A Return to Feminine Public Virtue: Judge Judy and the Myth of the Tough Mother

Article excerpt

Expanding upon "feminine style" scholarship, this essay employs mythological criticism to explore a case in which women's rhetorical invention manages both aggressiveness and femininity. Judge Judy Sheindlin's rhetoric invokes the Tough Mother, a familiar cultural character emerging from the temperance movement, to promote a special virtuous ethos within the contemporary neo-conservative scene. Judge Judy's rhetoric highlights the continued challenges for women's public discourse, illuminating how feminine public virtue may contribute to scapegoating in popular culture.

**********

In the 1980s and 1990s, a conservative public discourse centering on the perceived decline in American morality gained prominence (Nash, 1997). Academics have contributed to this discourse, arguing that an absence of civic virtue and morality has denigrated American culture by replacing "true" moral debate with emotive claims and judgments (MacIntyre, 1981). Rather than deliberating in the language of virtue, such discourse posits, the public discusses morality in the language of rights (Beiner, 1992; MacIntyre, 1981). For instance, both pro-life and pro-choice advocates frame the abortion debate in terms of child rights, fetus rights, maternal rights, and human rights, rather than virtues such as prudence (MacIntyre, 1981). Social commentators like Bennett (1992) and Olasky (1992) argue that infusing public policy with neo-conservative virtues like self-discipline and personal responsibility will help resolve perennial public problems like poverty, unemployment, crime, and substance abuse. The neo-conservative virtuecrats contend that

   many Americans became either embarrassed, unwilling, or unable
   to explain with assurance to our children and to one another
   the difference between right and wrong, between what is helpful
   and what is destructive, what is ennobling and what is degrading.
   (Bennett, 1992, p. 33)

This resurgence of conservative "virtue talk" is of particular interest for feminist scholars concerned with rhetorical and media criticism. While government and business are still fraught with sex discrimination against women as wage-earners and public leaders (Conway, Ahem, & Steuernagel, 1999), this virtue-affirming discourse may again popularize the arguments that women have used when entering the historically signified "masculine turf" of public life (Campbell, 1983). Women have consistently drawn upon their special domestic virtues, such as piety and temperance, to justify their entry into gendered public spaces (Matthews, 1992). Within today's conservative context, one may expect women to gain special ethos in public life through traditional submissiveness and quiet virtue. However, as this analysis explores, women may not need to maintain demure, "lady-like" behavior in order to gain public power. Since an aggressive, yet feminine, style remains largely unaddressed in feminist and communication scholarship, (1) it is important to explore why some aggressive public women, such as Hillary Rodham Clinton, are considered "bitches" (Campbell, 1998), while others are embraced by members of the public.

As a rhetorical figure, Judith Sheindlin, known through her popular persona as Judge Judy, provides an opportunity to explore a number of theoretical and practical issues of women's public involvement. Now in its seventh season, Judge Judy stands out as a syndicated ratings success that has spawned nearly a dozen "reality" courtroom imitators. Judge Judy remains one of the most popular television programs in the afternoon talk show format, attracting about seven million viewers each weekday (Burkeman, 2003) and often beating Oprah Winfrey in the key "early-fringe" time slots leading into local news (Albiniak, 2003, February 17). In addition, Judge Judy has three best-selling adult books, and recently signed a $157 million contract for her program--making her one of the highest paid television personalities on air today (Wapshott, 2003). …