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Talk Shows Reinforces Normative And Stereotypical Identities Media Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Media
Wordcount: 2721 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The Talk show continues to dominate as one of the most consistently popular programming genres on television, and can be regarded as television representations of a public sphere. This entails a conceptual space in which issues of concern to society as a whole can be discussed, using the shared discourses and assumptions which are necessary to rationalised debate. Daytime talk shows have been an integral part of television viewership for the last 20 years. In 1995, more than 15 million people tuned in to watch Oprah: the Oprah Winfrey Show, attracting a greater number of female viewers than all the other usual leaders in the television charts. The role of talk shows serves as part of a democratic society, and has become a site that reinforces normative and stereotypical identities. This type of programming fits into what Jon Dovey calls: “first person media…subjective, autobiographical and confessional modes of expression”. (Edgerton and Rose, 2005)

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The confessional talk show genre took up the feminist slogan of the ‘personal is political’ and gave it a commercial forum. They made private feminine or race issues public, appealing to women from all backgrounds. The universal debate between commercial tabloid exploitation and the politicisation of the private sphere stands as the central debate in the reception of these talk shows. The highly marginalised voices, for instance black single mothers and people struggling with drug addictions, were able to give voice to an under-represented and stigmatised group, by individualising the problems of that group through the confessional and personal discourse of the guests. This discussion of personal concerns, which represented concerns of the entire group, was itself an embodiment of empowerment and resistant to dominant social values. The contributions of experts on the talk show connected the experiences of the guests to institutional discourses such as medicine, psychoanalysis and civil rights. This also converted anger into a more socially acceptable force.

In regards to Oprah episodes, Sujarta Moorti argues that talk shows help reconceptualise the public spheres constituted by the media. She suggests that in the area of sexual violence, talk shows are useful as sites of information because they make available a plurality of positions reflecting different social understandings of the issue. They create a “protofeminist” discursive space by foregrounding the pain and violence as opposed to legal procedures involved in naming an act as rape. (Dines and Humes, 2002) A convicted rapist was even invited to the show to be presented as a freak, which undoes the concept of gender-role socialisation as creating a rape-enabling culture. This breaks the normative and stereotypical concept of female identities having the need to submit to the powerful masculine identities. This also highlights the marginalised women’s voices in an emancipated public sphere. Oprah appeals to the typical female viewer by emphasising emotional over the irrational, and fragmented and repetitive dialogue over narrative closure.

The show also presents feminist arguments about women’s lower economic and social status, men’s difficulties in close relationships, women’s difficulties in combining paid work and parenting, the suppression of women’s sexuality and men’s physical and sexual abuse. The show highlights the oppressiveness and irrelevance of dominant images of the female body, explores how preoccupations with food and weight cloak depression and feelings of low self-worth and acknowledges the comforting, social and sensual nature of eating. One episode even focuses exclusively on discrimination against fat people. Winfrey’s own size acts as a reminder of how women’s bigness can be a form of power, perhaps especially when they are black women in a field dominated by white men. The variable set of female self-help gurus and high-achieving women who go on the talk show as guests seem to constitute the dominant cultural representation of feminism.

The show’s feminism is most abundantly clear when it concentrates its focus on commitment to empowering women. This could mean displaying interest in women’s political, economic and educational advancement; in women getting help for personal and relationship problems; and most generally, in women perceiving a range of individual and social choices as open to them and deciding among them. Each meaning implies a different version of feminism. The first suggests a public, the second a personal focus for feminism and the last feminist politics in psychological wellbeing. Nevertheless the show’s representations of empowerment all assume a common theme between women that allows the representations to make the category ‘women’ their unproblematic centre. Feminism uses this category to back its analysis and claims but the category always has a social and historical context that gives it a specific meaning. Oprah, however, represents women as sharing emotional and social qualities e.g. communication skills, regardless of the differences between women. The show’s aim empowers this shared womanhood.

