Volume 13 Numbers 2 and 3, 2003
CHILDHOOD MEMORIES: THE LINK IN THE CHAIN
AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMEN’S CONSTRUCTION OF MEANING
FROM THE TELEVISION SHOW SISTERS
Jennifer F. Wood
Abstract: The meaning and identities of African Americans often are reduced to economic and demographic indicators of media consumption habits. Such indicators do not explain or describe the complexity of meanings produced within African American experiences of media. This exploratory study examines how African American women construct meaning from the predominantly white cast television drama, Sisters (NBC, 1991-1996). Patricia Hill Collins’ (1990) Black feminist thought, John Fiske's (1987) theory of intertextuality and Stuart Hall’s (1980) encoding/decoding model provide a theoretical framework. The study focuses on a preference-based appointment show and uses reception analysis based in cultural studies. The six African American female participants constructed meaning through the use of the "think-backs" and the childhood memories served as a prominent point of negotiation between the African-American women and the ideology of the text. Thus, for this particular television program, the women relied on the child-based “think-back” technique—not their ethnicity—to link them to the primary text.
The four sisters were so different and there were no other shows like it at the time. The dialogue between women was fresh and unique. The characters were fully developed. I mean the writers fully develop the female roles—meaning the roles didn’t hinge on a man being the spotlight. Women—sisters and their mother—drove the show. Men were actually the secondary characters. They were finally sprinkled in as the secondary characters. So now I could at least connect with some of the women’s experiences. The childhood memories served as the link in the chain.
Often, the meaning and identities of African Americans are reduced to economic and demographic indicators of consumption habits. Such indicators do not explain or describe the complexity of meanings produced within African American experiences of media. The above participant statement is devoid of such indicators and acknowledges a television production technique as a site of encounter and meaning making for African American women. Specifically, the statement captures the sentiments of African American female audience members who believe that a well-designed television production technique called “think-backs” helped them create meaning in a prime-time television drama that ran six seasons and featured and all-White cast until its fifth season. Furthermore, the participant’s statement (1) illustrates that social identity, such as gender, is important in influencing media consumption and meaning-making and (2) offers an opportunity to explore the gendered and racialized experiences of African American women viewing preferences and meaning-making.
Historically, few researchers have studied the social identity of gender as an influence on women’s media consumption and meaning making. In an effort to fill this gap, Press (1991) conducted a study that focused on gender in relation to hegemonic theory. Specifically, Press (1991) focused on class differences—working-class and middle-class women. She found that “the hegemonic aspects of the way television operates are more gender-specific for middle-class women (e.g. in ways related to the operation and perpetuation of patriarchy) and that television’s hegemonic function works in more class-specific ways for working-class women (e.g., in ways related to the organization of the class system in our society)” (p. 176). In brief, Press (1991) argues that how working-class women interact with television culturally is more a function of their social class membership than their membership in a particular gender group. Press’s (1991) study investigated the intersections of gender, class, and mass media through interviews with female informants. Recent studies that focus on social group identity have returned to mass media portrayals (Elasmar, Hasegawa, & Brain, 1999; Harwood & Anderson, 2002). Studies focusing on mass media portrayals tend to relegate African American women to the social group membership of ethnicity; and the mass media portrayals tend to relegate African Americans as a whole to situation comedies. Thus, even less research has been conducted to study the social identity of gender as an influence on African American women’s media consumption and meaning making.
Racialized Viewing and Social Group Membership
In the 1990s, racialized television viewing habits among African Americans were considerably higher when compared to European Americans (Perkins, 1996; Tucker, 1997). In addition, studies found that African Americans watched programs that have predominantly African American casts (Dorsey, 1997; Hass, 1998). In the 1996-97 television season, African Americans were found in 16% of the main and minor roles and had achieved a representative niche in prime time (Mastro, 2000). However, as of 1997, the three newest networks—Fox, UPN, & WB, had more Black-oriented shows in their fall schedules than NBC, ABC, or CBS. The majority of those shows were sitcoms (Gray, 2000). When the schedules for the 1999-2000 television season were unveiled, none of the 26 new prime-time shows being launched by the four major networks featured a leading nonWhite character (McCarthy, 1999). McCarthy (1999) argues that there are three reasons why minorities are relatively few and far between on prime-time television: (1) there is a dearth of minority writers, (2) television has become more segregated because of the explosion of programming outlets, and (3) economics, that is White viewers are the most desirable consumers, and they will not watch minority programming (p. 18). In the 2000s, African Americans were reported as watching on average 73.6 hours of television per week (Flint, 2001). Also, the number of Black characters in prime-time comedies and dramas increased to 16% on the six networks (Flint, 2001). These statistics highlight the social identity, ethnicity, as a primary influence of African American media consumption. Such statistics link African American viewing primarily to the situation comedy genre, which is the only genre that has appeared on the Top 10 programs every year since 1949 (Campbell, 1999). It is also the genre in which African American casts are highly encoded by television producers.
