Home, Home on the Remote: Why Do Men Control "the Clicker"?


This article originally appeared in Issue# 48

Is male fascination with TV technology creating male domination of family entertainment?

On a recent segment of a popular television newsmagazine program, the television anchors joked about a new cultural phenomenon: men's almost anatomical affinity for television remote-control devices. The segment ended when the female member of the team noted that in view of male tendencies not only to control situations but also to maintain some distance from their activities, their liking for zapping the channel flicker from afar made perfect sense.

Referring to the new world of communications media as "a masculine domain," West Germans Jan-Uwe Rogge and Klaus Jensen are one of several research teams around the world beginning to examine how family members interact with each other in the presence of sophisticated home entertainment media: remote control-driven television, VCRs, video games, stereo systems and computers. The findings are providing significant new insight into the influence of today's mass media on relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, male and female siblings.

"Dad keeps both of the automatic controls — one on each side of his chair."
— World Families Watch Television

Indeed, some families seem to be experiencing a thorough "rearrangement" of the moral economy of the household, particularly in regard to traditional child-rearing practices, family communication rituals and, especially, power relationships between the spouses.

These cultural trends are being watched and documented by researchers such as David Morley and his colleagues Roger Silverstone and Eric Hirsch at the Center for Research into Innovation, Culture and Technology at Brunel University near London. Although still a new area of investigation, their initial studies, along with those from six other countries, make fascinating reading in World Families Watch Television, a recent book edited by James Lull of San Jose State University. The following vignettes reveal some of the more interesting findings from the book and related research.

"We discuss what we all want to watch, and the biggest wins. That's me, I'm the biggest."

Masculine power is evident in a number of the families as the ultimate determinant on occasions of conflict over viewing choices. It is even more apparent in the case of those families that have a remote-control device. None of the women in any of the families used the remote regularly, and a number of them complain that their husbands use the device obsessively, channel-flicking across programs even when the wives are trying to watch something else.

Characteristically, the remote-control device is the symbolic possession of the father (or the son, in the father's absence) that sits "on the arm of Daddy's chair" and is used almost exclusively by him. It is a highly visible symbol of condensed power relations, the descendant of the medieval mace, perhaps?

Interestingly, the main exceptions to this overall pattern are those families in which the husband is unemployed while his wife is working. In these cases it is slightly more common for the man to be expected to let other family members watch what they want to when it is broadcast while he videotapes what he would like to see in order to watch later at night or the following day. His timetable of commitments is more flexible than those of the working members of the family.

Wife: "Flick, flick, flick — when they're in the middle of a sentence on the telly. He's always flicking it over."
Husband: "The remote control? Oh, yes, I use it all the time."

— World Families Watch Television

Thus, the man's position of power is based not simply on the biological fact of being male but rather on a social definition of masculinity of which employment (that is, a "breadwinner") is a necessary and constituent part. When the condition is not met, the pattern of power relations within the home changes noticeably.

It is noteworthy that a number of the men interviewed show some anxiety to demonstrate that they are 'the boss' of the household, and their very anxiety around this issue perhaps betokens a sense that their domestic power is ultimately a fragile and somewhat insecure thing, rather than a fixed and secure 'possession' which they can always guarantee to hold with confidence. Hence, perhaps the symbolic importance to them of physical possession of the channel-control device.

A man accustomed to this dominance feels he has the power to change channels whenever he wants - even in the midst of his wife's favorite show or events the children are watching. "The television's flickering all the time while he's flickering the timer," noted one wife.

Interestingly, male dominance of viewing choices is almost entirely absent in Venezuela, where researcher Leoncio Barrios found that the traditional martri-lineal Venezuelan family structure reversed the pattern found elsewhere. Thus, in Venezuelan families it is often the grandmother of the household who walks around with the remote tucked in her apron, to the distress of her grandchildren.

"I knit because I think I am wasting my time just watching. I know what's going on, so I only have to glance up. I always knit when I watch."

One major finding is the consistency with which both men and women describe their viewing activity. Essentially, men state a clear preference for viewing attentively, in silence, without interruption "in order not to miss anything."

Moreover, they display puzzlement at the way their wives and daughters watch television. For the women, viewing is fundamentally a social activity, involving ongoing conversation and usually the performance of at least one other domestic activity (ironing, etc.) at the same time. Indeed, many women feel that to just watch television without doing anything else would be an indefensible waste of time, given their sense of domestic obligations. The women note that their husbands are always "on them" to shut up, and the men can't really understand how their wives can follow the programs if they are doing something else.

A number of women explain that their greatest pleasure is to be able to watch a "nice weepie" or their favorite soap opera when the rest of the family isn't there. Only then do they feel free enough of their domestic obligations to "indulge" themselves in the same kind of attentive viewing in which their husbands routinely engage.

What is at issue here is the guilt that these women feel about their own pleasures. They are, on the whole, prepared to concede that the dramas and soap operas they like are "silly" or inconsequential, yet they accept the masculine worldview that defines their preferences has having low status. Having accepted these terms, they then find it hard to argue for their preferences because, by definition, what their husbands want to watch is more prestigious.

They then deal with this by watching their programs, when possible, on their own or only with their women friends and fit their viewing arrangements into the crevices of their domestic timetables.

