Fame and Feminism Throughout History: A Conversation with Susan J. Douglas
Susan J. Douglas is the Catherine Neafie Kellogg Professor and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Communication and Media at the University of Michigan. She has written five books and numerous articles and her work and writing has appeared widely. Her newest book, Celebrity: A History of Fame was co-authored with Andrea McDonnell and is now available.
Susan appeared on September 17th at Literati Bookstore.
Lake Roberts: Let’s jump in. How do you decide which topics are book-worthy?
Susan J. Douglas: It depends on the project. My first book was on the early history of radio, and how it evolved from wireless to legacy into radio, and it grew out of my dissertation. During graduate school I was initially going to write about the radio boom of the 1920s- that seemed like the sexier topic- but nobody had written about the prehistory. So one of the things that I advise my grad students is to find what has not been covered, what hasn't been written about. Initially, thinking about wireless telegraphy seemed like, “Oh God, how wonky and boring would that be,” but it turned out to be absolutely fascinating.
Also, the prevailing intersections between the cultural terrain and the political zeitgeist is where I like to go too, especially as a feminist. The women's movement had a huge impact on me and made me want to think about, and write more deeply about, how the media has shaped how women see ourselves and how others see us- what's possible for us. Media representations matter because if certain things in the media are emphasized, that can shape public policy. If certain things are ignored in the media that can also shape public policy or what doesn't happen. And certainly as many of us have written about, the stereotypes during the 1950s of women in the media legitimated women being second-class citizens. So that was certainly something I wanted to jump into after I finished my first book.
I had gone back to, like, old LIFE magazines and maybe some journalism from the 1950s and I was just stunned at some of the sexism and misogyny in the ads, that then legitimated women being fired if they got pregnant, not being able to apply for and get certain kinds of jobs, etc. Feminism has been a thread throughout my work. I've written four books that have drawn from and sought to examine where our society is because we continue to have ongoing wars and struggles between feminism and anti-feminism.
LR: How did you move from a book about radio broadcast technology into a career that's very centered on feminism and women in the media? Was ‘women in the media’ a topic that you had always wanted to pursue, or did you commit to writing about feminism after finishing college, based on what was happening around you?
SD: I got interested in how women were being represented in the media during college. I actually did a slideshow as an independent study on ‘The Representation of Women in Advertising’ when I was a senior. But when I went to grad school in the early 1970s there was barely anything like Women's Studies. I went to Brown and at that time there was nobody doing media studies and there was one feminist historian I could work with. And as the women's movement continued to explode my interest in that area remained very much alive, however, I had to produce a dissertation (laughs)- and I was also very interested in the radio. As a baby boomer, we would go to bed at night with our transistor radios under our blankets listening to music. So radio has been important to me, and some of that was shaped by who was at Brown and who I could work with and all of that, but once that book was done I wanted to write in a different voice. I'm proud of the writing in the first book, but I wanted to write in a much more informal, colloquial voice. I wanted to inhabit a different kind of persona as a writer, and I think a lot of writers, you know, try to do that- try on a different voice and try on a different stance- and I wanted to do that in Where the Girls Are.
So once the radio book was done I was able to get back to the images of women in the media and I was, by that time, teaching courses on the subject. It was a very early interest for me but I think for a lot of writers something comes up and you really want to work on it but, for whatever reason, you can't and other things take priority. But I always tell my students, “if you have an idea of something you love and you've written a little bit about it, but for whatever reason you can't pursue it, don't think it's gone. Don't think it's dead. File it away and come back to it.” And in the 1970s when the women's movement was really exploding, and then in the 1980s when the backlash started kicking in, my interest in the images of women in the media only increased.
LR: You have such a historical viewpoint, did you study history formally? Or were you learning your historical research methods in concert with this very new discipline that you were essentially founding as you were working on these books?
SD: I was actually a history major in college and I had a fantastic mentor. I wasn't going to major in history, but he was so wonderful and I just got swept up by it. Then, when I went to graduate school I was an American Studies major. I actually applied to the History department and got in, but it was incredibly sexist and I couldn't stand it so I transferred into the American Studies program but I still had a very strong historical component in my work.
I've been interested in history for a long time and I do think that when you're writing about the media, the images don't come from the ‘planet Neptar,’ nor are there six white guys in a room in L.A., outside of culture, making stuff up. You know, they are part of the culture. So you have to understand the historical context in which media representations are made otherwise you don't understand them and you don't understand what kind of work they're doing. Much of the media tackles, whether consciously or not, prevailing cultural anxieties and tensions and they (the media) open them up and manage them and resolve them- sometimes metaphorically and sometimes not. So it was always important to me to think about the historical evolution of images, the historical context of what was going on. There are just certain media images you can't possibly understand unless you know what political, cultural, and social debates were going on that helped produce them.
LR: I shouldn't have done this, but I was reading the comments section on an article that you've written and someone commented, “TV shows are just mindless entertainment.” So how do you think about, and how do you teach and talk about, how ideology in the mass media exists? People really do think of it as six white guys, they think of it as personal choices and individual power struggles- it's very easy to chalk it up to that. So I wondered if you’d talk a little more about that?
SD: I don't think entertainment is ever just entertainment, just like the news is not objective. All news is views, and all entertainment, however banal, contains certain kinds of values and attitudes, foregrounding certain kinds of people while other kinds of stories, other kinds of people, are rendered invisible. The media are turnstiles, they let certain kinds of representation in and others are shut out and that matters a lot. I don't know which comment section you were reading (laughs), when I was writing my column for In These Times, you don't even read the comments because you're just getting trolled.
