“Define Good”: The Anxious Pleasures of Subscribing to HBO

Curator's Note

HBO’s anti-television branding strategies are also gendered affairs. If TV and its viewers have been historically feminized – notions stereotypically associated with passive consumption, frivolous sentimentality, and the taint of the “popular” – then HBO promises subscribers a masculinizing experience, whatever that might imply. For pay cable purchasers that don’t want to imagine themselves as consumers and for a pay network that promises exclusivity and high-mindedness but must simultaneously seek out as many new subscribers as possible and continue to blur the boundaries between art and exploitation in order to stay one step ahead of competitors like Showtime and FX, brand manhood can be wrought with anxiety, uncertainty, and ambiguity. Personally, I wouldn't want it any other way. David Savran argues that contemporary manhood maintains hold of its patriarchal reigns by embracing its masochistic side and “taking it like a man”. Might HBO be marketing anxious pleasures of fleeting masculine power to its subscribers (who are, of course, both male and female) dressed up as inscrutable and opaque claims to “quality”? All I know is that the tremendous pleasure I take in watching a show like Rome is inseparable from my uncertainty about why exactly I define it as good. Masochistic pleasure indeed.


Opportune timing, Avi -- I was on the subway the other day, and madly scrawled down all the marketing slogans in a Tudors-full subway car, since I was amazed by how much Showtime seemed to be feminizing the show, as a sort of anti-Rome. Already, HBO's logo is all dark, Showtime's white and red, and The Tudors' posters threw in some heaving breasts for male gaze appeal, but otherwise directed seemingly all appeals to women or gay men (ie: Jonathan Rhys Meyers as "Sixteenth Century Fox"; characters described in terms of the romance, not the politics, nor the action; pictures clearly meant to evoke "bodice-ripping" romance novels, Meyers eye-f***ing the camera, etc.). Admittedly, Sleeper Cell was hardly feminized, so I'm not posing a channel-wide strategy. I also haven't *seen* The Tudors. Anyone else? Is it a feminized response to Rome? Are we seeing a gendered division developing?

I haven't been following the current developments here regarding Rome and the Tudors. But, it is probably worth throwing in here that one of the first successful shows in this move (by this I mean a show on HBO/Showtime to get get subscribers to pay for these channels, a way to provide more than movies) was Sex and the City, or as I tell my students the contemporary Jane Austen. And it seems that since that time most of the shows I can think of in this genre are fairly gendered (or at least more gendered then the networks).

Just to follow-up Dave's point, I think HBO does play multiple sides of the gender street, as Sex in the City and Six Feet Under are both invested in heavily female & gay sensibilities (and created by gay men), just as Sopranos, Entourage, Rome, Deadwood, Oz, The Wire etc. cover (& recover) masculine terrain. I wonder if this is more starkly gendered than any other cable channel's original programming line-up? Certainly FX has bet its chips on male-drama, while Bravo aims the other direction. Might HBO actually be more gender-inclusive than other channels?

Good points all. I am not suggesting that HBO doesn't cater to both men and women, gay and straight subscribers. Of course they do. I am arguing that HBO's branding strategies promise these groups a masculinizing non-televisual experience. Whether by suggesting that SaTC or SFU could not be offered on regular TV, or by emphasizing narratives about failed masculinity (and in the end SaTC is as much about the lack of good men as it is about female friendship; arguably more so toward the end of its run and SFU's narrative thrust is about the re-imagining of the American family following the death of its patriarch), HBO's branding has worked to offer marginalized groups a viewing experience outside the realm of the feminized. This strategy is ambivalent and is sustained by promoting a kind of masochistic pleasure that comes from simultaneously recuperating and deconstructing patriarchy, but I think it quite different than a queering or feminist strategy, which would seek to challenge the gendered assumption upon which television consumption is premised, not offer safe haven from them…

Yes, I didn't mean my comment in contradiction, actually I was thinking in compliment. It strikes me that given your observations, and honestly I hadn't noticed so I am sort of improvising here, that despite the selling of "edginess" by Showtime and HBO one finds surprisingly normative even to some extent hyperized gender roles (I think Queer as Folk or L-word might complicate this, but then again might not). I was also thinking of the way that SaTC ended in a completely gender normative pattern: the over sexualized woman got cancer, the career woman turns domestic, the mother gets her child, and the central character rejects the foreign for the domestic. But, given the trends which you point to here perhaps this is not as surprising as it might initially seem.

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.