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As you walk apprehensively onto the stage, the large audience howls those infamous expressions. You nervously seat yourself beside your fianc?e not knowing what to expect; you are nervous and overcome with anxiety. Finally, Jerry, in his scratchy, high-pitched voice, utters those predictable words, “So, don’t you have something to tell your boyfriend?” She turns to you, holding your hand in the most gentle and loving manner, gazes into your eyes and says, “Remember about four months ago when I disappeared that night at your parent’s house? Well, that night your sister and I went to your old room and had a long talk. Since, you haven’t paid me enough attention lately I have been sleeping with her ever since.”
The crowd moans again, as if they did not hear her side of the story two minutes before you arrived. You suddenly feel the anxiousness that you experienced earlier quickly diminished and replaced by intense rage. You turn to Jerry while he instigates with a devilish grin, “Wow, she has been cheating with your sister, how does this make you feel?” Your anger only builds; you scream at your girlfriend and ask how she could be such a damn *%…! Jerry interrupts the somber moment and yells into the microphone, “Alright, lets meet your sister!” As you see your sister walk through the door and slob your soon-to-be ex-girlfriend, you hear that irritating chant echoing through the crowd again. You jump to your feet and lunge towards your sister, but are instantly pulled away by security guards and forced to return to this degrading dilemma asking yourself the same question you asked yourself on the plane to Chicago, “Why did I accept an invitation to this show?”
“Jerrrry, Jerrrry, Jerrrry…” Everyday, this chant is heard internationally by millions of people watching the notorious talk show: Jerry Springer. Although a decade ago the mainstream would never have imagined such depravity would appear on television, the show is now recognized and adored by many. The most rational explanation for this attraction to the new talk show genre is that it broadcasts more shocking and captivating topics. The shows are popular often because people are interested in that which they do not understand. Trash talk shows offer many divergent themes in the context of a particular show; they are important and dynamic venues that voice the unconventional views of the silent non-conformist. However, Secretary of Education, William Bennet, believes that although these shows might be popular they derogate our civilization, and that these stories should be “kept under wraps.” Unaccepted views, whether accepted or not, must be made available to the public. Moreover, we should judge these ideas decisively and not those who utter them.
In the world of entertainment, trash talk shows have undoubtedly flood every open crevice on daytime television. Jerry Springer could easily be considered the king of trash TV, or as Joshua Gamson puts it, “fairground style freak shows”(8). The topics on his shows are about as deplorable as they can get. The show takes the common talk show themes of lost love, lust, sex, sexuality, cheating, adultery, betrayal, hatred, conflict and ethics to a different level—usually combining several themes and making money along the way. To understand trash TV in its most splendid tastelessness one can hardly do worse than to watch the now omnipresent network tabloid programming. Along the way, all sorts of scandalous material and distasteful chicanery emerge, but with little mystery in the subject matter. In our capitalist society, the quest for ratings is rarely subtle and barely surprising, but it is not without its destructive dynamics. Networks produce shocking television at their own peril, since they risk undermining the integrity on which their claim to trust and credibility depends. Yet with the volatile level of trust in trash television, an important mystery emerges: why are so many people, not all of them from backwoods America, willing to allow their lives become high drama on television? Executives are reluctant to point out that if people wanted to watch serious television, the history channel would be topping the Neilson ratings and we would have only earnest broadcasting on network prime time. Entertainment is a most effective medium, producers explain, to transmit information across. However, it seems that producers are not alone when it comes to using television as an avenue for self-interest.
In the recent past, gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered people had little to no presence on television. With the invention and exploitation of tabloid talk shows such as Ricki Lake, Geraldo, Jenny Jones, Richard Bey, and Jerry Springer, “denizens” on the jagged edges of the heterosexual mainstream now appear daily in living rooms across America. Often these appearances are revolting, and exploitative, with the prominence of the talk show genre predicated upon homophobic responses from the audience and guests on the show. Most gay advocates question the worth of appearing on such programs. At what greater price, they might ask, “visibility for abuse”?
