Book Excerpt: Ellen Willis on "Bringing in the Noise" of Trash TV

Ellen Willis is not a household name, but in a just world she would be. A leftist cultural critic and feminist, Willis was a defining figure of the New York cultural scene in the 1960s and 1970s. She was probably best known to the public as the first pop music critic the New Yorker ever had, a gig she held from the late 1960s into the 1970s. Music was not her only passion, though. She was an outspoken feminist commentator, and one of the early members of the New York Radical Women's collective, the effective cradle of the women's movement in New York. (Check out Susan Faludi's piece on the collective from the New Yorker last year for more details.) Willis died in 2006, but her writing has been experiencing a revival of late among younger pop culture critics, who are attracted by the energy and intelligence of Willis' work.

The essay below, "Bring in the Noise," originally appeared in The Nation in 1996, and is reprinted in a new collection, The Essential Ellen Willis, edited by her daughter Nona Willis-Aronowitz and out today from the University of Minnesota Press.

It was published around the time that daytime talk shows were ruling the airwaves and the cultural conversation. Talk shows aren't quite at the head of the pack of cultural complaints about trash these days. But Willis' observations about the socially conservative separation of the high and low do still apply to the trashier ends of culture in America today.

Whenever the right and the left agree on some proposition about culture, I know it's time to grab my raincoat; and so it is with the incessant demonizing of popular culture and media. Everywhere they look—tabloid television, MTV, Married...with Children, Pulp Fiction, gangsta rap, saturation coverage of O. J. Simpson/the Bobbitts/Amy Fisher— politicians and high-minded journalists see nothing but sleaze and moral degradation.

The latest target is daytime TV talk shows. Rumblings began last year when Jonathan Schmitz murdered Scott Amedure, a gay man, after Amedure identified Schmitz as his "secret crush" on Jenny Jones. Since then, William Bennett and Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut have called on talk-show advertisers to withdraw their support, N.E.A. nemesis Donald Wildmon's American Family Association has joined the cause with a full-page ad in the New York Times and Phil Donahue's retirement has touched off a round of head-shaking at the contrast between the now-respectable pioneer of the talk show and his degenerate successors. Commentators reveal the stop-the-presses news that the talk-show audience prefers sex and violence to analyses of health care and foreign policy. Beyond this indisputable fact the legions of outraged moralists have little enlightenment to offer, since they rarely bother to pay much attention to the reviled genre, let alone try to understand what's going on in the imagination of people who do.

The popularity of popular culture is a problem for its detractors: it would be a breach of American democratic etiquette, not to mention an implicit rebuke to free-market platitudes about supply and demand, for journalists or (especially) politicians simply to claim that their own cultural tastes are superior to those of the barbarian hordes (though they come close to doing this when the subject is black music). The solution is to rely heavily on the assumption that the media are a species of addictive drug, pushed on a vulnerable populace by corporations out to make a buck and/or infiltrated by a perve New York and Hollywood cultural elite. The audience is often referred to as "our children," even when the medium in question is aimed at adults. Lieberman indignantly cites a report that claims "children aged 2 to 11 comprise six percent" of talk-show viewers nationally. The other 94 percent? Don't ask!

In the case of talk shows, the critic-audience gap is even wider than usual. I doubt that Lieberman and his fellow attack dogs got the idea for their crusade by actually watching Ricki Lake or Richard Bey or Sally Jessy Raphael. But what's more interesting is the paucity of sympathetic popcult critics who are talk-show fans: Donna Gakes, with her Village Voice testimonial that Jenny Jones saved her life, is the conspicuous exception. Like McDonald's, these shows are genuinely lowbrow; unlike Quentin Tarantino or Snoop Doggy Dogg, they can't be said to appeal to the so-called cultural elite. They resist hip readings—it's hard to watch a talk show ironically, even when you're sure it's as fake as a wrestling match. Anyway, the shows come on at the wrong time for the critical classes, right in the middle of the sacred working day.

I first saw The Ricki Lake Show because my daughter had mentioned it, and I thought I should check it out. We watched a show together; the subject, as I recall, was women whose boyfriends had impregnated other women. There were moments that made me squirm, but not because I was worried that, as Lieberman would later put it, "the constant confrontations and emotional violence" would teach my 11-year-old "a perverse way to solve personal problems" or give her the impression "that is the way normal adults behave." Leaving aside the absurdity of the idea that "normal adults" don't have nasty fights, it took little in the way of probing discussion to confirm that my daughter could tell the difference between real life and stage-managed psychodrama. Anyway, from my own childhood encounters with horror comics, soap operas, graphic sex manuals and other crypto-pornography of the fifties, I know kids have more complicated filters than adults tend to give them credit for.

The danger, it seemed to me, was exactly the opposite: that my child was seeing Ricki's guests, working-class people willing to spill the beans on TV, as alien and unreal. Or maybe I was afraid that's what I was doing.

Like other forms of popular culture, talk shows reflect the peculiar contradictions of today's social and political climate. While conservatives dominate the political system and control the terms of debate on economic issues, their drive to roll back the cultural changes of the sixties and seventies has had much more ambiguous results. The most telling success of the cultural right (and in that category I include social conservatives who are political liberals or leftists) has been the discrediting of the idea of a pro-freedom, pro-pleasure revolution in everyday life in favor of nostalgia for an idealized past: these days it's even harder to get a serious public hearing for a radical critique of the family than for a radical critique of capitalism. This repression of the utopian impulse has combined with economic insecurity to brew a protean anger that leaks out in various forms of sadism—physical, verbal, moral and vicarious. On the other hand, social conservatives have been notably unsuccessful at stemming the democratization of culture, the breakdown of those class, sex and race-bound conventions that once reliably separated high from low, "news" from "gossip," public from unspeakably private, respectable from deviant.

