Jenny Jones Saved My Life
"Roland" was the great love of my life, promised to me in the doowop songs of my childhood. He believed we were made of the same DNA, lovers from past lives, fated for all eternity. I was his the moment I saw him standing in the doorway like a young Marlon Brando, in his black leathers, sucking a Marlboro. I adored him, wanted to marry him, cook his food, wash his clothes, have his babies. Roland is the only man I have ever loved like that. But Roland also did every mean thing a man can do. If you ask him now, he'll say I drove him to it, that I did worse things to him, and his friends will back him up. He cheated, he lied, and he hurt me--emotionally and sometimes physically. He'll say I manipulated him, was arrogant, never satisfied, "a bitch." My friends thought he was dangerous, bad news. But I loved him. For over three years Roland was the center of my world. Good chemistry, bad karma. At times I was so exhausted from our drama and fighting, I couldn't get out of bed. I stopped writing, hiking, cruising the Net, playing music, even oiling my guns. I grew out of touch with myself and my life. Eventually my friends and family got tired of hearing about it. They told me I needed help, that I was suffering from battered wife syndrome, and would end up like Nicole. But I knew he really loved me. We just needed time to build trust. My friends said I was in denial. Dazed and depressed, isolated from the world, I started watching daytime TV talk shows, every day, all day long, back-to-back. The Jenny Jones Show was my favorite. I needed a strong woman I could bond with. One who would understand about Roland, be supportive, but confrontational too. Ricki Lake had a snotty streak, Sally Jessy Raphael was too judgmental, and Oprah had gotten boring since she moved her show to "higher ground." I was too ashamed to tell my loved ones how bad things had gotten, yet the idea of psychotherapy terrified me. But I could tell Jenny about it every day, even twice a day, for almost a year. Sometimes I imagined myself on the show, sitting next to Roland, crying and holding hands. Jenny would stick up for me, she would ask how I let myself get this low. "You're an attractive, accomplished woman, why would you let someone pour beer over your head and throw you around like a rag doll?" She'd tell Roland, "It's wrong to hurt someone you love." Jenny would understand my pain, but she'd cut Roland some slack too. After all, Roland and I were prime Jenny material for another reason. Roland was born one year after I graduated high school; he was eight years old when I got my master's degree. Though we both thought the age difference was meaningless, Jenny Jones woke me up; one day I tuned in and listened to the story of Jan and Tyler, a hot intergenerational couple who had recently ended their psychotic relationship. In Jan I saw my own capacity for sexual manipulation; in Tyler I saw Roland's vulnerability. Maybe the balance of power was skewed in my favor. Maybe that's what made Roland angry. Like Jenny says, there's always another side to the story, and Roland and I had actually talked about going for couples counseling. But Jenny and her guests ultimately convinced me that once a guy hurts you, roughs you up, or cheats on you it's foolish to think it won't happen again. I'd watch her and her guests urging passive, defeated women who had been cheated on, beaten, or betrayed to think about their self-esteem. I'd hear the audience label the bad boyfriend a dog. "Kick him to the curb!" they'd yell. I'd hear the bullshit stories the nasty dog would weave, realizing, hey, that was Roland's game. Eventually, I saw enough bad relationships and poisoned hearts that I called a therapist (and a psychic). I'd rather not go into any more detail, but in the end Roland and I severed all ties. Without Jenny's support, and her audience invoking societal norms of decency, we might have ended up destroying each other. Four months later conservative gadfly William Bennett is on TV denouncing my beloved Jenny. Bennett went full metal jacket against the shows, targeting her and Ricki as his least favorite. (Jenny has been an easy mark since last March, when John Schmitz, a male guest on her show, murdered Scott Amedure, who had gone on the air to proclaim his crush on Schmitz.) Pumped up after his assault on gangsta rap forced Time Warner to divest itself of its Interscope subsidiary, Bennett--along with senators Joseph Lieberman and Sam Nunn and C. DeLores Tucker, chair of the National Political Congress of Black Women--is hoping to purge the airwaves of these "culturally corrupt" television shows. He railed against "salacious and sensational accounts of sexual perversion, cruelty, violence, and promiscuity." Under attack were topics like "Women Who Marry Their Rapist" and "Housewives Versus Strippers." (Bennett even lit into one of my favorite Jenny Jones episodes, "I'm Marrying a 14 Year-Old Boy," a bittersweet case of an abused woman and a young boy who found True Love. The