Lull observes that home is the site of leisure for employed men, a place they can relax when the work day is done. For women, however, home is a site of work; they can never fully relax and enjoy viewing in the same way that men can.

"I can't use the video. I tried to tape something for him and I done it wrong. He went barmy. I always ask him to do it for me because I can't. I always do it wrong."

Although women routinely operate extremely sophisticated pieces of domestic technology (such as microwave ovens, washing and sewing machines), British researcher Ann Gray has discovered that many women feel alienated from operating the family's VCR.

"The reasons for this are manifold and have been brought about by positioning within the family, the educational system and the institutionalize sexism which divides appropriate activities and knowledge in terms of gender. But there is also, as I discovered, something I call 'calculated ignorance.' 'If I leant how to do the video, it would become my job just like everything else,' said one woman."

In a novel experiment reported in Boxed In: Women and Television, Gray asked women to "color code" pieces of home technology. "When a new piece of technology is purchased," observes Gray, "it is often already inscribed with gender expectations. By asking the women to imagine pieces of equipment colored either pink or blue, I've been able to throw the gender of domestic technology into high relief."

Within this visual classification, irons become pink and electric drills blue; the washing machine is pink on the outside, but the motor is almost always blue.

Gray noticed, however, that the color coding of the VCR was more complex. "The record, rewind and play modes are usually lilac (a genderless color), but the time switch is nearly always blue, with women having to depend on their male partners or their children to set the timer for them." And, corroborating the research of Morley, Lull and others, Gray found that "the blueness of the timer is exceeded only by the deep indigo of the remote control switch, which in all cases is held by the man."

Interestingly, the major exception to this by-and-large universally accepted allocation of technological power involves the soap opera. Across cultures, women are fiercely attached to the "telenovela," the "Oshin," the "daily weepie" - so much so that when their viewing of these extended romantic sagas is at stake, they will often rise to the occasion and learn how to operate the VCR.

In one Kentucky family observed by Thomas Lindlof, Milton Schatzer and Daniel Wilkinson at the University of Kentucky, the wife, Patty D., "had the most interest in purchasing the new family VCR so that she could time-shift her favorite soap operas." Then, reversing the traditional role, she "remained in control of almost all the taping events." Nonetheless, the researchers found that in the other families, "most of the female family members generally disavowed interest in operating the VCR and regarded it as a technical matter," and that even Patty D. was "wary" of the pre-program function "until the exigency of archiving material for her children motivated her to learn to program the machine."

Lull adds another insight: males are usually more involved in making the VCR purchase decision and, as a consequence, are initially more competent in its features and functions when the machine arrives in the household. Possessing more initial expertise, and perhaps have more time to devote to taping and other more advanced applications, the male dominates in using the VCR.

"A husband and wife were talking with the TV set turned on. When he wanted to ignore his wife's claims he started to switch the channels rapidly, commenting about what was shown on each."

"Historically, men's and women's relationship to technology has come out of their relationship to each other," says Karen Altman, professor of communications at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and an authority in the field of gender and technology.

In an exclusive interview with Media&Values, Altman explained that traditionally, men have acquired power through language and information, while women's power has been associated with passive seduction and the guardianship of the home. This demarcation line extends to the advertising images that have become embedded, through the centuries, in the cultural subconscious.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, advertisements for TV sets approached men and women according to these ideological models. "The television was clearly a sign of masculinity when men were associated with it," explains Altman. "In many early TV ads, men are shown as watching television with pipes in hand and their trophies on the set, signifying the television as a place of potency and virility.

"When women were pictured with TVs, however, the family and home took prominence. The woman was in the background, clearing the table, watching from a distance. Or she was in evening wear, lounging on the television or standing seductively beside it, associating the set with the feminine qualities of passivity, receptivity and consumption. The woman was used in the ad as a display object, like to product itself.

"Fathers were observed, and named by other family members to be, the persons who most often control the selection of television programs in the U.S." — James Lull, World Families Watch Television.

"At the same time, a man would often be portrayed in suit and tie, delivering a testimonial on the quality of the TV. In other words, men controlled language. And the ads ascribed to television the qualities associated with masculinity: control, activity and mastery."

Changing men's and women's relationship to technology will not be easy, says Altman. "Although there's nothing natural about the assumption that men automatically know how and care about technical details and women don't, it's reinforced by public messages that we've gotten for years."


Some material in this article is reprinted by permission from World Families Watch Television, edited by James Lull, © 1988 Sage Publications, Inc. Portions were contributed by Los Angeles writer/editor Marybeth Crain.

To order World Families Watch Television, write to Sage Publications, Inc., Box 5084, Newbury Park, California 91359

"Behind Closed Doors: Video Recorder in the Home," chapter three in Boxed In: Women and Television, edited by Helen Baehr and Gillian Dyer. British researcher Ann Gray uncovers the gender biases toward domestic technology in the home (1988). Unwin Hyman (Pandora Press), 8 Winchester Pl., Winchester, MA 01890

Author Bio: 

Elizabeth Thoman, a pioneering leader in the U.S. media literacy field, founded Media&Values magazine in 1977 and the Center for Media Literacy in 1989. She is a graduate of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California and continues her leadership through this website, consulting, speaking and as a founding board member of the Alliance for a Media Literate America (AMLA).