TV talk shows may be crass and voyeuristic, but they give a voice to those who have been silenced
At the end of his 22 years, when Pedro Zamora lost his capacity to speak, all sorts of people stepped into the silence created by the AIDS-related brain disease that shut him up. MTV began running a marathon of The Real World, its seven-kids-in-an-apartment-with-the-cameras-running show on which Pedro Zamora starred as Pedro Zamora, a version of himself: openly gay, Miami Cuban, HIV-positive, youth activist. MTV offered the marathon as a tribute to Zamora, which it was, and as a way to raise funds, especially crucial since Zamora, like so many people with HIV, did not have private insurance. Yet, of course, MTV was also paying tribute to itself, capitalizing on Pedro’s death without quite seeming as monstrous as all that.
President Clinton and Florida governor Lawton Chiles made public statements and publicized phone calls to the hospital room, praising Zamora as a heroic point of light rather than as a routinely outspoken critic of their own HIV and AIDS policies. The Clinton administration, in the midst of its clampdown on Cuban immigration, even granted visas to Zamora’s three brothers and a sister in Cuba—a kindly if cynical act, given the realities of people with AIDS awaiting visas and health care in Guantanamo Bay.
Thus, according to People magazine, did Zamora reach a bittersweet ending. He was unable to see, hear, or speak, yet with his family reunited, “his dream had come true.” Behind the scenes, one who was there for Zamora’s last weeks told me, the family actually separated Zamora from his boyfriend—quite out of keeping with the “dreams” of Pedro’s life. When Pedro had his own voice, he had spoken powerfully of how anti-gay ideology and policy, typically framed as “pro-family,” contributed to teen suicides and the spread of HIV; when he died, those who spoke for him emphasized individual heroism and the triumph of the heterosexual family.
That others appropriated Zamora on his deathbed hardly tarnishes his accomplishment. As an MTV star, he had probably reduced more suffering among lesbian and gay teenagers, and affected their thinking more deeply, than a zillion social service programs. He spoke publicly to millions in his own words and with the backing of a reputable media institution, and he did not just tell them to wear condoms, or that AIDS is an equal-opportunity destroyer. Nor did he simply fill in the sexual blanks left by prudish government prevention campaigns. He also told them and showed them: Here is me loving my boyfriend; here is what a self-possessed gay man looks like hanging out with his roommates; here is what my Cuban family might have to say about my bringing home a black man; here is me at an AIDS demonstration, getting medical news, exchanging love vows.
To speak for and about yourself as a gay man or a lesbian on television, to break silences that are systematically and ubiquitously enforced in public life, is profoundly political. “Don't tell” is more than a U.S. military policy; it remains U.S. public policy, formally and informally, on sex and gender nonconformity. Sex and gender outsiders—gay men, transsexuals, lesbians, bisexuals—are constantly invited to lose their voices, or suffer the consequences (job loss, baseball bats) of using them. Outside of the occasional opening on MTV or sporadic coverage of a demonstration or a parade, if one is not Melissa Etheridge or David Geffen, opportunities to speak as a nonheterosexual, or to listen to one, are few and far between. Even if the cameras soon turn elsewhere, these moments are big breakthroughs, and they are irresistible, giddy moments for the shut up.
Yet, in a media culture, holding the microphone and the spotlight is a complicated sort of power, not just because people grab them back from you but because they are never really yours. If you speak, you must be prepared to be used. The voice that comes out is not quite yours: It is like listening to yourself on tape (a bit deeper, or more clipped) or to a version dubbed by your twin. It is you and it is not you. Zamora’s trick, until his voice was taken, was to walk the line between talking and being dubbed. The troubling question, for the silenced and the heard alike, is whether the line is indeed walkable. Perhaps the best place to turn for answers is the main public space in which the edict to shut up is reversed: daytime television talk shows.
For lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, drag queens, transsexuals—and combinations thereof—watching daytime television has got to be spooky. Suddenly, there are renditions of you, chattering away in a system that otherwise ignores or steals your voice at every turn. Sally Jessy Raphael wants to know what it’s like to pass as a different sex, Phil Donahue wants to support you in your battle against gay bashing, Ricki Lake wants to get you a date, Oprah Winfrey wants you to love without lying. Most of all, they all want you to talk about it publicly, just at a time when everyone else wants you not to. They are interested, if not precisely in “reality,” at least not in fictional accounts. For people whose desires and identities go against the norm, this is the only spot in mainstream media culture to speak on their own terms or to hear others speaking for themselves. The fact that talk shows are so much maligned, and for so many good reasons, does not close the case.
