TV's Medical Center (cont'd)

McCabe constructs at least one monolith — the classic realist text — whose existence and functional dimensions might be questioned. That it is the scapegoat required by his argument is its clearest feature, as is the valorization of another implied monolith, the revolutionary as opposed to the merely progressive text. However, the argument is heuristically justified here, insofar as these episodes of MEDICAL CENTER are indeed progressive precisely in terms of subject matter and entirely beg such questions as the role of social conditioning in both the reality and the self-image of a female, whether she was born that way or chose to become a member of the weaker sex. Most importantly, in the complexities that attend Jessica's role in the representation, most of the unexamined regressions and contradictions seem to reside.

Two features of the presentation reflect and recast the narrative content, which apparently engages the problem of sex-role typologies and the possibilities of transforming them. These are the dynamics of the two-couple situation and the characterization of Jessica. All of the four main adult characters are bonded to each of the others and defined in relation to both heterosexual and single-sex relationships. Both heterosexual pairings are jeopardized by Pat's circumstances. Heather's role and concept of herself is directly threatened, since she's been unable to do much with herself in the two years of waiting for her man's return. As she puts it, she's been "rattling around" her empty house, "going crazy." Jessica's literal sisterhood and solidarity are no real help to her, and she suggests that Jessica might do better to work out the implications in the relationship with Joe.

In fact, Jessica's presence only intensifies Heather's sense of a double failure. Their doctor father had only brought home his quiet intern (Pat) when others had "passed her by" and it had become clear that she would not enter the medical profession herself, as Jessica had done. But of course Heather's marriage is now also revealed as a failed unit in the system of patriarchal exchange. She feels in some measure responsible; she's "not the kind of woman that turns men on — not that kind." So Jessica's supportive claim that Heather's decision to marry and have children was an honorable one is not much help. Anyway, Jessica has poise, confidence, an income, and a virile doctor who wants to marry her, while Heather has nervous mannerisms and lines in her face from all that waiting around — for Pat and also for Jessica.

 The outlines of an alternate route begin to emerge in Jessica's choice of direct entry into the medical profession, but this choice also defines itself in relation to the system of patriarchal exchange, on one hand, and as a disruption of her sisterhood, on the other. Heather and Jessica are both adamantly opposed to Pat's decision and do everything in their power (which isn't much) to prevent his plan's fruition. Their reactions are, of course, all too understandably human. They are also quite different. Heather's nearly hysterical conservative impulse is countered by Jessica's reasonable insistence that there is more at stake than one person's happiness and that Pat's decision cannot be considered independently since he has family roles and relationships. This is her position as she articulates it at the board meetings. But in the dramatic situation she is shown as feminine in her inability to distinguish between the personal and professional issues, and her support of the family here is directly opposed to her resistance to Joe's marriage proposals. Furthermore, though her rhetoric may be acceptable in itself, it is undermined by the degree to which, though she is against the board's decision in terms of content, her rational process actually mirrors that of the other directors. Like them, she wants to leave the situation alone and hopes for some other solution than that proposed by the self-determining individual.

Thus, though Heather and Jessica are linked by their representa-tiveness as a wrong kind of personalized and female intolerance and are jointly the objects of didactic manipulation, they are separated by the fact that Jessica is herself a constituent of the threats to Heather's selfhood. She is a professional, and even more than the other professionals on the board of directors, she tends to repress her real motives. And she perpetuates the system of domination that results in Heather's dependency and "neurosis." We are led to suspect Jessica in the first hour in particular. The finer points are confirmed, however, by a scene late in the second episode. Jessica's work is finished, and she is leaving Medical Center again. Joe accuses her of wanting control in a relationship, and he becomes the spokesman for relationships — specifically, marriage — based on equality and individual work and identity. "All marriages don't fail," he says. "Enough do," she replies, even as she is saved from her unfeminine resistance and cynicism in the usual way. He embraces her, and of course she gets to like it as they go along. This relationship is left open to further and future negotiation, though Jessica continues to resist the institutionalization of it in the form of marriage. In effect, she seems more like a determined bachelor than a feminist, while both her support of Heather's marital ambitions and the rejection of them for herself is left in the limbo of personal inadequacies and embitterments.