Oprah also talks about black identities and how they are represented. It regularly features successful African-American business people, professionals and entertainers, generating a picture of black culture and achievement rare in mainstream media. It considers issues that are very important and controversial among them like education and self-esteem, and also tackles black women’s ‘ain’t nothing going on but the rent approach’ towards black men and black men’s claimed irresponsibility. (Dines and Humes, 2002) Together, the show’s combination of feminism and representations of blacks produce the black feminism identities. In particular, it recognises the different history of patriarchy among African Americans, their resistance to anti-slavery and civil rights movements and celebrates the strength and creativity of black women. Winfrey sometimes talks black American, usually to make a joke. Television conventionally allows such language for comedic purposes but it remains language infrequently heard outside sitcoms, dramas and documentary representations of inner cities. Winfrey even induces similar speech in others e.g. the formal Roz Abrams calling her ‘girlfriend’. Occasionally Winfrey addresses whites in the studio audience to explain some aspect of black life. This move homogenizes both the life and the audience, and gives a public voice to marginalised phenomena and acknowledges an ignorance and distance that usually goes unspoken.

There is also the issue of heterosexual versus homosexual identities. The talk shows have often gone about the business of accepting lesbian, gay and bisexual people, integrating them into shows on heterosexual topics e.g. Jerry Springer’s “I love someone I can’t have” and “Confess, you liar!” The voices of moral condemnation of homosexuality are almost never endorsed by the show itself, but rather from a section of the audience. Springer talks about how sexual and gender identities are innate and therefore should not be subject to ridicule. The shows use their own staffs that are intolerant to homosexuality to be the actual object of ridicule and hostility. For instance in Rolanda, the target is Shirley who gets verbally demolished by members of the audience. The claim that homosexuality is the exclusive law of either nature or the Bible, cuts against the show’s assumptions and triggers audience hostility. The main oppositions come from conservative religious African Americans, often with a good deal of support from the rest of the largely African American and Latino studio audience, hence creating a face off against white gay activists e.g. Donahue. However, ultimately it comes down to the individual persona. Given the fact that talk shows emphasise on individual character, an unsympathetic homosexual can undermine a show’s sympathy for homosexuals in general. Because of this, the easy interchange between the tolerant and the intolerant causes an unstable acceptance of gay people.

However, given this, the Oprah Winfrey show is heterosexist. Openly lesbian or gay guests appear rarely, the show carefully establishes the heterosexuality of well-known guests, and when it addresses homosexuality directly it tends either to problematize it or to mainstream it as a human issue, distanced from sex and politics. Bisexuality is a completely different topic to homosexuality. In an episode presented jointly with the hunt-the-criminal programme America’s Most Wanted, a man’s bisexuality became the emblem of his ability to elude the criminal justice system: ‘The problem with John Hawkins is he’s a very good-looking guy, he’s a very good con, and he’s bisexual, so he has the ability to basically adapt into any community or any type of social structure’, said a police officer. (Dines and Humes, 2002) Oprah also gives screen time to camp men who function briefly and conventionally as jesters, hence showing homosexuality in a ridiculous light. The show also explores differences within heterosexuality, for instance it draws between abusive and non-abusive heterosexual relationships. This acknowledgement of plural heterosexualities coexists with the show’s more traditional representations of sexual relationships between women and men either as always involving the same desires and social patterns, as in episodes along the lines of ‘Best Husband Contest’ or ‘Save Your Marriage’ etc. Finally, the show’s overwhelming female spectacle and spectatorship might conceivably be read as a kind of televisual lesbianism but the link between female spectatorship, sexuality and sexual politics is very unclear.

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There is also the issue of class, and this is best demonstrated in Oprah. The all-American narrative of Winfrey’s progress from poverty to wealth is often brought up, and her riches are marked as well-earned due to her struggles. The show may present Winfrey as a de-raced all-American success story but it gives a strong presence to middle class African Americans and pays attention to the responsibilities and close historical relationships have with poorer blacks, especially young people. Many issues of debate between black women and men on the show involve class: educated black women’s’ alleged prejudices about ordinary working black men, and whether black women or men, especially those in the middle class, should have interracial relationships.

