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LAce Posted Tuesday, November 19th, 2002
Why Is the Land of “Women’s Television” The Most Depressing Place on Earth?
Dahlia Lithwick

It almost goes without saying that what passes for “women’s television,” is truly and inexpressibly awful. Any woman who’s channel surfed her way through the miasma of tissues, tampons and chocolate that is women’s cable knows that the “secret” of women’s programming is that it can make you feel almost paralytically depressed, in a matter of hours. A fair amount of ink has been devoted to the horribleness of women’s television and websites. Less ink has been deployed to try to explain why these organizations (led mainly by women) program such garbage. But no one seems to have come up with a satisfactory reason for why, if the stuff is so awful, many millions of us are still watching.

If you’ve recently been pregnant, fluey, or downsized, I needn’t tell you how bad women’s channels are. In an essay written two years ago for the New York Times Magazine, Francine Prose lamented that the new ‘women’s culture’ panders to the worst “retro clichés” about womanhood, cordoning women off into an intellectually empty, consumer-driven “Cyberpurdah.” Most dedicated women’s channels offer a choice between chirpy decorating, chirpy cooking, or heartbreaking movies about women who are raped, abused, or taken hostage. It’s not quite right to dismiss such programming as fringe or irrelevant. Nielson ratings reveal that Lifetime ranks first among all the basic cable networks during primetime, and daytime.

Lifetime is where the made-for-tv movie goes to die. Or, better, to rise up from the ashes of its’ own formulaic awfulness and live again, with only the tiniest deviations from an immutable formula: A sitcom star from the 70’s and/or 80’s is preyed upon by a man with a moustache and/or sideburns. He abuses and degrades her in some horrifying way but, eventually she brings him to justice in an electrifying courtroom scene and/or shootout in a barn. Someone dies, someone cries, someone fries. Lifetime’s other main strength lies in its recycling of “women’s” sitcoms, specifically The Golden Girls and Designing Women (Sex in the City plus 80 years, or 800 lbs. respectively). And while, to its credit, Lifetime is beginning to showcase its own original dramas featuring professional women in real-life situations, Lifetime’s bread and butter remains the t.v.-for-victims formula that allows it to completely dominate the world of women’s cable.

Oxygen was originally conceived as the smart, brash alternative to the weepiness of the Lifetime formula. Two years ago, amid much hype and fanfare, its founder, Geraldine Laybourne, joined forces with media superstars including Oprah Winfrey, and producers Marcy Carsey, Tom Werner and Caryn Mandabach, to assemble a dream team of female writers and editors. With a great gob of funding, the intention was to revolutionize women’s television. If Lifetime was the Redbook of t.v., Oxygen was going to be the Elle – smart, savvy and powerful; intelligent reporting mixed in with fashion hints. Yet the Oxygen of today manifests none of that. Suffering from limited distribution, and having massively scaled back their website and their goal of 98% original programming, today’s Oxygen is animated by a weird, in-your-face go-grrrl feminism. It’s lipstick-feminism unencumbered by the “feminism.” Their shoes-with-an-attitude vibe speaks less to the smart, savvy powerful woman who was supposed to be Oxygen’s target audience, than to the over-the-top gay man, who lives exclusively in Saturday Night Live parodies of gay men.

Perhaps then it’s no accident that one of Oxygen’s biggest headliners is clothing designer Isaac Mizrahi (who has perfected the parody of a gay man) as he glides through his perplexing show, doing makeovers, visiting with famous model friends, and overseeing a speed-dating contest. Actually, Oxygen has done a masterful job of taking talented people (Mizrahi, Tracy Ullman, Carrie Fisher) and giving them shows that showcase their total lack of talent as talk show hosts. Fisher seems to be hell bent on battling her guests over whose recovery from addiction/abuse/and/or depression was more devastating.

The other theme of Oxygen programming is cribbed directly from Oprah: the desperate, clawing search for self esteem. I heard the word 6 times in one morning. A day of Pure Oxygen, their “magazine” show, features several Oxygen staffers trying on bathing suits, talking about their bodies and self-esteem; Lisa Loeb, explaining that her newest song is about the fact that “happiness is within;” and a segment in which singer India.Arie sings that she is not a supermodel, but still loves herself unconditionally, because she is a queen. If women are so busy that we can only escape for a few hours a day, are our choices why do we elect to escape to rape on Lifetime or moan about our self esteem on Oxygen? None of the various women’s channels give any indication that there’s a war on terror on, or a recession, or a possible war in Iraq. The really amazing truth is that women still manage to escape from current reality, to a world that’s even more desolate.

There’s a lot to be learned in the comparison between women’s bad escapist t.v. and men’s. A few hours of “men’s t.v.” -- be it The Man Show, Fox Sports Net or The Howard Stern Show reveals programming that’s preposterous in many of the same ways women’s shows are. But there’s also something so joyful; so obviously powerful about men’s escapism. They laugh at each other’s dopey jokes. They are viscerally happy being pigs. Even watching the elaborately creepy little Howard Stern ordering his coterie of topless girls to “turn around so I can see your ass,” offers at least the fantasy of power. Indeed there’s something profoundly disturbing about the similarity between Stern’s escapism and that of Lifetime: Both seem to want to see women powerless and abused.

