Book Review: Make Room for TV by Lynn Spigel (1992)

You might wonder why I bothered to read this book, whose full title is Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America. Actually, I wondered a bit myself while wandering through this Marxist/Feminist inquiry into the impact of television on life of the bourgeois in the ten years after World War II. Then I remembered. Because I paid a whole quarter for it at the library. Plus, it just sounds cool if someone asks what you’re reading, and you can answer Marxist/Feminist inquiry into the impact of television on life of the bourgeois in postwar period. Not that anyone asked. But I was ready to answer.

So I sloughed through five chapters and 187 pages of this book, remembering for a brief moment (if you count three weeks’ worth of head-shaking lunches as “a brief moment”) what it was like in college. When I would be assigned something like this, or would be assigned some topic tangentally related to this for a paper whose research would lead me to this book, and I would read some of it because I had to. Let’s face it, this thing wasn’t aimed for the mass paperback market.

My second problem with this book is the author’s faulty methodology. The first, of course, is that she’s a Marxist/Feminist academic, but to bring that up would be ad homenim, and people are allowed to believe stupid things because this is still a free country. When it’s no longer free, we’ll be mandated to believe those stupid things. But I digress.

Spigel builds a history of repression in America in what she calls the Victorian period, willfully or foolishly applying a historical term that denotes a period British history. Calling it the era of the Robber Barons wouldn’t have had the same connotation of repression and need, though, so she calls the last portion of the 18th century through World War II “Victorian” for, I would assume, the whole world, not just Britain. Granted, this is just a quibble over language, but since language is how we communicate concepts, I could tell pretty early how different the author and I conceptualize.

So, about the methodology. Spigel surveys magazines from the immediate post World War II period, examines the advertisements for televisions, and compares them with some prepackaged thought in the form of other academic pabulum which agrees with her basic M/F premises. As a result, she tells us about the repressed suburban bourgeois and how television was a tool of The Man to hold them down.

Brothers and sisters, I cannot tell you how goofy the ultimate intellectual content of this book is. Spurious assertions, laughable on the face, abound. Americans felt ambivalent to television because it was used as a weapon in World War II? Spigel forgot to footnote how commercial broadcasts brought the Axis to its knees. Perhaps she just meant sounds carried invisibly, magically through space. The more intellectually rigorous sections of the book do offer two sides to an issue. For example, if men don’t help the housewives at home, they’re pigs. If they do, it’s because they’re powerless at work and seek to assert their control where they can, in the home. Truly, Spigel has a dizzying intellect.

Sometimes, though, she makes a coherent, almost reasonable argument, such as asserting that television provided a proxy communal neighborhood at a time when suburban sprawl removed people from their traditional, more urban neighborhoods. Unfortunately, Spigel took this argument elsewhere, leaving me with a small idea with which I could agree. I hold tightly to this single idea, because otherwise I wasted a bunch of time and twenty-five cents, which is about a thirty-secondth of a six-pack of Guinness.

Academic textbooks that share this worldview spend a lot of time analyzing existing metaphors, images, and other artificial constructs and magically reveal, through their scrying, that the premise with which the academic began the inquiry is actually the conclusion. Unfortunately, they (like this book) write syllogisms in space.

So there you have it, gentle readers; the missing book. I meant to do a longer, more reasoned review pointing out where Spigel diverges from reality, but then I realized I have better things to do. Were I an academic, teaching three sections a week, perhaps I could have time to fit it into my salaried day. But it’s not worth my leisure time. And this book is not worth yours, unless you’re like me: a book slut.