This essay analyzes the assumption often expressed or implied in feminist scholarship that the talk show is a feminine and even feminist genre. Tracing the origins of this trend to feminist television criticism's early focus on women's genres, the author argues that a preoccupation with feminity and feminism obscures the intersectionality and hybridity of the genre, as talk shows' obsessive thematization of race-, class-, and sexuality-based marginality is for more central to their composition and reception than gender.
Keywords feminist television criticism, hybridity, intersectionality, talk shows
Feminist media criticism is, at heart, an analysis of the relationship between women's lived experience and the cultural representation of that experience. As the field of feminist television studies developed, it looked to women's genres as a first site of analysis, drawing connections between the contours of women's experience under patriarchy and the contours of programming directed at women. Feminist scholars have played a key role in the development of talk show criticism and have often imported this approach, despite its poor fit with the genre. From the earliest talk show scholarship to the most recent, there is an odd but stubbornly persistent pattern of highly gendered analyses that either argue the genre is feminist or that focus exclusively (and without much justification) on its relationship to a presumed feminine audience. Problematic, here, is that the connection to feminism and femininity seems wholly unsupported by the tens of thousands of talk show episodes that have circulated throughout this period of scholarship.
As a form of intervention, this article attempts to explain why this intense focus on feminism and the feminine began, why it has continued to be so prevalent, what other knowledge about talk shows it obscures, and how talk shows can best be understood. My analysis proceeds by first reviewing early feminist scholarship on talk shows, contextualizing its relationship to the development of feminist television criticism as a whole. I then provide a rebuttal (through a variety of counterexamples) to the idea that talk shows are structured in feminine or feminist ways. Finally, I demonstrate, through a consideration of queerness on talk shows, that intersectionality is a far more productive approach to understanding the genre.
Stepping away from an overemphasis on femininity opens up new ways of understanding the talk show's cultural meanings, both in its content and its form. In terms of content, I argue that the primary thematic focus of talk shows is not gender but, rather, marginality stemming from nonconformity in race, class, and sexuality. In terms of form I argue that the hybrid structure of the talk show and its heavy reliance on performativity offer an implicit critique of the assumption that television genres necessarily have an overarching spectatorial framing to their narrative structures and, therefore, unitary, coherent political meanings. Taken in tandem, these two alternative approaches to the talk show suggest that the focus on femininity and women's genres in earlier stages of feminist media criticism rarely works well with contemporary television genres. Debates over the relationship of "feminine" and "feminist," the proper subject of feminist media studies, and how feminist critics should analyze feminine genres and the female subjects who consume them were all central to the development of feminist media studies in the 1980s and 1990s, as Charlotte Brunsdon noted in 1993 ("Identity in Television Criticism"). Yet, I would argue, that while the field has in some respects moved beyond this initial (and understandable) preoccupation with gender (and femininity in particular), it does persist, often implicitly, just beneath the surface of many feminist television studies. This is at least true in the case of television talk shows, a rich genre that is generating a growing body of scholarship. …