Today’s Q&A comes from Elana Levine, associate professor of media studies at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. She is the author of Wallowing in Sex: The New Sexual Culture of 1970s American Television. Any book with a cover from Three’s Company is a must for me!
1. What television material do you find works best in the classroom: episodes, clips, advertisements?
Teaching television can be tricky because it is impossible to demonstrate to students the experience of the medium at any one historical moment. There is not the time to watch a day, or a week, or a season, or full series run of programming, which would be more like our actual engagement with the medium. As a result, TV scholars make a number of different choices in exposing students to TV content itself. Some schools and departments have dedicated screening times, during which students are typically shown selections of episodes meant to be representative of whatever the course is teaching that week. There have been some instances of courses in which students watch a full series, but these are rare. Most typically—and this is true of my experience, as well—we use clips during class to illustrate specific ideas or provide specific examples. Advertisements and other short, contained pieces of TV content—such as music videos or news stories—are very effective teaching tools for getting students to analyze television as a text. In a brief, self-contained instance students can attend to the visual and aural choices that shape meaning, as well as analyzing narrative and/or rhetorical strategies, and even get at broader questions about ideological implications.
2) If I were teaching your book and wanted to show a television episode from the 1970s to illuminate some of the main points, what would I show and why?
Ah! Such a hard question, as my book looks at a broad range of ‘70s programming to make its argument about television’s role in the translation of the sexual revolution to the American mainstream. One useful example from one of the book’s chapters would be a made for TV movie about sexually endangered young people. In TV movies like Born Innocent (1974) and Diary of a Teenage Hitchhiker (1979) girls are put at physical, sexual, emotional, and moral risk by the “loose” sexual culture of the 1970s. The films functioned as moral panic-style cautionary tales. But other parts of 1970s television culture had a very different attitude toward the new sexual culture, sometimes treating it light-heartedly and thereby making the changes brought by the sexual revolution seem not so revolutionary after all. The best examples of this dimension of ‘70s TV are comedic, including episodes of Happy Days (e.g., “Jailhouse Rock,” in which Fonzie consoles a group of girls who don’t get to see Elvis) and (my top suggestion), Three’s Company (e.g., “Coffee, Tea or Jack?” in which Chrissy tries to lure Jack away from a love-him-and-leave-him flight attendant), as well as game shows such as Match Game, and a number of variety shows. The book considers other kinds of TV content, as well, such as the “sex symbol” women of shows like Charlie’s Angels and Wonder Woman, commercials for bras and condoms, and rape storylines on daytime soap operas. While some of this is very difficult to access, that which is available would make for great accompaniments to the book!
3) Do you have students do television analysis, and if so, what is the most accessible theoretical text to help them consider it for research essays?
My students do analyze television texts, but often do so with a particular goal in mind. I don’t think there is one theoretical or “how to” text that lays out exactly how to do this, as there are many different ways that one might analyze television content. I usually introduce students to doing this kind of analysis by teaching them some basics of semiotics and of narrative analysis. Television studies has a strongly interdisciplinary history and, as a result, it does not have a lot of central theoretical texts. In addition, TV scholars do not typically study programs in isolation; rather, we seek to understand the meanings in programs in relation to the strategies of the industries that create and distribute television, the audience that receives it, and the broader social, cultural, and political context within which it appears. My book is an example of this approach to television. I have also contributed to a new, edited volume that should be out within the next year that is meant to provide the sort of “how to analyze TV” guidance that you are asking for. It is called How to Watch TV, is edited by Jason Mittell and Ethan Thompson, and will be published by NYU Press.
4) What are you working on now so that we have something to look forward to, in addition to the next season of the Bachelor?
Since I published Wallowing in Sex, I have co-written another book (with Michael Z. Newman) called Legitimating Television: Media Convergence and Cultural Status (Routledge, 2012), which analyzes changing ideas about the cultural standing of television as a medium. We historicize those changes and criticize the ways in which they privilege certain experiences of television in elitist and masculinist ways. I am currently working on a history of U.S. daytime television soap opera, understanding the genre as a key site for the construction of femininity across the latter half of the twentieth century and the beginning years of the 21st.