Consumer Republic

In a classic dog-bites-man story, the National Organization for Women last week released its third survey on how network television treats women in prime time. You will not be surprised to learn that when it comes to positive and diverse portrayals of women, the nets didn’t make NOW’s monitors happy. According to the organization, there remain too many thin, white, young beauties on TV and not enough middle-aged female authority figures. NOW urges TV-watching women everywhere not to rest until the WWE’s Smackdown! is driven from dial.

I confess that, for the most part, I share NOW’s taste in television. I love C.J. on The West Wing, and Lisa Simpson is one of my heroes. I would rather poke an eye out than watch The Bachelor. So I don’t watch it. With 100-plus channels, there are plenty of alternatives. In fact, I have no trouble finding stand-up women characters and adult-friendly stories to fill the limited time I have to devote to TV.

Oddly enough, the monitors at NOW didn’t have much trouble finding sympathetic fare either, although the report is loath to admit it. As one monitor wrote about ABC’s Prime Time Live, the “majority of our panel was almost disappointed that we were watching … very honest, realistic and truthful reporting on a television channel.” Many of the shows NOW doesn’t approve of are simply bad programs. More than half of the shows from the 2001-02 season that failed NOW’s test of “social responsibility” were canceled, while only 14 percent of the ones it gave an “A” grade got the ax.

So what’s the problem? Are NOW’s monitors simply saying they want more TV shows that they like and fewer that they don’t like? Well, that’s what every television watcher wants. Let’s just hope that fans of Fear Factor don’t demand the same.

NOW’s wish list—less programming devoted to police work and space exploration and more to bill paying and housecleaning—seems unlikely to be fulfilled. Still, its quixotic media quest is not a demonstration of idealism. Quite the contrary, it shows the women of NOW are hard-nosed realists. For the media likes nothing so much as a contro versy involving itself. In our post-feminist times, when concrete women’s issues—reproductive rights, pay equity, child care, domestic violence—provoke little more than a yawn, a symbolic slap on UPN’s wrist guarantees a mention from the wire services.

Who knows the value of symbolic gesture over the drudgery of real-life politicking better than Martha Burk, chairwoman of the National Council of Women’s Organizations? Few had ever heard of the NCWO until Burk took on the Augusta National golf club, home of the Masters, over its all-male membership policy. In response, Augusta chairman William “Hootie” Johnson astonished the media and sports worlds by firing the tournament’s sponsors, thus eliminating parties who could be pressured to lean on the club to change its policies.

However, poor Hootie was awfully naive if he thought it would end there. In this kind of symbolic war, practically anyone who owns a Big Bertha can be accused of supporting the exclusion of women. Collateral damage in the struggle now includes the reputation of Tiger Woods, who only wants to be left in peace to promote the brands that pay him millions. In the latest development, the United States Olympic Committee is debating the Augusta membership of its CEO, Lloyd Ward, another African American.

And for what? So Carly Fiorina and Sandra Day O’Connor can join Warren Buffett and Jack Welch for a drink in the clubhouse? If ever there were a feminist cause in which victory would leave women as empty-handed as defeat, this is it.

There’s nothing wrong with the politics of symbolism. What is disturbing is that symbolic gestures have largely replaced concrete ones, at least in the public eye. In a recent interview, Burk said her office is getting more and more e-mails from nonmembers, male and female, and that if Augusta doesn’t let women in, they will all take vacation time to picket the Masters next spring.

What is scary is that, at a time when our country is on the brink of war, this might be true. So, too, is the fact that, in the week before a midterm election that could change the balance of power in Congress, NOW makes the papers by complaining about the lack of Murphy Browns and Mary Tyler Moores on TV. Among, say, single mothers of color, a low profile on prime-time TV is the least of their problems. If NOW doesn’t understand that, who will?