When last I wrote in these pages about the portrayal of women on television, I argued that the creators of shows such as FOX's Ally McBeal and NBC's Providence seem unable to conceive of thirty-something women as concerned about anything other than marriage and childbearing. After perusing the offerings of Oxygen, the new cable television network created "by women, for women," I must amend my earlier assertion: Apparently, women of all ages are primarily interested in shopping. And thanks to Oxygen television and its companion Web sites, women can now not only shop from home, but can buy products recommended by the trusty hosts of shows like Pure Oxygen, the new TV station's daily two-hour talk show, or Trackers (talk for teens) or the Saturday morning show SheCommerce ("hot tips on best/new/coolest Web sites for style, home, kids and toys, software/electronics, sporting goods, books, videos, music and beauty--you name it"). To prepare us for all that shopping, Oxygen also provides lessons in Web surfing with Oprah Goes Online and in money management with ka-Ching ("the place where women can learn, talk and laugh--really!--about money, business and career issues").
This, says the new station's founder, Geraldine Laybourne, is what women need. In contrast to the veteran Lifetime network, which bills itself as "television for women" and features mostly movie-of-the-week fare (think Danielle Steel) along with reruns of shows like The Golden Girls and Designing Women-- a package derided by Laybourne as TV for the "viewer who likes to be passively entertained"--Oxygen will offer primarily talk for the more activist set. What's supposed to make it the new new thing--not just active, but interactive--is the combined network/Web hub configuration. The cable programming, which premiered in February, is designed to complement Oxygen's array of year-old Web sites, including Thriveonline (women's health), Moms Online (where you can learn to "clean house in just 15 minutes a day"), Girls On ("The Final Word on Entertainment. Yours"), and ka-Ching (now both online and on TV). "Let us know what you think," says Oxygen interactively. And to that end, it provides online message boards and daily polls: "Should Elián go home? Tell us about the man you love."
After viewing a number of Oxygen's offerings, I was left wondering exactly which women are the target audience for this dippy, retro fluff. As Francine Prose pointed out recently in The New York Times Magazine, much of the new women's fare in popular culture--including Oxygen and competitors like iVillage and Women.com--plays like a dumbed down, sloppy version of existing women's magazines. Have the producers of this stuff discovered that women, after all, want nothing more than to "order wine online and burp my six-year-old at the same time," as one Oxygen host bubbled? Indeed, it's hard to imagine any real-life women riveted by Pure Oxygen's exposé on what kind of material is used to make raincoats (water-resistant is not the same as water-repellent). And does Oxygen actually think there's an audience out there that won't see through the blatant product promotions--like the recent SheCommerce segment on Internet dating, in which the hosts twice suggested that would-be lovers meet their prospects at a public place like Starbucks? (Starbucks and Oxygen have a publicly announced "strategic alliance.")
Laybourne, the former president of Disney/ ABC Cable and the creator of Nickelodeon, and her development partners, Oprah Winfrey and the production team of Carsey-Werner-Mandabach (Roseanne and The Cosby Show), can be assumed to know their business. In fact, Oxygen can already be seen in about 10 million homes, which is considered an auspicious start for a new competitor in a crowded market, even though it hasn't been picked up yet by cable carriers in New York and Los Angeles, among other major cities. If this team is giving us shows about raincoat shopping, should we be worried about ourselves or just insulted?
The answer, I suspect, is neither. The new network's mindless content probably is less a reflection of Oxygen's ideas about what women's programming ought to be than a by-product of its preoccupation with something else entirely. Commerce is the raison d'être of this enterprise. And if the point is to sell to a vast number of female shoppers, it should be no surprise to find Oxygen's default mode set to what have long been perceived to be women's commonest shopping denominators: beauty, fashion, home furnishings, and the pursuit of men. In introducing the new network, Laybourne explained, "We are creating a brand for women who want to create or recreate their lives." The inclusiveness of the audience Laybourne envisions for her brand is telling. Who doesn't see appeal in creating or recreating her life, whatever that means? But how can one network encompass all those possible recreations? No wonder Oxygen has emerged like a presidential candidate, slickly packaged to appeal to as many people as possible and, as a result, characterized by mixed and impenetrable messages.
