Broadcast Lives: Radio, Television, Idealism, and Reality for British Women

Domesticating the Airwaves

Maggie Andrews explores the role of radio and television in the changing constructions of domesticity and femininity in Great Britain beginning in the 1930s through the 1980s in her book Domesticating the Airwaves: Broadcasting, Domesticity and Femininity. Andrews begins by detailing the movement of radio into women’s purview as it claimed an increasingly important place in domestic spaces, while broadcasts became more targeted at women. She argues that broadcasting focused a great deal on domesticity and domestic life for a variety of reasons that changed as over time, but the place of radio and television in the home rooted them in domestic and consequently feminine space. While broadcasts were influenced by cultural and social perceptions of domesticity, these broadcasts also focused increasingly on the performativity of domesticity and so challenged the idealized narrative of home life.

In the 1930s the ongoing global depression put increased pressure on women as managers of their homes to find creative ways to make ends meet—a pressure that only grew during and following World War II. The war tore families apart as sons and fathers were sent overseas to fight, leaving the radio to fill the void and alleviate the loneliness of the housewives left behind. While this is likely in cases in which families gave multiple children or only sons, perhaps in addition to the father, it seems to me that in cases where women were left to take care of younger children as essentially single mothers would have little time for leisure in which radio would replace absent relationships. Andrews argues that radio found its place in the heart of the home and became an “intrinsic element of ‘domestic comfort’” (23). However, radios remained too expensive for many working class families, which, I think, does not necessarily undermine her argument with regard to middle and upper class families. It does, however, leave me with questions as to how working class families interacted with radio broadcasts differently given their limited access to them and to what extent working class domesticity developed differently as a result of this lack of access. While Andrews glosses over class in her discussion of the growing importance of radio in the late 1930s and through World War II, she does discuss class to a larger extent as she delves into consumerism.

Andrews asserts that women’s magazines differentiated themselves by the class they were directed toward. The 1930s and 1940s witnessed increasing emphasis on consumerism and consumption of domestic goods. While the ideal domesticity captured in broadcasts and advertising did not match the actuality of many women’s lives, Andrews claims it “gave meaning to the lived experiences of domesticity for urban, suburban and rural women” (31). Domesticity, in her view, was an ideal that appealed to working class women who struggled to make ends meet and often took on domestic tasks in addition to work outside the home. As wartime and post-war economic hardships set in, domestic life became increasingly unstable and unattainable the home was elevated as an ideal in need of protection (82). This ideal was also, Andrews argues, central to the war effort as a large part of what the war was being fought for—a home that was created by and contained women, and was protected by men in times of war. Women’s role in maintaining the home front was vital to the war effort, if underappreciated and unrecognized, while broadcasting engaged in propaganda related to domestic life and comforts, especially in the post-war years during which time rationing was put in place that significantly limited many families’ access to various types of food. Andrews makes an interesting point here when she discusses food as a marker of class, tastes, and identity. She discusses this in broad strokes, specifically focusing on class identity, but narrows inward to talk about the special importance of food and cooking to women’s identity in the ways they were linked to women’s status and power base. While at first read this argument seems to play into traditional stereotypes about women and their place in the home, I think Andrews makes this argument to demonstrate one of the primary ways in which women could exercise agency and perhaps individuality in a world that significantly limited their options. Andrews discusses the ways in which radio broadcasts presented an idealized domesticity and femininity that did not align with women’s real experiences. In contrast, television provided a new medium for portrayal of domestic life and took a different approach that highlighted the actuality of women’s lived experiences and the flaws in the ideal of domesticity.

In some ways, Andrews illustrates that television began much like radio in the way it quickly locked onto women as an important target audience because of the amount of time they spent in the home, and so with a television, as well as because of their role as managers of domestic spending, targeting them as consumers. She asserts that consumerism played to the imperfect nature of domesticity in the post-war era, presenting itself as the means to get to the ideal life these women dreamed of from their imperfect starting point (132). While Andrews discusses the advent of new programming directed toward women, of greater interest is her argument about the ways television broadcasts portrayed housework, domesticity, and femininity. Television programs emphasized the performative nature of domestic labor that it made visible in a way radio could not, which ties into the increased use and purchase of consumer goods by housewives much more so than in radio broadcasts because television put these goods on display (138). Andrews argues that this emphasis on the performativity of domestic labor in radio and television broadcasts stemmed from the audience they targeted, essentially that they had to portray domesticity in a way that made sense to those listening, perhaps echoed their own experiences, “in order to be credible for domestic audience” (148). Broadcasted domesticity sought to capture the variety of domestic experiences, the difficulties associated with it, and how women worked and lived in the gap between their actual experiences and the idealized life they dreamed of. Television shows like I Love Lucy reflected women’s dissatisfaction with domestic life as Lucy longed to pursue her dream of being an actress, although Lucy as a middle class wife, in my opinion, would have spoken much more to women in a similar socioeconomic position rather than a large swathe of British women. I Love Lucy provides one example for me of Andrews’ argument for middle class domesticity as the norm even in broadcasting, while working class domesticities were seen as a sort of “cultural tourism” for the middle and upper classes (152). Andrews discusses the similarities between radio and television in the ways they targeted women as a prime audience, but argues that television carried radio’s portrayals of domesticity further, showing dissatisfaction with domestic life in more obvious ways that better mirrored the real lives of women. While television broadcasts resonated with middle and working class women differently, Andrews makes clear that the middle and upper classes had great anxiety about working class domesticity, and it is this anxiety that she follows into broadcasting in the 1960s and 70s.