According to a study conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles, entitled Prime Time in Black and White: Making Sense of the 2001 Fall Season, Black characters tend to be relegated to situation comedies (Hunt, 2002). In their analysis of African American families in entertainment television, Dates and Stroman (2001) made a distinction between drama and comedy programming in which they concluded that when drama programs revolve around the lives and concerns of African Americans, the programs tend to last only a season or two. African Americans in comedies continues to be the trend because of the success of this type of encoding. As a result, aggregate African American viewership continues to be seen as monolithic and relegated to the social identity of ethnicity in situation comedies. Hass (1998) describes prime-time comedy shows as “one of the last bastions of public segregation” (p. D3).
Statistics based on ethnicity show that African Americans, who accounted for 11.8 percent of the total U.S. television homes in 2002, watched 74.4 hours per week in all dayparts, as compared to nonBlack households at 52.9 hours. However, when it came to viewing by gender, African American women—like their White female counterparts—watched one-third more television than male viewers in many dayparts (Freeman, 2002). Specifically, in the 18 to 49 age demographic, African American females averaged a 4.4 rating in prime-time compared to a 3.0 rating of African American males. In addition, African American females held a 4 percent viewing edge over White females in the same age demographic (Freeman, 2002). While these statistics may be important, the meaning-making of African Americans cannot be reduced to demographic indicators of consumption habits. I argue that the way the African American women talk about self, relationships, and media representations are central to our understanding of the role of media in the lives of these women.
Beyond Racialized Viewing
Although African Americans may watch television programs that have predominantly African American casts and a significant number of those cast members are relegated to situation comedies, the reality is that just like other Americans, African Americans have other viewing preferences. Characters, television genres, and content are among the many reasons that television viewers rush home to catch their favorite shows or set their VCRs. As Wolcott (1995) describes it, viewers are not passive lumps, but active participants who purposefully schedule their viewing around a magnetic draw, or certain genre they find appealing for one reason or another.
Television programmers are capitalizing on the active audience by using a programming formula that appeals to different television show genres that are popular among the viewers. Television shows such as C.S.I: Crime Scene Investigation, Law & Order, Survivor, and ER have been ranked as shows with a large following of viewers, which, in some cases, has generated new programs designed to mirror the appeal of the original program. Because of their tremendous appeal to certain segments of the viewing audience, these shows eventually gain status as “appointment shows” (Wolcott, 1995), whereby loyal audience members become committed to watching the show week after week, season after season. Audience members make personal appointments in their daily lives to watch the show, thereby being constantly engaged in the unfolding stories contained in the visual text of the television.
Limited research has been conducted on appointment viewers. A study by Pingree, Hawkins, Hitchon, Gilligan, Radler, Kahlor, Gorham, Kolbeins, Schmidt, & Kannaovakun (2001) found that college student’s have “preference-based appointments” (p. 458), with particular television programs. College students “appear to make appointments with popular programs and genres for selective viewing. And unlike the ‘evening of viewing’ characterization of the mass audience, college students then tune out to pursue some of the many other activities present in student life” (p. 459).
Historically, media researchers have argued that television plays a role in our daily lives (see Gauntlett & Hill, 1999; Lembo, 2000), which makes it critical that scholarly inquiry investigate the meanings that audience members produce from engaging in the television viewing experiences. This goal is best achieved within the context of “appointment shows,” (Wolcott, 1995) as television audiences are frequently exposed to visual messages and texts designed to entertain and/or educate. This televisual experience offers scholars a unique opportunity for investigating how audience members construct meaning in a television show. Specifically, I argue that televisual experiences focused on appointment shows, rather than social group membership statistics, (1) provides insight into the prime-time “preference-based appointments” (Pingree et. al, 2001) of African American females outside the television genre of situation comedy; and (2) offers a unique opportunity to investigate how some African American females construct meaning in a predominantly White cast television show.
