talking with Ivan Askwith about some of the rhetoric surrounding Lost, marveling at the existence of such a large ensemble cast and purporting that there's never been such a large ensemble cast on television. That is, of course, except for the soap operas that have been an hour in length since the mid-1970s and which have featured hundreds, even thousands, of characters in several decades on the air, many of which still have the potential to come and go fluently from the show.

Fitting in with Elana's arguments, its the adoption of more cinematic approaches and further removal from the flow of the television line-up that aids in "masculinizing" the format. Lost or Heroes has the cinematic look, plays well on high-definition, and maintains the episodic format essential for primetime, which allows the episodes to be treated as standalone cultural products, exist as discrete chapters on a DVD, or sold individually on iTunes, free from the constraints of commercial television.

Elana writes:

In particular I am interested in the ways that markers of convergence such as high definition, flat panel TV sets, mobile viewing devices, and TV on DVD have been central to this cultural elevation. I argue that this elevation has been achieved, at least in part, via a masculinization, such that the contemporary validation of television is not a fundamental revaluation of a once-denigrated medium but rather a rejection of the feminized medium that "used to be."

Elana goes on to say that she isn't going to look as much at the class issues surrounding this masculinization, but--as she indicates--socioeconomics has much to do with it as well. The development of hi-def and digital as a premium service has been used in part to redefine TV as something more than the low-class, spectrum-flattening broadcasting of yesteryear, whether it be expensive television equipment or pay-television services like HBO, which is supposed to transcend the fare for the masses.

For instance, look at the conversation we've had here on the blog in the past about high-definition and professional wrestling, with some critics saying pro wrestling fans wouldn't necessarily benefit significantly from HD, with these class issues and stereotypes about what pro wrestling fans can afford and do. See more here and here.

Elana writes as well that, in the more masculine discourse surrounding television as a DVD commodity, genres like the soap opera are likely to be further denigrated because of their ephemeral nature, and pro wrestling falls into this category in some degree as well, since you can't "buy the season on DVD" and thus avoid the commercial nature of their initial broadcast. For more ruminations on how more content might be made available from the wealth of these archives, look here and here.

Considering the implications Elana's work has for the areas I study most closely, and considering the invitation she has for how class and other issues might fit into this discourse argument, I could probably go on and on, but I'll leave it there for now and just otherwise urge readers to check out Elana's writing on her blog.

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