The other day, I happened to tune into the Ricki Lake Show, the fastest-rising talk show ever. The topic: “I don't want gays around my kids.” I caught the last 20 minutes of what amounted to a pro-gay screamfest. Ricki and her audience explicitly attacked a large woman who was denying visitation rights to her gay ex-husband (“I had to explain to a 9-year-old what ‘gay’ means”; “My child started having nightmares after he visited his father”). And they went at a young couple who believed in keeping children away from gay people on the grounds that the Bible says “homosexuals should die.” The gay guests and their supporters had the last word, brought on to argue, to much audience whooping, that loving gays are a positive influence and hateful heterosexuals should stay away from children. The anti-gay guests were denounced on any number of grounds, by host, other guests, and numerous audience members: They are denying children loving influences, they are bigots, they are misinformed, they read the Bible incorrectly, they sound like Mormons, they are resentful that they have put on more weight than their exes. One suburban-looking audience member angrily addressed each “child protector” in turn, along the way coming up with a possible new pageant theme: “And as for you, Miss Homophobia . . .”
The show was a typical mess, with guests yelling and audiences hooting at the best one-liners about bigotry or body weight, but the virulence with which homophobia was attacked is both typical of these shows and stunning. When Lake cut off a long-sideburned man’s argument that “it’s a fact that the easiest way to get AIDS is by homosexual sex” (“That is not a fact, sir, that is not correct”), I found myself ready to start the chant of “Go, Ricki! Go, Ricki!” that apparently wraps each taping. Even such elementary corrections, and even such a weird form of visibility and support, stands out sharply. Here, the homophobe is the deviant, the freak.
Lake’s show is among the new breed of rowdy youth-oriented programs, celebrated as “rock and roll television” by veteran Geraldo Rivera and denigrated as “exploitalk” by cultural critic Neal Gabler. Their sibling shows, the older, tamer “service” programs such as Oprah and Donahue, support “alternative” sexualities and genders in quieter, but not weaker, ways. Peruse last year’s Donahue: two teenage lesbian lovers (“Young, courageous people like yourself are blazing the way for other people,” says Donahue), a gay construction worker suing his gay boss for harassment (“There’s only eight states that protect sexual persuasion,” his attorney reports), a bisexual minister, a black lesbian activist, and two members of the African-American theater group Pomo Afro Homos (“We’re about trying to build a black gay community,” says one), the stars of the gender-crossing Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (“I have a lot of friends that are transsexuals,” declares an audience member, “and they’re the neatest people”), heterosexuals whose best friends are gay, lesbians starting families, gay teens, gay cops, gay men reuniting with their high school sweethearts, a gay talk show. This is a more diverse, self-possessed, and politically outspoken group of nonheterosexuals than I might find, say, at the gay bar around the corner. I can only imagine what this means for people experiencing sexual difference where none is locally visible.
Certainly Donahue makes moves to counter its “liberal” reputation, inviting right-wing black preachers and the widely discredited “psychologist” Paul Cameron, who argues that cross-dressing preceded the fall of Rome, that people with AIDS should be quarantined, and that sexuality “is going to get us.” But more often than not, Donahue himself is making statements about how “homophobia is global” and “respects no nation,” how “we’re beating up homosexual people, calling them names, throwing them out of apartments, jobs.” The “we” being asserted is an “intolerant” population that needs to get over itself. We are, he says at times, “medieval.” In fact, Donahue regularly asserts that “for an advanced, so-called industrialized nation, I think we’re the worst.”
Oprah Winfrey, the industry leader, is less concerned with the political treatment of difference; she is overwhelmingly oriented toward “honesty” and “openness,” especially in interpersonal relationships. As on Lake’s show, lesbians and gays are routinely included without incident in more general themes (meeting people through personal ads, fools for love, sons and daughters you never knew), and bigotry is routinely attacked. But Winfrey’s distinctive mark is an attack on lies, and thus the closet comes under attack—especially the gay male closet—not just for the damage it does to those in it, but for the betrayals of women it engenders.
On a recent program in which a man revealed his “orientation” after 19 years of marriage, for example, both Winfrey and her audience were concerned not that Steve is gay, but that he was not honest with his wife. As Winfrey put it, “For me, always the issue is how you can be more truthful in your life.” One of Steve’s two supportive sons echoes Winfrey (“I want people to be able to be who they are”), as does his ex-wife, whose anger is widely supported by the audience (“It makes me feel like my life has been a sham”), and the requisite psychologist (“The main thing underneath all of this is the importance of loving ourselves and being honest and authentic and real in our lives”). Being truthful, revealing secrets, learning to love oneself: These are the staples of Winfrey-style talk shows. Gay and bisexual guests find a place to speak as gays and bisexuals, and the pathology becomes not sexual “deviance” but the socially imposed closet.
