“Look out, Gracie!” Gendering the television remote control

Zenith remote control ad featuring comedians George Burns and Gracie Allen.

To promote its new remote control-equipped sets Zenith conducted an advertising campaign featuring comedians George Burns and Gracie Allen.

This last Saturday I gave a talk on some of my research on television remote controls at the Console-ing Passions Conference in Boston, MA. Since I’ve been fielding a lot of inquiries about the history of the remote control in recent weeks, I’ve decided to share my talk here. This particular piece discusses the gendering of the remote control – that is, the processes by which the remote control came to be so strongly identified with men and masculinity.

In 1957 Zenith Radio Corp. enlisted the services of the husband and wife comedy duo Burns and Allen to act as spokespeople for Space Command, its new wireless television remote control. In a print ads that played on the duo’s onscreen personas and the show-within-a-show format of their popular CBS sitcom, George Burns and Gracie Allen appear on either side of the screen of one of Zenith’s television sets. George occupies the ad’s foreground, where he holds a remote control with his finger posed just above its mute button. Gracie, on the other hand, appears on screen. “‘Look out, Gracie!’” George warns in the accompanying copy. “‘With Zenith Space Command TV I can change programs from across the room’…” Trapped within the television set, Gracie pleads with George to reconsider, crying out “‘You wouldn’t dare!’”

Fast forward forty-nine years to the summer of 2006, when the Adam Sandler film Click arrived in American movie theaters. In the film, Sandler plays an overworked and stressed-out middle-aged man who comes into possession of a magical universal remote that allows him to control his entire universe. Before long, Sandler’s character begins using his remote to control his coworkers, his neighbors, the members of his family, and in particular his beleaguered wife. On one occasion, he hits the fast forward button when she nags him for putting his work before his family; on another, he fast forwards through foreplay to get straight to intercourse.

 

 

Much has changed about remote control technology in the years since George threatened to zap Gracie. Zenith’s mechanical Space Command technology has long since given way to digital universal remote controls capable of operating television sets, DVRs, DVD players, and even “smart” home automation systems. Still, Zenith’s ad and Sandler’s film share the same basic premise (or fantasy): that the remote control is a quasi-magical device that empowers men to command absolute authority over their technology and their women. Similar fantasies about using remote controls to control the opposite sex have long been prevalent in American popular culture. In 1959, for example, the syndicated daily comic strip Moon Mullins presented a twist on this trope in which Lord Plushbottom uses his remote control to turn up the volume on his television set in order to allow noisy ads to drown out his wife’s boring story. In “Remote Control Man,” a 1985 episode of the NBC television anthology series Amazing Stories, a henpecked husband uses his remote control to transform his revolting wife and ungrateful children into characters from his favorite television programs. Today, many party stores stock “remote controls for men,” gag gifts that feature buttons labeled “Beer,” “Sex,” “Food,” and “Remove Clothes,” and the Internet is host to scores of comic strips and photoshop jokes  that hinge on their audiences’ familiarity with the remote control’s gendered meanings.

A gag gift that translates longstanding fantasies about remote control into material form.

Control a woman.

The remote control’s identity as a totem of masculinity has for decades been a favorite topic of hack comics, lazy screenwriters, and armchair psychoanalysts. Many scholars have taken up the subject of the remote control’s gendered meanings as well. Much of this work has been ethnographic in nature. For example, David Morley, Ann Gray, and Ralph Bellamy and James Walker have all documented and analyzed the domestic power struggles that men and women engage in over and via their remote controls.1 This post takes a different approach to this familiar subject. It explores the social construction of the remote control’s gendered meanings by examining the conflicts and contradictions that surrounded its introduction to American consumers during the 1950s. As I’ll demonstrate over the course of the following paragraphs, the remote control’s status as a “manly technology” was by no means secure in this period. Quite the contrary, both common sense and popular culture suggested that remote controls would level the playing field between men and women when it came to their interactions with television. To borrow the terminology employed by Ann Gray in her study of men’s and women’s use of VCRs, the remote control could just have easily have been coded “pink” as “blue.”2 This post highlights the ambiguity that characterized the television remote control in the period following its introduction, highlighting the malleability and the contingency of the meanings – gendered or otherwise – that we have come to attribute to this device.