Jessica's role is symmetrical with Pat's to Heather. She is as "masculine" as he is "feminine." The unmarried professional woman emerges in terms that define her as a transferred epithet in the codicities of sexual stereotyping, both in her own relations and by linking them with those of the transsexual deviant. But even when it is located thus, Jessica's role is not one that is confessed in the narrative, which suggests that the threat to the status quo implied by the unmarried professional woman may be the latent content that constitutes the secretions and the ideological bias of the whole. Jessica embodies those contradictions which no character in the drama can face. By pursuing her own fulfillment, she seems to be denying warmth, love, passion, et al, to herself and those closest to her. Pat can challenge the whole sexual-political system, or at least crave to be the obverse of what he was physically and emotionally. But Jessica cannot even utter what it would be for her to be emotionally whole, or imagine a mode of social relations that would accommodate the disparities in her professional and sexual identities. Nor can the audience, for the only words in that direction are Joe's, "Go away and think about yourself. Then come back and marry me."

Jessica is doubly defined throughout, too feminine in her professional capacities, too masculine in her personal life, damned if she is and damned if she isn't. It is this figure, then who must be doubly and duplicitously dealt with, and around whom specifically ideological effects might be traced.

The covert message that revolves around Jessica focuses the problems that the drama does not attempt to address or resolve. The conception of her role as a sister is troubling in itself. Though there is no question of the two women competing for a man, or even for men in general, they are more deeply divided than ever. Furthermore, the nature of this dilemma indicates why it is impossible for the narrative to suggest a future for the relationship between Pat and Heather, or imagine anything but a continuance of her professional prerogatives, "in another country," for Pat. Sexual patrimonies can be more or less dealt with because there is a developed code of male-to-male approach in the aggressive version of touch; that there is no equivalent between the women leaves only the alternatives of marriage or isolated exile for both Jessica and Pat.

Jessica and Pat are the significant "shadow" pairing in the narrative; the failure to deal with the fate of one implies that there is a corresponding failure in the presentation of the other. But Heather and Joe are also paired in several respects. They are both "normal" in their relations to sex roles and work or the lack of it. They have both been waiting for the return of a former mate (though that's hardly all, or primarily, what Joe has been doing), and both are left alone again in the end. In this set of conjugations there is an evasion similar to those discovered in the Pat-Jessica combination. Though they both end with jobs instead of marriages, Heather's is an inexplicably facile solution since she gets the first job that comes along without actually applying for it and without experience or qualifications.

Finally, in contrast to the complex negations in the relationship between the women in the drama, Pat and Joe are united by their commitment to the rights of the individual and by the need to secure the tolerance that would permit an actualization of those rights. If Jessica is put into a series of double binds by her relations, Pat is presented as having a social and psychological reserve in his professional self-definition, as well as Joe's genuinely supportive and effective solidarity. It is interesting that we see Pat working (dictating a procedure at least) even in a condition of severe emotional stress. Conversely, we see Jessica in a state of emotional stress when she is supposedly "working," in the committee meetings and again when she studies a patient's documents in hostile avoidance of Joe. What is defined as therapy in one case is implicitly an evasion in the other. Furthermore, the plot's resolution guarantees the truth value of the lesson that revolves around Pat, while it leaves the two women more or less successfully adapting to the fact that they have lost (again).

There is a shift between the two episodes as the woman problem recedes, but taken together the episodes affirm, dismantle, and in several important respects reaffirm certain prevalent assumptions about the nature of sexual deviance and the consequent tensions in the ideologies of sex roles and the relations based on them. The program achieves its objective by concentrating on the dynamics of its overt issue and screening the "noise" of extraneous concerns. In some ways, the medical show simply reverts to its own generic history. Unlike TV generally these days, this show's characters are completely white and the show betrays not the slightest indication that anyone lives on less than a professional salary. Implicitly this generates the notion that problems like sexual deviance intervene only in the social relations of what is, in economic terms, a minority culture. Inverting the modus operandi, we might discover that what is absent from the message is perhaps its major determinant as an ideological structure. The threats to individual integrity and the disruption of sexual relationships and the family are not in any sense attached to economic issues like unemployment. There is no problem in continuing to support a family one no longer participates in, and either sex seems able to get a job at will, and where and when they want one. There is a corresponding disparity between the program and the more genuinely universalized culture in which it is embedded.

