This Talkshow Thing
These talkshows are driving me crazy.
They prey on people’s misery, exploiting both the guests and studio audience. The hosts patronize and psychologize, as they suggest that complex problems have simple solutions. The genre propagates conservative norms about sex, and obsolete stereotypes about intimacy and gender. Everyone involved pretends that this is a wholesome enterprise, entertaining as well as educational.
I have, by the way, been on most of them–Donahue, Sally Jessy, Sonya, you name it. I still get lots of invitations, but I don’t accept anymore. Mostly because these talkshows are so demeaning to the human spirit.
The “real” guests usually have weird stories–people making odd choices or defending dysfunctional behavior, dramatic conflicts and betrayals with obvious villains and victims (no heroes, just victims). Surprisingly often, these “real” guests are, um, below average intelligence and common sense.
It sure seems as if all talkshow guests were or are abused, feel misunderstood, can’t control themselves or their spouses, or can’t make a decision. Or they have problematic emotional features like low self-esteem or poor boundaries. Nevertheless, they want love, sex, and intimacy, and hosts join audiences in declaring that this is possible–with some slight modification of the guest’s, or her partner’s, communication or self-esteem. “Just do it” is the mantra of the talkshow.
The different talkshows pretend they’re each unique, but like insurance companies that try so hard to establish individual identities, they’re really all the same. Every show runs the same topics–quick, can you name a show that hasn’t done “I slept with my sister’s husband?” Each show salaciously drools over human misery and stupidity; the hosts and audiences are self-righteous, judgmental, derisive. They all lament the victim’s anguish, “support” her (victims are almost always female) in declaring how bad her victimizer is/was, and cheer any decision to change, no matter how unrealistic.
One current talkshow trend is to bring on two or more people currently in conflict and let them verbally duke it out. So on a show about men who cheat, for example, you now have several women and their cheating husbands (and sometimes the husbands’ lovers). They quickly forget they’re on camera and start to yell at each other, exposing their broken hearts, greed, and poor manners in front of everyone. Following the lead of the host (and off-camera production staff), the audience responds to the human mess up there with condescension, delight, and self-righteous judgment. It pays for this privilege by dutifully castigating the designated sinners, and giving stern (yet caring) advice to the wounded and aggrieved.
Audiences are glad they’re not as miserable as the people on stage. They typically feel superior to the folks up there–partly because audience members feel they have better problems, and partly because they keep their problems private. You can see audience members shaking their heads in disbelief at the people on stage: “I wouldn’t do the stuff that they do, but if I did, I wouldn’t be up there talking about it!”
Audiences, however, are part of the problem. They create the “show,” without which there could be no stage for anyone to go on. What do you call people who scorn others for doing something, yet facilitate it and enjoy the results? Hypocrites? Liberals? Predators? I do believe there is a special place in hell for those who play “let’s you two fight.”
The favorite subject of talkshows, of course, is sex and relationships. Most people on stage just want to be “normal;” they simply want a little intimacy and halfway-decent sex, they say, but forces conspire against them: mates, children, parents, ex-spouses, psychopaths.
One way the talkshows discuss sex is by focussing on a single variety of sexual expression (such as cross-dressing or S & M). They then bring on people obsessively attached to this variation, with stories of how this inevitably led to bad or weird consequences. Host and audience then get to criticize the “villain” and “support” the pathology’s “victim.”
Another way the talkshows discuss sex is by presenting people whose sexual decisions have hurt themselves or others. After telling their story, these people are criticized by other guests, the host, and the audience. At the show’s climax, “experts” come on to criticize, explain, and attempt to fix these people.
These formats represent the talkshow formula for presenting sexuality: sex as a problem needing to be solved through increased personal or social control. When shows discuss “sex,” they don’t talk about pleasure, creativity, or self-expression; they focus on disease, dysfunction, disappointment, divorce, and death. The continual message is that sex is dangerous and that people must protect themselves from exploitation and shame.
