Low television, high fidelity: taste and the gendering of home entertainment technologies.

Author:Keightley, Keir

The enemy of this decade does not come from below. His is neither the face of the ogre over the edge, nor of the ghost behind the window pane. In the muted melodrama of the current sociology, the inhuman does not invade. It sits in the living room twisting the TV dial or takes the family for a ride in the two-tone hard-top. It is you. (Harold Rosenberg, 1959) (1) In 1955, two Hollywood melodramas were released that featured contrasting scenes of family members giving gifts of home entertainment technologies which were new to each home. The recipients' respective reactions to a television set in All That Heaven Allows and a high-fidelity sound system in Young at Heart are suggestive of very different complexes of attitudes toward the two most important electronic entertainment technologies of the immediate post-war period. In All That Heaven Allows, widow Cary (Jane Wyman) is given a television set for Christmas by her grown children, who hope it will contain the widow's newfound desire to flee domestic space for the arms of her scandalously younger lover. In a shot that has been analyzed by several observers (Spigel, 1992, p.123: Joyrich, 1992, pp. 227-29), a disappointed Cary is "framed" in the television screen's reflection, suggesting her feelings of entrapment and defeat. While those around her view television as the perfect "feminine" technology, one that will distract the housewife from the realization that "life's parade" is indeed passing her by, television is for Cary the embodiment of repressive social conventions and the limitations of hegemonic femininity. Earlier in the film, Cary has expressed her distaste for television; her response to a television salesman who has stopped her on her walkway as she is hurrying off to a tryst with her lover is unequivocal: "I'm not interested in television."

Conversely, when "Pops" is given a set of hi-fi components for his birthday in Young At Heart, not only is he interested, he is overjoyed, as the following dialogue suggests:

Pops: "Oh look at this! What do I say?"

Aunt Jessie: "Say the same thing that I did when I saw it. What is it?"

Pops: "It's a sound system, Jessie. Don't you know? ... High fidelity! Oh that tuner, the amplifier and oh look at that speaker--three-way!"

Clearly, Pops is already conversant with hi-fi and its technical jargon, unlike Aunt Jessie, who is portrayed as bewildered by the new technology. The other men at the birthday party are also shown to be comfortable with the language of hi-fi: one points out that "the highs go to 20,000 cycles," while another adds, "you'll really hear those triangles now," and presents Pops with a new, high-fidelity LP album featuring "the immolation scene from the soprano you love. Wait 'til you hear her when the flames start licking her torso!"

This dialogue suggests a complex circuit between technical mastery, masculine audio pleasure, and a symbolic destruction of the feminine--a circuit that this article will explore. It is all the more remarkable since it involves an intersection of "high technology" and "highbrow" culture (in this case, high fidelity and high opera). As I shall argue, there is a sly synergy between gender and taste in discourses around new home entertainment technologies such as hi-fi and television in the 1950s, one that shapes their distinctive destinies as cultural artifacts. This interaction ultimately leads to the construction of the hi-fi as a "masculine" technology and the television as a "feminine" appliance or piece of furniture (i.e., a black box or non-technology). The historical feminization of television occurred despite female ambivalence and unease about television, and despite the absence of pro-television cheerleading by women of the kind that was widespread for men and hi-fi. Unlike the case of television, male pro-hi-fi rhetoric rendered visible a process whereby home audio was sedimented as a "masculine" technology (on male hi-fi fans, see Keightley, 1996). (2) An important aspect of that process involved an ongoing taste critique of television. The beginning of the "hi-fi era" is usually dated to the introduction of tape recording and the 33 and 1/3 RPM vinyl Long Play (LP) record in 1948, which is the same year conventionally taken to mark the beginning of the "modern" television era in the United States (3) In examining the historical process whereby television was naturalized as a "feminine/feminizing" technology, it is therefore instructive to look at its conjuncture with the gendering of high fidelity as "masculine."

