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The Boston Phoenix Dirty Talk

Dr. Laura's appeal to the masses is easy to explain -- she traffics in emotional pornography. But a backlash is growing. Has this radio dominatrix lost her sting?

By Michael Bronski

MARCH 28, 2000:  It's the voice that you can't get out of your head. Aggressive, accusatory, and grotesquely girlish, it emanates from the radio in a steady stream of unpleasantness: "What did you think you were doing? You had sexual relations with your boyfriend, who you knew was using drugs. Did you think he was going to act responsibly if you got pregnant?"

The young woman on the receiving end of this tirade has called to seek guidance about an unplanned pregnancy. What she's getting is admonition, not advice; castigation, not comfort. But Dr. Laura Schlessinger is not about advice and comfort. Schlessinger has made her name by being cruel to those who call her with their problems. Relying heavily on her own version of religious truth -- her latest best-selling book is The Ten Commandments: The Significance of God's Laws in Everyday Life (HarperCollins) -- she often delivers pronouncements so judgmental they make Pat Buchanan and Pat Robertson look kind and gentle. Tough love was never this brutal.

You might think that Dr. Laura would have little chance for success in an America that made Jerry Springer a star, enjoys puerile sex jokes on television sit-coms, and even forgave Bill Clinton for getting blowjobs from an intern in the Oval Office. But you'd be wrong. Schlessinger's pugnacious posturing and stubborn sermonizing have vaulted her into rare territory -- the New York Times describes her as the most-listened-to talk-radio personality in the country. Which raises the question: why? Why would 50,000 people call her every day (about 25 get through) to be insulted and abused? Why would 20 million people a week tune in to listen to her rant and rave about behavior that many of them would condone -- or engage in themselves?

Well, that's easy. Dr. Laura provides a steady stream of legal, easily accessible emotional pornography. Dr. Laura is a pimp in moralist's clothing.

America hasn't seen a talk-show host become this popular since Rush Limbaugh rallied "dittoheads" across the country. Schlessinger's show, which she and her partners sold in 1996 to Jancor Communications for $71.5 million, reaches 20 million listeners a week through 165 outlets that saturate more than 90 percent of the country. She also has a nationally syndicated newspaper column and her own monthly magazine, Dr. Laura's Perspective. She has written four self-help books -- including Ten Stupid Things Women Do To Mess Up Their Lives (HarperPerennial) and How Could You Do That?!: The Abdication of Character, Courage, and Conscience (HarperCollins) -- that have collectively sold more than 30 million copies. Last November Schlessinger signed a $3 million contract with Paramount Television for a syndicated television talk show scheduled to premiere nationally this fall.

Listening to Dr. Laura's show is a trip -- mostly a scary one. She fumes about her callers' behavior, ridicules them, and coaxes them to tell all -- only to lash out at them. Like a father confessor or mother superior on acid, she extends an offer of salvation that is scarcely perceptible beneath her contempt and anger. Then, in an abrupt flip, she sometimes makes fun of her own excesses by asking callers whether they want more abuse or have had enough. The whole show has a
hallucinogenic, slightly dangerous roller-coaster feel. As with the proverbial car wreck we can't turn away from, we keep listening because we are simultaneously fascinated and repulsed. What's going on here?

Dr. Laura is popular because she offers listeners an orgy of barely repressed sadomasochism under the guise of inspiration, instruction, and self-help. Part of this appeal derives from Schadenfreude -- the malicious joy taken in the suffering of others. Listeners can relish the ritual humiliation meted out by the austere and forbidding Dr. Laura, enjoying the dominatrix act from the safety of their own homes.

And her poor callers? They get what most Americans feel they never get enough of -- attention. They get to be on the radio. They get yelled at and thus get their own lives validated, like kids who misbehave to get noticed. Dr. Laura's callers turn to her not so much because they think their lives are fucked up, but for assurance that they have lives worth talking about. Dr. Laura is Mary Poppins crossed with Cotton Mather, a nightmare of a mother who gives love only when you are bad.

She also offers the reassurance that if you obey her precepts, everything will be fine. It can be terrifying to live in a world where ethical and moral standards are in flux. Dr. Laura's no-holds-barred defense of the orthodox relieves this terror, as false as the comfort may be. There are no gray areas here, no ambiguities -- just the replay of titillation and tirade, tirade and titillation.

But though moral comfort is one aspect of her appeal, the exhilaration we derive from the problems of Dr. Laura's callers is not so different from the emotions evoked by sexual pornography. In language painstakingly designed to get us excited, Schlessinger offers her listeners daily junkets into the world of sexual stimulation, cloaked with the righteousness of virtue. She is little more than a pornographer who peddles the sins of the flesh instead of the flesh itself.