The hope of transforming sex-role ideologies contrasts rather incongruously with the advertisements that punctuate the show's quarter-hour segments (and which were, of course, the usual things: bosoms encased in "summer wear" while an authenticating male voice does the actual job of selling Woolite, "Gentlemen prefer Haynes" and "International women use Oil of Olay," a football team pouring into a locker-room to change into their Florsheim idlers, other TV programs, sixteen varieties of Friskies cat food, and Lorne Green for Alpo). Even my local television guide contributed towards projecting an interpretation: "Dr. Gannon must choose between the wishes of the woman he wants to marry and the desires of a colleague (parental judgment advised)."(13)

Television has come some distance from the time when a critic could say that many of its "so-called creative people," being

"mindful of the power and affluence of TV, feel guilty about the medium's abuse and genuinely want to make a social contribution. TV's didacticism better enables its practitioners to endure their prosperity. And it is too easy a temptation to dismiss this as sanctimoniousness or opportunism, easier still to reject their efforts as artistically inept … Within its own drastic limits, television is a civilizing agency, at least an acculturating one … Television teaches us not so much how to live as how to put up with the lives we have to live."(14)

That television has acculturated us so thoroughly is often located as the source of much of contemporary civilization's discontents, but there is an important shift in its emphasis on changing the lives and roles we find ourselves in. And, along with prosperity, it would seem that patriarchy must now be endured, accounted for, and to some extent interrogated. We cannot simply dismiss the media's new preoccupations on the grounds of cooptation or a similar catch-all accusation. The pressures of the women's movement and Gay Liberation have forced the media to come to terms with women who are doctors and don't want to be wives, who are unhappy in traditional roles (to say nothing of men who aren't happy either), and who lead lives which are not easily stereotyped.

The easy accusation of media hype is less satisfying when we note that televisions response also embraces the changing facts and contradictions of our culture. Do we call it coincidence or irony that the summer rerun of this program was broadcast almost simultaneously with that of a tennis tournament in which a real transsexual doctor figured? And one cannot fail to note that the program does achieve its overt goals, at least among those who were already more or less persuaded. An audience survey of my friends revealed that its educative function figured high in the list of evaluative criteria, and that it had been well received.

The problem is that especially the covert messages leave me wondering just where we have arrived. Elements of a rhetoric that questions conventional sex roles attach themselves negatively to a professional woman whose double definitions are seen to endanger both her work and her relationships. Other confusing elements attach to a man who has penis-hatred. (This last expression is, I realize, a strong one, but becomes justified as a polemical device when we compare Joseph Heller's confessed sexism and his observation in Something Happened that penis envy is a male attribute projected onto women; only a simple reversal is necessary to arrive at my formulation.) Anyway, Pat is the test case of deviant behavior in his desire to transfer his own sexual role. He at least gets what she wants (that is, Pat's female self is the only unequivocal female success in the drama), so that the diegesis or story underwrites the values associated with this issue of "becoming a woman."

Still, other dubious values attach to the male series regular, Joe, which values are, in the nature of the case, already guaranteed. It becomes relatively transparent that the project of a marriage based on equality, individual integrity and two-way work opportunities here is only concomitant with libertarian, egalitarian and "professional" ideals that are a bourgeois constitutional premise and still basically a male preserve — and which, in any event, leave actual procedures for their fulfillment unspecified. Finally, both women are mediated to us by the degree to which they are able to act on "their" man's advice and evaluations. Heather does begin to "make a life for herself," as Pat had begun by telling her she must do, and Joe is able to rest his argument against Jessica's defensive model of marriage as a loss of self-determination in the claim that that's "not what he wants for her." Once more, the men have the last word.

 As McCabe indicated would be the case, we are indeed left with few "perspectives for struggle" in the attempt to transform the ideologies of sexual roles. An equally serious charge against the program is that the entire project of challenging sexual stereotypes is left in the hands of "people like that," as one of my informally polled audience (and the only one who expressed satisfaction with traditional roles) persisted in calling Pat. Furthermore, there are fundamental evasions invested in the use of subcodes like that of movement; in fact, we might not really be able to call it a code at all, since it is finally impossible to distinguish among its applications. Jessica is characterized negatively by it while Pat is at least partly seen in positive terms as the result of it.

