2008, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 50, spring 2008
Sexual revolution, sexual
exploitation, and sexual difference:
the “jiggly” terrain of 1970s TV
by Mary E. Pagano
Levine, Elana. Wallowing in Sex: The New Sexual Culture of 1970s American Television. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2007. 320 pages, $ 22.95.
Broadcast histories of 1970s U.S. television typically dismiss the decade as one characterized by fluff, bounce, and jiggle. While the early part of the decade brought us the “new woman” Mary Richards of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and her more explicitly feminist counterpart, Maude Findlay of Maude, the later years seem to be the domain of such lighter fare as Charlie’s Angels, The Love Boat, Three’s Company, Battle of the Network Stars, and The Dukes of Hazzard. While the 1970s were heavily invested in representations of female sexuality (a trend that still exists in current television), the path that the industry took to achieve such a variety of female role models is a compelling and complicated tale. This is, in part, the story that Elana Levine tracks in Wallowing in Sex. To get there, however, she necessarily begins with an exploration of the particular historical, cultural, social, and industrial moment, ably weaving together these concurrent narratives and supplementing them with sharp interpretation and critical analysis.
Levine’s study is particularly strong in her discussion of the changing face of network television throughout the 1970s. Early on, the “Big Three” networks – CBS, NBC, and ABC – were still competing for the all-important youth demographic (a development that began during the mid-1960s), and were each pursuing slightly different strategies in doing so. CBS took the early lead in the ratings race with its politicized and “socially relevant” brand of sexual humor, as epitomized by the trendsetting series All in the Family. NBC held on to second place, largely because of the success of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, a youth-oriented comedy-variety show. Perennially third place ABC (lampooned as the “Almost Broadcasting Company”) had some initial success with The Mod Squad, as well as with its Movie of the Week series, but it wasn’t until later in the decade that the network would find its own unique identity. As Levine details it, ABC’s new identity as the sexually progressive network would come to characterize U.S. television throughout the remainder of the decade.
Particularly important to ABC’s rise to the top of the ratings chart were its innovations to the daytime soap opera genre, its sensational treatment of sexually-based social issues in its made-for-TV movies, and finally, the leadership of network executive Fred Silverman. ABC was the first network to introduce more contemporary social issues, such as rape, abortion, and the Vietnam War, into its daytime fare. NBC and especially CBS (with its ties to sponsor Procter and Gamble) remained loyal to more traditional storylines that focused on family and workplace relationships. Moreover, ABC introduced a quicker pace to the traditional daytime serial, allowing current stories to progress more rapidly and new stories to develop more quickly. During the 1970s, made-for-TV movies served two functions: as a means to explore and exploit sexually titillating topics such as adultery and teenage prostitution, and for the more tame movies, as pilots for potential new series. Charlie’s Angels, for instance, debuted as a successful made-for-TV movie in March 1976, and was quickly spun-off into the now infamous TV series. In May of 1975, Fred Silverman left his position at CBS to become the president of ABC’s Entertainment division. Silverman, described as “a blue-collar worker” who had found his “spiritual home” at ABC, strove to balance sexually-based humor with family-friendly programming. As Levine explains how the network functioned then, her description helps set the stage for the remainder of her analysis in Wallowing in Sex. She asserts that the Silverman era at ABC centered around what the programming executive termed a comedy “structure” of kid-friendly characters and jokes, a structure meant to appeal to
"the mass audience’s common denominator – they had all been kids one time or another…. By structuring ABC’s kid-oriented comedy upon innuendo-laden sexual humor, Silverman’s ABC was able to seem as up-to-date as CBS without taking too radical a stance on the changing culture and without alienating the mass, 'family' audience. Given the juvenile sexual humor pervading the Silverman-era schedule, the 'kid' in all of us seemed to be an especially horny adolescent. "
Importantly, Levine validates the study of such traditionally-overlooked television artifacts as the made-for-TV movie, a genre, like the soap opera, that has been critically and socially degraded for being melodramatic, and therefore, effeminate. As television and radio scholar Susan J. Douglas advises,
“…we must reject the notion that popular culture for girls and women didn’t matter, or that it consisted only of retrograde images.” 
Following in Douglas’ footsteps, Levine explores both the representations of young women in several key sexual-endangerment themed made-for-TV movies of the 1970s, as well as young female viewers’ reactions to such images. Through this framework, she ably elucidates the tension that all three networks were seeking to promote – the one that exists within the fine line between exploitation and education. The stories (or “diaries” or “portraits,” as many movie titles labeled them) of teenage girls gone wrong proved to be the perfect subject for numerous made-for-TV movies that aired throughout the decade. Levine notes that films such as Diary of a Teenage Hitchhiker and Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway “surely held appeal for young viewers eager for sympathetic representations of their generation,” yet at the same time, “they were also framed as warnings for parents.”  In this vein, the networks appealed to the all-important youth demographic, while at the same time, they avoided claims of outright sexual exploitation and titillation.
Nevertheless, during the 1970s, sexual titillation was a key ratings strategy, particularly through the straightforwardly named, “T&A television.” In her chapter on popular TV sex symbols of the 1970s, Levine demonstrates her skill at textual analysis, exploring the ways in which the prime-time female sex symbol
“was both popular and controversial because she often seemed to transcend traditional gender roles.”
