Workers' Liberty #58


Jerry Springer and the end of civilisation

Jerry Springer is the talk show king of the US, and seems to be on British television several times a day. In his show, people are wheeled on to reveal their darkest secrets not only to an international audience but to their lovers (usually), whether it's that despite appearances they have a penis, or - the staple - that they've been cheating. It is almost de rigeur for physical fights to break out, at which point the studio audience goes mental and chants "Je-rry! Je-rry!"

By Edward Ellis

Jerry Springer is the talk show king of the US, and seems to be on British television several times a day. In his show, people are wheeled on to reveal their darkest secrets not only to an international audience but to their lovers (usually), whether it's that despite appearances they have a penis, or - the staple - that they've been cheating. It is almost de rigeur for physical fights to break out, at which point the studio audience goes mental and chants "Je-rry! Je-rry!"

Watching Jerry Springer is like watching the collapse of civilisation. (Oprah Winfrey, recoiling in horror, transformed her own show into appeals for self-worth and introductions to a common audience of great works of literature). It's like the craziest fantasies of '70s sci-fi movies - a sort of talk show Rollerball. What's worse is that you do watch, in appalled, but transfixed, fascination. Of course much of it must be faked, either consciously by the producers or simply because the guests are making it all up for a laugh. But much of it feels horribly real.

Springer, a former (disgraced) politician whose show was going nowhere until it was spiced up to out-trash anything on TV - it makes the Ricky Lake show seem the height of propriety -describes his daily spectacle as "a silly show". But he claims it gives a voice to the voiceless, the little people that America ignores, portraying it as some kind of democratic trail-blazer. It takes what is always disturbing about these talk shows, mainly that people would want to bare their darkest secrets on TV, and magnifies them to the nth degree. But where there might be something therapeutic in these public confessions on other shows, it's hard to imagine that any of the guests go home from Jerry Springer in other than the deepest depression.

In a typical scenario, a woman comes out and declares that her man's been cheatin' on her, but she ain't gonna put up with that shit no more. The husband arrives, admitting he's been sleeping with her sister; then the sister appears and the two women proceed to attack each other, as the audience cheer and give each other high fives. The security men separate the women, then they attack each other again, screaming beeped out expletives. They then hurl abuse at each other to the effect that "you're a bitch who can't satisfy your man, I'm gonna kill you, you motherfuckin' bitch", and so on. Whereupon the wife will reveal that she's also been cheatin', and the "person" is waiting in the wings. The "person", naturally, is her husband's sister, to the audience's delight (although anyone who's watched the show more than once would have known there'd be a lesbian relationship in it sooner or later), who then launches into the husband's lover, for no discernible reason.

It is deeply, deeply depressing stuff.

It treats people's worst emotional trauma not simply as entertainment, but as circus. Frequently, the guests are not far off circus freaks, or at least act up their freakishness for the sake of the camera. The nastier guests are to each other, and the more violent they get, the more the audience laps it up. The guests normally seem to be unutterably stupid, so stupid it is a miracle they can get up in the morning, and speak (or rather, yell, simultaneously) in nothing but talk show clichés.

Yet one of the remarkable things is that it's very rare for a guest who has been told some awful thing by their loved one to react by demanding to know why they've been brought on national TV to be told it. Occasionally, they do, and walk off. Even then you wonder what they expected, as nobody comes on Jerry Springer to receive a declaration of love. Normally, they simply participate in the circus, seizing, it would seem, on their chance for 10 minutes of fame or attention, even at the cost of horrendous humiliation.

People justify their actions in only the most cursory manner. Men caught out cheating on their wives with scores of women (and a few men, not unusually) just grin proudly and tell their hurt and miserable spouse how crap they are in bed. A cheating wife will announce that her husband's got a small dick. Parents of convicted wife batterers confront their son's victims with screams of hysterical abuse, pause briefly to concede that what their son did was wrong, then return to the abuse. Audience members stand to make crass, moralising points, then applaud themselves as the rest of the gang leap to their feet screaming "Je-rry! Je-rry!" for the twentieth time in as many minutes. Quite often the audience will wander bizarrely from the point, like a woman who rises to demand of the lesbian menage a trois not why they are so unspeakably vile to each other, but why on earth they are lesbians at all. Sometimes, guests and spectators challenge each other to fights, or flash their breasts in gestures of contempt.

