Critic's Notebook: How Lifetime Taught Me to Be a Feminist

Courtesy of Lifetime
Emily Skeggs and Brennan Keel Cook in 'Love you to Death' / Courtesy of Lifetime

Although the network is often dismissed as a dumping ground for cheesy movies, it continues to elevate women's stories.

A menacing man in a flannel shirt towers over a small, ragged blonde woman, seizing her by the hair for the crime of purchasing frozen TV dinners. "I didn't think we were going to eat here anyway," Francine (Farrah Fawcett) demurs, shrugging off this familiar violence as she slumps toward the kitchen. "That's the trouble with you. You're always thinking." Moments later, Mickey (Paul Le Mat) smacks his wife in the head and corners her with a fist, demanding she quit school. He tears pages from her textbooks. He strangles her. And then he forces her to burn the books: her one thread of independence. It's a terrifyingly intimate sequence — no music, no dramatic rescue. Just a tense, quavering camera homing in on relentless assault. 

The Burning Bed is one of the most revered television films of all time, a shocking 1984 NBC drama recounting the brutality real-life Michiganer Francine Hughes experienced at the hands of her husband, and the murder trial that followed the night she poured gasoline around their bed while he slept, set it ablaze and escaped with their children. (If anyone thinks Fawcett was merely a 70s sex symbol  — or a #HairGoals legend — they are just plain wrong.) The film was one of the many gutting docudramas that rotated like a Lazy Susan on Lifetime in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a network that once proudly called itself, "Television for Women."

I watched The Burning Bed when I was nine years-old and I still think of it from time to time, the images imprinted as my paradigm for intimate partner violence. As a child growing up in a politically conservative household, I got my first tastes of feminism from Lifetime, though they were obscured as "women's stories." The network was a Trojan horse that asked me to confront misogyny as a human rights violation while dressed up as low-budget melodrama. 

There are two types of people in this world: Those who self-soothe with cheery Hallmark-style Christmas romances and those who fuel their rage on dark "women in peril" trashpics. (I, of course, use the term "trashpic" with only the most loving intent.) Lifetime, which debuted 35 years ago last week, propelled itself on the latter, serving audiences the most harrowing, the most woman-centered, the most inspired-by-a-true-story flicks spanning: incest; cancer; divorce; murder; self-harm; stalking; mental health; abduction; HIV/AIDS; eating disorders; sexual assault; teen violence; teen pregnancy; and abusive relationships. (Programming, admittedly, predominantly representing white, middle class and heteronormative contexts.) The channel also aired several push-button TV comedies featuring women in leading roles. This content was gold for a curious and morbid child who spent fourth-through-eighth grade glued to the network, spending countless hours reenacting these soap operatic storylines and political debates on her doll house people. (Apologies to the poor Playskool mom figure who died from bone cancer after refusing chemo during her pregnancy.)

Lifetime premiered in 1984 as a merger between Daytime, a small-time cable channel devoted to "alternative" women's programming, and Lifetime Medical Network, which focused on health. It didn't become a hit until several years later, when programming chief Patricia Fili-Krushel shifted its lineup from talk shows to films highlighting fraught subject matters. (The channel knows its own brand better than any media analyst: In July they announced a slate of 75 original films for this year alone.) Lifetime is often maligned as a joke, a dumping ground for overwrought melodramas and other hokey schlock, which reminds us that women's perspectives are undervalued. (Is a trope-ridden true crime TV movie any cheesier than a dime-a-dozen action flick? Pick your poison.)

As the network has found success experimenting with younger, edgier programming — from Surviving R. Kelly to UnREAL to You — it has re-grounded itself as a haven for audiences navigating #MeToo and womanhood in 2019. But Lifetime was always ahead of the curve on these issues: 20 years ago, it was teaching me how to be a feminist. 

Lifetime was a beautiful vortex that sucked me in with recycled TV movies from broadcast networks and controversial syndicated sitcoms and saucy original programming. An only child, I memorized my TV schedule down to the minute and flitted through MTV, VH-1, E!, the Disney Channel and Lifetime based on a rigorous agenda. Lifetime was my lifeline to adult issues in the late 90s/early 2000s: Far from harming my developing brain, the network's empathetic and politically charged content primed me for a world that liked to hurt little girls. And it gave me the language to discuss topics that parents typically shield from children in order to protect them. (In actuality, this veil coaxes many young survivors into silence.) JonBenét Ramsey was murdered just as I turned eight. I watched her case unfold in real-time — a peer who had been killed for unspoken reasons. 

But even at that young age, I felt the claustrophobia of womanhood approaching. Because of my access to television, I could accurately report to my grandmother that the second grader harangued me every day on the playground about my "big boobies" was "sexually harassing me." And later that year, when my best friend's older brother barged in on me using the bathroom during a play date and tried to coax me into showing him my private parts, I emphatically told him, "No," until he relented. I was lucky — no measure of prior awareness can prevent harm if someone intends it. 

Lifetime helped mature me, but it also educated me in compassion, oppression and the social structures of power. These films helped me understand the cycle of abuse: Grand gestures, charming comportment, controlling patterns, isolation, manipulation, outbursts and apology. Rinse; repeat. Years later in high school, when my friends diminished their boyfriends' harmful actions, I slid further into the subconsciously-chosen celibacy of crushing on unattainable queer men. (Dating: Who needed the trouble?)

Watching rerun after rerun of Ellen, Murphy Brown, The Golden Girls and Designing Women gave me the language of feminism, from Blanche Devereaux's (Rue McClanahan) sex positivity to Julia Sugarbaker's (Dixie Carter) epic monologues. (I still often think about Designing Women's Anita Hill episode and how not much has changed nearly 30 years later.) In a home where the term "feminazi" flew out of the radio and Howard Stern blared in the car ride every morning to school, Lifetime was an ever-present media source that compelled me to think about what it meant to be a woman from a woman's point of view. In eighth grade I remember shouting at a boy in my English class who insisted rape was about sex. "It's about power," I scoffed, offering him a line I had heard somewhere on the channel and quickly assembling my arguments from the hundreds of hours I absorbed in Danielle Steel miniseries, celebrity biopics and movies-of-the-week. 

It wasn't always doom and gloom. Intimate Portrait, a biography series that focused on female celebrities, taught me about me about the lives of accomplished women and also filled my child brain with loads of delicious gossip and trivia. (Imagine an eleven-year-old turning to her grandmother during an rerun of Ellen and pointing out Joely Fisher's complicated familial connection to Elizabeth Taylor.) While most kids my age were staying up late to sneak in Skinemax, I was pretending to sleep while catching up on weekly episodes of Lifetime's late-great original drama Any Day Now, a story of a friendship between a black woman (Lorraine Toussaint) and a white woman (Annie Potts) that began during the Civil Rights era in Birmingham, Alabama.

Even as I absorbed more of my father's right-leaning politics in high school, taking on the persona of a baby Phyllis Schafly, I knew in my heart that an AP teacher ranting to our class about how women shouldn't be granted admission at prestigious colleges because "they'd just eventually become housewives" was fundamentally unjust. Knowledge, of course, does not equal practice; I didn't start comfortably claiming a feminist identity until my early twenties.

I firmly believe that being exposed to distressing imagery on television can actually be more educational than harmful for some audiences, thanks to psychological phenomena such as Social Learning Theory, which posits that behavior can be learned through observation. In other words, someone doesn't need to experience sexual assault directly to learn (by, say, watching a film) that it is a traumatic experience or develop empathy for a survivor. So give me a tasteless trashpic any day of the week — after all, it has my best interest at heart.