Talk shows are the scariest thing on the planet today. You think I’m exaggerating, don’t you? Think about it: not only are they the lowest common denominator of American pop culture, but they’re also—because they’re in the form of “real” people talking about their “real” lives—taken to be some measure of truth.
A talk show pretends to be a window opened by the host; the audience thinks that it’s seeing a clear, undistorted reality. But the view is anything but real—hosts, guest experts, and audience members all inject their own views of the truth into the words of the panelists, making the shows more like funhouse mirrors than windows. Talk shows are powerful propaganda, often masking a conservative, reactionary, restrictive worldview with an earnest desire to help, or a simple voyeurism. The host is always in control of the discourse, and she can run roughshod over what the guests are saying—by not listening, by twisting words to fit a preconceived notion of panelists’ behavior, by putting words into the panelists’ mouths.
When the topic is young women and sex, this kind of moralizing cultural static gets louder and louder. Take, for example, a Geraldo episode called “Teen Sex for Status: These Girls Are Out of Control,” and Jenny Jones, “My Teen Daughter Is Too Promiscuous.” The shows come pre-packaged with titles and the hosts’ viewpoints; the experts come with agendas; audience members come with their own rigid ideas about acceptable behavior. In the parallel universe that is the talk show, like almost everywhere else, female sexual agency hides in plain sight. It can’t be acknowledged—even when it’s being spoken about and demonstrated. When panelists contradict preconceived notions—when they declare that they like the way sex feels, that they fuck just for the hell of it, when they are honest about their erotic lives—their words are willfully misinterpreted and ignored by an audience that must, for its own comfort, erase the reality of female pleasure. And because of the lack of a culturally understood language of female sexual pleasure, it’s even harder for the panelists to express or defend themselves. The problem is not simply that individual girls get insulted and ignored by these particular episodes of these particular shows, but that huge chunks of our entire culture are built on the repression of female sexuality, and these shows are a symptom and a demonstration of that sad fact—and a mode of perpetuating it.
Only two panelists even come close to describing sexual pleasure—Liz, on Jenny Jones, and Paradise,All of Geraldo’s panelists go by nicknames. on Geraldo. Liz: “I like the feeling of sex. I like having orgasms.” Paradise: “I do it because I get off on it. And I need to have an orgasm, too.” And later, she gets even more graphic: “there are some things that hands just cannot do, and that’s why I do it.” Their words are gleefully inspiring. “Orgasm” is not a word that we expect to hear out of the mouth of a sixteen-year-old girl—because she’s not supposed to be having any. And audience reactions show how much the general public would like to ignore the fact that many young girls are having orgasms. Often.
Paradise, in all her graphic glory, is ignored. No one on Geraldo addresses or even acknowledges what she has said: that pleasure is a valid motivation for behavior. Over at Jenny Jones, everyone greets this revelation with outright disbelief. Liz—by far the most outspoken of Jenny Jones’s panelists—has said very clearly that she has sex purely for the physical pleasure it brings, but Jenny still asks, “What other reason do you have for doing all this sexual activity? Is it—you really just enjoy the sex? Is there something else…” Liz cuts her off: “I enjoy sex.” Jenny has to keep pushing, because she’s not getting the answer that she needs and expects: “…you’re getting—what else are you getting out of it? Is there something else in it for you?” Liz flatly replies, “I just like the feeling of sex.” Jenny has no choice but to change the subject. She hasn’t managed to achieve a classic talk show moment, one where the guest, after some prodding, admits whatever it is that the host and the audience wants her to and the show can claim some twisted sort of victory. Jenny hides her failure by quickly moving on, never acknowledging that Liz has, in fact, answered the question, and her answer is the pure and simple physicality of sex.