The hysteria of guests and audience is carefully stagemanaged and encouraged, of course, and recently Springer has been ordered to tone down the on-stage violence. Sometimes, as the hand-held cameras whirl around the enraged guests who are literally pulling out clumps of one another's hair, you catch a glimpse of the floor manager holding up a placard, and jumping up and down to incite the audience.

But it's not simply that. The Jerry Springer Show reveals a society with no moral centre whatsoever. The guests are people whose way of life is based on deceit and emotional cruelty. The audience are voyeuristic sadists who are only happy if other people are suffering. Springer injects moral lessons into the monstrous thing by his end-speeches, but in the context of what has been encouraged and delivered these are only the most blatant acts of hypocrisy.

Yet the entire spectacle is bolstered by an appearance of moral principles.

Springer, audience and guests alike all talk as if they have a clear idea of what's right and wrong. "Take care of yourselves... and each other," Springer daily advises. It's a world in which, at least most of the time, anything goes as long as nobody's being hurt. The only freak show Springer says he couldn't really cope with was of adult men who pretend to be babies complete with diapers (he lost his rag with the Klu Klux Klan, but that's obviously a bit different: they were saying they were glad his family perished in death camps). It's a world in which the only categorical evils seem to be cheating on your partner, especially if you have children, and dishonesty more generally (neglecting to tell your lover you're actually a man, say). It's also that particularly American world in which nothing is more disgraceful than being without a job and failing to pay your bills.

Yet there's a repellent prurience in everything that occurs. The Jerry Springer Show just loves lesbians. There's hardly a show without a couple of dykes trying to kill each other. It loves transsexuals almost as much, as long as they're terrifying harpies. The audience cheer and boo with apparent open-mindedness on these issues; but it's not true. Sexual minorities are the stock-in-trade circus freaks, a parade of weirdoes whose sexual excesses are just what's to be expected. In this, Springer is distinct from Ricky Lake, for example, whose treatment of such minorities is far less sensationalist.

Throughout, what's striking is the gap between the moral certainties which give rise to the anger, outrage and hatred, and the real, amoral world these people inhabit. The core values to which Springer appeals again and again, despite the surface liberalness towards his freak show, are old-fashioned, conservative family ones. His guests and audience ostensibly share them. What makes them so angry is that these values have collapsed in practice - their lovers are constantly unfaithful, nobody can be trusted - and they have nothing to fill the void. It's the gap between how they think the world is, and their actual experience, which torments them. And in that gap you find, over and over, the most bizarre misplacement of anger. Why do two women fighting over some selfish, arrogant, badly-behaved man tear each other's hair out, rather than his? It's the rage of America's underclass. Springer's guests are usually unemployed, or if they have work it will be somewhere in the sex industry (many's the show in which a stripper will suddenly offer to perform his or her act to taunt their lover, and the lights immediately dim and the music plays in a carefully-prepared display). They come, broadly speaking, from the same world in which kids kill each other over what kind of shoes they wear - a world in which society is literally disintegrating. Poor, politically unrepresented, uneducated, ignored by the system, it's as if there is nothing left in their lives but an incoherent rage focused on nothing, an inarticulate despair; and the only thing which can possibly fill the hole is to be on television, so that's why they come and come.

There's a constant, uncomfortable frisson from the fact that audience members will pontificate (usually in talk-show soundbite jargon, endlessly repeating the word "respect" until it has absolutely no meaning) about lives and relationships of which they know next to nothing ("Girl, he's a dawg, you should leave him!", or "You just a fat bitch who can't get a man!"); yet the guests have chosen to be there, knowing this is what they will get.

