Airheads

Beneath all the retro stereotypes and bogus "you go, girl!" feminism, Oxygen's core message to American women is: Keep shopping!

Topics: Oprah Winfrey, Sex and the City, The View,

Airheads

Oxygen, the new 24-hour cable-TV network for women founded
by (among others) href="/people/bc/1999/05/04/oprah/index.html">Oprah
Winfrey and former Nickelodeon and Disney/ABC Cable
president Geraldine Laybourne, is billed as a place where
women can “take a breath” from the exhausting task of being
female.

Being female myself, and usually exhausted, I’ve been tuning in
since Oxygen’s Feb. 2 debut to sample the network that was
designed (like Ice Blue Secret) especially for me. And this is
what I’ve seen:

  • “Pajama Party,” a talk show where the host, guests and
    on-stage audience, all grown women, are wearing pajamas and
    giggling about boys ‘n’ stuff;

  • “We Sweat,” which is not a deodorant commercial, but a
    show about women’s sports;

  • “Oprah Goes Online,” in which Winfrey and her minion,
    Gayle King, learn all about that Internet thingie in 12 easy
    lessons;

  • “Pure Oxygen,” a live, midday clone of ABC’s href="/ent/tv/mill/1998/08/17mill.html">“The View,”
    featuring celebrity interviews, astrology forecasts, newsy tidbits,
    relationship, health, fashion and money advice, a daily “water
    cooler” topic and a DJ named Monica who takes us into
    commercials with a snippet of music and the reminder to “take a
    breath;”

  • “Trackers,” a late afternoon teenage girl version of “Pure
    Oxygen;”

  • “Inhale,” a morning yoga show;
  • “Exhale,” a prime-time talk show where a very serious
    Candice Bergen interviews guests like Naomi Judd and Grace
    Slick on a pillow-strewn, flower-laden estrogen-chic
    living-room set;

  • and a brand-new version of the hoary game show “I’ve Got
    a Secret,” which has nothing to with women, per se, but fills up
    airtime, so what the heck.

Across the bottom of the screen, in the space where ESPN runs
scores and CNBC runs stock quotes, Oxygen runs the e-tail
addresses of its sponsors.



And after all this Oxygenating, I have come to a perplexing
conclusion: I am not woman enough for this women’s cable
network. I mean, I’m not much of a shopper, I never read my
horoscope and I was miraculously able to find the Internet
without Oprah’s help. I haven’t been to a pajama party since
ninth grade. I would rather watch a hockey fight — in fact, I
would rather be in a hockey fight — than watch anything
called “We Sweat.” I think Naomi Judd is a babbling idiot.

Watching Oxygen, there were times when I actually did have to
“take a breath” — from the sheer, overwhelming, insulting
girliness of it all. I reached my breaking point
somewhere between the “Pajama Party” segment where the
bride-to-be had a bronze mold of her butt made as a gift for her
fiance and the documentary about the woman who draws the
comic strip “Cathy.” So much for my notoriously high tolerance
for brain-sucking vapidity.

Oxygen, which is synergistically united with Oxygen.com (a
collection of women-aimed Web sites), is very well funded –
Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and AOL are among its major
investors. But, so far, funding hasn’t resulted in clout; Oxygen is
still fighting for space on cable systems, reaching only 7 million
to 10 million homes (it’s unavailable in New York City and
parts of Los Angeles and San Francisco), in contrast to its
venerable women’s cable rival Lifetime, which reaches 75
million homes. And it hasn’t resulted in compelling
programming, either. Oxygen is relying mainly on in-house talk
and infotainment shows augmented by “interactive” segments
where the TV hosts take email questions from viewers in real
time. You can get the same exciting visual effect by setting up
an armchair in the middle of your office and watching your
co-workers type.

Oxygen is a depressing jumble of retro stereotypes and empty
“You go, girl!” solidarity. And it’s absolutely obsessed with
body image. On Feb. 10 and 11, for example, I took down the
following program notes: The animated block “X-Chromosome”
(actually the most original and impressive of Oxygen’s
programming) showed “Fat Girl,” a cartoon about a sassy,
large-and-in-charge woman who clashes with her mean,
stick-figure female boss, and “Bitchy Bits,” in which a woman
grumbled and bitched her way through a bathing suit shopping
expedition. Bergen had a show about teenage girls and
self-esteem, which included much talk of eating disorders and
the entertainment industry’s notion of beauty. There was the
aforementioned “Cathy” documentary (more bathing suit
shopping!), and the “Pajama Party” segment where host Katie
Puckrick poked fun at dieting-obsessed women who are afraid
to eat. And “Pure Oxygen” had a plus-size lingerie fashion
show. Yes, many women have food and weight issues. But
Oxygen’s schizo attitude (“It’s cool to be fat!”; “I hate myself in
a bathing suit!”) is doing nobody any favors; it just reinforces
viewers’ love-hate affairs with their bodies.

