OTI Online
Spring 1994

CROWD ON THE COUCH
by Elayne Rapping


"On Geraldo: Husbands who got penile implants to save their marriages!"
"Today - Sally Jessy Raphael talks to prostitutes 'who formed a union!"

These are a few of my recent daytime talk show favorites. Yes, I admit it, I am apt to spend my late afternoon writing break watching Oprah, or Sally, or even Geraldo - one of the many millions of "enquiring minds" with at least a bit of curiosity about these topics and others even more bizarre.

Nor am I particularly embarrassed about this fact, although I know I'm supposed to be. The truth is, I am interested in every one of the subjects just named. I take them all quite seriously, actually, and have ever since - some twenty-five years ago - I attended my first consciousness raising group and had my mind - and then my life - blown by the radical ideas and attitudes that burst out of the Pandora's Box labeled "The personal is political." Most every talk-show topic, grows out of the analysis and critique of patriarchal family and gender relations "we" sent hurling into public life back then, and the shattering impact this critique has had on everyone's "domestic tranquility" ever since. And the problems posed are so formidable for those desperate to be heard and helped that they willingly reveal them to the entire nation.

Today on Donahue: "Lesbian mothers and their straight children!"

While it's all too easy (and in many ways justified) to hold one's nose and distance oneself from the sensational, exploitive style and tone of these daytime gabfests cum public spectacles, I think as feminists we would do better to look a bit more closely at why these shows are so incredibly popular. Why do so many millions watch them so avidly? Why do so many others call the shows' hotlines (thousands of calls a day, just to Geraldo!) with urgent, desperate requests to come on and talk publicly about their problems? The answer, I believe, reveals a lot about the enormous impact of feminist ideas on public debate and personal experience in the last two decades. And - less hopefully - reveals the enormous power of mass media to absorb, transform and subtly depoliticize some of that impact.

Way back in the fifties, remember, when television first arrived in our living rooms spouting endless messages about how we should live and what we should buy, there was an easy consensus about sex, romance and family life on the small screen. One fatherly white male after another - from Walter Cronkite to Ward Cleaver to Ronald Reagan, (then hawking avocado-green appliances for General Electric) - told us that premarital sex was forbidden; that marriage, monogamy and motherhood were women's universal calling; and that father knew best in the bedroom, boardroom and everywhere else.

But feminism - in some ways a visceral reaction to that monolithic message from a generation of girls to whom it was virtually force-fed from birth - had other ideas. It's no accident, after all, that the first generation of feminists spent so much time and energy attacking media stereotypes. We were the first generation to have our identities and fates so firmly determined by a bombardment of pop culture images. We knew the power of these phony, repressive messages and we were determined to smash them to kingdom come.

"Oprah talks to bulimic incest survivors!"

Which is what we've been doing. And the rest, as they say, is history. Never again - ask Clarence Thomas, Bob Packwood, Dan Quayle - will traditional male assumptions about sex and gender relations go unchallenged. We haven't, obviously, done away with sexism. But we have wiped a bit of the smug sneer off its face and put a nervous tremor in its authoritative pale male voice.

Not that the questions, challenges and changes wrought by feminists have been an unmixed blessing - to us or anyone else. Revolutions, after all, are messy, contradictory and long in coming. And the feminist revolution in gender assumptions and relations has, in many ways, barely begun. That's why there's so much confusion, pain and desperation in the lives and minds of so many of us. Everyone knows that the old ways don't work; the old answers don't fit. But no one, not even we self-identified feminists, knows exactly what to do about it.

How does one handle a parent's or child's coming out, after all? What does a fifty-year-old man do about his wife's sudden impatience with his sexual performance and aggressive demand for "improvement"? What happens when, in the welter of discussion about eating disorders and sexual abuse, a woman suddenly begins to realize that her "weight" problem began decades earlier when her father -was molesting her?

Because of feminism, all these issues have been placed on the table, publicly acknowledged as important and discussed as problems to be solved rather than shameful secrets or freakish disabilities. And if people everywhere (especially those with little access to more upscale, expensive forms of support) are turning to the simulated support groups and town meetings we call "talk shows" to get some clue as to how others are thinking about and dealing with these matters, it may be depressing, but it shouldn't be surprising.

