Redesigning Women: Television after the Network Age by Amanda D. Lotz

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Urbana : University of Illinois Press , 2006 .

Lotz's timely study is an attempt to understand the proliferation of dramatic television programs centering on female protagonists and women's narratives that occurred in the United States during the mid- to late 1990s, an era she defines as “post-network.” While concerned with the sociological and industrial factors that contributed to this trend, the majority of the work is an analysis of many of the specific programs themselves for what they offer to the repertoire of TV narratives for and about women. Lotz uses a retooled feminist media studies perspective that combines elements of cultural studies, critical theory, and traditional feminist media scholarship and criticism. This hybrid position is a response to what she regards as the inability of any of these theoretical perspectives to adequately or entirely account for and analyze newer, more complicated programs. Lotz makes a strong case for the need for feminist media scholars to reformulate their approaches to women's programming in the United States. Her analyses of several programs give the reader a good sense of the complexity of their characters and narratives. When taken together, these programs represent a remarkable period in American television history, one which offered viewers an unprecedented number of women's stories and types of women with whom to identify and engage.

Redesigning Women is the book adaptation of Lotz's Ph.D. dissertation, and it reads as such. In the introduction, she clearly lays out her theoretical and methodological approaches, and each of the following chapters analyzes a specific genre of female-centered drama, including action, comedic, family, and workplace dramas, with an additional chapter on cable television's three women's channels. This format does successfully demonstrate the plethora of types of women's narratives and characters available during this period, though it is also quite repetitive. Each chapter begins with an explanation of how she has classified that chapter's programs, followed by an analysis of the programs as texts. Her chapter examining the three cable network channels explicitly for women—Lifetime, WE, and Oxygen—includes historical trajectories, information published by the channels on their success, desired audience, vision of the brand, quotes from their creative personnel, and tables that indicate the kinds of programming available on each. This unique chapter occurs early on in the book, however, and by the epilogue and conclusion the format is rather tiring.

Lotz's analysis of the programs is sensitive, clear, and reflective of their complexity. One of her main goals is to demonstrate that these more complicated programs require more sophisticated analysis than they often receive, particularly from feminist media scholars. Her own textual analysis successfully drives home this point. Characters such as Ally McBeal, Buffy, and the women from Sex and the City cannot be judged without watching them in the context of their entire series run, and studies that examine only a few episodes will not capture the multifaceted nature of these characters, their relationships, and their narratives. Lotz is particularly concerned with the prevalence of the feminist role-model approach, which offers the convenience of quantitative results but completely neglects the complexity offered by seriality and long-term narrative. She provides a counterpoint to these kinds of studies, explaining why shows that may not rank highly in quantitative role-model studies are often the ones that feminist researchers themselves most enjoy. Lotz suggests throughout the book that rather than cut-and-dry role models, it seems (not surprisingly) that viewers would rather watch more realistically drawn characters as they negotiate and engage with the problems and successes that “real women” face in their lives. She argues that these kinds of characters and narratives reflect a postfeminist perspective, not in the popular American sense that they are antifeminist, but in the sense that they grapple with feminism's legacy—its triumphs, consequences, and ambivalences—in the lives of the women they portray, without ever blaming feminism for the issues and problems faced by these characters. Although audience research is not an aspect of Lotz's study, her perspective offers viewers the potential of more complicated relationships with the programs they enjoy, one that could take into account both a belief in the tenets of feminism as well as an ambivalence toward the choices offered by life in a “postfeminist” era. As such, this is a welcome addition to the examination of women's television programming.

Lotz's other main question, however, remains largely unanswered. She is interested in whether the new proliferation of roles for women makes other stereotypes “uninhabitable.” This is a point to which she does not return sufficiently in her analyses of each genre, so that when she returns to it in the conclusion, the reader is left as unclear as she seems to be. What are these other stereotypes? Do they not still exist on more retrograde programs? How does each kind of program render them uninhabitable? She does not address these questions clearly enough for each kind of program, perhaps because her analyses reveal an ambivalence toward these stereotypes in the various series. More time may be necessary in order to determine the impact these programs will have on media portrayals of women, some of which have only very recently ended.

Redesigning Women offers the beginnings of a new kind of feminist media analysis for a new era of television programming, one that includes more sophisticated roles for women than ever before. Although she may not answer all of her initial questions, Lotz does demonstrate the need for a reformulation of older theoretical and methodological tools. Her textual analyses of programs are detailed and sensitive, yet appropriately critical. Although the format and information of the book is quite repetitive, this is mitigated by Lotz's consistently clear, easy-to-read prose. Sections of the book could be useful for their content and also as examples of textual analyses of TV programs in courses on gender studies, popular culture, and media studies at both the undergraduate and graduate level. The accessible language and familiar programs should make it popular in the classroom. Overall, this is an enjoyable study about what I remember as an enjoyable time in television for women.

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