The slogan for the Lifetime Channel leaves no doubt about who they're after - "Lifetime: Television for Women."
Being a woman myself, I am naturally curious about any television purported to appeal to me. I first tried watching Lifetime with my mom (also a woman) the day after Christmas, when the channel was featuring an all-day original film marathon, but that ended badly. My mother snapped at me to leave the room after she got tired of my snickering at whatever B-list former model was emoting on screen.
Needless to say, I missed the rest of the movie marathon, and thus any clue as to why Lifetime was television for women.
Still curious, though, I decided to give Lifetime: Television for Women another shot. I agreed to subject myself to twelve hours of uninterrupted viewing, for Mom and Maxi, to see what television for women is really like....
The truth: watching twelve hours of television kills any higher thought processes, regardless of the programming. After I recovered, I deduced a few basic truths about "television for women," presented below.
Truth #1: Sisterhood is overhyped, at least from 9 -10 in the morning
The first show I watched was the drama Sisters. Initally, I thought it was a sign of good programming to come: a show about women, on a woman's network. The bliss wore off quickly, as noted in my viewing diary below:
I'm off to an appropriate start, as the show stars four women (the sisters after whom the show is titled), and a host of ancillary female relatives. I wonder how these women made it to adulthood without killing each other. Wait! Three of them drove the fourth, Teddy (Sela Ward), to drink.
Post-viewing analysis has made me slightly more charitable: I noticed that all four women are not fully rounded people, but one-dimensional feminine archetypes. The professional spouse, the earth mother, the sexpot, and the careerist are all represented by a different woman. I figure this is to point out that female relationships, especially sisterly relationships, round us out and complement both parties. Either that, or it was too hard to write four realistic female characters. Given what I watched over the remaining 11 hours, neither conclusion would surprise me.
Truth #2: There will always be a place for Betty White on cable.
I couldn't figure out why Night Court (11:30 a.m.) is television for women. Then it hit me: this is the Six Degrees of Lifetime Movie separation. This sitcom wouldn't be featured if there wasn't some connection to Lifetime and women.
A quick internet search turned up the connection: Markie Post, the woman who plays a high-strung lawyer on Night Court, starred as a smacked-out single mom in the Lifetime movie Riding the Dragon.
I made a few more internet searches, and confirmed my theory. The Six Degrees of Separation goes far in explaining many of Lifetime's programming choices: at least five of the actresses I saw during my watching spree were featured in Lifetime Original Movies.
I love information technology, especially when it abets me in finding tenuous rationales for "women's" television.
Truth #3: Lifetime in the afternoon will lead you to kill, kill, kill
I taught toddler swim lessons for 8 years; most of my pupils were ferried to and from the pool by their mothers. Any time I spoke with the mothers, it took a good half-hour to extricate myself from the conversation. At first I was annoyed, and then I understood: when your only conversational companion for ten hours a day is someone whose grasp of current events reaches only so far as what letter just sponsored Sesame Street, you take your adult interaction where you can get it.
You take adult media where you can get it too. If a woman spends all morning listening to Barney, she's going to want an hour of televison that removes itself from the domestic sphere and allows her to rejoin the adult world temporarily.
Surprisingly, not only does Lifetime fail to provide any palatable programming during naptime, what it does show is downright toxic to a stay-at-home mom's mental health.
The first mistake the programmers made was in putting The Commish on at 1 p.m. Perhaps the Commish is the token equal-opportunity male programming in Lifetime's lineup. Perhaps the protagonist, a proto-Sipowicz without any of the qualities that keep women glued to NYPD Blue (like, say, Jimmy Smits), is meant to make women feel better because they can always think "at least I'm not married to him."
I don't pretend to understand the semiotics of syndicated scheduling. All I can say is that The Commish's only asset is that it takes place in a homicide investigation bureau, a workplace that, by virtue of the work, is the very antithesis of a child-centered household. Beyond that it falls flat. It may even contribute to the sort of desperate boredom that drives stay-at-home moms to ask lifeguards what they think of nationalized health care.
