Whip Me, Beat Me...

It's a case of serial sexual harassment: a dozen TV movies about women in jeopardy in the month of November alone. In NBC's "Deadly Medicine," a female pediatrician faces the loss of her practice, her family and her freedom when she's unjustly accused of murdering one of her infant patients. In ABC's "The Woman Who Sinned," a philandering housewife is falsely accused of bumping off her best friend, then chased around her house by the real killer. The messiest fate, however, awaits an innocent young dental hygienist in CBS's "In A Child's Name." She's beaten to death by her dentist husband, who tells the police-lying through his you-know-whats--that he caught her sexually abusing their baby.

What do women want? Network programmers have been asking themselves that ever since they discovered that sponsors regard female viewers as their prime targets. Now, it appears, the networks have arrived at a curious consensus: what today's women want, at least from their made-for-TV movies, is to watch other women suffer--especially if the sufferer ultimately emerges victorious.

Depictions of women in jeopardy (or "jep," as they say in the biz) aren't exactly new. Farrah Fawcett set the mold in 1984 when, in "The Burning Bed," she played a battered wife who winds up torching the gasoline-soaked bed of her sleeping husband. Though the film pulled huge ratings (and inspired at least three real-life domestic assaults), the jep genre didn't really take off until the production of TV movies exploded. Since nobody knows how to create a hit series anymore, everybody's cranking out those high-rated, two-hour "made-fors": their number has tripled in the last five years. And of the approximately 250 set for this season, nearly half show women undergoing--and overcoming-some form of physical or psychological mistreatment. When network honchos listen to a movie pitch these days, the first thing many say is "Where's the jep?" (The second is "More jep!") As for viewers, the genre's blessings seem as mixed as the messages it's sending them.

Eager to enhance TV's reputation for fairness and balance, the purveyors of jep portray contemporary men as homicidal husbands (ABC's "False Arrest"), abusive lovers (NBC's "Wild Texas Wind"), alcoholic fathers (ABC's "Keeping Secrets"), sadistic sons (CBS's "My Son Johnny"), psychotic doctors (ABC's "Deadly Intentions"), sex-crazed hospital orderlies (CBS's "The Rape of Dr. Willis"), even diabolical college professors ("CBS's "Victim of Love"). When the genre's males aren't oppressing women directly, they're messing up their children. Rape is a popular device. NBC's "A Mother's Justice" presents a woman so obsessed with nabbing her daughter's rapist that she puts her own body on the line. Wrongful imprisonment is another. In CBS's "Locked Up: A Mother's Rage," a single mom gets framed by her drug-dealing boyfriend and, while serving time, learns that her three kids have fallen apart.

The males-are-beasts axiom comes with a corollary. Since women can no longer count on men to rush to their rescue, they're saving themselves. They take charge of their own cases and reverse their bum raps. They cajole, demand, infiltrate, investigate and settle scores. They literally push back. "The Woman Who Sinned" dispatches her homicidal pursuer with a fatal shove off her balcony. And pity the man, however well meaning, who resists them. Here's the falsely accused pediatrician in "Deadly Medicine," asking the district attorney for help: "I'll be damned if you're going to say no to me!"

As the female audience ages along with America, the merchants of jep are casting older actresses in their most flattering lights. Among those portraying women who vanquish adversity this season are Jessica Tandy, Doris Day, Olympia Dukakis, Gena Rowlands and Betty White. Most of them win through guile. Case in point: NBC's "The Story Lady," which stars Tandy as a classy widow whose excitement about hosting a children's story hour on network TV quickly vanishes when she's cheesily exploited as "Granny Goodheart." Determined to escape her contract, she discovers she can be fired for doing anything illegal. So, on the day before Christmas, she deliberately gets caught shoplifting. (Needless to say, her children are horrified.) In another twist on the genre, an older woman will team up with a younger one to get her way. ABC's "Last Wish," for instance, dramatizes journalist Betty Rollin's best-selling account of her agreement to help her terminally ill mother end her life.

If anything activates a programmer's saliva glands more quickly than a "fact based" tale of jep, it's one with an actress re-enacting her own real-life traumas. Ann Jillian graphically depicted her struggle with breast cancer. Patty Duke gave us the dark side of child stardom, suffering sexual abuse and manic-depressive illness. Suzanne Somers not only relived her degradations from an alcoholic father, she also replayed her own smarmy behavior as a dysfunctional adult, including her arrest for check forging. All three, of course, managed to overcome.

What's wrong with these pictures? Nothing and everything. If viewers indeed emulate what they see, few sights could be more salutary for women than that of gutsy, resourceful females figuratively untying themselves from the tracks. Nor should the genre's educational impact be ignored. Tens of thousands of viewers responded to the toll-free number flashed at the end of Suzanne Somers's "Keeping Secrets." "Most wanted to share the pain of living with an alcoholic," says Somers. "And sharing can be the beginning of healing."

All that uplift, however, comes at a potentially grim price. Studies have shown that heavy viewers of TV violence-and the jep genre reeks with it-overestimate the odds of being victimized in their own lives. "They exhibit an exaggerated mistrust of strangers, the urge to buy a new lock or a gun," says George Gerbner, dean emeritus of the Annenberg School for Communication. "I call it a 'mean-world syndrome'." Such fears, Gerbner's studies have found, are especially acute among today's women viewers. While that's partly attributable to the rising rate of violence against women in real life, there's a more artificial explanation. For every female perpetrator of violence on TV, there are half again as many female victims.

The possibility that jep films are helping to turn women into cringing paranoids doesn't faze Steve Krantz, the executive producer of "Deadly Medicine." "Though I hate the notion," says Krantz, "it's prototypical of women's role in society to see themselves as victims. So there's a high identification factor." Others blame the excesses of jep on the industry's lopsided balance of power: less than 5 percent of TV-movie writers are female. Carole Lieberman, a Los Angeles psychiatrist and media consultant, suspects that "as men feel more threatened about women gaining power in the TV workplace, putting women in jeopardy fulfills their sadistic fantasies about maintaining control." Then again, as Lieberman observes, some of the scariest jep films are created by women. "A lot of them feel anger toward other women in television who are getting more attention or who are more sexually desirable," she says. "It's a clear example of jalousie de femme."

Obviously, we're in murky waters. But to a TV reviewer exposed to a ton of this stuff, one thing seems clear. The real violence that the jep genre does to women is to patronize their intelligence. With its unyielding embrace of happy endings, it proclaims that women aren't mature or sophisticated enough to sit for anything more realistic. At least the disease-of-the-week epidemic left behind a "Brian's Song." Of course, to tinker with the genre's conventions is to risk undermining its ratings. Then video-movie makers might find themselves echoing the female mystery writer who, in a recent jep flick, was ordered to can her favorite character. "I'm terrified," she replied, "because now I'm going to have to come up with something new."

For the people who run television, there could be no crueler form of jeopardy.

Join the Discussion