All of this, however, should not be mistaken for dedicated friendship. Even when ideological commitments to truth and freedom are at work, the primary commitment of talk shows is, of course, to money. What makes these such inviting spots for nonconforming sex and gender identities has mostly to do with the niche talk shows have carved out for ratings. The shows are about talk; the more silence there has been on a subject, the more not-telling, the better a talk topic it is. On talk shows, as media scholar Wayne Munson points out in his book All Talk (Temple University Press, 1993), “differences are no longer repressed” but “become the talk show’s emphasis,” as the shows confront “boredom and channel clutter with constant, intensified novelty and ‘reality.’” Indeed, according to Munson, Richard Mincer, Donahue's executive producer, encourages prospective guests “to be especially unique or different, to take advantage of rather than repress difference.”
While they highlight different sex and gender identities, expressions, and practices, the talk shows can be a dangerous place to speak and a difficult place to get heard. With around 20 syndicated talk shows competing for audiences, shows that trade in confrontation and surprise (Ricki Lake, Jenny Jones, Jerry Springer) are edging out the milder, topical programs (Oprah, Donahue).
As a former Jane Whitney Show producer told TV Guide, “When you’re booking guests, you’re thinking, ‘How much confrontation can this person provide me?’ The more confrontation, the better. You want people just this side of a fistfight.”
For members of groups already subject to violence, the visibility of television can prompt more than just a fistfight, as last year’s Jenny Jones murder underlined. In March, when Scott Amedure appeared on a “secret admirer” episode of the Jenny Jones Show, the admired Schmitz was apparently expecting a female admirer. Schmitz, not warming to Amedure’s fantasy of tying him up in a hammock and spraying whipped cream and champagne on his body, declared himself “100 percent heterosexual.” Later, back in Michigan, he punctuated this claim by shooting Amedure with a 12-gauge shotgun, telling police that the embarrassment from the program had “eaten away” at him. Or, as he reportedly put it in his 911 call, Amedure “fucked me on national TV.”
Critics were quick to point out that programming that creates conflict tends to exacerbate it. “The producers made professions of regret,” Neal Gabler wrote in the Los Angeles Times after the Amedure murder, “but one suspects what they really regretted was the killer’s indecency of not having pulled out his rifle and committed the crime before their cameras.” In the wake of the murder, talk show producers were likened over and over to drug dealers: Publicist Ken Maley told the San Francisco Chronicle that “they’ve got people strung out on an adrenaline rush,” and “they keep raising the dosage”; sociologist Vicki Abt told People that “TV allows us to mainline deviance”; Michelangelo Signorile argued in Out that some talk show producers “are like crack dealers scouring trailer park America.” True enough. Entering the unruly talk show world one is apt to become, at best, a source of adrenaline rush, and at worst a target of violence.
What most reporting tended to ignore, however, was that most anti-gay violence does not require a talk show “ambush” to trigger it. Like the Oakland County, Michigan, prosecutor who argued that “Jenny Jones's producers’ cynical pursuit of ratings and total insensitivity to what could occur here left one person dead and Mr. Schmitz now facing life in prison,” many critics focused on the “humiliating” surprise attack on Schmitz with the news that he was desired by another man. As in the image of the “straight” soldier being ogled in the shower, in this logic the revelation of same-sex desire is treated as the danger, and the desired as a victim. The talk show critics thus played to the same “don’t tell” logic that makes talk shows such a necessary, if uncomfortable, refuge for some of us.
Although producers’ pursuit of ratings is indeed, unsurprisingly, cynical and insensitive, the talk show environment is one of the very few in which the declaration of same-sex desire (and, to a lesser degree, atypical gender identity) is common, heartily defended, and often even incidental. Although they overlook this in their haste to hate trash, the critics of exploitative talk shows help illuminate the odd sort of opportunity these cacophonous settings provide. Same-sex desires become “normal” on these programs not so much because different sorts of lives become clearly visible, but because they get sucked into the spectacular whirlpool of relationship conflicts. They offer a particular kind of visibility and voice. On a recent Ricki Lake, it was the voice of an aggressive, screechy gay man who continually reminded viewers, between laughs at his own nasty comments, that he was a regular guy. On other days, it’s the take-your-hands-off-my-woman lesbian, or the I’m-more-of-a-woman-than-you’ll-ever-be transsexual. The vicious voice—shouting that we gay people can be as mean, or petty, or just plain loud, as anybody else—is the first voice talk shows promote. It’s one price of entry into mainstream public visibility.
The guests on the talk shows seem to march in what psychologist Jeanne Heaton, co-author of the forthcoming Tuning in Trouble (Jossey-Bass, 1995), calls a “parade of pathology.” Many talk shows have more than a passing resemblance to freak shows. Neal Gabler, for example, argues that guests are invited to exhibit “their deformities for attention” in a “ritual of debasement” aimed primarily at reassuring the audience of its superiority. Indeed, the evidence of dehumanization is all over the place, especially when it comes to gender crossing, as in the titles of various recent Geraldo programs; the calls of sideshow barkers echo in “Star-Crossed Cross-Dressers: Bizarre Stories of Transvestites and Their Lovers” and “Outrageous Impersonators and Flamboyant Drag Queens” and “When Your Husband Wears the Dress in the Family.” As long as talk shows make their bids by being, in Gabler’s words, “a psychological freak show,” sex and gender outsiders arguably reinforce perceptions of themselves as freaks by entering a discourse in which they may be portrayed as bizarre, outrageous, flamboyant curiosities. (Often, for example, they must relinquish their right to defend themselves to the ubiquitous talk show “experts.”)