Not surprisingly, there's a backlash rising, and it's headed by gay and lesbian activists. In the Gospel according to Dr. Laura, heterosexuals sometimes "act" bad, but homosexuals generally "are" bad. Gay sex -- and any attempts to legalize or legitimize gay activity or identity -- are, in her traditional morality, just plain wrong. And she claims science as well as God on her side. Patiently explaining her views of same-sex desire, Schlessinger is nothing if not forthright: "If you're gay or lesbian, it's a biological error that inhibits you from relating normally to the opposite sex. The fact that you are intelligent, creative, and valuable is all true. The error is in your inability to relate sexually, intimately, in a loving way to a member of the opposite sex. It is a biological error."

Her views on gay rights are equally blunt: "Rights. Rights? For sexual deviants . . . there are now rights. That's what I'm worried about, with all the pedophilia and the bestiality and the sadomasochism and the cross-dressing. Is this all going to be 'rights' too, to deviant sexual behavior? Why does deviant sexual behavior get rights?" Activists from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) met with Schlessinger this winter in an attempt to "educate" her about gay lives, but she rebuffed them. GLAAD then met with executives at Paramount to try to convince them that Schlessinger's overt attacks on homosexuals were not okay. They were told that the future television show's format might allow for the airing of other opinions -- a concession that did not mollify them. They were also not placated by Schlessinger's half-hearted "apology," in which she suggested that gay listeners might have misunderstood her: "words that I have used in a clinical context have been perceived as judgment." The anti-Dr. Laura sentiment has even spawned a Web site: www.StopDrLaura.com, organized by Washington, DC, lawyer John Aravosis, which calls on Paramount to cancel Schlessinger's show. The site has received more than three million hits in the weeks since its March 1 debut.

The organizing against Schlessinger appears to be paying off. First there was the public apology -- as insincere as it was. Then there was the cancellation of the Dr. Laura birthday bash planned for April 15 in Detroit. On March 17, with more than 800 tickets sold at $76 a throw, Schlessinger called the party off "so as not to compromise anyone's physical safety or subject anyone to embarrassment or discomfort'' in what she felt would be an unpleasant clash with gay activists. Interestingly, it was Schlessinger herself who raised the specter of violence by mentioning "physical safety" -- protest organizers had simply planned a picket. And since when has Dr. Laura been worried about "embarrassing" anyone?

The attack on Dr. Laura is escalating even in her own territory. Many gay employees at Paramount -- including producers of the successful comedy Frasier -- have questioned the wisdom of Paramount's sponsoring a show so blatantly hostile to homosexuals. Many progressive and even mainstream religious leaders have spoken out against her anti-gay opinions. Former presidential hopeful Bill Bradley has said that Schlessinger's attitude toward gay men and lesbians "makes me sick to my stomach."

Dr. Laura does not take this criticism easily -- last week, for example, she railed against what she called the left's "bullying, tyrannical tactics." But her numbing pattern of punch-back-hard retorts could actually signal the beginning of the end. Dr. Laura runs a one-trick freak show that offers, over and over, the same cheap thrill: vulnerable people being faced down by an out-of-control woman with the equivalent of moral Tourette's syndrome. Hardly anyone who listens to the show actually likes Dr. Laura. You probably wouldn't want her for a friend, as you might want Oprah. You wouldn't want have a few beers with her, as you might with Jerry Springer. You wouldn't want her to come over for Sunday dinner to meet the folks, God forbid. She is, on some level, a self-created monster.

And part of the reason Dr. Laura is a monster is that radio calls for, even demands, caricature. She has to be over-the-top to make an impression. The meanness, the sadism, the pettiness, the sheer disregard for people's feelings and circumstances work only because we cannot see Schlessinger or her callers. They are disembodied voices with no physical reality to situate them in our hearts or minds. If we could see the young, pregnant woman with the drug-using boyfriend, it wouldn't be the same. If we saw a woman like this in her kitchen -- her tired face, her bitten fingernails, her dirty-blond and not quite clean hair being pushed off her forehead by a nervous hand, her half-drunk, lipstick-stained cup of coffee going cold on the table, her leg bouncing nervously -- Schlessinger's sadism would be exposed, and it would not be pretty.

It is a real -- and, for Paramount, a weighty -- question whether Dr. Laura can make the transfer to television. Shows such as Jerry Springer and Jenny Jones may feature guests who are more than willing to let it all hang out, but they are the stars of the show. They are why we watch -- they are the ones with whom we identify. Even if we feel superior to them, we know what they are feeling.

On Dr. Laura's show, however, Schlessinger is the only star. She knows all and is (usually) the only one who is allowed to be right. We identify with her because she is the only one whose personality doesn't end up shredded to bits. If she keeps up this act on television, viewers will be turned off, not on. As Hesione Hushabye says in Shaw's Heartbreak House: "Cruelty would be so delicious if only it didn't hurt." And she is right on target. On the radio, Dr. Laura's brand of cruelty can be entertaining. On television, it would simply be cruel.

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