Andrews argues that domesticity was an “endorsed” or “reasonable dream” of working class people, but the reality of their lives made it a less realistic dream than many imagined. She asserts that the social upheaval of the 1960s stemmed from two connected things: a cultural revolution and the modernization of technology that threated working class life (149). Changing lifestyles and cultural and sexual morays influenced new understanding and ideas about domesticity, which were reflected increasingly as time passed. Andrews makes an important note that television broadcasts often focused on the most unconventional, most shocking working class families and domesticities in a way that failed to capture the actuality of most peoples’ lives, which makes sense to me in considering the ways that television today focuses on the exceptional, the most out of the ordinary to attract attention, shock value, and captivate audiences in whatever way possible. She discusses the impact of the political visibility of second wave feminism, in which some feminists argued that unpaid domestic labor was tied to women’s low status, as feminine domesticity was assumed to be natural (180). Andrews claims that broadcasting had already disproved the “’naturalness’ of feminine domesticity” through its emphasis on the performativity of domesticity (180). However, I think that if this were true, second wave feminists would not have needed to argue about it or publish work revealing it as a persistent and harmful assumption. As economic hardship continued to strain primarily working class women, new broadcasts sought to capture their struggles but continued to focus on the worst off. While this emphasis is good in terms of making known the real challenges some women faced, it still failed accurately represent most working class women’s lives. As these challenges persisted through the 1970s and 80s, Britain witnessed a shift in responsibility, moving away from the state caring for families and toward domestic life supporting the function of the state (187). Broadcasting changed alongside politics and culture, and the advent of chat shows in the late 1980s and early 1990s allowed working class people to claim space in public life, although this space was small and restricted. Andrews argues that chat shows sought ratings through sensationalism primarily of the domestic sphere, as they “repeatedly conveyed the domestic sphere as in turmoil, fragile, fluid, temporary, sexually unregulated and distanced from the middle class ideals of family life” (191). This focus on sexuality and sexual relations made the private affairs of people’s lives public like the familiar aspects of domesticity that had been public for decades. Andrews talks primarily of domesticity in this section, but neglects to talk about women apart from domesticity in what could have been a fruitful discussion of the way femininity is positioned as responsible for controlling masculine sexuality. Women were the primary focuses of chat shows that gave great attention to their sexuality with men as sort of supporting actors. Broadcasting companies continued to try to negotiate the balance between showing “real” domesticity and the idealized version into the twenty-first century. Idealized domesticities continued to show up on television screens; however, these were “emphatically performative—neither natural, private, calm or necessarily feminized” (210). Twenty-first century broadcasting wrestled with the same difficulties radio and television faced decades earlier, but new mediums and types of shows provided new avenues to explore the dichotomy between real and ideal domesticity.

Andrews takes on an enormous project in seeking to analyze the ways broadcasting, domesticity, and femininity shaped one another over the course of nearly eight decades. While her discussions of domestic life and broadcasting provide great detail, especially during and immediately following World War II, her attention is almost entirely devoted to domesticity, with femininity as an afterthought in some places. Her other major shortcoming in this work is the lack of a discussion on race. While one could argue that Britain was overwhelmingly white in the pre-war years, the influx of immigrants following the war created significant diversity, which Andrews ignores. Her discussion of domesticity, then, can be only considered in white terms and echoing white experiences. Although a meaningful discussion of race would have made her project even larger, it would have provided a valuable piece to a greater understanding of the evolution of British domesticity. Andrews’ work provides significant insight into the role of broadcasting into the evolution of white British domesticity over an expansive time period, and primarily wrestles with the balance between the ideal people envisioned and the reality of most peoples’ lives.