Both Francine Prose and Salon’s Janelle Brown, have put forth creditable theories for why women’s programming, and women’s internet sites, have become so trivial and marginalized. Evidently, advertisers figured out that women’s buying power needed to be re-routed to “women’s content,” and the woman’s media ghetto was born. But two questions remain: Why did projects, like Oxygen, born of such high feminist aspirations, and crafted with feminist talent, descend to this universe of tissues and eyeliner? And why, more urgently, do women watch this stuff?

The answers turn on which way you think causation goes. One version has it that women watch bad television because it’s there. If there were better programs for women, they’d watch them. Defenders of the downward spiral in programming argue the opposite: The initial goals of Oxygen were lofty -- shows on finances, sports, and news were originally programmed. But women only liked the makeover shows. Janelle Brown charts the same arc in women’s internet sites: Ivillage and originally had broad political and social coverage. But the vast majority of their traffic went to the sex tips and horoscopes. So the main women’s internet sites are now all about sex tips and horoscopes. Women go to CNN for their news.

But even if it’s true that many women don’t watch television at all, and many more women go to “integrated” channels for their news, or business coverage, the same sad question remains: why is Lifetime playing in 80 million homes in America? And why are more women watching Lifetime than anything else? Even if we only go to women’s programming to let our hair down at the end of the day, why do women want to watch this unremitting misery at all? Why can’t women’s programming be more like women’s colleges? Give us the chance to shine, away from the shadow of male achievement and watch us blossom into complex and brilliant creatures?

Francine Prose offers the “heartbreaking possibility that contemporary women’s lives are so painful that what they desire is a good cry and some brainless, narcotizing amusement.” She may not be wrong. In researching this article I asked accomplished women friends about their secret media pleasures. One smart woman attorney collapses in front of that deathly Olson twins show. One brilliant MBA is obsessed with The Learning Channel’s “A Wedding Story,” watching it religiously at her gym. A lawyer reads two of those Harlequin bodice-rippers every weekend. Another trolls the internet for lipstick news. And I confess that I have been known to let my New Yorker gather dust while I devour the new In Style cover to cover. All of us worry about “women’s issues” – love, fertility, fashion -- and we all work in fields that allow limited exposure to these ideas. So on Sunday afternoon, when men watch sports, we catch up on our lipstick and slipcovering. We go to women’s television for the same reasons men used to go to hookers: it’s cheap, it’s easy, and we’re not getting it anywhere else in our lives.

Last year, Karen Ramspacher, who oversees Oxygen's focus-group research, was quoted saying that Oxygen made a mistake in its original conception of what women want. Ramspacher took a lot of heat for remarking that: “it turns out smart, sensitive women want to watch dumb TV.” But, un-P.C. though it may be, Ramspacher’s remark is right on the money. It’s certainly less depressing than the Lifetime executives’ insistence that their rape-a-day fare is somehow “empowering” women. Of course it would be a grand world, if at the end of each day, every woman in America retreated to a room of her own, to reorganize her stock portfolio and lobby her Congressman. But maybe taking a few minutes from a day of hard work to try on tiaras doesn’t symbolize the death of feminism.

Look what it did for Cinderella.

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    Comments [post a comment]

    Posted by Lucy O'Connell [ ] on Wednesday, November 20th, 2002 at 3:47 PM
    Last night I was challenging my two male roommates to think of a positive biographical movie about an intelligent woman. There are so many about white men who are driven crazy by their superior minds. So they suggested Camille Claudel who was institutionalized because of her love for Rodin, Pocahontas was mentioned, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious circle, where she is portrayed as a bitter bitch, Joan of Arch is that all we have, I mean she was burned. I haven't seen Frida, though I imagine it harps on devotion to the abusive Diego Rivera. Can some one please make a good movie with a heroine who is not driven mad with love or a bitch.

    Posted by Jessica O'Connell on Thursday, November 21st, 2002 at 9:19 AM
    I have seen Frida, which was excellent, by the way. But unfortunately the one aspect that bothered me was in fact Frida's unequivocal devotion to Diego Rivera. While this can be construed as incredibly romantic, and while Frida was certainly "liberated" in her painting and lifestyle, her self-destructive qualities seemed to stem from her devotion to this man.

    Posted by Tim O'Brien [ ] on Tuesday, November 26th, 2002 at 3:37 PM
    My (unnamed) "source" at Lifetime in New York told me once that at a company "rally", one of the top managers at the channel was touting the results of a new user survey which stated that a majority of Lifetime's viewership carried a concealed firearm. He was shocked, and so was I. Maybe Lifetime is just trying to cater to the audience? OR Does Lifetime's programming push these women towards gun ownership? "men's t.v." is some of the worst slag on the tube. I wish the television industry would get out of the business of catering towards a particular demographic.

    Posted by Amanda French [ ] on Wednesday, January 15th, 2003 at 11:49 PM
    Sure--I think it'd be much better to make television in general--say, CNN--not more feminine, but simply more populated with women. "Men's TV" and "women's TV" are both bound to be inherently trivial because men and women are different in fundamentally trivial ways. The notion that men and women are radically different is in this context basically a marketing strategy. On a personal note, I relax with Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

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