A Preference-Based Appointment Show of Six African American Females
The best way to locate a preference-based appointment show is through the voices of individual media consumers/media audience members. One located “appointment show” among some African American females was the prime-time television drama Sisters (NBC, 1991-1996) which aired on Saturday nights. Sisters was a prime-time television drama centered around the lives of three sisters and their mother and how they dealt with every day circumstances in their individual lives as well as their life as a close-knit family. Specifically, Sisters revolved around the Reed sisters, who all had boys' names given to them by their deceased father, who was a doctor. The main characters were four sisters, Alex, the wife of a plastic surgeon and a world-class spender; Frankie, a Wall Street executive; Georgie, a saint-like supportive wife of an amateur lounge singer and the sister who everyone seemed to turn to for support; and Teddy, a fashion designer. The sisters were always validating one another's experiences and helping each other through problems such as failing marriages and a son's leukemia. In addition, they dealt with issues such as alcoholism, breast cancer, divorce, rape, and death.
In all instances of any emotional crisis, the sisters conjured up images of themselves as girls and communicated with them (Jarvis, 1993) about their problems. According to the television production industry, this technique is referred to as "think-backs" in which each character interacts with herself as a child. According to Waters (1991), the device illuminates how personality and behavior become forged. The experiences of the sisters in the show seemed to capture the ethnic breakdown of the geographical setting—Winnetka, Illinois.—as almost exclusively European American.
Sisters ran four seasons without any African American characters—supporting, guest, or otherwise. In its fifth season, the character of Frankie was replaced by the addition of an half sister, Charley, who had been raised apart from the others and played the role of a doctor. With the introduction of Charley came the issue of interracial dating.
Show creators Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman introduced this issue by adding an African American male character, who played a doctor who fell in love with Charley.
While the show was obviously popular among a large viewing audience, this show also had a unique appeal to some African American females who actively scheduled Sisters into their regular viewing schedule. This pattern is of particular interest given that past research has shown a tendency for audience members, especially African Americans, to watch programs with characters from the same racial/ethnic group as their own (Dorsey, 1997; Hass, 1998). In the case of Sisters, the characters/actors are of European descent, which further confounds the argument that an audience member’s racial identity is the primary variable influencing viewing choices and one’s ability to identify with programming content. Therefore, it is also the goal of this exploratory study to understand whether racial identity is in fact the primary lens through which African American women interpret and experience a mediated text or television program, in this case Sisters, centered around the lives of middle-class, European American women.
Three theoretical frameworks provide a rationale for this exploratory study. First, Patricia Hill Collins’ (1990) Black feminist thought proposes that African American women are informed by their race, gender, and class standpoints. In addition, African-American women as a group have experiences that provide us with a unique angle of vision (Collins, 1990, p. 25). Black feminist thought is grounded on the premise that African American women, as a group, share certain commonalities of perception and experiences. Collins (1990) argues that:
Individual African-American women have long displayed varying types of consciousness regarding our shared angle of vision. By aggregating and articulating these individual expressions of consciousness, a collective focused group consciousness becomes possible. Black women’s ability to forge these individual, unarticulated, yet potentially powerful expressions of everyday consciousness into an articulated, self-defined, collective standpoint that is key to Black women’s survival. (p. 26)
John Fiske's (1987) theory of intertextuality and Stuart Hall’s (1980) encoding/decoding model provide a theoretical framework for audience experiences with the media. Fiske claims that studying a text’s intertextual relation can provide valuable clues to the readings that a particular culture is likely to produce from it. He proposes that any one text is necessarily read in relationship to others and that a range of textual knowledge is brought to bear upon it. These relationships do not take the form of specific allusions from one text to another and there is no need for readers to be familiar with specific or the same texts to read intertextually. Intertextuality exists rather in the space between texts. He argues that intertextual knowledge pre-orients readers to exploit television polysemy by activating the text— making some meanings rather than others—in certain ways.
In addition, Fiske (1987) argues that intertextual relations can be visualized on three levels—horizontal, vertical, and tertiary. First, horizontal relations are those between primary texts that are more or less explicitly linked, usually along the axes of genre, character, and content. Vertical intertextuality is between primary texts, such as a television program or series, and other texts of a different type that refer explicitly to it. These may be secondary texts such as studio publicity, journalistic features, or criticism. Finally, tertiary texts are produced by the viewers themselves in the form of letters to the press or, more importantly, of gossip and conversation. Since this exploratory study shows how one primary text can be "articulated" (Hall, 1980) with other cultural domains to exploit its polysemy, it is important to also apply Stuart Hall's (1980) encoding/decoding model.
