What do Kelly Osbourne, NAAFA, and hurtling cupcakes have to do with one another? Apparently, Dr. Phil.
Before I begin, I should admit to never having watched Dr. Phil before last Wednesday, March 10. I’d seen enough quotes from him to know his fat politics and mine didn’t exactly mesh, and I’m frankly annoyed at talk shows in general for totally ignoring the social in favor of the personal. Still, I knew very little about his show in general. I have to admit, I was pretty shocked – and, to my embarrassment, quite entertained – by the Jerry-Springer-esque flavor of the show I viewed.
Let me provide some context. About a week ago, several fat activists in the L.A. Area received emails inviting us to watch a Dr. Phil episode from the front row of the audience. The topic? The Fat Debate *insert ominous music*. Although I had to work that day and my schedule was enormously overburdened, I agreed, especially since I know and adore one of the panelists appearing on the show: Peggy Howell, NAAFA PR goddess.
Let me sweep aside the approximately eight tons of personal drama I endured getting to and from the studio. Our story begins in the front row of the audience, where I was pretty tickled to sit among some fat pride bigwigs in the SoCal Area. Ironically (although not at all surprisingly), the chairs were too small to accommodate my grandness. I had to sit with my arm around my sister, Kris, in order to have room to move my upper body.
After much ado, the episode began. The panelists included (from left to right, from my perspective): MeMe Roth; some random and virulently anti-fat personal trainer; Jillian Michaels (yes, she of The Biggest Loser fame); Kelly Osbourne (Really? I mean, really?!); a panelist (an actor, I believe) who denied she is “pro-fat” but who thinks fatties deserve to be treated decently (sounds kinda pro-fat to me, but what do I know?); Marianne Kirby, author of Lessons from the Fat-O-Sphere; and my homie, Peggy Howell.
From the very beginning, it was apparent to me that this wasn’t a serious debate on the topic of fat and health. (Kelly Osbourne? Really?) In fact, I thought the best arguments were the ones Dr. Phil mentioned in the introduction; sadly, most of them were never addressed. Right away, the format of the show and the nature of the guests (Who was that scary personal trainer with a t-shirt that screamed “No Chubbies”?), the show degenerated into the usual, tired discussion of whether fatties are bad, whether we deserve kindness or pity, and whether fat people can ever be healthy. YAWN! The highlight? The I’m-not-pro-fat-actor told MeMe Roth she thought MeMe’s rhetoric was reminiscent of the KKK’s. That garnered at least ten minutes of discussion, little of it productive.
As a sociologist, a human rights activist, and a scholar, I was depressed by how little actually got discussed. It’s not that each side didn’t try but that the format of the show directly pitted people against each other, that the guests (with a couple of exceptions) included people chosen for their sensationalism rather than their knowledge or critical thinking abilities, that Dr. Phil and the producers allowed arguing and screaming matches to replace intelligent discussions, and that the show picked an actor and singer, Kelly Osbourne, to act as panel moderator. I thought Ms. Osbourne did a surprisingly good job, but still, I would have appreciated having someone up there whose criterion for expertise was something a bit more, well, substantive, than recently losing a lot of weight. Well, and being born to a famous rocker. Sadly, the opportunity for calm, insightful, and logical discussions disintegrated in the face of name-calling and spectacle-making.
This was symbolized by the audience makeup. Squeezed into the left half of the first few rows of audience were the fatties, while the thin supporters (you could hear them chirp and scream when Jillian Michaels strode onscreen in her stiletto heels) hunkered on the right. Occasionally, they would make snide comments about fatties, and ever-so-often we would glare or ostentatiously laugh at anti-MeMe jokes (so wickedly immature, I know).
The point is, I realized (probably later than most) that this show was never created with the goal of promoting civil discourse. It was all about controversy, titillation, and raised voices. For all the positive influence it had on larger discussions of the issues, it may as well have been on Jerry Springer. This isn’t the fault of any one panelist; — although I did want to slap a couple for being consistently disruptive and inflammatory — it is instead a result of the “needs” of the medium for cheap ratings.
This is all from the perspective of a Ph.D. who has to beat* talk show culture teachings out of her students every single day. Now, had I written as a media consumer, I would have said the show was great fun and I had a blast blowing metaphorical raspberries at MeMe Roth and scary personal trainer guy. What? I’m human, too.
And by the way, the cupcake hurtling I mentioned before? It’s how personal trainer guy motivates his clients to push themselves harder in their exercise regimes. He also uses whips.
Thank god for the educational power of television.
* Not literally — I’m not the scary trainer guy.