Up from Invisibility: Lesbians, Gay Men, and the Media in America
by Larry Gross; Columbia University Press, 2001
In October 1981, CBS broadcast a made-for-TV movie starring M*A*S*H
veteran Loretta Swit and newcomer Tyne Daly as a team of policewomen who
become detectives. The movie was deliberately intended to present a contrast to the
"jiggle TV" image of women in such TV hits as Charlie's Angels. It attracted the
support of prominent feminists and was featured on the cover of Ms. magazine.
The article ended with a message: "If you would like to see Cagney and Lacey
expanded into a TV series, write to [an address in Los Angeles]." When the TV
movie was a ratings smash, CBS moved quickly to develop it into a series. In the
series version of Cagney and Lacey that premiered in March 1982, the role of Chris
Cagney was played by Meg Foster, while Tyne Daley continued as Mary Beth
Cagney and Lacey was a critical success and achieved respectable ratings, but
CBS executives canceled the series. Producer Barney Rosenzweig was eventually
told that the price of renewal was to replace Meg Foster as Cagney. Press accounts
began to reveal the reasons behind CBS's hesitation when network vice president
Harvey Shepard was quoted as saying that "the characterizations of both Cagney
and Lacey were too tough." An article in TV Guide helped readers connect the
dots: an unnamed CBS programmer had said that the characters were "too tough,
too hard, and not feminine…. They were too harshly women's lib…. We perceived
them as dykes." The network, clearly uncomfortable with the feminist stance of the
series, focused its objections on the person of Meg Foster. Many thought that
Foster was singled out because she had earlier played a lesbian character in the
1978 movie A Different Story (and not even a very positive portrayal: in the movie
the lesbian and a gay man fall in love and get married).
When the series returned to the air in the fall of 1982, Chris Cagney was
played by Sharon Gless, who was described by one reviewer as "blonde, single,
and gorgeous." The character was also unmistakably heterosexual. The revised
Cagney and Lacey continued to attract a faithful following among women
viewers—including lesbians grateful for the rare example of female solidarity—but
CBS canceled it once again. This cancellation brought about an avalanche of letters
that, combined with the numerous Emmy nominations the series received, once
again saved the program. Ultimately, Cagney and Lacey ran until 1988, garnering
many awards along with high ratings and a large audience of lesbian viewers.
One of the most extensive opportunities for queer reading of a televisual text
was provided by the CBS police series Cagney and Lacey. This long-running
(1982–1988), award-winning series about two women police detectives garnered a
large and loyal following of lesbians who were able to read the women as lesbian
despite the characters' explicit heterosexuality.
In a study utilizing the 1994 TV film Cagney & Lacey: The Return, Tanya
Hands explored the interpretations and recollections of lesbian viewers, many of
whom had recorded and kept the original series programs. These women had no
difficulty reading the detectives as lesbians. As one respondent put it, "I always
thought Cagney was a dyke, but they would have her with a guy once in a while….
I just didn't ever see her as a straight woman." Some of the older women recalled
planning social events around the program: "We, a bunch of my friends, would get
together each week at each other's houses. We'd have dinner, or whatever. Or we
would just call each other during the commercials if we weren't together.
Sometimes each of us would be on the phone with someone else during the length
of the whole show."
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