Hall claims that a text that can be articulated with other cultural domains to exploit its polysemy. His model asserts that dominant, normative messages (visual and textual) are constructed and ascribed to media. This construction of messages in the communication process is defined by Hall as ‘encoding.’ This communicative interaction continues, according to Hall, when these messages are confronted and ultimately interpreted—'decoding' by its audience. This communication process rests on two primary assumptions. First, audiences, such as television prime-time viewers, are selective, active 'readers' of a program's text. Second, television messages are ‘polysemic’, that is, they are open, interpretable texts which can generate a multiplicity of meanings in response to the dominant messages. In addition, this encoding/decoding model argues that these active readers decode the messages circulated and maintained in texts via reading positions. Hall outlines the three reading positions: (1) the dominant-hegemonic position (preferred)—reading as intended; (2) the negotiated code or position—decoding via exceptions to the rule; and (3) oppositional code—putting the information into some alternative framework or reference. Specifically, readers engaged in a preferred reading accept the text’s messages full and straight. The negotiated readings are those where subjectivity greatly dictates a compromise for that which is accepted or preferred and that which is resisted. Finally, the oppositional reading position shows readers in resistance to the messages inscribed in the texts.
In summary, Fiske (1987) and Hall (1980) argue that television programming represents the dominant class' attempt to homogenize the diversity of meanings that are created by television audiences. This exploratory study applies Black feminist thought, as well as Fiske's concepts of horizontal and tertiary levels of intertextuality and Hall's encoding/decoding model.
The focus of this exploratory study is not on audience choice, but on meaning-making and interpretation. Therefore, the study uses reception analysis based in cultural studies, which argues that audiences actively view media and critically and socially create media meanings and interpretations. Therefore, the assumptions are made that (1) viewers actively interpret television programs (Bielby & Bielby 1994; Hall 1980; Harrington & Bielby 1995; and Liebes & Katz 1990); and (2) viewers redefine television by using their own definitions to understand what they view (Gamson, 1994; Gillespie, 1995; Jensen 1992; and Morley 1980).
Reception analysis focused on African American females is not new. Bobo (1995) introduced the influential concept of oppositional readings. Specifically, Bobo’s research illustrates the complex process by which the Black women were able to form a positive engagement with The Color Purple, despite its production by the Hollywood film industry. Harris and Donmoyer (2000) use the film Imitation of Life (1959) to explore the differences and similarities of its reception by racially diverse women (two African Americans and two European Americans).
The focus of this study is on prime-time television “appointment shows” (Wolcott, 1995). The use of the phrase “preference-based appointment show” suggests that individuals regularly schedule a show into their schedules because it is a preference of theirs and not of someone else’s. Therefore, although this research project employed purposeful sampling in which participants were purposively identified to take part in the study, the sampling was emergent in that I did not choose the television program nor did I put out a call for participants.
In 1996, I had heard many unrelated conversations among various females—European American and African American—about the soon-to-be-aired final episode of the television drama, Sisters. The discussions often centered around a reminder to watch for the final episode that was to be a two-hour episode that would bring the show full circle. In the first episode in 1991, the sister’s father died and in this final episode their widowed mother died. In order to bring complete closure yet maintain the level of integrity this dramatic series established over the years, the final episode included a myriad of flashbacks to many previous episodes that reminded participants of some of their favorite episodes and important events that occurred in the lives of the fictional Reed family.
After several weeks of hearing these unrelated conversations, I found it interesting that African American women not only watched this show, but regularly scheduled it into their lives. Thus, not only did the idea for the exploratory study emerge, but the participants themselves emerged. African American women had identified a preference-based appointment show. I was able to recall six African American women from those conversations and they were selected for participation in the exploratory study.
In order to gain understanding of the six African American females’ experiences with the “appointment show,” Sisters, the data for this study were constructed from in-depth interviews conducted in 1997. The one-hour interviews were audiotaped and did not focus on any specific episode of the television drama. This exploratory study uses several full quotations of the six African American women speaking in their own voices. Therefore, the next section is written to provide the African American participants an opportunity to describe their intertextual readings and meaning-making through the process of decoding from their unique standpoints.
In the interviewing process, the African American women described several levels of intertextual readings. Specifically, the participants expressed horizontal relations to text along the axes of genre, character and content. In addition, tertiary relations were produced by the viewers in the form of conversations with other female family members or friends. The African American women did not express any vertical relations, that is, relations between the primary text, Sisters, and other texts that refer to it, such as reviews.
Television viewers who read a text horizontally are concerned with television genres, content and characters. The six African American women participants for this study engaged in all three types of horizontal intertextuality.
Genres. Several categories of mass media genres exist. From a production viewpoint, Lacey (2000) argues that the ‘repertoire of elements’ that serve to identify genres consists of character types, setting, iconography, narrative and style. The definition seeks to encompass film, television, and other popular fiction. However, from a cultural practice viewpoint, Fiske (1987) argues that genres attempt to structure order into the wide range of texts and meanings that circulate in our culture for the convenience of both producers and audiences.