woman, attractive, in her mid-30's, had been a battered spouse, fearful of men, until her young lover showed her tenderness and respect. The kid was a streetwise throwaway teen, now back in school and off drugs--thanks to her, he says. But everyone came down on them anyway.) Ground zero for the attack on daytime talk was the recent Talk Summit, a two-day conference in New York City sponsored by Population Communications International, a nonprofit family planning organization. Held at midtown's Millennium Broadway Hotel October 27 and 28, the summit was designed to bring together top daytime talk show hosts, producers, executives, and leading experts on social and health issues. The conference had been planned for quite a while but coincided with the Bennett blitz, taking place one day after his press conference. I was supposed to hook up with Andy, a photographer for the Village Voice, outside the hotel. The camera crews and reporters were everywhere. I had never met Andy, but we located each other immediately in the crowd. I was the only person in leather and lace, and he was the only one with a good haircut, cool glasses, and black jeans. Everyone else was blandly professional-managerial class, ringers for the sartorial abominations I suffer at academic conferences. Andy said we were dressed like we had someplace better to go afterward, and we sure did. We were heading downtown later that night to cover a band at Don Hill's Squeezebox. Inside the hotel, the discourse was as creepy as the fashion statements on parade. Talk show host Jerry Springer fielded questions from broadcast TV reporters. How responsible are talk shows for catastrophes like the Amedure murder? How do they safeguard against severe human damage? How much money do the shows make anyway? And what about all the kids watching this sleaze? Springer said the kids always know what's right--whenever he does a show, the young people in his audience boo the cheater, the beater, the racist, and the sexually irresponsible. When they cheer the bad guys, that's when he'll worry. Besides, asks the former Cincinnati mayor, "Who is Washington, D.C., to preach to us about morality?" Springer believes the shows provide the average person with an arena for a celebrity-style tell-all. But that's a mixed blessing; being exposed on national television can leave someone feeling totally exploited. But satisfying the urge to purge has its merits. It's cathartic. Unlike me, not everyone is lucky enough to get paid for writing about their fucked-up situations. Springer claimed media and government hostility to TV talk shows is elitist. "This is about taste, not morality," he said. And we all know that Bennett, the trench coat guys, the PCI membership don't hang out. They probably can't even dance. Besides, who cares what they think? By now, TV talk shows probably have greater cultural authority than government, schools, the media, the left, or the right. They operate at the level of everyday life, where real people live and breathe. Interracial couples are presented as normative, without commentary--or defended when need be. On one Jenny Jones a pair of white parents threatened to place their daughter in foster care if she continued seeing her black boyfriend. Jenny confronted them: "Your hatred of blacks is stronger than your love for your daughter!" The audience supported the couple, pleading, "Love sees no color." And when Bennett et al. blast the "sexual perversity" of daytime TV, it's tough not to wonder if they equate perversity and homosexuality--the afternoon airwaves are a virtual diorama of gay pride, which must make all the queer kids trapped in the gulag of heterosocialization feel a whole lot better. One of Jenny's festive makeover shows featured lesbians who thought their lovers were "too butch." While all this was in progress one guest stopped the show, got down on her knees, and turned to her mate. "I want to ask you something. I want to know if you will spend the rest of your life with me." I was in tears. Jenny was moved too; she ran the clip twice. Sometimes the audience snickers at moments like this. Maybe they see it as spectacle; maybe they're just nervous. I had my own problems. After Roland, I met George, who was even younger. My psychic told me don't fight it, it's fated, they will always be younger (Mars-Mercury conjunction). So I needed support against friends who tried to match me up with "appropriate men" from my generation. I watched Jenny's "Younger Men Who Date Older Women" for tips. Some of the guys were teenagers and that's too much, even for me; they gotta be old enough to drink in a bar legally. The audience judged the couples harshly, saying the women were sickos for being with "children." Younger women were hostile toward the younger men who simply prefer older women. Someone in the audience noted that if it were older men with younger women, there would be no complaints. Then I saw some comforting statistics; one-third of the women in my age group, 35-44, are living with