I have long argued that television programs, particularly situation comedies, perform an important piece of ideological work in our culture. Far from being pure entertainment, they introduce ideas that society may not want to confront. Of course, no one who can remember All in the Family or Murphy Brown will dispute this; but we may well be surprised to realize that television has always done this, even from its earliest days.
The two examples I have chosen to demonstrate this theory come from The Honeymooners (1955) and Bewitched (1964-1972). Back in the 1950s and ’60s, these sitcoms had to code their messages, making them available only to subtle and clever television viewers. In fact, the entire premise of both series rests on the implicit understanding that while women may have to kow-tow to their husbands, they are in fact the brains in their marriages. After all, Samantha is presumably all-powerful, yet she chooses to remain with the awkward and pouty Darren. Alice Kramden’s situation is less enviable–she is constrained by the 1950s dictum that proclaims women to be subservient to their husbands–but at the same time, she demonstrates to herself, to Ralph, and most importantly, to the audience, that she is in fact much more capable than Ralph and that he is head of the household only because of society awards him this position.
Ideological work is hidden, or coded, in early sitcoms, but it’s still there. For example, in The Honeymooners, in Episode 4 (“A Woman’s Work is Never Done”), Alice decides to get a job after Ralph berates her for not being able to keep up with the housework, while telling him it’s easier to work outside the home than within it. Ralph ridicules the notion, but Alice succeeds quite well, and even earns enough money to hire a maid to carry out the household chores, a maid who turns out to be so efficient and sarcastic that Ralph begs Alice to quit and return to being a homemaker. The message here, years before either That Girl or The Mary Tyler Moore Show appear on television, is that women can indeed be successful in the professional world. This message might have been too revolutionary to appear without coding, but it is delivered nonetheless through this subtle means.
Perhaps more interesting is Episode 7 of the first season of Bewitched (“The Witches Are Out”), in which Darren’s work on an advertising campaign that features witches is critiqued by Samantha as being clichéd and, even worse, rife with prejudice. She takes to the streets to spearhead protests against the campaign, joining a picket line, clearly reflecting the actual protests that were taking place in 1964, when this episode first aired. Since it was too dangerous to talk openly about racial prejudice, the show used a fictional prejudice–against witches–that the viewers would still understand, though perhaps unconsciously.
Neither of these episodes were intentional about their ideological work: in early situation comedies, these shows’ writers merely reflected and refracted the social reality they observed. In other words, during the early years of television, shows didn’t consciously represent the women’s movement or the civil rights movement. They simply reflected and displaced the social trends that were present at the time of their creation and presented them in a non-threatening, palatable form for their viewers.
But by the mid-1970s and beyond, television changed and became more outspoken, taking on a more direct role in society, and at the same time becoming much less afraid to stand on a soap-box. The velvet gloves came off, and we grappled openly with all sorts of issues, from bigotry (All in the Family), to homosexuality (Will and Grace). However, I believe that television still uses coded messages from time to time, and I think I’ve found an example of one genre that horrifies me, and not for its intended reason.
Since the mid 2000s, zombie-themed shows and books have proliferated. I first noticed a fascination with zombies among my students in about 2005, and I found it strange that a genre that had lain dormant for so long was coming back to life (pardon the pun, please). Since then, we’ve had World War Z, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and The Walking Dead. Ever the cultural analyst, I wondered what this preoccupation with zombie infestation might represent: just what kind of ideological work is it performing? At first, I thought it might indicate a fear of contagion, of a swift-moving and deadly pandemic. After all, we’ve seen, in the last twenty years, outbreaks of swine and bird flu, SARS, and Ebola. It would certainly make sense for a fear of virulent and lethal illness to express itself as a zombie invasion.
But recently it dawned on me that the imagined zombie invasion might represent something far worse: an invasion of migrants. And, before you dismiss this idea, let me pose a question: Is it possible that the populist rhetoric directed against immigrants is connected, through a subtle, ideological sleight-of-hand, to the rise of the zombie genre in film and television?
After all, so much of zombie plots resemble the imagined threat of uncontrolled immigration: the influx of great numbers of threatening beings who are completely foreign to our way of thinking, who are willing to fight for resources, who will not give up easily, who make us just like them–and who must be destroyed at any cost. I think it’s just possible, in other words, that the present social climate of suspicion, of protectionism, of hostility towards outsiders, has been fostered and cultivated by our ideological immersion in the genre of the zombie plot. Again, as with early television situation comedies, I don’t think this is an intentional linkage on the part of the writers; but intentional or not, the ideological work gets done, and suddenly we find our culture and civilization hostile to the very force that made us what we Americans are.
About ten years ago, I had a student who adored horror films and books. I asked him how he could stand to be made frightened by what he loved and spent so much time on. His answer haunts me today: “This isn’t what frightens me,” he said, pointing to a Lovecraft novel. “What frightens me is the day-to-day things, such as how I’m going to pay my rent.” In the same vein, I’ll end by asking this question: what if the really frightening thing about zombie shows isn’t what happens to their characters, but what happens to us when we watch them?