The talk shows we love: Dignity-crushing machines?

The talk shows we love: Dignity-crushing machines?

Talk shows are not just a form of harmless entertainment where social issues are discussed. The choices made in production and by the host can harm the guests appearing on the show, particularly regarding the humiliation techniques used.

In the world of academic research surrounding culture, media and entertainment, the study of talk shows has a rather humble place, informed primarily by semiology (the study of signs and their meanings), journalism studies and language sciences.

In such contexts, this media genre appears innocuous, using mainly discursive strategies such as interviews or debates for the purpose of informing or entertaining the public while exploiting topics of public interest.

However, placed under the lens of a practical approach to communication, such as I use in my research on popular culture, talk shows appear under more threatening lights. The genre is notable, particularly in ethical terms, for the humiliating and coercive measures that hosts take towards their guests in order to extract unexpected or compromising revelations, all in the expectation of gains in popularity.

Cover of a reference book on violations of human dignity, 2011 edition.

Pliable morals and bloated egos

From this perspective, talk shows become human dignity-crushing machines, knowingly wielded by producers with pliable morals and hosts with bloated egos for entertainment, narcissistic or capitalist purposes.

The intention of this article is to highlight the threatening nature of humiliation as a deliberate act of power, carried out on people who are vulnerable or made vulnerable by the presence of an audience, microphones and cameras.

The consequences of such degrading methods of humiliation can be devastating for the victims: psychological suffering, loss of self-confidence, feelings of exclusion, and the desire to disappear or to take revenge. Yet, the television industry persists in its use of humiliation in so-called entertaining forms in a vast number of talk shows, including some of the most popular of the last decade, be they in Canada, France, England or the United States.

In the striking multitude of cases of televised humiliation available to me for this article, the following three remain exemplary because of the tried and tested nature of the offensive strategies employed by the particularly skillful and experienced hosts (or ex-hosts).

Arbitrary Dismissal: That’s all we’ve got time for

In the U.K., as is also true in some other countries, dismissal without good and sufficient reason is a breach of employment standards.

Firing or simply ridiculing an employee because of his or her physical appearance, annoying nature or foreign accent is then not only a sign of infamous contempt, but also illegal. Yet, this is what seems to be happening to a lot of people in the U.K., including the participants on Graham Norton’s show who naively agree to sit in what is known as the Dreaded Red Chair.

In a recurring segment of the show called That’s all we’ve got time for, “ordinary people” — that is, those who have not yet reached the threshold of talent or celebrity deemed necessary for admission to the select club of entertainment stars — are offered the chance to gain access to that club, simply by entertaining a jury with a funny story. Presided over by Norton, the whole situation resembles the parody of a trial — that is, one that would be widely publicized, expeditious and fundamentally rigged.

In the first minute and a half of the clip above, a young man from New Zealand is ridiculed and singled out by Norton and his audience, simply because of his accent. Now, even if a person’s accent is not in itself a characteristic protected by law, discrimination based on this aspect of one’s identity is clearly unfair, hurtful, and contemptuous.

From a moral standpoint, Norton’s red chair is a weapon of shame wielded in order to humiliate people who dream of shining in front of the millions of viewers of the show. Instead, “all they’ve got time for” is rejection on national television.

Psychological spanking: Get a Job!

As “one of the world’s best-known and most trusted mental health professionals,” and “host of daytime television’s most popular show from 2002 to 2023 in USA,” Dr. Phil McGraw was no less harmful to some of his guests than the host in the aforementioned example.

According to Timothy C. Thomason, McGraw does Wild psychotherapy. Indeed, he is no longer licensed, does not respect confidentiality, tells hard truths without sparing his clients’ egos, is often impatient with his anxious guests, and his style is abrasive and tyrannical, but… he entertains crowds.

In the video above, McGraw administers what might be called a psychological spanking to King Keith, a young man who apparently needs a “reality check.” Despite the talk show setting not being appropriate for this type of conversation, McGraw humiliates the poor boy regardless:

Let’s stop that right now. That’s a complete load of crap… Take this note… Since this is my show, and you don’t have yours yet, we’re gonna run my agenda and we’re gonna talk what I want to talk about… You’re not pulling your own weight… Get a job!


Coercion to obey: Yes! You Will!

Ellen DeGeneres et Taylor Swift

TV host Ellen DeGeneres, left, and singer Taylor Swift, right.
(Flickr/@ronpaulrevolt2008), (Flickr/Eva Rinaldi), CC BY-SA

Part of an interview between Taylor Swift and Ellen DeGeneres sparked public outrage in tandem with the accusations of harassment levelled against host and producer DeGeneres in 2020. The techniques used in the interview are not dissimilar to Stanley Milgram’s discoveries about obeying unreasonable orders from an authority when that authority is perceived to be legitimate.

From her metaphorical vantage point as a host and producer at the top of her game, DeGeneres here demands that Taylor Swift, who in 2013 was still quite young (24) and inexperienced, perform a seemingly innocuous act (shaking a bell), but one that is nonetheless likely to have detrimental and irreversible effects on her private life and career, including: revealing the identity of a third party, exposing her amorous and sexual conduct in broad daylight and performing, in front of everyone, the desecration of her own sanctuary of artistic inspiration.

Taylor: Oh my God! I don’t know if I’m gonna do this…
Ellen: Yeah, you will!
Taylor: This is the one thing that I have! It’s like the one shred of dignity that I have… People go and make guesses about it and the only thing that I have is that one card…

The cleverest thing DeGeneres did in this scene was to imagine and set up a double bind for the singer, making her “damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t.”

Humiliation: “the new poison of our society”?

In everyday life, humiliation is not a spectacle or a form of entertainment. It is a deliberate act of authority abused by an aggressor whose main lever of power is the complicit presence of others.

Cover of a 2022 book by Olivier Abel.

For in order to be humiliated, a victim must not only be diminished by words or deeds, but must also be seen and appear as such in the eyes of others. In this kind of collaborative arrangement between an executioner and an anonymous crowd of witnesses, those who do nothing but watch nevertheless accomplish something: their presence is not only the essential condition for the crime of humiliation, but it is also the guarantee of impunity.

By combining the talent of presenters, the greed of producers, the efficiency of television technologies and the passive infatuation of an armchair audience that can see everything without being seen, talk shows are the contemporary instrument par excellence of the psychological crime of humiliation, a formidable human dignity-crushing machine.

The post “The talk shows we love: Dignity-crushing machines?” by Sylvie Genest, Professeure à la Faculté des arts, Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) was published on 09/12/2023 by