Other panelists, because they don’t use the language of pleasure and desire that Liz and Paradise do, leave themselves even more open to this kind of manipulation. Fuck-DeliciousBecause of the unacceptable-to-the-censors nature of this woman’s nickname, they couldn’t say it, and I’m making an educated guess as to what it actually is. Geraldo was reduced to calling her “F-elicious,” which sounds oddly and unfortunately like some new brand of bubble gum. comments, “I have fun when I’m out.” Fun is her code word for pleasure; going out means having sex. A woman in the Geraldo audience asks the youngest panelist, “Did you join the group [the panelists call themselves “the Precious Players”] because you want to be down with the homies or are you just joining it because you enjoy it?” (Excuse me, just because you enjoy it?) Desire answers, “I enjoy it.” Geraldo: “Well, tell us more about that. What do you enjoy about it?”This is a surprising question, because it indicates that he actually wants to know. But it’s clear from his next question—”Do you ever worry about your future?”—that he’s just trying to provoke the same sort of talk show moment that Jenny tried to get from Liz. Her response, “I enjoy—I like partying with them,” says nothing. She quite literally has no words. And when Jenny asks Sarah, “What did you enjoy about it?”—”it” meaning sex, of course—Sarah answers, “Everything about it.” Clearly, this is open to interpretation, but in light of some of Sarah’s other comments,Sarah said earlier in the show that she has sex “basically, [for] the same reason Liz does. I like it.” She can’t find her own words to describe her pleasure, but she recognizes Liz’s words as powerful, and she is claiming that power for herself. I think it’s fair to interpret “everything” to mean everything about the way it feels, physically, to have sex. But that’s not an interpretation that the host, the studio audience, and most of the at-home viewers can make.
Here’s the problem: “Fun,” “partying,” and “stuff” make up the girls’ vocabulary because they don’t know any other words for what they’re feeling. And since they can’t use strong words, their weak ones can be misinterpreted and ignored. But there’s something else going on, too: Network censors mimic cultural silencing, literally preventing certain words from being spoken. The choices are vague euphemism—to do “it” or to “be with” a partner—clinical correctness—”intercourse”—or a mouthed obscenity and a high-pitched bleep. Danielle, who describes her activities as “just a whole bunch of stuff,” might have wanted to get a little more specific, but if she had she almost certainly would have been bleeped. Geraldo had almost as much bleeping as actual speech. If someone could just say, “Sexual pleasure is an important and valid motivation for behavior on the part of adolescent girls,” “Fucking is a natural and positive thing,” or “It feels good when someone touches my clitoris,” maybe people would pay attention. Then again, maybe not.
…Or Anything But
When pleasure is denied, there’s no motivation for the panelists’ behavior. So hosts, experts, and audience members make some up. How convenient. Geraldo says at least five times that his guests are having sex for status—even though there are only two mentions of it by one panelist. He also comments that one of his panelists slept with her teacher to boost her GPA. Of course that’s not true; it’s just the easiest explanation. Paradise tries to set him straight. “No, I didn’t do it to get a better grade…but he was all there. He was just fine. And I wanted to hook up. So I got with him.” Jenny says, “Tina says she’s at her wit’s end trying to control her promiscuous daughter who says she doesn’t care what her mother thinks, she’s going to sleep with boys because she likes the attention.” The girl in question contradicts this analysis, but no one acknowledges her. Also on Jenny Jones, “Sheila [Carla’s aunt] says Carla believes sex is a way for her to keep guys.” Yes, that’s what Sheila says, but does anyone ask Carla? Hmm…a pattern.
Let’s see, for motivations for sex there’s status, there’s grades, and, and—lack of self-esteem. Yeah, yeah, that’s right. “For them to get into the situation that they’re in, they must not have had good self-esteem,” says a Geraldo audience member. Jenny’s expert says, referring to how many partners the panelists have had, “It’s not shocking if you have no self worth…. Obviously, all five of these young women don’t feel good about who they are.” This is such a common cliché about female sexual activity that it’s not surprising how often it’s expressed. But it’s still dismaying, because there is no evidence to support the low self-esteem theory—in fact, there’s plenty of evidence against it. Geraldo’s panelists are especially vehement. Candy Girl says, “I feel good about myself…. I have self-esteem, you know…. I don’t let people put me down. I feel good about myself.” Paradise asserts, “I don’t regret anything I’ve ever done.” Candy Girl again: “We value ourselves…. We ain’t ashamed, you know what I mean?” But audience members, hosts, and experts don’t know what she means; they can’t accept that a teenage girl might like herself and also choose to fuck. Furthermore, a possibility that no one ever entertains is that the theory is backwards: girls don’t have sex because they feel bad, but sometimes they’re made to feel bad because they’ve been having sex.
The other stupid, wrong-as-it-is-ubiquitous thing that gets said about girls (and women) is that whenever they have sex, they really want love. Belma Johnson, one of Geraldo’s “experts” who thinks that because he hosts some cable show about teenagers he knows what’s inside their heads, says, “It’s not about sex,…it’s not about fun. It’s about looking for love. It’s about looking for respect.” None of the panelists have said a damn thing to support his ridiculous statement. Jenny does the same thing: “I don’t think it’s about orgasms. I think it’s about fulfilling something that’s missing, thinking it’s love…” Her comment closes a show where no one has said as much as one word about being in love with the boys she fucks or wanting the boys to be in love with her. Both Jenny and Belma are projecting their own expectations onto the panelists. It doesn’t matter what the girls say; those watching can only see what they choose to.