The African American women stated that they were fully aware that the television show, Sisters, did not have any African American females on the show, however, their interest in drama as genre motivated them to begin watching the show. Based on prior knowledge of the function of television programs, the participants demonstrated a clear understanding of how certain types of shows operate. Claudette best articulated this when she explained an expectation about dramas:
For me, I like watching dramas because they deal with serious issues. It was the only drama on at the time dealing with women's issues. So people are attracted for that reason. Drama stories are complex and they weave in and out each week. Sisters takes effort to get involved in. It builds from week to week. Whereas dramas like ER or Homicide have particular events that can be so fantastic and you don't have to watch it for a long period of time to be able to talk about it. You don't have to watch over a period of time to understand it. Sisters takes effort to get involved and you have to keep up.
Fiske (1987) also explains that generic conventions are so important in television because they are a prime way of both understanding and constructing the triangular relationship between producer, text, and audience. The producers of Sisters added a different twist to the drama. They used a technique referred to as "think-backs" in which each character interacts with herself as a child. The African American women referred to this technique as “flashbacks.” Karen stated:
Although I saw it [Sisters] at first as being an all White television show, meaning it is accepted because it is targeted to mainstream America, I was drawn by the flashback technique incorporated into the drama.
Many of the participants understood this production technique as being a way to fully understand the social and personal issues dealt with on the show. However, the African Americans females placed emphasis on how child-based “think-backs” was an additive to this genre that kept them viewing weekly. Claudette expressed the dialogue between the child and adult as being effective:
The women's experiences in general spoke to me, but the flashbacks of the characters were great, especially as the younger children would talk with the older adult by asking them why did my life turn out this way or why did I end up the way I did.
The intrapersonal relationship of child-adult was an important dynamic for the participants because they helped edify child development as important in the lives of women. Sandra expressed the dynamic:
Experiences as a child shape the way you are as an adult and relate to how you interact with those around you. That's what makes the flashbacks. You got to see what made them the person they are now.
The African American females kept a distance by acknowledging the focus on character development. For example, Beverly stated:
I especially liked the adult life and child life; you know the stuff they did with the cameras. It worked because the whole flashback thing was used to identify with the younger self and help us understand why they [the characters] were the adults that we see.
Teresa made a point that indirectly summarizes the triangular relationship between producer, text, and audience referred to by Fiske (1987):
Dramas revolve around issues and I liked Sisters because it dealt with tough issues that revolved around women's lives. I liked how the show was designed around the quirkiness and the relationships between the sisters and between the mother and the daughters. I liked the way they used the flashbacks to show the relationships because you could see how they [the sisters] became the people they are now. You got to see the relationships they had with their father, each other, their mother and just how they related to them then compared to as adults. I really like that technique. Also, I think the storylines were realistic. You know they dealt with issues of illness, having babies, divorces, not being able to have babies, and death.
The issues embedded within the storylines of the television drama were of interest to the African American participants. Therefore, content became another horizontal relationship between the text and the participants.
Content. Although Monica liked the “think-backs,” the initial magnetic draw was not the genre. She was drawn to the television show's content—the overall text of the show not individual episodes. Specifically, the focus on family was important to her:
I was hooked on the show because I liked the format. The way they put the drama together using the flashbacks was different. But, what drew me to the show was that it was about women and a family show. You know Living Single is a show about women, but not a family show. You know shows like Eight Is Enough and Blossom, where you have the single parent. Shows like that draw me. Shows like that are really touching.
Raymond Williams (1974) argues that intertextual relations of content cross genre boundaries. Monica not only related the overall content across genre boundaries, but also the "flashback" technique. She stated:
The childhood flashbacks are what I liked the most because it went beyond the child voice narratives like on The Wonder Years. I liked it because it was different. I didn't think about issues on that show, but with this flashback technique I had to [think about the issues on Sisters].
Overall, the African American women favored the flashbacks to get in touch with their experiences and to gain an understanding of what the characters were going through as sisters and as daughters of a widowed parent. A related theme that emerged was that all of the participants were either an only child, the only female child, or only had sisters. In addition, they all had, at varying lengths, a lived experience with a single parent environment. Therefore the focus on the relationship between sisters had both direct and indirect appeal in the lives of the participants. For example, Claudette, the only female child in her siblings stated:
The show was also intriguing to me because I don't have any sisters. I just have two older half brothers and so having all sisters is an experience I am not familiar with, but my mom is one of six sisters and I did look for parallels between the show and my mother to see if there were any similarities between my aunts and my mother. I wanted to see if there were any personalities of my aunts in the show and the way my mother interacted with her sisters. It’s the big family interest.
An example of a direct appeal to the content of sister relationships was expressed by Karen:
Although they did a lot of stuff I can't relate to. I can relate to having all those sisters. I have three sisters. And it's hard for a single parent to deal with children by herself, but its harder with girls because they are more clingy than guys and more dependent on their parents.