Before the remote control was a weapon in the war of the sexes it was a weapon in a war over the future of television. This war spanned the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, and pitted RCA and its licensees against a loose confederacy of broadcasters, studios, and consumer electronics manufacturers, all of whom objected to one or another aspect of RCA’s system of ad-supported broadcasting. Few were more strident in their opposition to RCA television than the Chicago-based consumer electronics manufacturer Zenith. Like many of its peers Zenith had no desire to see RCA establish patent dominance in television as it had previously in radio. Zenith had developed a non-commercial, pay-per-view alternative to RCA television called Phonevision, and the company spent much of this period pursuing FCC authorization to conduct public trials of its system.3 As the approval process dragged on, Zenith waged a multi-front public relations campaign against ad-supported television, using ads, editorials, pamphlets, and speeches to argue that rampant commercialism would ruin television as it had radio. Explained one such pamphlet:

“Today’s television is bound by giant economic chains. But by paying directly for the truly great entertainment and cultural events of our time, you can set television free, transforming it into a magic medium that has so much more to offer than anyone can foresee.”4

While Zenith’s publicity department waged this PR campaign the company’s engineers embarked on a Manhattan project of sorts to devise a weapon that would destabilize RCA television’s economic base. That weapon was the remote control. In 1955 Zenith introduced the Flash-Matic, a wireless remote control that used a directional beam of light to operate the manufacturers’ sets from across the room.

Flash-Matic Flash Gun Remote Control, Zenith c. 1955

The Flash-Matic Flash Gun used a directional beam of light to control Zenith television sets.

Flash-Matic was not the first television remote control. That distinction belongs to a 1949 RCA Victor set which came with a wired remote with a single dial used for fine-tuning the set on the many occasions when its faulty power supply caused its picture tube to lose focus. Flash-Matic was, however, the first wireless television remote control, and the first television remote control that was sold to the public by a major consumer electronics for the express purpose of avoiding commercials. Zenith promoted the pistol-shaped Flash-Matic as a means of silencing “long, annoying commercials” in ads that likened the act of zapping to firing off a few rounds at an invading enemy. “Of course you’re fed up with those commercials that are long, loud and offensive,” one Zenith ad read. “And now, for the first time, you can do something about it…” “That commercial too long?” another Flash-Matic ads asked. “‘Shoot’ the announcer.”

Zenith advertisement, c. 1955.

“That commercial too long? ‘Shoot’ the announcer!”

The symbolic acts of violence imagined by Zenith’s ads may appear strictly tongue-in-cheek, but they evoke actual violent acts carried out against television sets during this period. On numerous occasions throughout the 1950s American newspapers ran stories – possibly apocryphal, possibly not – about disgruntled viewers who took out their frustrations with television on their sets. One 1952 story told of a man so incensed by a ukulele commercial that he “smashed his television set and stormed out of his house to take up his gripe with the announcer.”5 In 1957 the New York Times reported on a Brooklyn dock worker “accused of trying to ‘turn down’ a television set with an automatic pistol.”6 Stories such as these both acknowledged and fueled a growing hostility on the part of many Americans toward advertising, and television ads in particular. (The remote control’s introduction occurred in the same decade during which Vance Packards’ The Hidden Persuaders became a national best-seller and which culminated with the national outrage over television’s Quiz Show scandals.) But the violence depicted or insinuated by early ads for remote controls also might be interpreted in another way: as revenge fantasies in which men fought back against a feminized and feminizing consumer culture that was exemplified by television. As Lynne Spigel writes, in the popular culture of 1950s “[t]elevision was often shown to rob men of their powers and transform them into passive victims of a force they could not control.”7 At a moment when critics and pundits accused television of making men soft, and television programs of making men out to be impotent idiots, Zenith promoted its remote control as a weapon that men could use to reclaim the agency and authority that television had taken from them. With a remote in hand, male viewers could fire back at television’s pitchmen and hucksters and reinstate patriarchal law within the space of the middle class household.