younger men. Forty-one per cent of them will marry younger men; 23 per cent of all American brides will, too. Thanks to Jenny now I know I'm just part of a growing trend. Bennett's morality squad may see talk shows as carnival freak shows, but all that means is that the shows have the power to drag us statistical outcasts in from the margins. They also loosen things up for the majority of folks back in the dull normal range of the bell curve. But the shows do more than normalize deviance, particularly for young people. The same year Scott Amedure was killed, The Jenny Jones Show won an award from the Advocates for Youth foundation for a special episode designed to educate teenagers about AIDS. Not one show goes by without an almost didactic plea to practice safe sex, to respect yourself and your body, to hold out on pregnancy and finish school, so you can see what else is out there in the world. Back at the conference, I found myself pushed once again to the margins. Despite the publicist's earlier claims, access to the talk show producers was difficult. So I went scamming for free food, fine wine, and career opportunities. I gave out my business card to anyone I spoke to and plugged my book on teenage suicide. Yet I felt totally alienated; most of the reporters there believed, a priori, that talk shows are bad, and they went in with that agenda. One reporter was typical: he said he'd like to see the talk shows on after 10 p.m. He has a six-year-old kid and thinks the stuff is sleaze. Darlene Hayes, executive producer of the Gabrielle show, told me she thinks the press is exploiting the situation to sell papers and boost ratings. They don't want to acknowledge that some Americans live differently. Another talk show representative, speaking off the record, says, "Broadcast news interests are envious of the popularity of talk shows cutting into their turf. They want in on the action." Although the hot and heavy "expert panel" session was closed to the press, "in the interest of uninhibited problem-solving," we had the opportunity to attend a dinner featuring keynote speaker Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, who recited a depressing list of teenage statistics (every day nearly 1400 teens drop out of school; more than 1000 give birth out of wedlock; approximately 25 are infected with HIV, etc.). She all but admitted that the adult authority structure has failed. What Shalala couldn't bring herself to acknowledge is that TV talk shows are far more effective in dealing with these issues than anything else out there. Turn them into vehicles for William Bennett's political agenda and you'll alienate the very kids talk shows appeal to. Kids are blessed with bullshit detectors; they instinctively cringe at the formalized "help" adults peddle. Talk shows may be messy and sometimes appalling--Gabrielle's Darlene Hayes, an industry long-timer who used to work for Donahue, thinks that the recent surge in talk competition has caused some of the younger producers to get reckless--but that's exactly why young people relate to them. The day before the conference, talk show host Charles Perez told the New York Daily News that Bennett, a former Education Secretary, ought to "look in his own backyard," given the high number of young people in Perez's audience who can't string together grammatical sentences. It occurred to me then how much more these talk shows do for our nations' youth than any of these people with all their high-minded goals, programs, and good intentions. So I stalked the genuinely charming Perez to thank him for speaking out. He had had a rough time in his press conference and appreciated my support--it seems I was the only non-talk show person there who saw value in what he does. As I was leaving, photographer Andy introduced me to a talk show host contender, who gave me a demo copy of his Billy Blank Show. He had hoped to give his videotape to one of the producers but he was thrown out. Who but two kooks from The Village Voice would lend him a sympathetic ear? I promised to watch his video--a touching, sensitive if ditzy new age talk show in which Billy asks people in the audience and the street if they are happy. What can we do to evolve as humans, to make the world a better place? he wonders. Billy Blank can be reached at 914-961-7302. As the action died down, Jerry Springer was lurking nearby with Andy. I wanted to invite him and Charles Perez to join us at Squeezebox. We were checking out transsexual punk rock legend Jayne County's show. I wondered, what would happen if all the bureaucratic functionaries of the State, the talk show hosts, their producers, the smug liberals, and the media running dogs went to see Jayne's magnificent performance? What if, for one night, they got to be the freaks in our TV show? Hours later as I stood at the foot of Jayne's thumping stage, drinking and dancing, exquisite drag queens, hot queer couples, and dirty girls like me were shaking it everywhere. I felt ecstatic, alive and kicking, and mighty real.