A less noticeable, but significant intertextual reading was the connection that the African American women made between the characters.
Characters. Fiske (1987) argues that the meaning of a character or actor does not reside in any one of his screen appearances, but in the intertextuality which is the aggregate of all and an essential part of the reading of any one. Beverly identifies how she was drawn to the show’s characters.
Well remember Ed Marinaro, the one who played Mitch, he used to play on Hill Street Blues; and Frankie was Bruce Springsteen's wife, so I had to see if she could act; and you know the other one who played Georgie, she was on thirtysomething. I guess you can say I followed the actors. For example, Georgie's character is too maternal, but I like her as an actress. Frankie doesn't act as well, but I liked her character because she was a career woman.
Three of the African American women, including Beverly, negotiated the relationship between the real world of the player and the represented one of the character by giving into one or the other. This is in line with what Fiske (1987) states about character readings.
Reading character requires the viewer to negotiate with great delicacy that boundary between the representation and the real and the ideological relationship between them. This negotiation must be conducted in two modes, the relationship between the real world of the player and the represented one of the character, and that between the real world of the viewer and the combined real-represented world of the player-character. (p. 178)
Similarly, Sandra articulated how the negotiation of the relationship between the real world of the player and the represented one of the character played an important role in keeping her watching the series even though each episodic storyline did not appeal to her:
I remember the episode when Charley had to give that foster child back. I did not really like the storyline, but I liked the actors. I did like it when George Clooney was on the show. He played Falconer. I really liked him and so I liked the storyline of Teddy dealing with his death and she had that hysterical blindness. That was good because you wanted to mourn with her, but I moved on to see him in ER. You know his acting moves on.
The other three women tended to read characters by negotiating the relationship between themselves and the combined real-represented world of the player-character. Teresa articulates this relationship as she summarizes a mother-daughter relationship:
I could never be like Alex. The big thing that I couldn't deal with was the relationship she had with her daughter. She was too open with her. They were like friends rather than mother and daughter. She gave her daughter consent to do many things she shouldn't have given consent for. There was just a LOT OF THINGS consent was given for. She [Alex] was too pampered. She was just too pampered and I couldn't relate to her at all; not even to her history. She is just different from me. I wouldn't raise a child like that at all.
Overall, all of the African American participants were able to create some meaning through the opportunities television provides to identify with genre, content, and character. The women were also able to create meaning through the residual discourse that television programs can often create.
Another level of the intertextuality of television emerged in the form of conversations that the African American women had with their sisters or friends. Fiske (1987) defines these as tertiary text—texts that the viewers make themselves out of their responses, which circulate orally and work to form a collective rather than individual response. Teresa explains how she engaged orally in this type of reading.
I always watched the show by myself, but I would talk with a couple of my sisters about the show. We would call and say hey did you see Sisters last night? They use to watch it too and yes we would talk about the show. I have four sisters and no brothers so it would create some lively conversations. We'd even call long distance.
Claudette, an only child, would communicate with her friends about the television show:
Off hand, I would discuss the show with some of my friends, but not consistently. It is not a show you discuss every week like a Homicide. You know for that you say, hey did you see Homicide last night. You don't have to say did you catch up on Sisters. Sisters has to be seen weekly and people have to keep up on it to talk.
Related to this theme is the fact that the women would talk about the particular episode, but the flashbacks were off limits in the conversation. Comments from Teresa, Monica and Sandra are examples of the limitations evidenced in their readings of the show. When asked in the interviewing process if they discussed the flashbacks when talking with others their comments were:
Teresa: No, no, no. We'd talk about the episode. Oh, NOT THE FLASHBACKS. That's just a self-reflexive thing that women do and you just respect that.
Monica: No girl, flashbacks talk with yourself; just like they talk with themselves [on the show]. Besides the other crazy stuff they do takes up the whole conversation with my sister.
Sandra: The show got a little far-fetched at times and you had to talk about that, but flashbacks were for us women to use as individuals.
Many of the African American participants agreed that a person would have to keep up with the show in order to talk about it because there are just some scenes that you have to talk about. The overwhelming issue for all respondents that had to be discussed was when Frankie dated her sister Teddy's ex-husband. Three responses are presented in full quotation:
Teresa: I couldn't relate to the younger sister because she married her sister's ex-husband. All the men out there and you end up with your sister's man? I don't want my sister's leftovers. My sisters and I talked about that for days. That just wouldn't happen in the Black family. It just wouldn't happen.
