Cable Gal


Editor’s note: This piece by Andrew Stuttaford appeared in the May 14, 1998, issue of National Review. Dip into NR’s archives anytime here.

“I’m watching Lifetime.” These are words that no man wants to hear, especially from his girlfriend. The evening ahead has just been poisoned. He will be transformed from Top Gun into Tailhook. He will be shunned as a suitor who just does not “get it.” He will be accused, indicted, and condemned, found guilty by association with his shabby fellow males and their vile crimes — the crimes that Lifetime, cable’s “Must-She TV,” loves to detail.

As part, no doubt, of its mission. Lifetime is now available in 69.5 million households. The channel’s purpose is, it claims, to provide “contemporary, innovative entertainment and information programming of particular interest to women.” And so you find cooking shows, reruns of The Golden Girls, and programs about babies. But, above all, you find movies about bad guys. Lots of them. There are men who murder, chaps who cheat, and husbands who hit. Taken individually, these movies (most of which are not actually made by Lifetime) are unexceptional, but show them day after day and they become something else. In effect, Lifetime uses its movie selections to create one endless loop of The Perils of Pauline, with a script by Anita Hill and special effects by Lorena Bobbitt.

Within a few recent Lifetime days, viewers could see men batter (The Burning Bed), fool around (When Husbands Cheat, helpfully shown on Valentine’s Day), and kill (The Babysitter’s Seduction). The villainous spouse in the last of those films almost pulled off a trifecta. He killed his wife, slept with the baby-sitter, and then nearly (you cannot have everything) managed to have the baby-sitter blamed for the murder.

Well, he wore a suit, and that was the giveaway. The Lifetime criminal tends to be urbane and easy on the eye. In his youth he was probably a frat boy, like Billy, perhaps, in Full Circle. Billy, a Banana Republic ad gone bad, with his floppy blond hair and red polo shirt, rapes the daughter of the woman who is being strung along by his father. The assault is covered up, and Billy will doubtless go on to commit further outrages in his middle age, by which time he will probably be played by Robert (Spenser for Hire) Urich, a man frequently present at Lifetime’s death scenes.

In Deadly Relations Urich cheats on his wife, lingers perhaps a little too long on that goodnight kiss with his daughter, kills not one but two sons-in-law, and then shoots his own hand off in a botched attempt at insurance fraud. Outwardly, of course, he is eminently respectable, a war veteran, exactly the sort of male authority figure that Lifetime loves to show as the most dangerous threat of all.

Men like this operate under cover of the position given to them by, so the argument runs, our violently patriarchal society. They are camouflaged by their good jobs, smart cars, and conservative suits. Away from the office there will be lots of plaid, Eddie Bauer perhaps. The Lifetime villain will be clean-shaven; his eyes will not stare. His only distinguishing characteristic is deceitfulness. He is no Freddy Krueger, no Leatherface, no Jason. A Lifetime killer would not be seen dead in a hockey mask. He could be you or me.

Which is just the point. It may be MacKinnon Lite (a channel that features Celebrity Weddings in Style cannot be all bad), but don’t be under any illusion. Lifetime is Rodham country. The not-so-subtle message of its dim movie-of-the-week feminism is that women must circle their wagons against the enemy with a penis.

After all, those predatory white males aren’t isolated cases. They are all over the place. Traditional villains understood that dark deeds had to be confined to the graveyard, the dungeon, or the haunted house. Not this lot. They will do their worst anywhere: in the mall, the executive suite, and, surprisingly often, the kitchen. No one can be trusted, not even Michael Gross, the genially ineffectual father from Family Ties, who reappears in With a Vengeance as a dentist and serial killer.

But not an efficient one. One of his victims, played by a Melissa Gilbert who has strayed a long way from that little house on the prairie, survives. Carelessly, though, she forgets the whole incident, and it is only when her amnesia fades that his problems begin.

In this case the recovery occurs quite quickly. However, in another film on Lifetime, Shattered Trust: The Shari Karney Story it takes the forgetful Miss Gilbert about a quarter of a century to remember years of sexual abuse at the hands of her father. He, of course, is an educated man, a journalist. And just in case we don’t get the message, our heroine warns against disbelieving allegations in regard to another suspected child molester just “because he looks good in a suit.”

But why stop at child abuse? Much as it enjoys that subject, Lifetime also offers some gymnast abuse (Little Girls in Pretty Boxes) and even a bit of biathlete abuse (by Montana mountain men in The Abduction of Kari Swenson).

To be fair, not all men are bad, even on this channel. Harry in Full Circle is kind, sensitive, and a wonderful father. A good man. Significantly, perhaps, he ends up in a wheelchair and dies. But if the good man is an exception in a Lifetime movie, the good woman is not. She may be a little weepy, but she can generally survive life’s challenges, be they a murderous husband, a hard day’s shopping, or a bout with cancer.

She is not perfect, of course, but when she slips Lifetime understands. And shows something of the double standard that we see further revealed in the titles of two recent “Lifetime Originals” (movies specially commissioned by the channel). So far as Lifetime is concerned, When Husbands Cheat they are to be cut no slack, but when the missis plays around, her misbehavior is merely The Indiscretion of an American Wife.

The indiscretion enjoyed by the American wife in question (Anne Archer, avenging the wronged spouse she played in Fatal Attraction) is romantic and forgivable. Her husband, Russell, a WASPy diplomat whose insensitivity is revealed by his lack of interest in modern dance, is dumped in favor of a handsome Italian, Matteo. And who can blame Miss Archer? Matteo owns a vineyard and a villa.

Lifetime’s unfaithful husbands, however, generally have to make do with a motel room. Their infidelity is usually portrayed as a tawdry, rather selfish affair. Big hair and little dresses will be on display, and it will all end badly. The man is left begging for forgiveness, humiliated or worse. In House of Secrets the betrayed wife — played by, yes, Melissa Gilbert — dies, but no matter. With the help of some voodoo she comes back from the dead and frames her husband for his girlfriend’s murder.

How unusual. One Lifetime is enough to see off most men.