One of these characters has penetrated the male preserve of the workspace while the other seeks to enter into the opposite sexuality itself, but the repressions of the text make it difficult to see just what characterizes and locates the differences in male / female / deviant / children's mobility and "turf." Only in combination with other codes like touch and aggression does the movement code contribute to a definite set of shapes or constitute specifiable relations. Similarly, Pat's transsexuality and Jessica's ambiguities are presented as both the source of the threat and the means of recuperating liberal values in spite of dismemberments to the family and heterosexual relationships generally. The model of personal and social engagement is thus represented as a structure of transference rather than transformation.

And finally, the program significantly abstains from considering certain pertinent social facts that are at the crux of its concerns, such as the fact that lack of work, especially for women, is more likely to produce the kinds of dismemberment that the show details than do Jessica's ambitions; it tends to secrete the fact that Jessica's role is much of a concern in the first place. In the end, we learn virtually nothing about what might be truly threatening to the sexual-political balance that the program and our society so carefully maintains, or about what the personal and social dimensions of a sexually classless society or of a radical challenge to this one might be. But perhaps that would be to demand another Utopian content than the one offered (which would seem to resolve its problems by sending the dissidents away, telling them to love the rules of the game or leave it). What I have really been concerned with here is simply to articulate in the light of a specific and concrete example the modes by which cultural meaning is produced.


1. The summer rerun which prompted this piece was seen on the CBS network on August 31 and September 6, 1976.

2. David Boroff, "Television and the Problem Play," TV as Art, ed. Patrick D. Hazard (Champaign, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English, 1966), pp. 98-99.

3. In any case, rational arguments and the devices of persuasion and emotional manipulation are unlikely to increase a capacity for, in this case, sexual tolerance. In fact, as Adorno discovered, appeals to sympathy for the plight of minority groups may do more harm than good when directed to people who deeply fear that they might be identified with weakness or suffering. See The Authoritarian Personality and the discussion of its findings in Dallas W. Smythe, "Some Observations on Communications Theory," Sociology of Mass Communications, ed. Denis McQuail (London: Penguin, 1972) p. 24. Smythe summarizes, "No lasting increase in people's capacity to see and be themselves can be expected from manipulative devices … The devices of salesmanship won't work to make people less authoritarian" or to eradicate the irrationalities of social discrimination. Surely, in this program the situation is predicated on not wanting your daughter to marry one and builds on fears of the type Adorno refers to; there is also another fear altogether that has to do with the woman rather than the transsexual doctor.

4. Philip Elliott, 'Mass Communications — A Contradiction in Terms?" in McQuail, p. 257.

5. Roger Silverstone, "An Approach to the Structural Analysis of the Television Message," Screen, 17:2 (Summer 1976), 9.

6. Pam Cook, "'Exploitation' Films and Feminism," Screen, 17:2 (Summer 1976), 123-25.

7. Fredric Jameson, "Introduction/Prospectus: To Reconsider the Relation of Marxism to Utopian Thought," Minnesota Review, 6 (Spring 1976), 58.

8. Philip Elliott, for example, hypothesizes a continuum on which the function, scope, source and audience relationship of the "realistic" serial are close to "the high cultural model of artistic creativity." McQuail, p. 246.

9. To set up an interesting and useful contrast, these relationships are unified in most sit-coms. The lack of contradiction between individuality and collectivity, between public and private, becomes naturalized as the home and family are conceived as "work" and an institution in their own right. This is reified in the single-set situation.

10. Another TV quotable, courtesy of a secretary in a mid-sixties DEFENDERS. Cited by David Boroff, p. 113.

11. This is, by the way, the only instance in which a woman unequivocally speaks on behalf of liberal attitudes and assumes an overtly didactic function. But Skip's case is such a transparent one and the woman here such a sweet young thing, bound moreover to a traditional role of servitude, that it hardly constitutes a break in the hegemony of male-initiated value systems. Jessica's role is more complex and more compromised, as we shall see.

12. Colin McCabe, "Realism and the Cinema: Notes on Some Brechtian Theses," Screen, 15:2 (Summer 1974), 16.

13. London Free Press (Ha!). Friday, Sept. 3, 1976.

14. David Boroff, pp. 98, 100.