Date of Award

May 2018

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Tasha G. Oren

Committee Members

Elana Levine, Gilberto Blasini, Michael Z. Newman, Tami Williams


1980s, American, comedy, melodrama, sitcom, Television


This dissertation examines American television during a period I call the long 1980s. I argue that during this period, television became invested in new and provocative images of masculinity on screen and in networks’ attempts to court audiences of men. I have demarcated the beginning and ending of the long 1980s with the declaration of Jimmy Carter as Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1977 and Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993. This also correlates with important shifts in the television industry, such as the formation of ESP-TV (later ESPN) in 1979 and the end of Johnny Carson’s tenure as host of The Tonight Show on NBC in 1992. During this period, seemingly dichotomous images of masculinity were present in American politics and culture: the “new man” embodied by Jimmy Carter, who is sympathetic and supportive of the women’s movement, and the cowboy ethos embodied by Ronald Reagan, which favors a more traditionally patriarchal social order. On television, these dueling masculinities were depicted in sitcoms, dramas, late-night comedy shows, and sports programming.

Although much of 1980s television scholarship has unearthed network and programming strategies that favored women as audiences, I demonstrate how the formation of niche cable networks and changes to traditional television genres like the action series aggressively targeted male audiences. Masculinity on television in the long 1980s was therefore not limited to changes in representations on screen but extended to technological and industrial concerns as well. By the end of the long 1980s, these developments had the effect of increasing possibilities for queer viewing practices.

As television is an intrinsically domestic medium, this also meant a challenge to expectations for American masculinities. The connection between domesticity and masculinity encouraged more flexible identities at time when gender roles in American culture were swiftly changing. Through industrial practices, representations of “new men” on screen, genre shifts, and home viewing technologies, television in the 1980s became masculinized, but that masculinization was a move away from an aggressive patriarchy and toward a queer domesticity.