The Springer Hearings: A Case for Talking Trash

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The Springer Hearings: A Case for Talking Trash

by David Futrelle

Freaks Talk Back: Tabloid Talk Shows and Sexual Nonconformity,
by Joshua Gamson, (University of Chicago Press, 1998; 288 pages).

Sure, Ellen got all the media attention. But discerning viewers in
search of authentic lesbian scandals and skirmishes know to turn their
dials to
The Jerry Springer Show.
Jerry has made a name for
himself as a sort of ringside announcer to some of the best

might-just-be-real fights this side of professional wrestling. While
Ellen agonized over every detail of her new life, from how to come out to
what to wear, and coyly avoided so much as a kiss, Jerry’s
sexually ambiguous guests are quite literally shameless. They’re at it
the moment they hit the stage — cuddling, smooching, bawling, screaming
and slapping.


Nearly thirty years ago, a small contingent of drag queens
at New York’s Stonewall Inn sashayed to the front lines of the battle for
gay and lesbian rights. Several decades of serious activism later, has the
vanguard of the struggle shifted to the set of the Springer show? For
better or worse, this is not far-fetched, or so I’ve come to conclude
after reading Freaks Talk Back: Tabloid Talk Shows and Sexual
by Joshua Gamson. With ACT-UP and Queer Nation little
more than memories, the most conspicuous “sexual nonconformists” in

this country may just be the fighting femmes on Jerry Springer,
the transsexual beauty queens on Maury Povitch, the surprise gay
crushes on Ricki Lake and Jenny Jones.


This makes for problematic politics, to be sure, but it also makes for
some pretty compelling television. Gamson, a Yale sociologist,
attempts to sort through the puzzling ramifications of the talk show
phenomenon . As a gay man (or “gayman,” as he puts it), Gamson
recognizes that talk shows are little more than “wretched little
place[s], emptied of so much wisdom and filled, thank God, with
inadvertent camp.” Gamson can’t help loving these places — in part
because for many years they’ve been practically the only cultural space
that allows sexual “freaks” of all kinds to shout themselves into the
public arena. As an academic (a “scholarman”), Gamson assumes a more
distanced view, describing the shows “rich and interesting, like . . .
funny, slightly frightening room[s] in a museum.”


Gamson has penetrated a world of discourse dominated, alas, by Bill
Bennetts on the right and the left alike, who reflexively condemn “trash
TV” as a cultural embarrassment as well as quasi-Marxian intellectuals
who seek in these shows a kind of proletarian wisdom. (“On talk shows,
whatever their drawbacks, the proles get to talk,” Ellen Willis assured
readers of the Nation in 1996. Today she might add: “And to rip
out one another’s hair.”)


Still, I find it hard to imagine old Karl Marx cheering for Jerry and
his kids — and frankly, I have a hunch that neither Willis nor Bennett
have done the hard work of plopping on the couch day after day in front
of these shows.


For whatever it’s worth, Freaks Talk Back is probably the most

thoroughly researched book on talk shows we’re ever likely to see. Gamson
watched (or studied transcripts) of literally hundreds of talk shows
featuring lesbians, gays,
bisexuals and assorted gender-benders over two decades; he may be the only
person ever to subject the (mercifully cancelled) Mo Gaffney Show
serious academic attention. He sat in studio audiences, interviewed dozens
of staffers and former guests, and (he reports almost offhandedly)
“facilitated thirteen group discussions with regular talk show viewers” —
an assortment of straights and gays, women and men, and a few who didn’t
fit quite so easily into any of these binary categories.


As is the case with everything from politics to sausages, the closer you
look at the making of talk shows the queasier you begin to feel. Much of
what we see on screen, Gamson submits, is fabricated: guests are lied
to, manipulated, ambushed, dressed up like doofuses or sluts, railroaded
into filling preconceived roles, prodded into
conflict with one another, coached endlessly on what to say. One former
Geraldo guest, transsexual Linda Phillips, reports that producers
wouldn’t give her a return plane ticket until she agreed to appear on the
show alongside a weightlifter and the
tallest man in the world.


Still, outright fakery — hiring actors and scripting scripts — is rarer
than you might think, in part because so many enthusiastic amateurs are
willing to play roles, to present caricatured versions of their
real selves in exchange for fifteen minutes of (commercial interrupted)
fame. “Treating the occasional hiring of actors as some aberrant threat
to truth,” Gamson writes, “is to miss the fact that talk shows are

role-driven to begin with, that even when they are
working with ‘real people’ (the vast majority of the guests), producers
casting and directing.”


Oddly enough, as the shows have gotten wilder, more violent, and
sleazier, they’ve also, arguably, grown more honest. After all, it is in
the most extreme circumstances — whether stranded on a desert island or
on the set of Jenny
— that our real characters show themselves. What emerges from
tabloid talk show crucible is often more emotionally true than the
civilized talk on the “issues oriented” talk shows of a decade ago —
clean-cut, middle-class gay activists debated freelance moralists on the
“problem” of homosexuality.


Though today’s free-for-alls are messier, meaner and more humiliating,
they also give social pariahs a space to let it all hang out. “What seems
like a simple opportunity, and a compromised one . . . is actually a
large shift: a chance to break the monopoly on ‘truth’ held by those who
would talk about us,” Gamson writes. “Amidst all the hubbub and the

coaching, there is a tremendous amount of testimony. We
who have lived this life will tell you its truths.”


What’s striking is that, in the midst of all the shouting, gays and
lesbians and transgendered folks often emerge as heroes of sorts. While
gay couples quietly assert their love for one another, the bigots are
reduced to red-faced tirades that win them only boos from the audience.


In the end, the main accomplishment of the trash talk shows (such as it
may be to shift issues of sexuality from the center stage to the
sideshow; instead of being the central issue of a talk show,
pondered solemnly with a surfeit of expert opinion and much weeping and
wailing, the tabloid talk shows make sexuality merely one issue among
To the poor schmo sitting disconsolately on the Jerry Springer
set, it
doesn’t much matter if his girlfriend is sleeping with Adam or Eve (or
and Steve); what matters is that it’s someone other than him.


Gradually, even the lipstick-lesbian kisses on the Springer show are
losing some of their illicit thrill. And this may be a form of progress.
“Tolerance is the result not of enlightenment,” Quentin Crisp once said,
“but of boredom.” Every day, in front of an audience of millions, tabloid TV ringleaders move one step closer to proving him right.

©1998 David Futrelle
and Nerve.com