Talk shows do indeed trade on voyeurism, and it is no secret that those who break with sex and gender norms and fight with each other on camera help the shows win higher ratings. But there is more to the picture: the place where “freaks” talk back. It is a place where Conrad, born and living in a female body, can assert against Sally Jessy Raphael’s claims that he “used and betrayed” women in order to have sex with them that women fall in love with him as a man because he considers himself a man; where months later, in a program on “our most outrageous former guests” (all gender crossers), Conrad can reappear, declare himself to have started hormone treatment, and report that the woman he allegedly “used and betrayed” has stood by him. This is a narrow opening, but an opening nonetheless, for the second voice promoted by the talk show: the proud voice of the “freak,” even if the freak refuses that term. The fact that talk shows are exploitative spectacles does not negate the fact that they are also opportunities; as Munson points out, they are both spectacle and conversation. They give voice to the systematically silenced, albeit under conditions out of the speaker’s control, and in tones that come out tinny, scratched, distant.
These voices, even when they are discounted, sometimes do more than just assert themselves. Whatever their motivations, people sometimes wind up doing more than just pulling up a chair at a noisy, crowded table. Every so often they wind up messing with sexual categories in a way that goes beyond a simple expansion of them. In addition to affirming both homosexuality and heterosexuality as normal and natural, talk show producers often make entertainment by mining the in-between: finding guests who are interesting exactly because they don’t fit existing notions of “gay” and “straight” and “man” and “woman,” raising the provocative suggestion that the categories are not quite working.
The last time I visited the Maury Povich Show, for instance, I found myself distracted by Jason and Tiffanie. Jason, a large 18-year-old from a small town in Ohio, was in love with Calvin. Calvin was having an affair with Jamie (Jason’s twin sister, also the mother of a three-month-old), who was interested in Scott, who had sex with, as I recall, both Calvin and Tiffanie. Tiffanie, who walked on stage holding Jamie’s hand, had pretty much had sex with everyone except Jamie. During group sex, Tiffanie explained, she and Jamie did not touch each other. “We’re not lesbians,” she loudly asserted, against the noisy protestations of some audience members.
The studio audience, in fact, was quick to condemn the kids, who were living together in a one-bedroom apartment with Jamie’s baby. Their response was predictably accusatory: You are freaks, some people said; immoral, said others; pathetically bored and in need of a hobby, others asserted. Still other aspects of the “discussion” assumed the validity and normality of homosexuality. Jason, who had recently attempted suicide, was told he needed therapy to help him come to terms with his sexuality, and the other boys were told they too needed to “figure themselves out.” Yet much talk also struggled to attach sexual labels to an array of partnerships anarchic enough to throw all labels into disarray. “If you are not lesbians, why were you holding hands?” one woman asked Tiffanie. “If you are not gay,” another audience member asked Calvin, “how is it you came to have oral sex with two young men?”
This mix was typically contradictory: condemnation of “immoral sex” but not so much of homosexuality per se, openly gay and bisexual teenagers speaking for themselves while their partners in homosexual activities declare heterosexual identities, a situation in which sexual categories are both assumed and up for grabs. I expect the young guests were mainly in it for the free trip to New York, and the studio audience was mainly in it for the brush with television. Yet the discussion they created, the unsettling of categorical assumptions about genders and desires, if only for a few moments in the midst of judgment and laughter, is found almost nowhere else this side of fiction.
The importance of these conversations, both for those who for safety must shut up about their sexual and gender identities and for those who never think about them, is certainly underestimated. The level of exploitation is certainly not. Like Pedro Zamora, one can keep one’s voice for a little while, one finger on the commercial megaphone, until others inevitably step in to claim it for their own purposes. Or one can talk for show, as freak, or expert, or rowdy—limits set by the production strategies within the talk show genre.
Those limits, not the talk shows themselves, are really the point. The story here is not about commercial exploitation, but about just how effective the prohibition on asking and telling is in the United States, how stiff the penalties are, how unsafe this place is for people of atypical sexual and gender identities. You know you’re in trouble when Sally Jessy Raphael (strained smile and forced tear behind red glasses) seems like your best bet for being heard, understood, respected, and protected. That for some of us the loopy, hollow light of talk shows seems a safe haven should give us all pause.
Reprinted from The American Prospect, Fall 1995.