Domesticating the Airwaves: Broadcasting, Domesticity and Femininity
by Maggie Andrews

Reviewed by David VanderHamm


Published by Continuum, 2012   |   288 pages

During the 1920s, broadcast radio was the object of many high-minded and utopian fantasies. Its ability to traverse the ether was a technological marvel that promised to transport and transform listeners as well. One American entrepreneur declared, upon his station’s opening in 1922, that it would offer even the most isolated listeners “a pew in church, a seat at the opera, or a desk at the university.” While the specific destinations offered by other stations varied, they all shared a parallel orientation—always away from the home, taking the once isolated, private listener into a variety of public spaces for social ends and human edification.

Listeners, however, were not always interested in leaving behind their domestic lives in order to travel to more public spheres, nor were providers uninterested in finding other purposes for the medium. As the utopian visions of the 20s gave way—partly in response to audience’s preferences for less edifying and more familiar content— the medium underwent a shift “from the spectacular to the mundane.” With the domestic space increasingly viewed less as a point of departure, and more as the destination towards which content could be adapted and addressed, radio came to a play an ambiguous role vis a vis the individual: a medium by which she, via demand, could pull content, but towards whom content could also be pushed. Whereas in its early years radio was primarily perceived as the domain of “technically confident men,” with time it increasingly became a domestic technology, one associated with, and targeted towards, women.

In Domesticating the Airwaves, Maggie Andrews traces the history of the interactions of broadcasting, domesticity, and femininity in British culture from 1930 to the present. The book, covering everything from the domestic gurus and lifestyle celebrities of ‘30s radio to the soap operas and house-hunting “property porn” of contemporary television, is organized around case studies. Through each, Andrews shows how broadcasting media was intertwined in both the creation and contestation of the normative ideals of domesticity and femininity.

Andrews sets out her theoretical framework in chapter 1, arguing that the concept of domesticity originally arose based upon the supposed distinction between (feminine) private and (masculine) public spheres. Domesticity is thus “constructed as a place of mundane belonging discursively linked to women and femininity,” which is posited to exist only in relation to its supposedly masculine, public Other. Andrews stresses how, from its early years, radio blurred these boundaries, as public figures such as politicians and celebrities entered the home to address listeners (and women in particular) in the very space previously regarded as the antithesis to the public sphere.

Crucially, Andrews is adamant that hers is a history of British listener’s engagement with broadcast media, and not merely an institutional history of the BBC. She brings in listeners’ voices from oral histories and archives (in particular those of the Mass Observation project), and includes the commercial stations – eg. Radio Normandie and Radio Luxemburg – to which listeners regularly tuned when the BBC became too heavy-handed. This breadth of focus places her arguments about the BBC in a more intelligible context, as its influence is portrayed as formidable but rarely unilateral, and often unpredictable.

Chapter 2 treats the daily domestic advice-and-guidance broadcast Household Talks, which began airing in 1929. These programs attempted to educate women on various domestic issues—from cooking to managing the family budget—and Andrews proposes multiple readings of what might initially seem to be a rather un-nuanced project. On the one hand, the Household Talks can obviously be seen as attempts to govern women through supposedly scientific or rational discourses. On the other hand, precisely in their pedagogical intent, they also implicitly acknowledged that there was no intrinsic, “natural” connection between femininity and domesticity.

Andrews is quick to point out that while the BBC was not commercial in a literal sense, it was “by no means divorced from consumer culture.” While not promoting specific products (except in rare cases of early product placement), it nevertheless did familiarize listeners with middle-class leisure and consumer culture in general. Its versions of domesticity also tended toward the bourgeois, as BBC programs consistently over-estimated the size of working-class budgets. Issues and conflicts concerning class arise frequently throughout this history, to the extent that “class” could very well have been added as the fourth theme in the book’s subtitle. While some programs did provide space for women to present their own experience of more economically disadvantaged domesticity, Andrews admits that the fundamental ambivalence of broadcast media does not allow for an unqualified celebration of them. However much one desires to impute to these programs a socially progressive role, they could just as easily function as mere “class tourism” for the more affluent.

Interpretive fault-lines like these run throughout Domesticating the Airwaves, and Andrews does not attempt to mask them. The entire book is characterized by an insistence on drawing out tensions and irresolutions in both discourse and lived experience. Andrews offers her own critiques and perspective(s), but she rarely fails to acknowledge alternative interpretations to her materials, nor the loose ends that remain after any interpretive endeavor. She also consistently encourages her reader’s critical involvement, sprinkling “arguably” like so much salt throughout her prose.