While in Young At Heart, hi-fi is indeed the perfect gift for the male music lover, who celebrates its technological nature and its implicit intertwining of gender and taste distinctions, in All That Heaven Allows, television is privately revealed to represent displeasure, disappointment, and entrapment for an individual woman. Yet within the film, as within U.S. society at the time, television was publicly assumed to be the perfect gift for women in general, and housewives in particular. In tracing the tensions between the dystopian and the utopian in popular conceptions of television in the post-war years, Lynn Spigel (1992) has shown just how ambivalent U.S. women really were about television. Nonetheless, it is during the 1950s that a conception of television as "feminine" and "feminizing" was established and widely disseminated (Joyrich, 1992, pp. 244, 250). As Andreas Huyssen has argued, modernist discourse on taste negatively associated mass culture with women, and this subsequently contributed to the construction of the critical and popular conception of commercial television as somehow "feminine" (Huyssen, 1986; see also Spigel, 1992, pp. 61-62). Along with its gendering as feminine, Spigel also notes that it was in the 1950s that television became a potential "sign of 'bad taste'" (p. 49). Karal Ann Marling (1994) suggests that it was during this period that many people began to see television as "fraudulent" and a "failure" (pp. 185-6). Cecelia Tichi (1991) points out that television was, by 1958, "acknowledged only contemptuously and in patronizing tones" in an extended profile of American leisure in Life magazine (pp. 85-6). As television was established as the dominant mass medium in the U.S. by the second half of the decade, its position as both "feminine" and "low" was secured.

It is a lingering legacy of the 1950s that television continues to be conceptualized as somehow "feminine" and "feminizing" and as emblematic of "low" culture. Conversely, high fidelity emerged during that period as a masculine and masculinizing piece of technology that supported "high" culture. I contend that it is no coincidence that the simultaneous introduction into U.S. domestic space of two new electronic entertainment technologies resulted in such divergent cultural positionings. I argue that this resulted, in part, from their interaction and construction as "opposites" during those years. In other words, one of the factors that contributed to a view of television as emblematic of a "low-feminine" was the presence of discourse that figured high fidelity as not only a "high-masculine," but, crucially, as television's technological "opposite," as a kind of anti-television.

A representative sample of magazines and films from the 1950s illustrates a process in which a series of binary oppositions--of gender, taste, and technology--is aligned in discursive exchanges that mapped "masculine/feminine" onto "high/low" onto "hi-fi/television" and so on. (4) In this process, high fidelity was positioned as the "high" masculine and television its "low-feminine" opposite, or cultural Other. These oppositions and equivalences were mutually reinforcing, and thereby contributed to the seeming inevitability and "naturalness" of a distinctly social process. But identifying the emergence of two mutually constitutive cultural complexes, high-masculine-high-fidelity on the one hand, and low-feminine-television on the other, is not to suggest an easy symmetry. Rather, it is a very uneasy asymmetry that is at work here. Although I will use binary oppositions and their parallel relations with other binary sets throughout this article, it is their ultimate asymmetry, and that asymmetry's discursive elision, that are crucial. Like the conception of gender as an opposition, in which feminine equals "not masculine" and masculine equals "not feminine," high fidelity was frequently defined as "not television." Yet, just like gender binaries, one side of the equation tends to be more equal than the other. Thus the assumption of discursive symmetry disguises an asymmetry of power relations. This facilitates the misrecognition of culture as nature, and thereby ensures the effectivity and entrenchment of the interests of the dominant term of the binary. (5)

Radio--Television--Hi-Fi ...

One source of the pejorative triangulation of television, mass culture, and femininity was television's historical continuities with network radio broadcasting. Radio supplied many of television's institutions, from programming to commercial sponsorship to corporate structure. By the 1940s, if not earlier, commercial radio had become an emblem of the "low feminine" for U.S. critics (most notoriously in Philip Wylie's Generation of Vipers, 1942). (6) The perception that the rise of fascism in Europe had been aided by radio's alleged ability to anaesthetize audiences further contributed to the demonization of radio as a "conformist," "passive," and "feminizing" technology. Television's association with radio and the "low" female is captured in Gracie Allen's quip from the early 1950s, "I hardly ever watch radio anymore" (quoted in Conrad, 1982, p. 15).

While radio-as-broadcast-technology was largely succeeded by television, radio was also an audio technology, and, along with the phonograph, the major source of music in most homes. The dominant pre-war domestic electronic entertainment...

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