Teenage girls got me to watch Jerry Springer, but Joshua Gamson taught me how to watch him. At the high school where I teach, South Park‘s Cartman is a folk hero for boys, whereas the young women offer encyclopedic recall of Springer’s R-rated Too Hot for TV. If boys’ affection for Cartman made immediate sense–farting and swearing being timeless pleasures–it wasn’t until this book that the reasons behind these girls’ fandom became clear: shows like Springer’s give the issues they wrestle with–the choice of sexual identity, the risks of self-disclosure–a more serious airing than I’d recognized.
Freaks Talk Back: Tabloid Talk Shows and Sexual Nonconformity is funny, well researched, fully theorized, sure. But what Gamson brings to this book is an undogmatic willingness to listen rather than impose a preshrunk theory on the subject. Elitists damn Springer and its kin as toxins in the body politic that corrode reason and normality; populists celebrate them as democracy-in-action for the masses. Gamson smartly avoids both poles: for him, talk shows have always been “class mutants”–forums that transform polite, elevated discussion into the traditional American urge to lob a tomato at pretension. Taking us behind the scenes of today’s talk shows, he reveals how bookers fan those embers by encouraging and coercing guests to fight, lying about the day’s real topic, hovering over guests’ shoulders, and pushing them to speak up, or even withholding return tickets until after the taping. In one case, a bisexual couple broken apart by the bombardment from a hostile Leeza audience was later invited back for an episode on people who’d had bad experiences on the same show.
With the producers’ demand for conflict inflected by today’s ethic of liberal-individualist tolerance, the trick is to come across as likable–what you say matters, but not as much as how you say it. What results is a treacherous landscape in which gay can often be good but mean people always suck. If you win the charisma battle, host and audience will defend to the death your right to love whomever you love. You can also talk back to homophobic therapists, defend your chance to parent, indulge your drag-queen fantasies. That is, as long as you pick a label–gay, straight, foot-fetishizer, etc. Part and parcel of liberal individualism is the idea that we’re all “something,” deep down; we just need to figure out what. Bis and trannies in particular get audience members riled up because they haven’t picked a label: “You look like you want to be a man and were born a woman, unfortunate, I guess,” one audience member shouted at butch lesbian journalist Donna Minkowitz. But what if gender itself is basically arbitrary? The talk shows can’t raise this question. “They attract viewers by simultaneously threatening and reassuring them… In the end, producers cannot afford to allow audiences to think the joke is on them.”
So how much can activists accomplish on afternoon TV? Do you go on when you may well be getting set up? Is getting the crowd to shout down intellectual fag-bashers like Charles Socarides an important victory? Is the marginalization of nonmainstream queerness a price worth paying for the assimilation of mainstream gays and lesbians? To his credit, Gamson doesn’t pretend that going on Jenny Jones or Jerry Springer is a win-win proposition. He recognizes that there’s no easy moral calculus, that when we “walk onto the public stage, we have only the horns of this dilemma to keep our balance.”
But a more useful answer to those questions hides in the organization of the book itself. Thirty years ago it would have been a dry sociological treatise on mass stereotypes, gilded, perhaps, with a timid admission of the author’s own distant investment in the subject; now, the introduction forthrightly discusses the relationship between Gamson’s “scholarman” and “gayman” selves. “It is really the restless coexistence of the two,…one concerned with culture in general and the other just trying to survive in tact within it, that juices up this book.” The remainder of the book carries on that conversation as well: much like talk shows’ loudmouthed democracy, everyone has a chance to speak his or her mind. Extensive quotations from bookers, hosts, guests from across the political spectrum, and focus groups of viewers let you hear a wide range of opinion without authorial filter. Although Gamson makes a compelling case for the dilemmas of visibility, you’re free to disagree. What emerges from all this cacophony is an engaged and humane scholarship that exposes moments when the talk show spectacle gives way to a scrap of real human truth without obscuring the forced, faked, or programmed shams that envelop them. It’s a pretty inspiring example of what talking back to the mass media can be.