A 1955 advertisement for Zenith Flash-Matic tuning.

Advertisements for Zenith’s remote control often depicted Flash-Matic in the hands of women.

Along with Flash-Matic’s pistol-shaped design, the violent revenge fantasies stoked by these ads strongly implied that the remote control would be wielded by men. However, Zenith’s ads frequently depicted remote controls in the hands of women. The same was true of other manufacturers’ ad campaigns. For in addition to being marketed as commercial killers, remote controls were also one of a number of innovations promoted by Zenith and other consumer electronics manufacturers as devices that made tuning a television set so easy that even women would be able to do it.

Sample Zenith poster for sets with AFC tuning.

Consumer electronics manufacturers introduced a number of innovations geared toward simplifying the process of tuning in television broadcasts.

As William Boddy has shown, during the immediate postwar period television manufacturers and retailers openly fretted that women would find tuning television sets too difficult, and as would be reluctant converts to the new medium. These stereotypes exerted a powerful influence on the design and marketing of television equipment during the 1940s and 50s.8 To combat the perception that tuning was a difficult chore, manufacturers and retailers took measures to downplay the complexity of television’s controls. Manufacturers enclosed sets within cabinetry that camouflaged them as furniture and concealed their working parts. Together with retailers they devised ads and sales strategies that stressed aesthetic qualities and ease-of-operation.9

The problem with this approach was that television sets were in fact difficult to tune, and would remain so until well into the 1950s. Next to radios, which by this time had been simplified to the point where most only had two controls (tuning and volume), television sets were complicated instruments with as many as six different knobs or dials. Even when viewers managed to master these controls television reception was easily disrupted, as television broadcasts were highly susceptible to interference from automobiles, airplanes, household appliances, meteorological conditions, or stations in nearby cities.

These factors made television tuning a point of pride for some viewers, especially men who fancied themselves handy. Since the 1910s American middle-class culture had held the ability to tune radio equipment to be a desirable masculine competency. As Susan Douglas has noted, the exploits of men and boys who tuned in signals from faraway radio stations were celebrated in newspapers, magazines, and fiction during the first half of the century. Television, however, was not easily mastered. In fact, the inability to tune in television broadcasts became a source of anxiety and even embarrassment some men in this period.

Though manufacturers and retailers had initially worried about how women would respond to television’s tuning controls, in the popular culture of the day the knobs and dials on the front of the set functioned as a source and a symbol of men’s insecurities about the new medium. In 1954 Los Angeles Times columnist Walter Ames described the mortification he experienced on a night when he struggled to tune his new set while his friends looked on.

“Frantically I read all the directions…Turn this switch, turn that one. Nothing worked. By this time my friends … were on my neck. After a half hour … I had a starving, disgruntled mob on my hands.”10

During the early days of television, when set-owning families were often joined in their living rooms by neighbors and friends, tuning frequently took place before an impatient audience of onlookers, and took on the qualities of a performance. Ames’ failure to perform under these high-pressure conditions made his evening a thoroughly humiliating, and even emasculating experience. The topic of tuning difficulties was even taken up television itself: a 1952 episode of I Love Lucy, for example, opens with Lucy and Ricky Ricardo presenting their friends the Mertzes with a television set as an anniversary gift. The Ricardo’s and Mertzes’ celebration is cut short, however, when Ricky insists on demonstrating to Fred, Ethel, and Lucy how to tune the set. Ricky, in one of his characteristic displays of machismo, confidently fiddles with the wrong wires, only to blow out the new set’s picture tube. But even when outsiders were removed from the equation tuning remained a source of domestic discord. A 1957 Popular Science article described a dispute between newlywed couple that erupted after the wife proved more adept at tuning their new set than her husband.11

I Love Lucy, "The Courtroom" (CBS, 1952)

Even Ricky Ricardo was not immune from tuning anxiety.

