Not Your Grandparents’ Wireless: Seeing is Believing?
Updated: Jan 16
Let me take you back for a moment to the 1940s: An idyllic home in America’s
suburbs, dishes washed and dinner tucked away, a family around the wireless. When radio was first introduced to the American imagination, it was a phenomenon.
Not only did radio bring news direct to the living room, it ushered in all kinds of stories. Radio broke down the walls of the American home and in poured characters and ideals of the American family. Suddenly, there was a whole new cast of characters to populate the society in which we live and there were no barriers to keep them back.
Most will remember actress Lucille Ball from her television debut, I Love Lucy. The popular ‘50s sitcom featured comedian Lucy and her Cuban-American husband Desi Arnaz as costars and coproducers. However, Lucille Ball was poking around the edges of the American imagination well before her self-titled romp topped TV charts. What many don’t know is that before there was a Lucy and Desi Arnaz, there was a Liz and George Cooper.
My Favorite Husband, the forerunner to I Love Lucy, was a comedic radio program in the
late ‘40s. Ball headlined the show with her one-of-a-kind humor and larger-than-life voice.
Listeners were brought into the world of the Coopers, a quirky but relatively average American couple. “Two people who live together and like it” was the anthem of the show, and this idyllic picture took shape in living rooms across America: a (presumably) white, middle-class couple, often thrown for a loop by the zany housewife in the duo.
Due to its popularity, the show was optioned for the expanding horizon of television in the ‘50s, and Ball saw her chance. She would not sign onto the new deal without the casting of her real-life husband, Desi Arnaz. The networks balked. Was America ready to see, not just hear, its first interracial couple? Ready or not, Hollywood beckoned, and the execs had to move forward. So a cultural staple was born, and Lucy's statement was made.
In a fictional world populated by radio, listeners were encouraged to imagine and form
their own visuals of the characters they met and would grow to love. However, they were still given clues for who they were supposed to see. Just think of the Coopers with their white American names and suburban locale at 321 Bundy Drive. The invention of television took away the opportunity to imagine, but it also brought the opportunity to show difference. What would the world be like if we had never seen Lucy’s iconic red hair? Or what would our fictional America look like without Desi and Lucy as TV's first interracial couple in 1951?
So, how have things changed? Let’s drop in some real figures. In the Desilu production
era, Desi was an icon in TV representation: a Latino producer and actor who portrayed a creative artist, a Cuban-American bandleader. Today, Latinos are primarily seen (when seen) as law enforcers, criminals, or blue-collar workers while Latinas are likely to be typecast as maids or sexy sirens. Desi’s character type disappeared from the top ten-rated TV shows through 2013. According to the 2014 study, “The Latino Media Gap” by Frances Negrón-Muntaner and colleagues at Columbia University, while Latinos represented 17% of the U.S. population between 2010 and 2014, “no Latino actors played leading roles” (Negrón-Muntaner 8).
Today, with all things wireless, the borders between reality and fiction are at best fluid and at worst impossible to distinguish. We’ve moved beyond audio
immersion to fully embodied stories and representations that fill and overlap almost every
waking second. Our brains are populated with the characters of smartphones, iPads, screens in cars and planes, laptops, and the occasional TV set in our living room. In the 1940s, the wireless told Americans what their ideal lives should be like. What does the constant bombardment of images and ideals tell us today?
The term “symbolic annihilation” refers to the absence of representation or underrepresentation of a group in storytelling. What happens when these absences are consumed at binge-watching speed? Incomplete pictures fill our imagination. Pictures of individuals based on sex, race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, the list goes on. But what does this complex term and its implications mean for you as a casual Thursday night viewer of jaw-dropping dramas or devoted binger of the latest Netflix original?
In layman’s terms, “symbolic annihilation” is looking for what’s missing. When you’re
watching your favorite drama, who do you see? Who are the main characters? Pay attention to their race, gender, sexual orientation, personal and professional tendencies, socioeconomic status, etc. Not only think about who they are, but how you feel about them. Do you want them to be your best friend (or do you feel you already are), are they a villain, or do their antics drive you to fits of laughter? If these people filled your world, what would it look like? Would it look like your neighborhood as you know it?
If you’re anything like my parents, at this point you’ll be wondering what’s so wrong about
letting escapist television be simply that. And if you’re anything like my college roommate,
you’ll be asking, “What’s your point?” The trick is that the place we escape to can quickly
change the space we live in, especially if we don’t care enough to notice. Millennials are
conscientious consumers with a sensitive radar for crap content. Yet with these borders we’re constantly crossing, it can never hurt to take a moment to think about where we’ve been and where we’re headed: What world do you see? And here’s the kicker: Do you believe it?
Negrón-Muntaner, Frances, Chelsea Abbas, Luis Figueroa, and Samuel Robson. The Latino Media Gap: A Report on the State of Latinos in U.S. Media. New York: National Association of Latino Independent Producers, The Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race at Columbia University, and the National Hispanic Foundation for Arts, 2014. Web.
Source: CBS Publicity
Pictured: Lucille Ball (on left) and Richard Denning (on right) performing a live read of My Favorite Husband for CBS Radio