Caryn Mandabach, who executive produced “The Cosby
Show” and href="/may97/roseanne970519.html">“Roseanne”
and is one of Oxygen’s founding partners (with
Laybourne, Winfrey and TV execs Marcy Carsey and
Tom Werner), has been quoted as saying that “men watch
TV with one hand down their pants and the other on the
control,” but that “women watch TV with a Krispy Kreme
in one hand and a martini in the other and they don’t need
a remote control.” Let’s take a breath and ponder
that image, shall we? What makes the Oxygen
viewer on her chenille sofa pounding down martinis and
donuts any more highly “evolved” (to use a favorite
Oxygen buzzword) than the guy in the La-Z-Boy
watching Comedy Central’s “The Man Show” in a happy
Bud-and-Doritos stupor?

There’s no difference, of course; Oxygen and jokily
chauvinistic shows like “The Man Show” and FX’s “The
X Show” are niche programming at its most nakedly
opportunistic. And Laybourne is unquestionably a
niche-programming genius, having invented
Nickelodeon, the arbiter of all that is cool, hot, funny,
gross, smart, dumb and, above all, desirable in the
pre-teen world. On Nickelodeon, with rare exception,
girls and women are portrayed as smarter than, more
resourceful than and generally superior to boys and men.
And that “girls rule, boys drool” brand of schoolyard
feminism makes its nyah-nyah presence felt all over
Oxygen and Oxygen.com. (Actually, the young-skewing
“Trackers” and “X-Chromosome” might have made the
core of a more viable cable network than Oxygen — a
network for young, post-Nickelodeon women.)

For example, the “People” page of Oxygen.com, which
contains press bios of Laybourne and her partners, looks
like the high school yearbook blurb you’d write in a
daydream about being queen of the world. The bio for
“Gerry” tells us that we can “trust her” because “She
gets it,” and quotes Laybourne’s vision for
Oxygen: “The center of women’s lives isn’t expensive cars
and designer clothes. The center of their life is managing
all their roles.” Mandabach’s bio flatters her thusly:
“Famously wacky. Vivacious. Intense. Fast. Long
committed to yoga. A great dresser.” As for Werner, we
are assured that “he loves women and knows they’re
smarter than men.”

That vanity-plate page crystallized something I’d begun to
suspect watching Oxygen’s clueless programming. For all
its “we celebrate you” crap, Oxygen is a monument to
conformity. Laybourne pays lip service to the many roles
women play, but Oxygen is really only interested in one
of those roles: shopper. Oxygen commiserates, in sisterly
clichis, with a phantom woman-consumer, telling her
over and over that she’s in charge yet stretched thin,
strong yet in need of a place to collapse, appreciated yet
taken for granted. The network is like a pep rally in
reverse, exhorting women to give three cheers if they’re
miserable. And what do women do when they’re
miserable? Shop!

In its own way, Oxygen is as separatist as “The Man
Show.” Can’t we all just get along? But more damning
than that, it’s superfluous. “Who is the most underserved
audience?” Laybourne asked rhetorically in a recent New
York Times profile. “Women, of course.” In what
universe? Lately, it seems as if TV is serving no one
but women, morning (“The View,” “Later
Today”), noon (Oprah, the soaps, Rosie O’Donnell) and
night (“Providence,” “Judging Amy,” “Ally McBeal,”
“Once and Again” and the rest of the flock of chick
shows).

In all my hours of Oxygen viewing, I saw almost nothing
that surprised or engaged me — no domestic insight as
harsh and true as what’s offered every week on
“Everybody Loves Raymond” or “The Sopranos” (one
woman posted on HBO’s “Sopranos” bulletin board that,
“It’s the only show my husband and I sit down and watch
together”), no contemplation of female power as
complicated and daring as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,”
no girl-talk show as witty and audacious as “Sex and the
City.” I did see plenty of earnest Oprah-style
confessionalism, though, and designer spirituality, and
teeny-tiny morsels of news you can use — this is women’s
culture as advertiser-friendly and passi as “I Am Woman”
(which, tellingly, was used as the theme song in Oxygen’s
TV commercial).

And everywhere, everywhere on Oxygen, I heard the
same divisive, battle-of-the-sexes bull they use on “The
Man Show,” except without the humor. On Oxygen,
clichis about men are repeated as if they’re undisputed
gender fact: Men don’t listen, men don’t talk, men fear
intimacy, men are slobs, yada yada yada. If this is
Oxygen’s idea of evolution, give me ESPN.

Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area.

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