Beverly: I tell you when I had to call my girlfriends. Oh just how can someone? Teddy had an alcohol problem. It was hard enough seeing Mitch with another woman; that would have been HARD ENOUGH. They were divorced and she still had feelings for him so it would be difficult for her to see him date anybody; but to see him date her YOUNGER sister! She was younger and more together society-wise. She had her MBA and was an executive. The perfect sister in some respects. How can you do that to another sister? There are certain boundaries that you don't cross even if you do have feelings for someone. Yes, I had to call my friends who are like sisters to me.
Claudette: But oh, when you have to call your friends to talk just to make sense out of what is going on. What I really couldn't see is the scenario with the two sisters. One had been married and divorced and then the younger sister married the SAME MAN! THE SAME MAN! And they CO-EXISTED without KILLING EACH OTHER. That definitely cannot work in a Black family. Those episodes were too far-fetched, you have to call someone to make some sense out of it. The SAME MAN!
The African American women engaged in private readings of the tertiary text. As Fiske (1987) argues, studying them can give us insight into how the primary texts are read and circulated in the culture of the viewers. The six African American women read the primary text in various ways and circulated many of their readings orally. Overall, they articulated an oppositional reading to the prime-time television drama.
Stuart Hall (1980) refers to three types of readings a viewer has of a text. The African American women in this study are placed in the oppositional reading category because their readings of the text were in direct opposition to the preferred reading to the dominant ideology. Many of their comments about the drama demonstrated that the African American women do not see themselves represented in the show. However, there is still an identity that is important for them to know about since the drama deals with women's issue. Claudette and Teresa best articulate an oppositional reading.
Claudette: The show had few African American characters and so it didn't speak to the experiences of African American females. The African American male character on the show was identified through a White character. As far as experiences of mine with my friends and families and what I have seen, the show was absolutely void of our experiences. If you didn't know better it would be one of those shows that would make you think there are no Black people in America.
Teresa: The show doesn't speak to my experiences as an African American woman they were too privileged; they were a privileged group of people and grew up in a major suburban area. However, when you look deeper into relationships of the characters there were problems. You know the father who drank; he had affairs; he was never around; so you saw the difficulties of life. These problems are universal though so they dealt with universal problems not the problems of African Americans. The sisters faced breast cancer, infertility, and other issues which are not close to all African American women, just general issues which are not handled the way we were taught.
The oppositional reading position shows the six African American women in resistance to the messages inscribed into the texts of the drama, Sisters. Although they held an oppositional view, the women were not disturbed by the lack of African American actors on the drama. Claudette feels that since she has no expectation of seeing African Americans on mainstream television shows, she can't be surprised when there are none.
Its rare that they [producers] put women in the forefront and that each woman is completely different. Yet, there is no great loss or disappointment because even with trying to link women to society they still don't see us African Americans. It's no surprise.
Beverly, on the other hand, understands the real issue to be that television producers don't have a strong sense of women. Therefore, she explains it is hard to expect that a show like Sisters would recognize women's issues from an African American perspective:
Come on! You've seen shows about women before. For example, I love Golden Girls, but I don't like them cracking on each other and women. They didn't have any of us on there. Think about it, if producers had to deal with a sister who was a screw up and not make a joke about it, they couldn't do it. They can barely recognize a woman's perspective so I wouldn't expect an African American perspective.
In the current study, the African American female participants explicated television polysemy by activating the texts that dealt with television genre, content, and character. In addition, several of the meanings they constructed were made collectively with their family—primarily their sisters—or friends. However, many of the women constructed meaning through the use of the "think-backs" and the childhood memories served as a prominent point of negotiation between the African American women and the ideology of the text. As Fiske (1987) notes, reading the television text is a process of negotiation between this existing subject position and the one proposed by the text itself, and in this negotiation the balance of power lies with the reader. The horizontal readings by the participants demonstrated that "the meaning found in the text shifts towards the position of the reader more than the reader's subjectivity is subjected to the ideological power of the text" (Fiske, 1987, p. 66).
In addition, the tertiary text readings of the African American women fall in line with Voloshinov's (1973) argument that reading is not a garnering of meanings from the text but a dialogue between text and socially situated reader. The meaning of the text was restructured when it was met with the conversations between the African American women and their sisters or friends. Also, the various readings provided by the study participants were constructed differently by the discourse that each bore on the text. This is best summarized by Morley (1980).
Thus the meaning of the text must be thought in terms of which set of discourses it encounters in any particular set of circumstances, and how this encounter may re-structure both the meaning of the text and the discourses which it meets. The meaning of the text will be constructed differently according to the discourse (knowledge, prejudices, resistance, etc.) brought to bear on the text by the reader and the crucial factor in the encounter of audience/subject and text will be the range of discourses at the disposal of the audience. (p. 18)
Thus, how do African American women construct meaning from the television drama, Sisters? By reading intertextually even in light of an oppositional reading of a program that fits dominant culture. For this particular television program, the women relied on the child-based “think-back” technique—not their ethnicity—to link them to the primary text.
