Since writing a genealogy affords an author a position of some (albeit here, small) influence, I will take advantage of this platform to make a bold claim: production studies is a feminist methodology. At its core, it production studies often resists or complicates traditional power hierarchies, it has its origins in a nonbinary interdisciplinarity, and it has a capacity to highlight cultural inequities. Though there are production studies scholars who push back against, or simply ignore, the tradition of feminism within the study of cultures of media production, a genealogy of production studies reveals its deep affinities with feminist scholarship: a tradition of research by and about women, as well as core themes that resist top-down hierarchies, that highlight production at the margins, and that make visible hidden labor.
While the branches of the production studies family tree stretch across scholars from the humanities (film and television studies, English, cultural studies) and social sciences (sociology, political economy, communication, anthropology, geography), the matriarch of this field is Hortense Powdermaker. Powdermaker, a British-trained anthropologist who previously worked as a labor organizer, conducted the first ethnographic study of media production culture in the late 1940s and founded both the departments of sociology and anthropology at Queens College in New York. While writing about the effects of segregation on an African American community in rural Mississippi in the 1930s, Powdermaker realized the power of popular US entertainment to affect how communities saw themselves and others. This led to a curiosity about the movie industry, and in 1950 she published Hollywood, the Dream Factory, an expansive anthropological study of Hollywood. Powdermaker detailed the male-dominated world of the studio system, laid bare the power differentials across tiers of industry workers, and critiqued what she saw as a lack of values among the industry's elite: “The denial of one's human characteristics is the most degrading insult that can be offered any man or woman. All members of minority groups in our culture have suffered it to some degree. In Hollywood, members of minorities can rise to the highest prestige, wealth, and power positions—but the supreme insult is offered to them, and to everyone else.”1 Powdermaker saved some of her harshest critiques for creatives, who she said had gone soft by sacrificing their artistic integrity for monetary gain. Later in her career, Powdermaker traveled to Zambia (then Northern Rhodesia), returning not only to her studies of labor and management, but also to the relationship between audiences—there local miners—and their consumption of American media.2
Julie D'Acci's 1994 study Defining Women: Television and the Case of Cagney and Lacey was another milestone text, in part because it signaled itself as a feminist production study. Building a bridge from audience research to production studies through ethnographic methods, D'Acci offered a case study of the first American television drama to feature two female leads, grappling with the multiple meanings of woman, women, and femininity for the show's producers and audience.3 To research Defining Women, D'Acci sat in on production meetings, cast readings, and executive meetings; regularly visited the set; and interviewed writers, producers, actors, and publicity agents, all to gather a detailed account of conflicted, complex, and often tense negotiation of gender across the production, distribution, and reception of the series. In her introduction, she states her indebtedness to the ethnographic audience research of British scholars like Charlotte Brunsdon, as well as cinema scholar Christine Gledhill, both of whom highlighted negotiations between makers and viewers.4 Where Powdermaker had attempted to study Hollywood's vast moviemaking culture, Defining Women offered a more prismatic approach, using unique points of entry into the production of one television program in order to determine shifting relationships between production culture, television industry history, and feminist discourse. Soon, other books appeared that bridged studies of makers and their audiences. Jane Shattuc's The Talking Cure (1997) provides a feminist cultural studies approach to the exchanges of discourses around femininity, sexual orientation, class, and race in the making of four popular television talk shows.5 Arlene Dávila's fieldwork study of the multibillion-dollar television and advertising industry in Latinos, Inc. (2001) blends cultural studies with an exploration of industry practices in culturally specific marketing.6
There is something deeply anti-auteurist in feminist production studies—a pushback against the cult of personality that shows up in much scholarly (and even more so, popular) industry studies. Vicki Mayer's Below The Line (2011) upends the hallowed uses of terms like “creator,” “producer,” “sponsor,” and “regulator” by focusing on hidden populations within television industries, like television set factory workers as creators and public access television commissioners as regulators.7 Even when telling stories from within these spaces of power and privilege, Felicia D. Henderson “The Culture Behind Closed Doors” (2011) takes an intersectional approach to understanding the racialized and gendered power dynamics at play between showrunners, writers, and even interns within a comedy writers’ room.8 This work is often enriched by insider knowledge. Where Henderson came to academia after years of being in television writers’ rooms, other scholars have found their way into production studies from below. In the final chapter of The Money Shot (2002), Laura Grindstaff richly details her experiences entering the industry from the bottom up as a production intern. She argues that “the how of my observing cannot be disentangled from what I came to see: that daytime talk as a genre shares common ground with sociology as a discipline (distasteful as that might seem to sociologists) and that, more important, the methods and practices of talk show production in many ways mirror the methods and practices of field work (distasteful as that might seem to ethnographers).”9 More recently, Leslie Regan Shade and Jenna Jacobson's “Hungry for the Job” (2015) examines the lived experiences of young women eager to join the creative industries but still vying for unpaid internships in Toronto.10
Feminist production studies highlights production at the margins. It tackles questions of insider and outsider status, of localities as either power centers or peripheries. Many use the terms “media industries studies” and “production studies” interchangeably, but production studies includes the marginal. Not all production takes place within an industry context. Some researchers venture into smaller, more community-oriented sites of production where profit margins are low, nonexistent, or beside the point. Edited collections like Pamela Wilson and Michelle Stewart's Global Indigenous Media (2008) and Faye D. Ginzburg, Lila Abu-Lughod, and Brian Larkin's Media Worlds (2002) offer cultural studies of local and regional media production practices, as well as community-supported production outside the major media industries.11 While not defined as a production study, Sasha Costanza-Chock's Outside the Shadows, Into the Streets! (2014), a study of immigrant-rights activist movements and their use of social media and transmedia for the production and circulation of digital cultures, provides a compelling example of what continued research on production communities outside traditional, industrial models might bring to this field.12 As I imagine the future of production studies, I hope research increases on cultures of local, noncommercial, community, and civic media production.
Feminist production studies will continue to interrogate the politics of inclusion by those with the power and position to call themselves media makers. Feminist production studies has long made hidden labor visible. From Elana Levine's study of soap opera production, to Erin Hill's history of Hollywood's secretaries and assistants, to Brooke Erin Duffy's study of aspirational labor in feminized digital spheres, to Carolina Acosta-Alzuru's complication of feminism in the telenovela, production studies scholars have long been foregrounding the production of female-oriented content, sites of female labor, and feminist analysis to study media production within the industry.13
In this post–Harvey Weinstein moment of #MeToo narratives, as the stark realities of precisely how precarious women's labor has been in media production, feminist scholarship that details the experiences of women is that much more vital to detail. Discrimination in terms of race, class, ethnicity, ability, and gender is embedded within media industry systems across the globe. Much feminist scholarship has been about recuperation of narratives long devalued. Production studies is well situated to foreground the margins, to tell the stories of media cultures in transition. Embedding feminist scholars into sites of global media production is not only compelling for our field of study, but has and will provide much-needed opportunities for exchange, insight, and support.