Chapter 4, in which Andrews makes some of her strongest claims, covers the role of broadcast media during World War II. Radio, she suggests, provided “ontological security” to listeners during World War II. Whereas radio had been viewed largely as a domestic companion during the ‘30s, radio during wartime was valued as a connection to the nation, to the front, and to loved ones deployed around the world. The technology and the broadcasts it carried functioned, Andrews argues, to stretch the boundaries of the domestic while simultaneously maintaining the tenability of threatened domestic ties. Radio provided a rhythm to the daily life whose routines had been fractured by war. Some advertisements even framed the purchase of a radio as a form of patriotism that allowed a woman to take her place on the Home Front.

Chapters 5 and 6 follow broadcasting and domesticity through the growing postwar consumerism of the ‘50s —notwithstanding the persistent accompanying poverty and economic hardship—and the proliferation of increasingly diverse radio and television programs. The growing diversity of these “realities” allowed for more regional and class variations during the ‘60s, which increasingly problematized the widespread postwar assumption/presumption that “woman” and “housewife” were interchangeable terms. The slew of “women’s programmes” in the 50s, Andrews argues, presented domesticity and housework not as a natural state but as a performance based on gendered power relations. These same years, Andrews notes, brought forth a profound societal shift towards the paradigm of consumption.

The rise of domestic lifestyles saw television increasingly become a domestic cornerstone, the commodity that defined the home. Yet even as it became a marker of successful (i.e. reasonably affluent) domestic lifestyle, television provided another medium for the nostalgic representation of a working class domesticity. Chapter six explores this most effectively through an analysis of Coronation Street, a popular soap opera (Andrews calls it a drama) begun in 1960. Andrews identifies the program’s nostalgic representations as one response to the persistent (arguably widening) gap between domestic realities and ideals. This strategy of nostalgic response remains an important theme through the remaining two chapters – even up to the present. In Andrews’ view, nostalgia is more than just a symptomatic response to problems within contemporary society; it is potentially radical in its refusal to accept the contemporary social/political order as given.

While her defense of nostalgia is not without reservations—she admits that a nostalgic vision of Britain is almost always a whiter one—it does, ultimately, end up an endorsement. And this endorsement of nostalgic radicalism is, unsurprisingly, a distinctly problematic aspect of the book. For while nostalgia refuses to assume the naturalness of contemporary reality, it displaces that naturalness onto the past. By viewing an era in a nostalgic frame, that moment becomes the point of origin; it becomes a myth in the sense used by Roland Barthes. The root problem is not that nostalgia produces an inaccurate or less-tolerant picture of the past (which it might), but that it does not grant the past its own history, and thus treats it as a mythical origin rather than a historically contingent moment. Andrews, to this reader, never adequately addresses these issues.

Domesticating the Airwaves is hardly the first book to point out radio’s domestic ties, but the specific combination of its content and undogmatic critical approach is an important addition to the literature. As Andrews demonstrates, feminist cultural historians have generally paid more attention to the role of print media in constructing femininity and the domestic sphere (Beetham 1996, Winship 1987), while works that do acknowledge broadcasting’s role (Silverstone, Hirsch, and Morely 1992) have portrayed its influence as rather top-down. Domesticating the Airwaves occupies a middle ground, arguing that broadcasting media “not merely entered the domestic space of the home but have been structured by that very domestic space.” This cycle of recursive influence ties together the book’s divergent case studies: broadcasting helps construct the very domestic space to which it is tailored, and its representations of domestic life are consumed, interpreted, and contested within the context of actual domestic experience.

Any book as wide-ranging as this is bound to leave some ground un-trod, and with a few notable exceptions, Domesticating the Airwaves lacks much direct treatment of sound as sound. It is true that Andrews was to a degree constrained by her materials and by the nature of radio—all that remains of the majority of ‘30s and ‘40s radio programs are scripts. But for later, better-preserved materials, readers interested in sound-studies and aurality could justly argue that her treatment of broadcast media as cultural texts occasionally reduces them to their linguistic content. Anyone who has written about sonic phenomena knows the difficulty of conveying their aural dimension through writing, but I cannot help but wonder if closer attention to the actual sound of these materials might clarify (or perhaps enhance) some of the interpretive ambiguities. Her treatment of the visual elements of television is likewise sometimes lacking in medium-specific detail.

Even with those reservations, the book remains challenging and consistently engaging. While Domesticating the Airwaves draws its case studies exclusively from British culture, it should have broad appeal to those interested in media and cultural studies, as well as feminist approaches to history. Like Elizabeth Outka’s Consuming Traditions—an analysis of how the “commodified authentic” arises from the paradoxical cooptation of the “authentic” into the marketplace—Andrews’ keen analyses of British cultural phenomena resonates powerfully across national borders. Precisely because domestic space so often provides the physical setting (or the ideological framework) for the way people relate to their social and cultural world, Andrews’ study of the relationship between media and this common, contested, and (still) gendered space could hardly be more relevant.

David VanderHamm is a Ph.D. student in musicology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His research focuses on virtuosity and commodification across genres of American music in the twentieth century, with particular interest in musical embodiment and technological mediation. David is also active as a guitarist and teacher.

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