Television production techniques are a viable part of meaning-making for these African American women. The complexity of meaning produced within African American experience of the media cannot be explained by statistical indices of consumption. The interpretive strategies of African American audience members are made visible through their standpoints. Building from a foundation of feminist standpoint epistemology (Bowen & Wyatt, 1993; Foss & Foss, 1991) generally, and Black feminist work specifically (Collins, 1990), this exploratory study sought to understand whether racial identity is in fact the primary lens through which African American women interpret and experience a mediated text or television program. A discursive space where African American women could give consciousness to and describe their viewing experiences from their specific standpoint(s) was provided by focusing on appointment viewership in which the women named a common prime-time drama which then became the focus of the in-depth interviews. Fiske’s (1987) intertextuality theory and Hall’s (1980) encoding/decoding model were effective in exploring how the African American participants constructed meaning in their preference-based appointment show. However, there is a limitation to such a small sample. The sample size is not representative of the percentages often reported by market and rating firms. Thus, it raises questions such as, How widespread is the viewership of a television program with a predominantly White cast among African Americans?
Historically, widespread viewership is often defined by the rankings. For example, in the 1992-1993 season, Married With Children (MWC) was ranked as the tenth most popular show with African Americans, although it did not even rank in the top 20 for European Americans. In 1993-1994, it was the fifth most popular show watched by African Americans (Lusane, 1999). Lusane (1999) used textual analysis to examine why the show was popular with Black audiences. He argues:
There are at least four elements related to the show that in combination make it an ideal program, and perhaps prototypical, for attracting a loyal Black audience. Those elements include (1) the marketing decisions made by the Fox Network in its challenge to the political and economic hegemony of the "big three" networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC); (2) the presence from the very beginning of a Black executive producer whose cultural mark is evident in many of the MWC’s episodes; (3) the strength, consistency, and relevance of the narrative regarding issues of class, work, and circumscribed opportunities; and (4) the way perceptions of race on television mitigate the Whiteness in the program. (p. 14)
Thus, the small sample can relegate African American viewership back into the rankings where the effect may be that situation comedies remain the relegated genre. Situation comedies and dramas have been staples of prime-time schedule since the inception of television (Lauzen & Dozier, 2002). For a discussion of the ways in which African Americans have been depicted in Black situation comedies see Coleman’s (2000) African American viewers and the Black situation comedy: Situating racial humor. Future research should be conducted on ways in which African American viewership does not center only on the social membership of ethnicity. By not focusing on portrayals and the social membership of ethnicity, the African American participants in this study were able to voice a preference-based appointment show that not only was a drama, but was cast with White actors. From the standpoints of the six participants, their interest in the television program included drama as a genre, content focused on serious and women’s issues, especially familial relationships, and characters.
The standpoints also emphasized television production techniques as communication. Specifically, the African American females constructed meaning from the child-based “think-back” technique, which allowed them to see into the lives and development of the characters from childhood to adulthood. The standpoints of these African American females articulates the importance of the homologous position of encoding in the encoding/decoding model. At the same time, it implies that audience reception may be valuable in studying the encoding position so their viewership of predominantly White television shows does not get relegated to the content and textual analysis methods. Lusane (1999) argues that “to build Black audiences for ‘White’ programs, other network shows would do well to learn from the experience of MWC” (p. 20). The standpoints of the six African American females would suggest otherwise.
According to Livingstone (1989, p.189), if we know through reception analysis of a given program, Dallas for example, that American viewers focus on personalities rather than ideology (Liebes, 1986) and on emotional rather than literal realism (Ang, 1985), this knowledge can direct more focused and productive content analysis of the program. The standpoints of African American females, who make up a large percentage of television viewership, also can contribute to content analysis. Thus, more research should be conducted to make a contribution to research methods.
Finally, for most of television’s history, the three major broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) have commanded a large share of the prime-time television audience. This changed with not only the emergence of the VCR, but also with the growth of cable, which targets specific demographic groups. Thus, when studying gender it will be important to look at cable networks such as Lifetime and programs such as the HBO series Soul Food. At the same time when it comes to the social identity of ethnicity, prime-time television is being redefined. In the 2002 season, eight multiethnic shows such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Law & Order, ER, and The Practice were introduced. Thus, future research also should investigate the reception of multi-ethnic programs, not defined by rankings but by appointment viewers.
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