I have an alternate programming suggestion: take Lifetime's other odd-duck program, Homicide: Life on the Streets (1:30 a.m.), and run it in the afternoon in lieu of the Commish. Not only has Homicide acquired a well-deserved reputation as one of the most intelligent and well-written shows on television, it also fulfills Lifetime's Six Degrees of Separation requirement: squadroom cutie #1 Kyle Secor has starred in at least one Lifetime original movie (Her Desperate Choice), and squadroom cutie #2 Reed Diamond not only starred in a Lifetime movie, but the movie was based on a Danielle Steel bodiceripper.
Speaking of Lifetime movies, these two-hour gems are the second reason the channel's afternoon lineup is psychologically damaging. My day's offering was a policewoman drama featuring ex-Charlie's Angel Jaclyn Smith, her cheekbones, and a plot wherein the chief message was that male relatives would either ignore you or rape you, and female relatives couldn't be counted on for support. The various plot complications, estrogen-fueled double-crosses, and Jaclyn Smith tough-girl poses all reminded me of Tania Modleski.
For those of you who are saying, "who?" a short explanation: Tania Modleski studies the role of women as portrayed in women-targeted media. Her book, Loving with a Vengeance: Mass Produced Fantasies for Women, analyzes the character portraits of women depicted in female-targeted entertainment genres like the romance novel and the televised soap opera.
In her book, a few traits that define mass-fantasy women emerge and carry over from pulp romance to tube. As I watched Jacyln Smith and her cheekbones emoting for two hours, I called up Modleski's traits and crossed them off.
Woman isolated from any supportive social system? Yup. Woman bereft of any sisterhood or feminine companionship? Yup. Man capable of expressing affection only after the heroine has pushed his temper past the breaking point? Yup. Ostensible good guy the villain in disguise? Yup. Weakness and irrationality defined as attractive female traits? Yup.
The list goes on, but the overall portrait Modleski - and the Lifetime movie - paints is broad and bleak: women are isolated, from each other and from a trouble-free life, by a toxic and betraying social group.
Guess what group that might be? The family. Realizing the movie aired at a time when the most likely audience was stay-at-home moms, I wondered whose sick idea it was to run a movie that confirms the worst-case fears of being a full-time mother in the nineties.
Truth #4: Lifetime isn't television for women, but the idea of women
I could take the generous view and say that Lifetime's programming is as varied as the demands in a woman's life, or some sort of feel-good platitude like that.
But I won't. Lifetime is canny enough to recognize that there is indeed a market for television that doesn't assume its viewers are male, but it's dropping the ball on actual programming. Like women's magazines, the contents of this channel are targeted toward the women we're supposed to be, not the ones we really are.
I watched a steady stream of female characters, who were mostly white, all at least middle-class, all heterosexual, and all drawing their self-esteem from their success at pleasing others in their interpersonal relationships. It was the visual equivalent of reading those good-girl magazines that advise you to be an obedient worker bee and never leave the house without lipstick. Some of this may be reflective of a larger problem in television. NBC's fall attempt to cater to women, Must-She TV, also featured four shows that were all interchangeable and bland.
But there is good programming out there. If I were allowed to reprogram Lifetime, I'd have the all-Trek afternoon, with Captain Kate Janeway wiping the galaxy floor with some hapless aliens, and terrorist fighter Ro Laren telling Captain Picard to kiss off. I'd bring on Agent Scully, and Buffy, and Sabrina. If people wanted some courtroom drama, fine - Jamie Ross on Law and Order is the kind of lawyer Ally McBeal can only hope to be when she grows up.
I'd have variety. But until Lifetime offers it to me, I'm going to take my television for women wherever I can find it. Sadly, it looks as though that will be somewhere else.Turn off the tv. Tune in to our forum.