Belma takes his denial even further and says that the panelists are lying: “I can guarantee you it’s mostly talk…. This is not what teenagers are about. I don’t even think it’s what they’re about.” His condescending arrogance is bad enough to make you want to slap him silly—but his unfounded accusation is truly appalling. I wanted to heave a brick through my tv screen as I watched this idiot suggest that these girls were making it all up, that they weren’t speaking from a powerful lived experience.
False consequences are the next round of ammunition in the repressive arsenal. Oh, no, you’ll have a reputation. Geraldo: “What do the kids in your high school say about your reputation?” Jenny: “What’s this doing to your reputation? You do get called names?” A mother to her daughter: “Fifteen [men you’ve slept with]? You know what that is? That’s a slut.” I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. “Reputation” is a misogynist social construction that functions (often extremely efficiently) to stifle female sexuality. The good news is that these girls aren’t buying into it. Liz: “Yeah, I get called slut, tramp, but who cares? I don’t.”
Another perceived problem, linked to the threat of reputation, is the possibility of “being used.” Again, these girls don’t care. They recognize that you can only be used if you’re not getting what you want. Tina [mother]: “Don’t you think this guy is only using you girls?” Sarah: “Who cares? We’re using him for the same thing.” An extension of “used” is used up, as in this Jenny Jones audience member’s comment, “When you get [to be] twenty-five, ain’t no man going to want you, because you’re going to be tired…” Jenny herself: “What if you are twenty, twenty-one years old, and you meet the man of your dreams, and this is the guy you want to spend the rest of your life with, and he won’t accept you because of how many men you’ve been with?” The whole concept of being “tired” and “used up” is just a repackaged, modernized version of a-woman’s-greatest-asset-is-her-virginity-which-is-a-precious-gift-that-she-gives-
to-her-husband-on-their-wedding-night. The notion that if a man can’t deal with a woman’s past then he’s not worth her time, or that spending the rest of her life with one man (or any man) might not be something every woman wants is outside the realm of possibility for the audience.
The most dire consequence the panelists are threatened with is so revealing of covert cultural attitudes that it’s sickly comical; it’d be funny if it wasn’t so depressing. According to a male member of Jenny’s audience, “Some of the people who you think you’re down with, they’re going to pull you off to the side one day, they ain’t going to tell nobody, and you know what? You’ll be one of those people that be somewhere chopped up in half, hid in another state, you know?” Translation: Female sexuality is dangerous; men can’t be held responsible for their violent actions when confronted with it; it’s all the woman’s fault for making herself available to be chopped up in the first place.
So What’s Really Going On Here?
Behind the fear of sexuality is a fear of female agency and power. No one can stand the thought of girls and women doing what they want to do with their own bodies. What alarms talk show powers that be most is agency—Liz: “I’m going to do what I want to do when I want to do it”; Candy Girl: “I want to [it was censored, but she must have said ‘fuck’]”—and agency can only be seen as a thwarting of control. On Geraldo, the grave statement that, “these girls are out of control,” is intoned over and over; on Jenny Jones, it’s “sexually active teens out of control.” But the problem isn’t really that the girls are out of control, because they’re not. What they have done is escape parental and societal controls to institute a control of their own.
These shows are a mobius strip of circular logic: a graphic demonstration of the various ways that our culture erases female sexuality, and how in turn those erasures function to keep women in their place. It’s impossible to completely separate cause from effect—the only point that emerges with any clarity is that it all works together. Cultural fear of female pleasure and agency stifles both those feelings in women and the language they have available to describe it. Without that language it can’t be shared with others, and the cultural fear and erasure is perpetuated.
As viewers, we must constantly remind ourselves that the discourse of talk shows is always controlled by hosts and producers. That they frame the entire debate—from the out-of-context quotes taken from pre-show interviews, to the leading questions, to the final edit—is inherent in the format. A certain amount of conflict is good for them—it provides a frisson, a spectacle. But, as in any propaganda, nothing can be allowed to present a real challenge to the hegemony of the conventional.
As audience members say, “Girl, you need help… you got a serious problem.” Yes, the panelists do have a problem—the problem of being willfully misunderstood and judged, the problem of having their experience denied and erased. Yes, they need help. They need help to make themselves understood, to develop a full language of female sexual pleasure and agency. But they’re never going to get it from a talk show.