The reinforcement of normative and stereotypical identities comes in several Oprah episodes. In one, she talks about the issue of gender inequality in the financial department. They refer to a black couple where the wife is an employed professional who supports her husband, who floats between low-paying unsatisfying jobs. The talk show implicitly endorses the male as the “natural primary breadwinner” and the racist views of blacks as gender deviant (e.g. “strong” women and “shiftless” men). (Dines and Humes, 2002)

There are several problems regarding the concept of talk shows. Firstly, even though they empower the marginalised voices, the stories told are shaped around the moral authority and knowledge of the host and its panel of experts. This entails the fact that the views produced would be skewered, and not necessarily represent the views of the entire public sphere. There is also the problem of talk shows being purely based on selling products and gaining audiences, in this case employing individual pain and “selling” it. This problem is countered by the host “thrusting her microphone at the live audience” in order to generate a “we” thereby creating a space “where intimacy itself can be both the form and substance of programming”. (Dines and Humes, 2003) Furthermore, the host participates in self confessions, therefore integrating herself as a guest.

There is also a gradual shift from the valuation of resistant and excluded voices to the prevalence of more aggressive ‘entertaining’ behaviour e.g. Jerry Springer. The transformation of the talk show genre demonstrates the erosion of these programmes as a public space in which liberal and democratic ideologies of inclusion, empowerment and personal development are enacted in television form. Instead, their ideology has become increasingly focused on the reinforcement of social norms, where audiences (represented by the studio audience) close their ranks against perceived deviance. A further aspect of this development is the controversial centrality of performance to the talk show genre. There have been celebrated cases when popular newspapers have revealed that some of their guests have been ‘fakes’. Rather than being members of the public discovered ‘naturally’ by programme researchers, these fake guests have been consciously performing their roles in order either simply to appear on television or to make money from appearance fees and spin-off newspaper and magazine features.

In conclusion, we see a few problems in using talk shows as a site that reinforces normative and stereotypical identities. If the stories told are shaped around the moral authority of the host and the panel of experts, then wouldn’t the view be skewered? This in fact defeats the concept of the ‘public sphere’, because the moral authority of the host ultimately overrides the view of the audience. There is also the ‘selling’ aspect of talk shows which may take away the sincerity of accurate representations of the marginalised voices. In terms of the individual portrayals, we see homogenised views and views that have been divided into two camps. For the representation of blacks, talk shows seem to agree on the view that black women have dominant and powerful personalities, whilst black men seem to lack in responsibility. However in the case of the homosexual identity, we can see that due to broadcasting restrictions, the talk shows face the dilemma of whether to advocate tolerance (which satisfies the moral obligations of broadcasting) or to follow the seemingly intolerable mass audience in America (which would satisfy and hence ‘sell’ the shows more). Feminism seems to prevail as the talk shows are generally aimed at the general viewership of women, as they are more ‘domesticated’ than men. This in itself is reinforcing a stereotypical identity that women are less prone to work than men (especially daytime talk shows which are supposedly aired during prime work time). The clear issue of class is also a clear theme in the talk shows, and yet again can be seen from the audience these talk shows target. The shift from intellectual material to more dramatised emotional material seems to show the shift of class in society in regards to television. The majority of the audience now targeted in the modern era seems to be the middle to low classes who have no intellectual appetite, but just crave the dramatic ‘trash TV’ that critics seem to label talk shows. The guests introduced in these talk shows are also usually people chosen from low to mid classes, and rarely features powerful upper class figures like businessmen and entrepreneurs. It is also important to note that if the guests on the talk shows can be ‘fakes’, then it would be virtually impossible to gain accurate representation of these identities. However, in regards to the question, normative and stereotypical identities are not necessarily accurate identities. Thus, in order to ‘sell’ these talk shows to the audience, the identities portrayed must be what the audience can relate to. Hence, the ‘acted out’ identities do reinforce the normative and stereotypical identities, even if accuracy and honesty has been sacrificed in place.


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