Great care has been taken with the marketing of the Oxygen "brand." In fact, the network's ad campaign is strikingly more sophisticated than its programming. Like the Marlboro man and all that rugged individualism he represents, or the McDonald's families and friends enjoying warm togetherness under the golden arches, Oxygen aims to hook us not with its content, but with an appealing aura--in this case, of woman-ness. This is no doubt why its television commercial launched during the Superbowl was so eye-catchingly clever--and provided so little indication of what the network actually offers. In the spot, a girl baby in a hospital nursery repeatedly throws off her pink knit cap, inspiring all the girl babies in the nursery to follow suit. As a baby raises her small, pink-braceleted fist in victory, the song in the background reminds us that "we are strong, we are invincible." Like a campaign ad, the spot promises some sort of unspecified deliverance, a sense that whatever it is that women are missing will be provided by Oxygen.
The TV broadcasts feature frequent scrolling of the Web URL and brand logo at the bottom of the screen. Indeed, tuning in to Oxygen and its Web sites is like entering a giant infomercial. The content of one show or Web site is often composed of plugs for other shows and Web sites: Pure Oxygen offers a ka-Ching segment; the creator of "Breakup Girl," a Web cartoon with advice on how to survive breakups, pays visits to SheCommerce to talk about Internet dating and to Trackers to give advice to lovelorn teens. The odder touch is that Oxygen's staff often double as guests on its talk shows: An Oxygen staffer who went to small-claims court is interviewed on Pure Oxygen; another comes on as a computer expert; yet another has her home redecorated by Pier 1 Imports. You get the feeling that Oxygen was created by a group of people who have gotten together to "play" TV network. But, on the contrary, this relentlessly self-referential package is serious business. The shows plug the Web sites, the Web sites promote the shows, and it all reinforces the brand. Oxygen's message (by and for women) is quite simply that it exists.
The latitude this message leaves for ridiculous juxtaposition really struck me during a recent episode of Pajama Party, the Friday evening TV show in which women--including a bride-to-be and her bachelorette party--gather in a living room in, yes, their pajamas, for chat and entertainment. Each week features an interview with what the show calls a "gutsy grandma," in this case a woman who had served as a World War II pilot. The conversation had the Oxygen brand's "you go, girl" quality, which created a continuity of tone with another segment in which the bride-to-be was invited--you go, girl!--to have her rear end bronzed and then to watch while her blindfolded fiancé tried to identify the correct statue of her posterior.
It is as if in the attempt to be all things to all women, Oxygen repackaged the story of the past 60 years as a transition from bra burning to butt bronzing. But is this substandard fare necessary to Oxygen's cause? There are a few glimmers of better possibilities in the Oxygen lineup. Candice Bergen is a charming, down-to-earth host on the nightly TV talk show Exhale. The network promises "award-winning documentary films by and about interesting and strong women," which sounds appealing. And X-Chromosome, a TV showcase of animated shorts, is entertaining, if slight. But to date, on the Oxygen network, it's mostly unclear whether the pink hat has been thrown off as a symbol of liberation from gender constraints, or because the color isn't flattering.
Oxygen polled its audience about Francine Prose's criticism of the network, and of 15 responses posted at press time, half agreed with Prose. Which prompts the question, why are those who agree with Prose (and even those who don't) spending their time at Oxygen? Is it that Laybourne and her team, with their eye on the "brand," are onto something after all, and it's not Oxygen's actual programs that draw women in, but the vague promise of a brand that will, once and for all, settle for us what it means to be a woman? Have we grown so weary of trying to define women as feminist or antifemin-ist, mothers or executives, Madonnas or whores, that we are turning to commerce for solutions--it's everywhere; why fight it?--figuring that if Oxygen could just tell us whether to be Gap or JCPenney, Meg Ryan or Catherine Zeta-Jones, sushi or Stovetop Stuffing, maybe then we could get on with our lives?
It seems a slim hope, but in the meantime, the debut of Oxygen does have something important to tell us about ourselves: We have reached an age in which the women of the television industry are as capable as the men who came before them of going into business simply to make a buck. If Oxygen's content doesn't reflect the progress in women's lives, its existence just might, however perversely. Ka-ching. ¤