Book review

Masculinity and popular television, by Rebecca Feasey

Lindsay Bernhagen

The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, United States

[0.1] Abstract—Rebecca Feasey. Masculinity and popular television. Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press, 2008, $36.00 (224p) ISBN 978-0-7486-2798-1.

[0.2] Keywords—Commercials; Gender; Masculinity; Sexuality; Television

Bernhagen, Lindsay. 2010. Masculinity and popular television, by Rebecca Feasey [book review]. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 5.

Rebecca Feasey. Masculinity and popular television. Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press, 2008, $36.00 (224p) ISBN 978-0-7486-2798-1.

[1] Scholars of television studies have produced a profusion of literature theorizing the representation of gender on the small screen, especially when one considers television studies' relatively short history and its interdisciplinary roots. However, as Rebecca Feasey rightly notes, most of this work has focused only on constructions of femininity in the televisual form. Observing that feminist research on representations of femininity and women's roles on television has provided significant insights but has left masculinity relatively untheorized, Feasey sets out to identify and interrogate the representation of men and masculinity on television. Leaving masculinity untheorized, notes Feasey, allows masculinity to be understood as unwavering and permanent, and therefore not worthy of critique or questioning. Feasey argues that examining the representations of masculinity on television is essential because these representations not only offer a reflection of the cultural realities from which they are generated, but also function to prescribe socially acceptable norms of manhood.

[2] As a response to the identified void in television studies, this book offers a broad overview of masculinity as depicted on popular British and American television. Those interested in reader-centered approaches to television studies will not find any discussion of audience or fan culture in this book: Feasey exclusively uses textual analysis to critique representations of masculinity on television in the same way that representations of femininity have been critiqued. Readers with considerable background in gender and television studies are likely to find the book too introductory for their purposes. However, the breadth of television genres covered in this book, along with the lack of theoretical density, makes this accessible volume particularly apt for undergraduates or someone with a casual interest in trends of gender stereotyping on television.

[3] Each chapter focuses on contemporary British and American programming to explore how men's roles on television can be understood in relation to wider cultural debates about sex and gender. The book consists of 11 chapters, plus a short introductory chapter and an even shorter conclusion. There are no illustrations, though the book does include a thorough index. Each chapter is dedicated to a single genre of television programming, beginning with a history of the genre, then a case study or two (each of which includes a general synopsis of the program and relevant characters), and a brief conclusion. The scope of Feasey's project is far-reaching as she sets out to discuss the generic conventions of masculinity in a wide variety of television programming, including (in chapter order): soap operas; sitcoms; adult cartoons; teen melodramas; science fiction and fantasy shows; hospital dramas; police and crime dramas; media coverage of sporting events; reality shows; lifestyle programming; and grooming, car, and beer commercials.

[4] One of the axioms of the book is that television programming reflects the social world from which it emerges, and any analysis of a television program must be able to account for historical context and change. There are many useful insights in Masculinity and Popular Television that follow from this, and these occur most frequently when Feasey takes the time to contextualize not only generic conventions, but also the social contexts from which certain genres and audiences emerge. For example, she argues that male characters on soap operas were initially simplistic and more reflective of stereotypes of masculinity. This occurred because female characters were the narrative centers of soap operas whose audiences were primarily housewives; male characters simply functioned in the periphery of female characters' lives. As soap operas started to appear during prime time, more men began to watch them, and the male characters became more central to some of the narratives, giving writers the screen time to complicate masculinity. Likewise, she explains that early representations of male doctors in hospital dramas as kind, patient, and infallible miracle workers were the direct result not only of norms of masculinity, but also of the American Medical Association's involvement in script approval.

[5] The consistent layout of each chapter is reader-friendly, but the sheer breadth of programming that Feasey ambitiously attempts to tackle in this slim volume means that no genre receives more than a few pages of treatment. For example, her chapter on how science fiction and fantasy programming challenges gender norms presents a one-and-a-half-page summary of the genre, starting with children's programming in the 1950s, then attending to the import of The Twilight Zone (1959–64), and finally briefly noting the popularity of The X-Files (1993–2002) and 3rd Rock from the Sun (1996–2001) in the 1990s. Her history is concise and peppered with references to television series, but this conciseness means that she offers at most only a sentence or two of description for each series. Following from this brief background, Feasey explains how many feminist television theorists have remarked that science fiction and fantasy programming has historically been a site for exploration of alternate sexualities and modes of gender organization because of the genre's self-conscious distancing from and critique of social reality, but that (as with other genres) this exploration is only analyzed for what it says about femininity. In an effort to move a critical focus to masculinity, the body of the chapter presents 7 pages first summarizing and then analyzing how the short-lived Firefly (2002) and the longer-running Farscape (1999–2003) challenge hegemonic models of masculinity. Feasey offers a single-paragraph conclusion that science fiction and fantasy television often present male heroes who combine feminine characteristics like sensitivity and emotionality with masculine ones like strength and dominance to explore alternate models of masculinity, and that this is a significant challenge to norms of male behavior.

