Third Wave Feminism and Television

Review by Karma R. Chávez

Johnson, Merri Lisa, ed. Third Wave Feminism and Television: Jane Puts it in a Box. London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2007. 226 pages.

[1] This book is a provocative and edgy engagement with the tensions over pleasure/danger that plague feminists (and women generally) who consume popular media, particularly television. As a part of the collection's target audience, I appropriately began reading the book just after I spent two glorious hours watching the Sex and the City movie. I suppose the pleasure I gain from SATC seems counter-intuitive—I am a Latina feminist formerly of the working class, and I watched with my white girlfriend. As I opened Johnson's collection in the wake of my post-SATC glow, I felt affirmed (though not completely comfortable). Collectively, each of these essays questions positions like the one I found myself in, and utilizes them as a productive location from which to push theorizing in new and unexpected directions. In this review, I begin by summarizing the theses of some of the stronger essays in the book, then move briefly to some of the essays that lacked theoretical development, before ending with general assessments of this fine collection.

[2] Editor Merri Lisa Johnson opens the collection by challenging readers to rethink television as a site ripe with feminist conversations. She also confronts the assumed formula of many feminist media analyses that critique media only for their sexism and reinscribe the pleasure/danger binary. Johnson suggests that the contributors to this book offer an alternative—as almost solely "sex radical media critics" or "visual pleasure libertarians" (16). These alternative feminist media critics agree that media often do perpetuate sexism, but they also seek to complicate the meanings and pleasures feminist viewers derive from media they consume. Additionally, what the essays all seem to share is a perspective on television that situates it as the source of theory rather than a site for its application.

[3] Johnson's opening essay, "Gangster Feminism: The Feminist Cultural Work of HBO's Sopranos" is an engagement of intersectionality in her reading of Episode 32 of Sopranos. This essay is one of the most sophisticated third wave critiques I have ever encountered. Entering the conversation about "how to read gendered violence in media culture" (29), Johnson provides a convincing and complicated dissection of the relationships between gender, social class, status, and sexuality that constitute any representation of such violence. Challenging convention, Johnson demonstrates how depictions of gendered violence can simultaneously affirm and dispute sexism by both featuring sexist violence and critiquing the socio-political forces that create it.

[4] Sticking with the theme of provocation, in "Female Heterosexual Sadism: The Final Feminist Taboo in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Anita Blake Vampire Hunter Series," Carol Siegel questions why feminism cannot accept the "expression of female sexual sadism within consensual heterosexual relationships as potentially consonant with our political goals" (58). In a creative revisiting of the age-old feminist debate over the limits of sex positivity, Siegel offers a sophisticated analysis by juxtaposing representations of S/M in Buffy the Vampire Slayer with Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake Vampire Hunter book series. She argues that while both series feature "feminist" heroines, they offer very different perspectives on female sexuality and the consequences of certain kinds of desire. While at one point, Siegel characterizes Second Wave feminism in a way that negates the contributions of lesbians and women of color (see page 70), most of this essay offers a direct and radical intervention into what should be the range of appropriate sexual desires and/or practices for women at the same time that it acknowledges traditional feminist critiques of practices such as S/M.

[5] Leslie Heywood's essay, "'The Room' as 'Heterosexual Closet': The Life and Death of Alternative Relationalities on HBO's Six Feet Under" similarly questions the bounds of heterosexuality. Her discussion of "queer heterosexuality" as a descriptor of the character Nate provides an important bridge between third wave feminism and queer theory. Heywood contends that Nate's heterosexual desires are queer because his opposite-sex attraction does not engender a desire to conform to typical heterosexual relating. Heywood's essay carefully balances acknowledging Nate's obvious heterosexual privilege at the same time that she depicts how the "heterosexual closet" confines straights into normative expectations in ways that literally make life unlivable. Through a juxtaposition of Nate with his gay brother David, Heywood's analysis cautiously demonstrates how the normative expectations of heterosexuality can be more constraining for heterosexuals than non-heterosexuals, which extends queer theory's conventional critique of heteronormativity. 

