Canadian Journal of Sociology Online March - April 2000

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Andrea Press and Elizabeth Cole.
Speaking of Abortion: Television and Authority in the Lives of Women.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999, 202 pp. $US 25.00 cloth (0226680312)

Press and Cole’s work extends bravely into several realms of analysis within sociology and beyond, from the politico-ideological struggles which surround abortion, to the complex ways in which women formulate their own individual postures within the abortion debate, to yet more broadly interdisciplinary questions about how audiences negotiate their interpretations of media output. In view of their penultimate focus upon the ways in which non-activist women of different class and racial groups connect abortion to the exercise of power over women’s lives and to their overall political consciousness, illustrated by women’s responses to televisual portrayals of abortion, the book should be of great appeal not only to those specifically interested in the abortion debate, yet also to anyone generally interested in class relations, feminism and gender studies, and/or the relationship between media production and ideological reproduction. The authors call upon their respective experiences in communication studies, psychology, and women’s studies to produce a most exceptionally multi-dimensional, richly textured, and remarkably well-integrated analysis which offers rare insights into a variety of questions. Indeed, the abortion issue could be crudely seen as almost incidental to the analysis: it so happens that women’s discussions of abortion serve to very effectively expose their awareness of the linkages between public and private spheres. As Press and Cole discovered early in their research, “the issue is a prism through which general discussions of power and authority in our society ... are refracted both in media representations and among those who receive them” (19).

By means of focus group interviews conducted with American women throughout the period 1989-1993, the authors ambitiously explore the intersections between class, gender, and race in the responses of their subjects to depictions of the abortion issue in three selected prime-time television dramas. Press and Cole argue that televisual representations of abortion are powerfully class-based, such that television characters who seek abortions are predominantly working class or very poor. Yet another opportunity to expose and explain differences in women’s general ideological perspectives thereby arises, and it is thoroughly pursued. The focus groups are differentiated according to their pro-choice or pro-life positions, and further subdivided according to their class locations, specific occupations, religious affiliations, and race. Television is understood to be one medium through which personal and group identities are constructed, through which political and moral values are formulated, and but one of a vast array of continuous discourses through which beliefs and opinions are developed.

Media scholars will likely also be delighted to see that oppositional and resistant readings of the television programmes are anticipated from the outset; in fact, expectations of active and critical viewership are intrinsic to the parameters of the project and form the basis of the methodological strategy. These expectations follow from Press’ earlier work, Women Watching Television: Gender, Class, and Generation in the American Television Experience (1991). Pro-life women, for example, are found to habitually watch, and often enjoy, television entertainment which regularly contradicts their most fundamental values. These women expressed commonalities in both their views about abortion and their general responses to the television programmes, commonalities which even cut across class lines. Their views about abortion related to a deeply entrenched resistance to the assumptions of the secular mainstream media in the contemporary United States, and yet at the same time their views drew support and justification from a secular scientific mode of argument. Like virtually all of the women in the entire sample, pro-life women were inclined to perceive televisual presentations of medical professionals as sources of indisputable scientific fact.

More often, however, Press and Cole find a need to trace and assess a multiplicity of major differences as well as fine distinctions between the responses of each of the focus groups, differences rooted fundamentally in their alternative class positions. A strong consciousness of social class membership is evident in the statements of many working class pro-choice women, and it is explored in detail throughout one of the chapters. At the same time, these women were divided in their attitudes towards institutions of power. While some perceived themselves to be remote from and resistant to institutional authorities, others identified strongly with institutional authorities and their efforts at political and moral regulation. The differences in this case were such that the labels “working-class-identified” and “middle-class-identified” were used to distinguish these particular groups. In the end, the differences reveal deep and sharp divisions within the experiences of working class women, reflected in their attitudes about both middle class life and the power of the state.

Perhaps less surprisingly, middle class pro-choice women demonstrated a strong loyalty to the therapeutic ethos and were unable to see the circumstances of the television characters in anything other than individualistic, psychological terms. The dominant therapeutic discourse of the programmes remained largely unchallenged by the economically and educationally privileged women in these focus groups. Their inclination to support the hegemonic reading of abortion is also explored at length, especially the paradox that it poses in view of their explicitly feminist sentiments and their only implicit acknowledgement of a class structure in American society.

Therein lies a further illustration of the multi-layered nature of the analysis that Press and Cole are able to provide. The abortion issue serves as a fruitful vehicle which enables broader and extensive examinations of “a spectrum of concerns ranging from women’s relation to their own bodies and reproductive processes to their more general relation to various institutions of power and authority in our society” (125). Understated by the authors is their important contribution to the contemporary literature about media audiences, and particularly their demonstration of the multiple complexities associated with the process of media reception as it is experienced by different social groups. Their book points painfully to the gaps in our knowledge of the operation of the process here.

Debra Clarke, Ph.D.
Department of Sociology/Canadian Studies Program
Trent University
March-April 2000
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