Accordingly, the stars of Charlie’s Angels, Wonder Woman, The Bionic Woman, and dozens of other made-for-TV movies/series pilots of the era demonstrate the way in which the sexual culture of 1970s television attempted to speak to the changes and progress brought on by the Women’s Liberation Movement. It is in this chapter that Levine’s analysis shines brightest. As she rightly points out, during the 1970s the United States was heavily invested in the discourse of sexual difference, introduced into everyday life by the Women’s Liberation Movement and their struggle to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. The major debate centered on whether men and women were inherently different, or if we had been socially and culturally conditioned to believe that the sexes were different (with women considered inferior to men). Many proponents of the ERA argued that men and women should be treated equally; any sexual difference should be downplayed rather than highlighted. Those against the passage of the ERA (the majority of whom were women) felt threatened that the amendment would erase distinctions between men and women, many of which accorded women certain privileges that they were not willing to give up.
Naturally, the television industry saw fit to join the debates around sexual difference, and in so doing, created the powerful yet extremely feminine protagonist that would come to dominate prime-time television throughout the latter half of the decade. Heroines such as Sergeant Pepper Anderson of Police Woman,Wonder Woman/Diana Prince, and the women of Charlie’s Angels typified the “new woman” of the 1970s:
"Whatever role they took on, be it the more common stereotypically feminine roles or the newfangled 'women in men’s roles,' most important was their status as women. As women, they were able to penetrate situations men cannot, whether they were situations common to the traditional woman, like beauty pageants, or situations more fitting for the New Woman, like truck driving school." 
In this sense, TV women were able to remain thoroughly feminized while at the same time, they were seen as progressive representations of modern U.S. women. Through this strategy, the television industry attempted to appeal to the coveted demographic of women aged18-49, which at this point included radical feminists, cultural feminists, and anti-feminists, all with varying ideas about the degree of difference between men and women. Moreover, as Levine notes, this foregrounding of sexual difference – for better or for worse – kept the goals and aims of the Women’s Liberation Movement securely in the public spotlight. This focus, in turn, shaped
“the impact of the sexual revolution and the women’s movement on Americans’ everyday lives.” 
1970s television, however, is also known for two other significant depictions of sex: those found in the primetime comedies of the era, and those characterized by the daytime soap opera. Levine’s strong analysis and excellent use of textual and archival resources continue throughout her chapters on these topics. Crucially, she considers the sexually-based comedies of the 1970s as separate from the sexually-based dramas; in terms of gender representation, Levine makes a strong case for the more regressive depiction of women in the primetime comedies of the latter part of the decade. For instance, such comedic female dyads as Chrissy and Janet of Three’s Company, Jennifer and Bailey of WKRP in Cincinnati, and Sara and Jackie on Too Close for Comfort presented female sexuality at two opposite ends of the spectrum. Those women characters considered sex symbols were often subjected to physical comedy that focused on their bodies (and thus their sexual difference), oftentimes to the point of infantilizing them through degrading humor. As she compares these comedies to the primetime action dramas described above, Levine demonstrates the ways in which the supposedly innocuous humor of such sitcoms added to the complicated and contradictory landscape of female sexuality during the 1970s.
Soap operas, with their obsession with rape plotlines, also contributed to the distinct sexual culture that emerged during this era. Levine’s discussion focuses mainly on the years between 1978 and 1981, during which
“all three broadcast networks and at least ten different shows featured rape story lines, the highest concentration of such plots in the history of U.S. daytime television.”
The anti-rape movement had made quite an impact on U.S. culture during the mid-to-late 1970s, expanding the parameters around what exactly constitutes “rape,” and the television industry was eager to join in and cash in on the discussion. Daytime soap operas provided the ideal medium through which to explore rape, and the soaps ultimately put forth a wide variety of depictions of rape, with a similarly wide variety of responses from audience members. Levine’s analysis of the infamous rape scene between Luke Spencer and Laura Baldwin on General Hospital in October of 1979 aptly explores the ambiguity inherent in the rape storylines of this period, and the ways in which the generic structure of the soap opera contributed to the ongoing debates about what it means to be raped. In focusing on the soap opera, yet another traditionally denigrated form of popular culture, Levine reaffirms the value of studying all forms of U.S. television, especially those typically dismissed as low-brow.
If there is a flaw in Wallowing in Sex, it is that the chapters of the book do not always flow together as smoothly as a reader would like. Levine’s second chapter, which explores the type of sexually-based content that did not make it onto the airwaves during the 1970s (X-rated movies, bra ads, and condom commercials) seems slightly out of place, which in turn forces her to somewhat justify its inclusion. Though the chapter stands out for its thorough and enlightening depiction of the U.S. television industry during the 1970s, it also stands out as a sort of gap in the otherwise convincing flow of Levine’s argument.
Overall, Wallowing in Sex is an excellent contribution to the fields of television studies, gender studies, and popular culture. Levine’s blend of textual, historical, and industrial analysis paints a thorough picture of “the new sexual culture of 1970s America,” making it a necessary text for any and all students of the decade. Moreover, her extremely thorough coverage of all aspects of 1970s television, and its peculiar obsession with female sexuality make an important intersection between feminist theory and broadcast history. In this vein, Wallowing in Sex is on par with such germinal texts as Lynn Spigel’s Make Room for TV and Julie D’Acci’s Defining Women, making it an important and exciting addition to the canon of feminist media studies.
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