[6] The aforementioned essays are refined intersectional analyses that revisit and reinterpret relationships between kinds of theory such as third wave feminism and queer theory, as well as relationships between people, particularly within heterosexuality. The collection also offers analyses of queer texts including Showtime's The L Word and Queer as Folk. Though these analyses are somewhat less provocative and in-depth than the preceding essays, they also offer new thinking on the intersections between gender and sexuality. Specifically, these essays both offer a "queering" of spectatorship. Bobby Noble's essay, "Queer as Box: Boi Spectators and Boy Culture on Showtime's Queer as Folk" shows how "tranny bois" can find points of identification with the characters of QAF in unexpected and unpredictable ways. Similarly, in "Getting Wet: The Heteroflexibility of Showtime's The L Word," Candace Moore carefully shows how heterosexual males are invited into The L Word's scenarios in a manner that promotes their identification with lesbian characters at the same time that they are set up to fail the lesbian standard that the show sets.

[7] Finding weaknesses in this collection is difficult, but I would argue that two essays did not meet the expectations set by the others. Katherine Frank's essay, "Primetime Harem Fantasies: Marriage, Monogamy, and a Bit of Feminist Fan Fiction on ABC's The Bachelor" is the least convincing essay in the collection. The thesis, which posits that perhaps The Bachelor challenges the stronghold of heteronormative monogamy by bringing forth the always present past lovers into the purview of the current relationship, is absolutely provocative. The analysis itself, however, would require more demonstration of the author's claims via examples, as the arguments on their own are not completely persuasive. I finished the essay unconvinced that the reading of The Bachelor as a challenge to monogamy is a strong one because of the myriad other, more powerful messages that contrast this reading. Considering the current U.S. cultural milieu, I remain more persuaded by Judith Halberstam's critique of reality marriage shows as, in part, tools to incite anxiety about the institution of marriage. [1] Despite my own reservations about the analysis, theses such as Frank's are absolutely worth pursuing.

[8] Lara Stemple's essay, "HBO's OZ and the Fight Against Prisoner Rape: Chronicles from the Frontline," in some ways steps outside the bounds of white middle classness, which was refreshing. Her essay, however, is the least connected to the others in the collection both due to its subject matter and Stemple's writing style. Stemple's essay barely reflects or mentions third wave feminist theory, which makes the connection between third wave feminism and Stemple's reading of OZ vague. Unlike the other essays, which explicitly state the theoretical contribution they find in the program under analysis, Stemple never clarifies the contributions that viewing OZ should make to third wave feminist theory. Moreover, while I laud the intention of including a piece such as this in a collection about television and the third wave, the essay reads more like a report on Stemple's experiences as an advocate for prisoner rape survivors and how that framed her viewing of OZ, than a theoretical treatise on third wave feminism and television.

[9] As a whole, this collection is a satisfying read. I finished with two primary concerns. First, with the exception of portions of Stemple's essay, I see little room for the poor/working class, non-U.S. Americans, or people of color in any of these analyses. Second, while Third Wave Feminism is about "liking television without being duped by it" (Johnson 22), I am slightly concerned with a fairly consistent derision of what gets framed as the "predictable" interpretation of media texts that feminists should offer. Critiques of patriarchy, sexism, homophobia, and oppression are framed as obvious by many of the authors, and yet, I have to ask: obvious to whom? I am not convinced that typical feminist media critiques are obvious to my students or many television viewers.

[10] Despite some of my concerns, I believe that this collection is a must read for third wave feminist scholars and activists, and for teachers of gender and media courses. Alongside traditional feminist analyses, I plan to incorporate these essays in my courses, as they provide unique entryways to engage with students. The book also made me feel a lot better about my love of Sex and the City. This alone, makes the book worth reading.

[11] Ladies (and bois), loved your book.


[1] Frank refers to Halberstam's work ("Pimp My Bride," The Nation 5 July 2004) in her essay.