Elevate Difference

Talking with Television: Women, Talk Shows, and Modern Self-Reflexivity

Some researchers, theorists, and laypeople deride women’s tendency to get together and talk. Whether you call it gossip, chatter, whine, confession, or conversation, among gendered stereotypes, it remains assumed that putting several women within close proximity will likely yield interpersonal communication. As much as this is ridiculed, I ask: would we have ever devised plans to actively resist patriarchy if women throughout history hadn’t congregated to compare notes?

More than just speaking among humans, Helen Wood’s Talking with Television deconstructs how people—particularly women—talk at the television. More than sports fans who scream at athletes, or the idea of responding to mediated talk as psychotic behavior, Wood argues that talking at and with the television is not only different from everyday talk; it enacts unique power relationships between the speakers. Considering women’s roles in everyday talk—what Wood refers to as a maintenance role, usually there to encourage and support male speakers—Wood uses social theory to reexamine the role of mediated talk in our lives.

Wood’s study focuses on British daytime TV, which largely mirrors morning and talk show formats of the U.S. Shows on the BBC and ITV stations like Vanessa, Kilroy, and The Time...The Place all appeal to the “ordinary” audience—and not the Jerry Springer “I had a foursome with my bisexual sister” sort of “ordinary” people. Instead, these shows focus on “women’s issues” like relationships, family, health, and to a lesser extent, money.

Thorough, dense, and academic in tone and content, Wood’s analysis is nevertheless engaging. Her ability to parse complicated relationships between mediated and everyday communication is fascinating, as is her gendered communication analysis. She also points out a lot of obvious but important components of talk-based television. Talk shows, for instance, have very specific organization and rhythms that enable a feeling of real-time participation. For this reason, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that women are drawn to maintain lasting relationships with hosts, guests, and show participants.

If you ever found yourself tearing up over Donahue or Oprah and wanted to have your own little solo chat about the show’s events, Wood’s academic theories might be for you. Your urges may even feel enlightened, if not simply less silly.

Written by: Brittany Shoot, August 20th 2009