Talk shows are a product of this democratization; they let people who have been largely excluded from the public conversation appear on national TV and talk about their sex lives, their family fights, sometimes their literal dirty laundry. What's more taboo than the subject matter itself is the way it's presented—as personal revelation rather than social comment, and as spectacle mostly devoid of pretensions to redeeming social value: "In these shows," William Bennett complains, "indecent exposure is celebrated as a virtue. . . . There was once a time when personal or marital failure . . . and perverse taste were accompanied by guilt or embarrassment." Talk shows are meant to entertain, to excite the nerve ends. This in itself is anathema to social conservatives, for whom the only legitimate function of popular culture is instructing the masses in the moral values of their betters.

It's not that morality is absent from talk shows. True, some guests flaunt "deviant" behavior without being condemned for it; but others indignantly defend conventional moral standards against wayward lovers or children. Talk-show hosts often lecture guests, especially teenagers—Sally Jessy has perfected a stern school-principal style, Ricki a more maternal-therapeutic approach—while members of the audience or other guests (the parents, wronged girlfriends and so on) may subject the (usually defiant) miscreant to verbal stoning. The catch is that their very complicity in a public free-for-all undermines their moral authority. And though therapists may be called on to give "expert" commentary or do a bit of ad hoc family counseling, they are about as relevant to the action as those trailers that used to introduce porn movies with homilies on the need for sex education. At the dramatic center of talk shows are mostly black, Latino and low-rent white guests who, by their very willingness to expose intimate, "shameful" matters and yell and scream at each other on the air, assert their lack of deference to middle-class norms.

I mean "dramatic" literally; talk shows are theater. Like most kinds of popular entertainment, especially on television, they rely on formula. There's the trial scenario—an accusation ("My ex-husband's wife abuses my kid"), a rebuttal ("I hit her because she's disrespectful, but I don't abuse her") and a parade of witnesses: the alleged victim ("I don't have to obey you, you're not my mother and you threw me downstairs!"), the nervous father who hasn't seen anything and is totally out of it, the "expert" who lectures that it's abusive to hit a kid, even your own. The judge/host presides, asking questions and being fair to all sides. The jury/audience gets into the act, berating the stepmother for overstepping her bounds, the kid for being disrespectful, the father for being out of it. What's missing is a unanimous verdict or any semblance of courtroom decorum.

Then there's the increasingly popular "surprise" show, where a guest is tricked into appearing. This ploy makes explicit the basic appeal of talk-show formulas: however often repeated, they're never totally predictable, but offer the exciting possibility that a situation will get out of control. An argument can lead to an outburst of violence; the woman who is proposed to can say no. The talk show is a dangerous ritual like boxing or bullfighting, an improvisatory performance that seems to blur the boundary between actors and audience, yet leaves the larger audience safe behind the barrier of the screen. And since talk shows traffic in subjects that have universal resonance—from infidelity, incest and juvenile rebellion to clothes ("My mom dresses like a tramp!")—I suspect that few people are entirely impervious to their crude power.

As a distant graduate of youth culture and mother of a soon-to-be-teenager, I'm riveted by shows that feature generational collisions. On a recent Sally Jessy Raphael episode, "I'm Ready to Divorce My Children," kids of 12 (has sex and steals) and 13 (throws ashtrays), hiding behind their bad-seed fright masks to ward off who knew what terrors, sullenly confronted their desperate, baffled mother. There was Dantesque torment in that encounter; it stayed with me for days. I'm sure a lot of guests invent or exaggerate their torments, with or without the connivance of producers. But in this case, I could swear the emotions were real. If not, the acting was surely marvelous.

I don't mean to romanticize talk shows. If they reflect a democratizing impulse, they're also a symptom of today's anti-utopian and anti-political mood. While great popular art tends to bring disparate groups together—the way the Beatles reached teenyboppers and intellectuals, or Duke Ellington whites and blacks—talk shows are more likely to reinforce class and racial fragmentation. Though viewers from the same social milieus as the guests may identify with them and their problems, my hunch is that for many middle-class talk-show fans, the kick is feeling superior (or as my daughter put it when I posed the question, ''lucky").

As for the guests themselves, in the absence of any other way to have an impact on history—which is to say, the absence of effective social movements—the opportunity to sound off on national television offers visibility, and therefore validation, to teenagers and people of color and working-class whites; in effect it's the culture's acknowledgment that they exist. But existence proved this way is existence on someone else's terms. Often guests are so vivid, or funny, or sure of their right to be who they are that they outflank the manipulative condescension of their producers and hosts. But often they don't, especially when the audience gangs up on them, or when they're set up to be surprised. The Schmitz murder is a disturbing commentary on talk-show tactics, not because ''Jenny made him do it"—homophobia made him do it—but because the whole rationale of talk shows is bound up with risking such events. If a show becomes a flashpoint for the culture's free-floating sadism, or a conduit for politics by other means, is it truly an accident?

Finally, though, our problem is not the excesses of talk shows but the brutality and emptiness of our political culture. Pop bashing is the humanism of fools: in the name of defending people's dignity it attacks their pleasures and their meager store of power. On talk shows, whatever their drawbacks, the proles get to talk. The rest of the time they're told in a thousand ways to shut up. By any honest reckoning, we need more noise, not less.

Reprinted with permission from Nona Willis Aronowitz, from The Essential Ellen Willis.