From their inception, moving images were believed to hold unprecedented power to instruct. Early observers speculated about the educational power of motion pictures, going so far as to predict the obsolescence of books. In the United States, nickelodeons were cast as popular schoolhouses where immigrants supposedly learned to be American and young people learned the ways of crime. As scholarship has shown, this schoolhouse offered different lessons for men and women, boys and girls. While commercial cinema educates as surely as it entertains, other forms of media are born with the express goal—to paraphrase Devin Orgeron, Marsha Orgeron, and Dan Streible—to teach, inform, instruct, or persuade viewers.1
The term useful media plays on Charles Acland and Haidee Wasson's phrase “useful cinema.” The insights of the essays collected by Acland and Wasson in their edited volume of the latter title lead them to position useful cinema as “a disposition, an outlook, and an approach toward a medium.”2 It is this orientation toward media that is explicitly conceived as performing important work in the world that underpins this issue of Feminist Media Histories. While recent scholarship on what some have termed nontheatrical film, educational film, or classroom films has illuminated the way that thinking about films of this persuasion can alter our understanding of film history, the term has traction in fields such as television studies, new media, and game studies as well.3
In the same way that nontheatrical film has lingered at the margins of scholarship and archival practices, the historical landscape of useful media beyond film has been obscured by a focus on quality television, video games’ entertainment value, and social media's either overly determined revolutionary qualities or perceived vacuity. The contributions of women to this field are doubly obscured by preconceptions about women's natural ability as teachers, propensity for clerical work, and tendency, particularly when speaking from a feminist perspective, toward shrill political speech. That is to say, applying the extremely useful analytic lens of gender to a range of “useful media” can provide new insight into not only women's roles in the production and distribution of such media, but also the ways in which such media advance or complicate feminist projects. Thus, in this spirit of recuperating women's roles as the producers, distributors, and audiences for useful media, this issue of Feminist Media Histories examines an instructive sampling of women's involvement with media that teaches, persuades, cajoles, and even “nags” across media and time periods. This scholarship not only recognizes women's roles as producers, distributors, and users of such media, but also uses femininity as a lens for thinking about the way that gender impacts the shape, content, and trajectories of films, television shows, and social media conversations.
Michele White uses the hijacking of the Twitter hashtag #ManicureMonday as a case study of feminist social media activism. The conflict that White documents, between a cohort of female scientists and the (primarily) female nail art aficionados and professionals who originally claimed the hashtag, illuminates the contest for ownership of media and its perceived utility between and among women. White's account troubles any uncomplicated notion of hashtag feminism, arguing that race and class continue to inform women's engagement with media and its perceived utility as a political tool.
Maureen Ryan's essay, “Logics of Lifestyle and the Rise of Scripps Networks, 1994–2010,” reevaluates the rise of “lifestyle” television—programming that instructs viewers in the nuances of home décor, cooking, gardening, and other domestic activities—in the 1990s and 2000s. She shows, via a study of Home and Garden Television and the Food Network, how the emergence of the category of lifestyle television involved not merely a recasting of the instructional or service programming that had been a part of television's mandate from its early history, but also a shift in the “logic” of these programs, one that transformed lifestyle, with its competing connotations of accessibility and aspiration focused on domestic sociability, into another form of “feminized care work.”
That television could be a vehicle for the serious discussion of feminism in the 1970s might strike us as odd today. Yet it is precisely the intersection between mass media and feminism during this period that Jilly Boyce Kay explores in her essay on the ITV debate series No Man's Land (1973). Kay argues that this series, produced and hosted by women active in Britain's feminist movement, educated audiences by engaging rather than eschewing popular television. While embracing the medium as a means of articulating a feminist politics, the show was received by audiences in a manner that brings into sharp relief the conflict between the gendered boundaries of television's sociability and the desire to create a space for women's politicized speech in a wider public sphere.
Roxanne Samer's essay on the short-lived feminist film organization Moonforce Media (1975–80), which programmed and circulated strikingly diverse feminist films, likewise asks us to reevaluate received historiographies. Using archival sources and interviews with participants, she shows how Moonforce Media cultivated a dialogic space between filmmakers and their audiences. Samer suggests that learning happened not only or even primarily in relation to the messages conveyed by the filmic texts, but also in the ongoing exchange of ideas and opinions engaged in by filmmakers, media workers, and the diverse audiences that Moonforce reached with its National Women's Film Circuit. The history of Moonforce suggests that we should reevaluate the relationship between lesbian and cultural feminism and their radical predecessors.
Finally, Tanya Goldman and I present preliminary research on two figures previously lost to film historiography whose labor in the field of educational films has been obscured by the activities of their more visible male counterparts. The professional biographies of educational filmmaker Lee Dick (born Margaret Lee Burgess) and Anita Maris Boggs, who cofounded and eventually headed a once-ubiquitous distributor of sponsored films, the Bureau of Commercial Economics, offer compelling entry points into a gendered history of useful media during the first half of the twentieth century. Piecing together their stories allows us to begin to lay claim to women's central roles in the creation and circulation of useful media.