[6] Readers who have spent time watching and thinking about television will likely be disappointed by the too-brief and too-tidy genre histories offered at the start of each chapter. Similarly, the case studies seem arbitrarily selected and do not consistently receive the amount of contextualization and attention that would lend itself to a more complex and productive set of analyses. It is simply not possible to fully contextualize such a diverse genre as science fiction/fantasy or reality programming in a page and a half, nor is it reasonable to expect to sufficiently capture and critique representations of masculinity in television advertisements in just one 15-page chapter. Each of these topics could have easily been the basis for an entire book. By including them all in one volume, Feasey does not have the space to make clear the different rules by which different genres of fictional television, various types of reality television, sports coverage, and commercials operate. To treat them all so succinctly implies there is no substantial difference among the ways these various types of television are generated and consumed.

[7] Though Feasey sets out to theorize masculinities in the plural, she routinely ends up measuring the male characters on television against a rather unidimensional masculinity that is recognizable primarily by its presence in the public sphere, its aggression, and its failure to express emotion. For her, any violation of this bounded stereotype counts as a legitimate and notable challenge to hegemonic masculinity, regardless of the ways in which any individual violation of this particular set of norms might simultaneously reproduce other characteristics of patriarchal masculinity. For example, she lauds soccer star David Beckham as having "challenged the very foundations of the hegemonic hierarchy" of the heroic, aggressive, and competitive male because he uses his strength and charisma as well as traditionally feminine characteristics such as "sensitivity, empathy and emotional maturity" to encourage young soccer fans to respect the world and their bodies through a soccer academy he has founded (105). He has also made his marriage to former Spice Girl Victoria Beckham and his role as a father central to his image—a publicity choice that Feasey suggests deserves attention because it, too, challenges traditional ideas about the forceful male sports hero. Feasey makes no mention of how a traditional white, heterosexual, and economically privileged model of paternalism is reflected in Beckham's "father knows best" image and thus misses a crucial way in which he upholds other hegemonic models of masculinity even as he, in some ways, challenges one very specific model of the male athlete.

[8] Throughout Masculinity and Popular Television, Feasey offers little on the subjects of race and class as they intersect with the production of hegemonic masculinity. Most male characters she chooses to discuss in her individual case studies are white (though she does not mention this), and there is no discussion of how whiteness is an integral part of normative masculinity. This absence is especially striking in her discussions of police dramas and hospital dramas, in which a male character is generally treated as the cleverest, most powerful, and most worthy protagonist of the series. Both House (2004–) and 24 (2001–2010), two shows that feature prominently in the book, have at their center white men—a trend that seems lost on Feasey. Supporting male characters of color receive no mention in Feasey's analyses, though their presence surely helps construct the narrative context in which the masculinity of the central male figure is understood. Similarly, unless Feasey is talking explicitly about gaycoms—sitcoms like Will and Grace (1998–2006) that focus on the lives of gay characters—heterosexuality is an unmarked characteristic of hegemonic masculinity that receives very little treatment. Likewise, when Feasey is talking about adult cartoons such as The Simpsons (1989–), Family Guy (1999–), and King of the Hill (1997–2010), she addresses the working-class context in which these characters live, whereas in other chapters, middle- and upper-middle-class attributes remain unmarked and unworthy of commentary. Because race, class, and sexuality are such legible categories of social difference, and because they intersect so obviously with ideas about normative masculinity, these omissions are startling. Furthermore, allowing middle-class status, whiteness, and heterosexuality to pass as the unmarked norm allows these socially constructed characteristics to seem natural and unchanging. Finally, it should be noted that when Feasey is writing about masculinity on television, she is only writing about masculinity that can be read on legibly male bodies. She does not attend to the means by which female characters might embody masculine characteristics in a way that challenges or contributes to ideas about masculinity, and thus she inadvertently seems to reify naturalized assumptions about the exclusive proprietorship of masculinity by male bodies.

[9] There is no questioning the dearth of scholarship on masculinity and popular television, and Feasey's book serves best to point out many of the places in which scholarly investigations need to be undertaken. However, because of the breadth of television genres that Feasey attempts to discuss in this book, depth of analysis has to be sacrificed. There is, as she rightly notes in her conclusion, much more work to be done. The number and variety of case studies, combined with the lack of dense theoretical language, make this book an appropriate source of reading material for undergraduate students; more advanced scholars of television will likely find it too basic and repetitive in its argument. However, she succeeds in offering "a useful introduction to the representation of masculinities on television" coupled with fertile prompts that will develop into longer, more detailed scholarship (156).

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