I was on a documentary about Walt Disney and they posted some of what I said on Facebook about Disney; it was a world of hurt because God forbid you should criticize Walt Disney. I was getting, “What's the matter with this woman? This is just entertainment.” But when you have princess after princess in the 1950s and early 1960s, who are completely self-abdicating and abject -whether they're Cinderella or Snow White or whomever- and they see a prince for four seconds and fall in love with him and that's all they care about- those are very powerful messages about what girls and women want, what they should care about, how they should regard themselves. That's not just entertainment and that's little kids watching this stuff.
The other thing about why history matters when you’re teaching is that it's easier for students to see ideology from the past than from the present. If you show them ads from the 1950s and 1960s with women getting spanked by their husbands, for example, because they made a bad pot of coffee, the students are stunned. It helps them stand back and appreciate that whatever you're watching, whether it's Father Knows Best or Bewitched or later Mary Tyler Moore, these all contain values and attitudes. And by the time you get up to the present it's a little easier for them to see what is being reinforced by The Bachelor or what is being reinforced by the Kardashians. Entertainment is never just entertainment, ever.
LR: It is becoming common for people to cheer for more women and minority characters in the media. Do you think that there is a cause to celebrate when movies and television have more representational characters, and does it actually trickle down into a better society?
SD: Absolutely, visibility matters. The thing about the media is that they are not monolithic, they are riddled with contradictions, and especially now when we have, like, a billion platforms, they're incoherent and they traffic in both progressive and regressive values- and sometimes the same media will do both at exactly the same time. The media can advance progressive change- if you just think about the interaction between the rise of gay visibility in the media and more and more people coming out, then there's more gay visibility, and then there's more people coming out, it's a cycle. Joe Biden, who can be prone to exaggeration, said he thinks that Will and Grace did more to advance gay rights than almost anything else. That's an exaggeration, but it's not wrong.
And who would have imagined ten years ago that there would be a trans movement and a trans positive movement and trans acceptance? Nobody thought that. The media have played a huge role in that with Orange is the New Black and Caitlyn Jenner. Celebrity culture is very punishing about women's faces and about their bodies, and about their sexuality, and about their behavior- but at the same time celebrity culture also made it stop being taboo for women to have children out of wedlock or to be single mothers. So the media are a double-edged sword.
LR: Let's talk a little bit about Celebrity. Your most recent books you've been working with other women. How did that come about? Did you want to co-write a book?
SD: Collaboration is unusual for somebody like me in history and the humanities and I've had mixed experiences with it. My collaborator on The Mommy Myth was a colleague and a friend. At that time she and I were both mothers with small children and becoming increasingly outraged by the standards of perfection that were being lorded over us. She approached me to write something about it. And she is an academic but she's not in my field, she's a feminist philosopher. There could have been different ways of handling the book that drew more on her strengths, but it didn't work very well.
Andrea, my collaborator on Celebrity, is actually a former grad student of mine. She had written a book already about celebrity magazines. She wanted to explore why and how it is that women who are smart and accomplished would read what is regarded as kind of trash magazines and she did a really lovely study. She approached me and asked if I wanted to co-author a book and I was hesitant at first because of my previous experience, but because she had a book out already on the subject and because she knew the field I trusted her. It ended up working out quite well, we each brought different emphases to the project and the book became much more historical because of me. She was interested in how different communications technologies have affected change over the years, so I wanted to put that more into a cultural and historical context. It was a happy collaboration.
LR: I'm sure that this research into celebrity had been ongoing, but was there a political motivation? We have a president who was a reality TV star, does that inform some of the writing in the book?
SD: We started the book before Trump got elected and we were more broadly interested in why and how celebrity culture has metastasized, what role have the evolving communication technologies played in making it spread and become more embedded in our life. And we were interested in the consequences of that. Of course he is the ultimate lesson in the conquest of celebrity culture, so when we were finishing the book he was going to be in there at the end, but I would not say that his rise to the presidency governed the bulk of the book.
LR: We have all engaged in “bad feminist” media choices, but what kinds of media do you like? What kind of movies do you watch and what have you seen recently that you think represents women positively?
SD: The Good Wife and then The Good Fight. I love Christine Baranski. As far as I'm concerned, she can do no wrong (laughs). In the second season they just went all out on Trump, and I was fine with that, but that aside she's just such a strong female character. I'm still in the middle of Killing Eve because I love Sandra Oh. Insecure, she (Issa Rae) is bringing such a complicated black female sensibility to television so I think that's incredibly interesting. My daughter actually watches The Bachelor and, of course, she watches it with a very ironic eye because she’s an avowed feminist. But the thing about The Bachelor that's so interesting is that there's hardly anything I can find that most of my students are watching, because of streaming and marketing and everything, but a lot of them watch The Bachelor. They watch it ironically, they're tweeting about it, they're texting each other, they're rolling their eyes. She's tried to get me to watch it and even though I know that she's watching it ironically, that's a “bad feminist” move for me (laughs), it's just a bridge too far.
LR: Same question with books…
SD: Everyone was loving Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad, which hit the bestseller list for a couple weeks and Rebecca's work is great. I'm in the middle of Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower by Brittney Cooper. I really liked Andi Zeisler’s book We Were Feminists Once.
I don't have as much time to read fiction as I'd like but I just finished Less (Andrew Sean Greer). It won the Pulitzer, and it's about a gay novelist who is about to turn 50 and his former lover is getting married. And the guy has been invited to the wedding, and he doesn't want to say that he's not going so he puts together and almost round-the-world trip of speaking engagements and writers workshops so he can basically say, ‘I can't come to the wedding because I'm going to be out of the country.’ The writing is wonderful, there's a reason it won the Pulitzer.
LR: Well, I feel like I could talk to you all day but I don't want to take up too much more of your time. Thank you for being interviewed for the Ann Arbor book Society.
SD: You’re welcome. And thank you for everything you’re doing. It’s great that you’re doing this because I know there's a very robust reading culture here.