Bookshelf: Make Room For TV

Make Room For TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America
By Lynn Spigel
Published in 1992
Published by The University of Chicago Press
236 Pages

Make Room For TV is not a historical overview of impact made by the arrival of television in the late 1940s. Instead, it is an examination of how media — specifically magazines targeted at women — responded to television and the advice they offered on how to watch television. As Spigel explains in her introduction, “these popular sources expressed a set of cultural anxieties about the new medium as they engaged the public in a dialogue concerning television’s place in the home.”

Spigel spends the first chapter explaining how society has viewed domesticity and the split between family life and work life, from the early 1800s through the 1950s. Gender roles, household appliances and recreation are tied together, culminating in the Utopian ideal of the white, middle-class suburban family into which television was soon introduced. Over the course of the remaining four chapters, Spigel explores how television influenced family life, reshaped the concept of women’s work, merged the public and private spheres and, finally, how the situation comedy reflected the artificial nature of the ideal family.

Although short (the introduction, five chapters and epilogue run just 189 pages; the remainder of the book consists of notes and an index), this is not an easy book to read. The text is often dense. Spigel draws from television critics, sociological studies and magazine editorials in addition to advertisements when making her arguments. Make Room For TV is above all a scholarly work.

The brevity of this review does not reflect the quality of the writing. I read the book and I enjoyed it but I cannot easily summarize it. Spigel’s main contention seems to be that the mass media, rather than simply promoting television through advertisements or criticizing it in reviews, actually forced the public to think about the television set’s place in the family. As Spigel herself says in the epilogue: “The approach I’ve taken provides insights into the way television viewing has been connected to larger patterns of family ideals and gender construction.”

I certainly wouldn’t recommend Make Room For TV to the casual fan of television who would enjoy a broad overview of television’s impact on society. For cultural historians or those interested in learning more about the role women played in the acceptance of television , on the other hand, it could prove enlightening. Indeed, at the top of the back cover of Make Room For TV the publisher has provided a category for the book: Media/Gender Studies.

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