Most of the “experts” on talkshows these days are simply generic psychologists. They are not paid to appear, and are invited with extremely short notice–usually less than a week. They drop everything and rush to New York, Chicago, or L.A. because of the purported value of the “exposure.” Believed by producers to be less interesting than the “real” people with the problems, they are brought on near the end of the show, after guests on stage have lost their dignity and composure.
The “experts”‘ professional language and credentials are supposed to convert an otherwise ordinary stew of gossip, mistrust, anger, and loneliness into a psycho-spiritual ritual. In their approximately nine minutes, the “expert” is expected to diagnose and name the situation at hand, describe the problem’s dynamics, and tell people what to do about it. This benediction is supposed to be healing for those on stage, cathartic for witnesses in the audience, and educational for the larger congregation at home. “Experts” gets their free cross-country trip and great “exposure” –which is what compensation is called when it isn’t anything real.
The hosts of the talkshows are incredibly smug, befitting their staggering salaries and incredible dumb luck. Proudly wearing the network’s party clothes and mouthing conventional middle class morality, they actually believe they are saying something unusual and doing something important. In addition to hauling a microphone around the audience, the host’s job is to ask guests questions like, “why did you sleep with her?” The production staff scripts virtually all of their questions and comments. Talkshow hosts are essentially news anchors, whose job is to give credibility to something someone else has written. If you think Oprah or Phil actually contribute anything, just write down what they say, pretend your mother said it, and check your response.
Talkshows are guided by two groups of professionals: the single young Manhattan women who produce them day-to-day, and the married middle-aged men who run the networks, syndicates, and production companies year-to-year. Both groups have clear ideas about what makes people tick–and view shows–and so they create and implement formulas as rigid as those of Greek drama or Biblical psalm. The talkshow is a form that’s willing to try anything once–as long as it’s been done before, and made money.
Why I am so angry about talkshows? But that’s the point: you, reader, should be more interested in my facts and logic than in how I feel, or why. And yet, that’s the cultural style of the ’90s–to talk about issues by talking about feelings. Not even The New York Times can discuss, say, drought in Africa without opening the article with a story about Joe, his cow Bessie, and how their lives are affected by the drought. Readers and viewers alike are now assumed to be more interested in the lives of strangers than in issues and ideas that affect everyone.
That, if you must know, is why I’m angry about talkshows. The massive exploitation, sexual misinformation and shaming, and hypocritical insistence that this is wholesome makes talkshows a perfect expression of what’s wrong with American culture. We can watch, see the pain on stage and derision in the audience, and realize that people in homes across America are becoming less comfortable with ideas and complex concepts, and more desperate for slogans as a form of problem-solving. Instead of Lucy and Ricky’s problems being solved in 22 minutes, we now have talkshow guests’ problems being solved in 22 minutes.
We should all be angry at the way talkshows distort the expression and meaning of human sexuality. Talkshows boast that they “expose America to a broad range of sexual behaviors.” Strictly speaking, this is true, but they do it in a way that drips with shame, judgments, and faux horror. The subtext is clear: ‘Look at these weirdos. Listen to these stories of perversion. Be wary of mixing with–or becoming–the sexually abnormal.’
While priding themselves on their liberal sheen of diversity, the talkshows express rigid norms about what is sexually acceptable. The sexual beliefs of the talkshow culture are sexist, ageist, and homophobic; sex may be used for “intimacy,” but pleasure, self-expression, and spirituality are rarely discussed. In fact, sexuality is almost always discussed as a problem, not as an opportunity or a gift. And there is a clear hierarchy: female sexuality is better, and less dangerous, than male sexuality.
Call me an elitist who’s out of touch with people and doesn’t even know it, but I… hey, not a bad theme for a talkshow. Now where’s Oprah’s number…
Your evaluations were above and beyond all of the others’. You did a great job and we look forward to working with you again.
- California Assn. of Marriage & Family Therapists
Your presentation on sexual health for people with disabilities was very well received. This was an invaluable educational opportunity.
- Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital
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