It is, of course, the crassest "dumbing down" commercial exploitation. Yet it reveals the problem: audiences like it. Springer is a hero - especially, it seems, among young black Americans, who don't have a huge number of Jewish heroes. The show ends with tapes of people leaving, telling "Jerry" how they've travelled from the far corners of the US to be on his show and they love him. Do they find something more than titillation in this barbaric spectacle? Do they maybe even find some solace in his words of wisdom? Do they leave, or at home switch off, thinking they would rather die than be like one of the people they've been watching, and live their lives with greater consideration and "respect" for other people? It's hard to believe. For the audience, at home and in the studio, the circus reassures us: thank God I'm not like that. But it's not as if the show was appealing to a middle class middle-American audience quite different from what's on display. The guests, it would seem, are normally regular viewers who have achieved a life's ambition to be there. To a significant extent, the core audience is watching itself, at least in America. In Britain there's an extra layer of protection, as we can feel "those yanks are crazy" and it's nothing to do with us; but the trend in British talk shows is in that direction, even if Tricia is a pale imitation.

A conspiracy theory would claim that Jerry Springer is an outrider for the Moral Majority. Every show is a graphic demonstration of how low American society has sunk without conservative values which mean something; it's like propaganda for anti-abortionists which shows tragic, dead foetuses. The appeal of talk shows like this is close to that of docusoaps. "Real life" dramas are judged by many audiences to be more interesting than invented ones; and for the programme makers they are vastly cheaper to make. The characters have all the attributes, except wealth, of those in soaps, living out larger-than-life situations at a safe remove. The fact they've chosen to be there gives the audience license to love it. Like docusoaps they offer their participants the chance, even if it's a vague one, of making it. From British docusoaps a couple of stars have emerged (Jane Macdonald from Cruise, and the camp guy from Airline). In the desperate ass-wiggling of Springer's strippers there's the glimmer of hope that someone out there will offer them a job; and sometimes the guests must be actors put up to it by their agents, if they have them.

Watching it on TV, you know the decent thing is to turn off. But you don't (or usually don't: sometimes it's just too awful). When I first saw it I thought it was appalling; then I started to find it outrageous and funny. Now it makes me want to cry. But horrible and degrading as it is, to view as much as guest, I have to admit it can be compelling, even as I hide behind my hands and shake my head in despair.

In the Roman Empire, the circus - where gladiators fought to the death, and enemies of the state were eaten by lions - fulfiled the role of keeping the masses happy. It allowed the audience to experience intense emotion, matters of life and death, vicariously. The Greek theatre, on the other hand, fulfiled the same function through invented dramas. Roman culture was more brutal and barbaric at least in part because it was based on a more brutal and exploitative system. The Greeks had slaves, of course; but their society did not depend on the savage mass exploitation of slavery, and of far-flung rebellious dominions, to the extent that the Romans' did. A system founded and dependent on conquest and cruelty developed a cruel, bloody popular culture. Modern capitalism is like that. The system of exploitation breeds citizens who revel in its decadent excesses.

This is a peculiarly capitalist type of excess, in which even people's personal lives and disasters are a means for TV companies to make a quick buck, where even emotions are treated like a commodity. They're not literally a commodity, in that as far as I know the guests aren't paid for their trouble (although they're flown in and put up in hotels). But it is the utter sacrifice of emotional life to the gods of money, and if not money for the guests themselves, a tiny taste of what money can bring - fame, and the pleasure of having a lens pointed at you. It gives a chance for people without a "voice" to experience, if only for a few minutes, doing what stars do: show off to a mass audience. The programme-makers bank the traumatic result.

So in a sense Springer is right about giving voice to the voiceless. The problem is that the disenfranchised underclass of American society don't know what to say when they get a "voice", and the voice is manipulated and transformed into something ghastly. His show doesn't prove the need for a return to traditionalism; rather, that the traditional values are empty, worthless phrases. The reality of American capitalism, or at least for a significant number of its people, is this hollow, loveless, meaningless bear- pit. For all the manipulation and fakery, for all the fact that much of it must be somebody's joke, or the guests are actors, or making up any old rubbish to get on TV, the Springer Show expresses an awful truth about where American society, and increasingly our own, has reached.

The emptiness is real. The question is how to fill it.

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