Hobby magazines took advantage of every possible opportunity to exploit their male readers’ insecurities about their tuning prowess. “Are your TV pictures as good as they ought to be?” asked Popular Science in 1950. The question was clearly rhetorical.12 Tuning tips appeared on a regular basis in Popular Science and other similar magazines during this period, often alongside ads for gadgets that promised to solve even the most stubborn tuning problems. Even within the context of how-to articles the topic of masculinity was never far from the surface. One 1956 how-to article took the form of a short story about a competition between two neighbors to see who could tune in the strongest signal. The prize for the winner would be a piece of pie baked by the loser’s wife. The article ends with the victor enjoying his spoils, and the cuckolded loser taking solace in the fact that he finally can see what a “perfect picture” looks like.13

Though double entendres of this variety were hardly the norm, the hobby press’ coverage of viewers’ tuning travails – and triumphs – reinforced the associations between tuning and masculinity. Learning how to tune in clearer pictures was framed in these magazines and in other contexts as well as a crucial means of reasserting the value of core masculine values in the face of a medium so complex that, as Lisa Parks has noted, it rendered the basic technological competencies that had sustained middle-class men in their domestic leisure activities up until then insufficient.14

By automating the act of tuning in television broadcasts, remote controls reduced the likelihood that men would experience the sort of humiliation suffered by Walter Ames, Ricky Ricardo, and the guy who had to watch his neighbor eat his wife’s pie. But, in some observers’ eyes, remote controls compromised the “manly” art of tuning by making it too easy to pull down perfect pictures. A contributor to the hobby journal Radio & TV News voiced this perspective in a 1958 article on how to build a remote control from scratch:

“Apparently [television’s] half-dozen or so knobs caused great terror among the viewing public…. To alleviate this condition, the manufacturers launched a simplification campaign. About one knob a year disappeared until even the most timid of adults were no longer frightened.”

In this gloss on the devolution of television’s tuning controls, the primary beneficiary of this simplification campaign was identified as the technophobic housewife, as opposed to her insecure husband. In their efforts to win over the female market, the author continued, manufacturers had transformed what had formerly been a “respectable piece of electronic equipment” containing “a number of well marked controls” to a push-button appliance no more complex than a washing machine.15

Of course, women were by no means the only intended targets of this simplification campaign. In fact, Zenith’s initial attempts to promote remote control devices earlier in the decade had centered around a promotional strategy company executives privately referred to as “the lazy man’s approach.”16 This approach would resurface in the late 1950s in Space Command ads that stressed the relaxation that men would enjoy when they no longer were required to move from their chairs in order to fine tune their television sets.

Zenith advertisement, 1957.

The “lazy man’s approach” to selling remote controls.

Zenith and other consumer electronics manufacturers experimented with various ways of selling the public on the idea of remote control during the 1950s. Remote controls were promoted as weapons in the war against commercials; as modern conveniences that eliminated the hassles involved in manually tuning television sets; and, eventually, as weapons in the war of the sexes. To return to the image that began this post, George could use his remote to exercise control over the unruly, loquacious device in the living room, as well as over Gracie, his equally unruly and loquacious wife. This fantasy, which is so familiar to us today, would have struck contemporary audiences as highly unusual, or perhaps even laughable, as both in theory and in practice the television remote control flew in the face of longstanding notions of how men should engage with technology. In fact, these conceptions would themselves have to change before American consumers would begin to accept the remote control as a “masculine” technology.