In fact - and this is both the good and the bad news - the form and substance of daytime talk shows derive directly from that great political invention of the 1960s: consciousness-raising. In those amazing years, women sat in circles and "spoke bitterness'', revealing shameful, but liberating truths about our families, our boyfriends, our husbands, our teachers, our bosses. And as we built of our collective, common experiences a theory of personal politics and a strategy for social change, we permanently changed our own lives and those of women everywhere.

When you tune into Oprah or Sally Jessy, you see - in an admittedly sensationalized and degraded form - a mediated, depoliticized version of this process. While Ted Koppel holds court in all his masculinist glory, asking his questions, legitimizing the answers he decides are "fit" to be heard, he dictates to us all - on behalf of ABC and IBM - what issues really matter and what people deserve to be heard. But Oprah and Donahue and their clones have developed their own, far more "democratic" form and style. They move freely around their semi-circular sets, allowing a far more open give and take among participants. They also allow people who are never seen or heard (except as objects of "study") on television to appear and even speak for themselves. If we cringe at the stretch denim and polyester, the big hair and bad grammar,we should perhaps consider our own class and appearance biases, as inculcated by the media themselves.

Nor are the "weird" problems presented necessarily so different from the ones we ourselves commiserate over with our most trusted friends. Unconventional, embarrassing and even demeaning sex, gender and family problems are the staples of much of the conversation we all engage in or overhear in our favorite cafes. Feminism gave us permission to reveal our traumas to a safe group of "sisters". But everyone has the same kinds of worries and weirdness in their lives, even Ron and Nancy Reagan. Their daughter has brought that shameful truth home to America, after all, through the public forum of daytime talk - and I for one am tickled to hear about it. It does so much to discredit the phony "family values" propaganda.

And so, understandably, people from Omaha to Orlando sit at home and watch, and call in and discuss the latest Oprah episode about child abuse, or homosexuality in the priesthood or married women who have lesbian lovers. And - while they may publicly express scorn and contempt for the shows and their guests - they very often find themselves transfixed by the discussion of a problem which they can at least tangentially relate to. Perhaps the flamboyance and extremity of these cases are bizarre, but something hits home. Women bilked by bigamists, for example, are not so different from the rest of us who have, sometimes, been who have, sometimes, been lied to, exploited and betrayed by a smooth manipulative guy.

There is something cathartic about these shows. It's a relief to hear real troubles, real feelings, real rage, controversy and judgment about the most vexing sex, gender and race issues of our days. It's a relief - as it was for us in consciousness-raising groups - to see the nods of recognition and hear the words of support from those who have been there, -who are there now, who can offer a bit of enlightenment about why they feel so bad about their lives and what might work to change them a bit.

But if talk shows take their substance and form, in large part, from feminism, they certainly find their conclusions, their raisons d'etre, elsewhere. At each program's end, of course, we are given a set of "solutions" which differ radically from the ones we so adamantly proposed in the 1960s. Back then, we were saying that our gender and family injustices and traumas would never be eradicated until the man-made and -run institutions that created them were radically changed through organized political activism.

You won't hear anything like that from Oprah or Phil. You'll hear "experts" sending those in pain to therapists and support groups, or to self-help shelves. You'll hear sponsors sending viewers to the drugstore for Excedrin, diet Pepsi, or maybe a weekend at Disney World.

And therein lies a tale about social movements and their tricky relationships with the media. That the talk shows exist at all, much less command such enormous and loyal audiences, is a tribute to the power of feminism and a sign of its vulnerability. The issues we have raised aren't going away. The life of Ward and June Cleaver, or Claire and Heathcliff Huxtable for that matter, will never again seem possible.

But if TV can't hide that truth, it can certainly do its best to obscure and confuse its political implications. And as long as NBC and Procter & Gamble continue to produce and fund our mediated public sphere, it most certainly will.


Elayne Rapping is Professor of Communications at Adelphi University.

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