Talk shows are proponents of social tolerance, Joshua Gamson argues, and give much-needed visibility to sexual nonconformists. He adds, “For TV talk to work, everyone must be allowed to speak, or yell, regardless of their position…”(117). Using hundreds of transcripts, extensive interviews with supporting cast members, discussions with viewers, and his own experiences as an audience member as evidence Gamson concludes that talk shows impact public visibility for sexual nonconformists while also aggravating political tensions among those becoming visible. Nevertheless, the more important issue of visibility is unquestionable to the brave souls who venture to the big cities to represent their cause and conflicts.
Sexual identity is an inner-sense of oneself as a sexual being, including how one identifies oneself in terms of gender and sexual orientation. Many lesbians and gay men have very low self-esteem and frequently think negatively of themselves and their sexual identity. They have been regularly conditioned from a young age into believing that being gay is inherently wrong and abnormal. Half of all lesbian and gay youth report that their parents renounce them due to their sexual preference Even if not told directly they may perceive latent messages of rejection from peers, schools and the media.
Many lesbians and gay men have spent so long “in the closet” denying a big part of their life that in the end they still wonder what their identity is and what it means to be a gay person. Culturally we discriminate against homosexuality in males in many of ways. For example, in most states, the age of sexual consent is for gays is usually higher than for heterosexual sex. The police are statistically more vigorous in enforcing the laws against gay men. Conversely, few states have laws that protect homosexuals against discrimination based on sexual orientation.
We also live in a society that disapproves of and discriminates against lesbian sexuality. The major religions, educational, health, media and employment responses are virtually identical as for gay men. However, lesbians also have to deal with an extra gender disadvantage as they experience discrimination based on gender as well as of sexuality. Lesbian issues are dealt with under the umbrella of homosexuality, and some lesbians feel that their sexuality is not taken as seriously as men’s sexuality. Lesbian sexuality is assumed the taking on of a male role by one of two women who engage in sexual activity. This concept inspires the anger of men, whose power, identity, and necessity are thereby challenged.
An overarching political theme surrounds the dynamics of social acceptability for homosexuality: is this association considered acceptable in the fabric of the American household? Furthermore, should our children be well informed of these “abnormalities” through sensationalized television? While several studies indicate that exposure to truthful information about lesbians and gay men often leads to a reduction in homophobia, is that what we really want?
Trash TV talk shows are an important venue for the transformation of public-service news into an entertainment form. From the abolitionist’s of trash TV’s point-of-view the medium is a powerful tool of persuasion that must be guarded vehemently, lest it be abused by the underlings of society. For the network managers, trash talk hosts and producers and ultimately the for freak show participants, the right to an open forum must be defended.
Contrary to Bennett’s view, the majority of Americans are indifferent towards what people’s sexual preference, orientation and identity are. The current “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays in the military exemplifies this indifference. If you enjoy certain things that do not bring harm to others than who has the power to condemn such acts? Who decides what is ethical for all and what is not. The political question correctly remains an enigma. The law of the land guarantees equal rights and gives people free will to make their own choices. If that means living by the moral minimum, and abiding by the law, then we cannot force certain beliefs onto others. We cannot condemn those who hold unpopular beliefs.
If the public is negatively affected by what they watch on television, and by the personal lives of people made public on television, then they have the power to change the channel. No one is forced to watch television. Therefore, if there is something on television that disturbs you, and such television programs negatively affect you, then you are not forced to watch it.
As we watch, listen, and are entertained, trash television talk shows are changing our perceptions, rewriting our cultural roles, altering our social relationships, and ultimately our relationships with the ordinary world. Talk shows offer us a quasi-world of indefinite margins. They create a sensational community, without any of the social and personal responsibilities that are attached to real life. For some, the concept is an appealing notion: therapy as entertainment. The central distortion that these shows advocate is that they give useful therapy to guests and useful advice to the audience. Whether you believe it or not, trash talk shows are arenas for real people.
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