Fortunately for consumer electronics manufacturers, a new masculine orientation toward technology was already coalescing during this period. Although this orientation had a number of precedents in the world of work, it was best exemplified by a space of leisure. In 1956, Playboy published a series of articles containing plans for a high-tech bachelor pad that incorporated the principles of modern, open-plan housing design alongside the latest in electronic gadgetry.17 The Playboy Penthouse was equipped to the hilt with remote control technologies that operated everything from the television to the mood lighting to the ultrasonic dishwasher in the kitchen. Without leaving bed – without even rising from a horizontal position, for that matter – the inhabitant of this bachelor pad could close the drapes, crank up the hi-fi, silence his telephone, and set the dishwasher to clean the lipstick stains off of the wine glasses from the previous evening’s dalliances. In the years to come this hands-off orientation toward technology would supplant the hands-on orientation exemplified by long-distance radio tuning from its place within American male middle-class culture, paving the way for the gendering of the television remote control…

Notes

1. Ann Gray, “Behind closed doors: Video recorders in the home” in Helen Baehr & Gillian Dyer (Eds.), Boxed in: Women and television (London: Routledge, 1987), pp. 38-54; David Morley, Television, audiences, and cultural studies (London: Routledge, 1992); James R. Walker and Robert V. Bellamy, Jr, Television and the remote control: Grazing on a vast wasteland (New York: Guilford Press, 1996).

2. Gray, “Behind closed doors.”

3. The definitive account of Zenith’s attempts to commercialize its television standard remains Robert V. Bellamy, “Zenith’s Phonevision: A historical case study of the first pay television system” (Ph.D. Dissertation: University of Iowa, 1985).

4. “Phonevision: What it means to television and YOU!” (Pamphlet, Zenith Radio Corporation, 1955). E.F. McDonald 1955 Phonevision Papers N-Z (Box 1 of 2), Pamphlets Folder, Zenith Records.

5. “TV commercial gets viewer so doggone mad” Los Angeles Times (September 21, 1952): B2.

6. “Pistol silences TV; Shot laid to docker” New York Times (May 6, 1957): 20.

7. Lynn Spigel, Make room for TV: Television and the family ideal in postwar America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), pp. 60-5.

8. For example, Boddy quotes one industry executive’s worries that because “‘retuning a television set is far more difficult than a standard broadcast set … [w]omen may not like the mechanics of television tuning.’” William Boddy, New media and popular imagination: Launching radio, television, and digital media in the United States (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 50.

9. See, for instance, Spigel, Make room for TV; Boddy, New media and popular imagination, pp. 53-5; Lisa Parks, “Cracking open the set: Television repair and tinkering with gender, 1949-1955” Television and New Media vol. 1 (2000): 257-78.

10.Walter Ames, “Color TV tuning is expert’s job” Los Angeles Times (December 15, 1954): 32.

11. Art Margolis, “Why TV tuners get temperamental” Popular Science vol. 170 (May 1957): 150.

12.“Homemade booster improves TV pictures” Popular Science vol. 156 (February 1950): 187-9.

13. John K. Frieborn, “You Can Tune in Better TV Pictures” Popular Science vol. 168 (January 1956): 203.

14. Parks, “Cracking open the set”: 264.

15. Daniel P. Peters, “Complete TV remote control” Radio & Television News vol. 59 (April 1958): 57.

16. Memo, Leonard C. Truesdale to E.F. McDonald (October 2, 1957). 1957 Interoffice Memos (Box 1 of 2), Advertising Folder, Zenith Records.

17. “Playboy’s penthouse apartment,” Playboy (September 1956); “Playboy’s Penthouse apartment. Part II,” Playboy (October 1956). Reprinted in Joel Sanders (ed.) Stud: Architecture of masculinity (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996), 55-67. As Bill Osgerby notes, following its presentation in Playboy the Penthouse served as a template for future renderings of masculine domestic spaces, with Playboy imitators like Rogue and Escapade publishing their own takes on the modern, push-button bachelor pad. See Osgerby, “The bachelor pad as cultural icon: Masculinity, consumption and interior design in American men’s magazines, 1930-1965” Journal of Design History vol. 18 no. 1 (2005): 106-9.

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About fymaxwell
Max Dawson is a Los Angeles-based media consultant and professor.

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