Sex Differences in Pleasure from Television Texts: The Case of Ally McBeal

By Cohen, Jonathan; Ribak, Rivka | Women's Studies in Communication, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Sex Differences in Pleasure from Television Texts: The Case of Ally McBeal


Cohen, Jonathan, Ribak, Rivka, Women's Studies in Communication


Data collected from 251 Israeli undergraduates are used to explore sex differences in reactions to the television show Ally McBeal. Female viewers found the show more relevant and liked the show more than did their male counterparts. The findings are discussed within the framework of reception theory, feminist theories, and the impact of cultural contexts on the interpretation of television texts.

For decades, men and women have been watching televised depictions of their gender that profoundly and persistently conflicted with their unmediated subjective experiences (Signorielli & Bacue, 1999). The changes in the ways women are depicted on television lag significantly behind the rate of social changes in the variety of occupations in which women participate, the changes in family structure, and the role of women in public life. Men and women have also been consuming different popular texts: Men, for example, are known to favor news, sports, and action-adventure programs (Gantz & Wenner, 1991; Morley, 1986), whereas women have been found to prefer soap operas and sad movies (Oliver, Weaver, & Sargent, 2000). Few studies, however, have examined whether men and women in fact respond differently to what they watch; or whether, as Meyrowitz has argued (1985), the years of on-screen exposure of both sexes' off-stage lives have made men and women's responses to television content more similar.

Studies about viewers' responses to media texts have tended to focus on either men (e.g., Cohen, 1991) or women (e.g., Press, 1991), but, overall, do not provide a systematic juxtaposition of the two. Some recent attempts at such comparisons, however, have revealed significant discrepancies. A study of sex differences in the reaction to slasher films (Nolan & Ryan, 2000), for example, found that whereas men reported "rural terror," consistent with the danger they perceived in strange and unfamiliar places, women reported "family terror" and fear from demonic possessions associated with their sense of vulnerability within domestic and intimate contexts. Nolan and Ryan suggest that the routes to men's and women's enjoyment of the films were different. It seems that each group brought to the viewing its own set of life experiences that shaped their respective responses to the text.

It is possible to claim that these findings of sex differences are unique to texts that evoke strong emotional responses of fear, rather than representative of general sex differences in reception. It is therefore worthwhile to explore whether sex differences in responses to texts emerge from general differences in life experiences or whether they are limited to extreme emotional stimuli. In the present study then, we wish to contribute to the literature comparing male and female responses to popular texts by examining differences in the ways men and women relate to and enjoy David E. Kelley's show Ally McBeal.

Pleasure and Realism

Because the main vehicle used by popular culture to attract audiences and revenues is that of pleasure, this concept has also taken on a central role in the study of television and film reception. Pleasure here is not used only in the sense of fun, but rather to connote a meaningful and involving experience of engagement with a text. One of the common explanations for the sense of pleasure that is derived from television fiction, relates it to the text's ability to achieve a sense of realism among viewers. Although television drama is arguably consumed as an escapist pastime, and therefore realism should not be considered a necessary condition for enjoyment, research has found that realism is often mentioned by viewers as the key for their liking of television drama (Ang, 1985). What is it, then, that viewers mean by realism? And how is realism linked to pleasure?

In traditional literary and film theory, realism has been seen as a characteristic of texts (Corner, 1992). …

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