Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

"You Either Get It or You Don't:" Conversion Experiences and the Dr. Phil Show

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

"You Either Get It or You Don't:" Conversion Experiences and the Dr. Phil Show

Article excerpt

R. Danielle Egan, Assistant Professor

Stephen D. Papson, Professor

Department of Sociology, St. Lawrence University, Canton, NY


Using The Dr. Phil Show as a case study, this paper explores the processes of secularization and sacralization in the media spectacle of talk television. It argues that TheDr. Phil Show employs the religious narrative of conversion to frame the personal experiences and the problems of participants. Using discourse analysis, the paper examines two shows that exemplify this narrative: "Addiction" and "The Weight Loss Challenge." It argues that the morphology of conversion is comprised of two components: the confessional and the testimonial. As participants proceed through these ends of the spectrum of the conversion narrative, a transformation of self is depicted. The televised presentation of reoccurring conversions functions to produce a sense of moral authority, self-empowerment, and an imagined community. The paper concludes that the boundary between the sacred and the secular blur in this highly commodified television spectacle.

Introduction 1

[1] A former college football player, Psychology Ph.D. cum life coach, walks on stage after an introductory visual montage composed of images of him that vacillate between the authoritarian who talks tough, the compassionate man who puts his arm around a crying woman, the regular guy who gives an audience member a high five and the loving husband who walks hand in hand with his wife. These images, along with the spotlights, loud music and the standing ovation he receives from his predominately white female audience 2 provide a larger than life image. This image of a man who is part therapist, part father, part fantasy husband and part televangelist not only differentiates him from daytime talk show competitors, but also validates his statements about the lives of program participants. He will "tell it like it is" and give you the "truth," or at least his truth, because he is "a man with a plan." 3 McGraw offers a simple promise, to provide the answer to your problems. If you listen, he will show you the way. If you follow his advice, he "will change your life." 4 If you are willing to invest in his (relationship) rescue remedies, realize that your "self matters," and incorporate his life strategies and be converted, he offers the possibility of a life transformation.

[2] We are interested in how The Dr. Phil Show blends a religious narrative into the commercial world of branding through self promotion. For the purpose of this article, we explore the ways in which religion is used in service of the profane with regard to marketing, spectacle and capitalism. We contend that The Dr. Phil Show employs the religious structure of a conversion experience. Although most literature on conversion is used to analyze religious or cult conversion experiences, we argue that Dr. Phil employs this method in a non-religious milieu. It is this structural mechanism that allows him to speak with religious-like authority on his television show. It is his combination of entertainer and expert located at the intersection of spectacle, the drive for new markets and the structure of religious ritual that makes The Dr. Phil Show a particularly rich case study. Moreover, The Dr. Phil Show provides fertile ground for a discussion of the reappearance of religious structures in secular forms (therapy, self-help, TV spectacles), on the possibility of agency within commodified markets, and the mix of the hyper-fragmented style of postmodernity with a definitively modern message of certainty. We contend that the conversion experience becomes the rhetorical or narrative architecture upon which people place their experiences and the solutions to their problems. Guests and audience members are able to give ambiguous and complicated histories an intelligible phenomenological understanding post facto. McGraw wants to "create a new movement," as well as new markets, and the rhetorical method of conversion allows him to do so. …

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