Pseudoscience and Flexible Face Joints, by Tom McAllister

NOTE: This post is part 7 in an ongoing series of reviews of syndicated daytime TV shows by Barrelhouse editorTom McAllister

America’s Latent Oedipus Complex

Rachael Ray, by any measure, is one of the most successful brands in daytime TV. She has adoring fans. She has somewhere between 15 and 30 other TV shows, all of which co-star Guy Fieri’s goatee. She has her own line of kitchenware and “lifestyle” products. She has her own magazine, which is still somehow a sign of prestige even though people don’t buy or read magazines anymore. A decade ago, she briefly got to be the personification of America’s latent Oedipus complex when she turned into an unlikely sex symbol. She seems nice. She probably is nice. Or not; I have no idea. But she seems that way.

Her daytime show isn’t all that much different from the competition. It has the same determined cheeriness, the bright décor, the vapid chatter with celebrities, the beauty tips, the cooking segments. The cooking segments are more informative than they are on other shows, where they are disposable and useless; Rachael Ray at least explains what she’s doing and tells you what all the ingredients are and why she’s using them. She seems, if not particularly smart, then at least not aggressively stupid, which is a real virtue in the daytime landscape.

Instead of trying to offer a comprehensive overview of her show, I’d like to narrow the focus and concentrate on a fifteen minute block of Rachael Ray that aired May 16th.

Not Just Frightening, But Scary

The guest: Dr. Oz, a daytime titan in his own right, profiled in more depth here than I can ever hope to achieve. He is here to talk about himself.

He’s good at TV, Dr. Oz. He’s smart and charismatic and does an excellent job of dumbing medical terminology down for a lay audience. He has 80s hair that seems like it’s just on the verge of coming back in style. He constantly refers to his education and hospital experience to establish his ethos. He is aware of the concept of humor and is capable of laughter. But today he is here as a Very Serious Man to talk about a Very Serious Topic.

Specifically: misappropriation. A company that makes bogus nutritional supplements has been using his image in their promotional materials, claiming he endorses the product, and so he’s been on a crusade to shut them down. He’s already covered this issue on his own show in a hilariously overwrought “Dr. Oz Investigates” special, where he acted like a gumshoe and chased the frauds down the street and snooped around mysterious buildings and got phone calls with “tips” from his “anonymous sources.” But he’s making the rounds to warn people about the fraud. He’s legitimately angry about the deception, and I would be too; he has every right to expect to control his own likeness and brand. And in the end, it serves a good if he can dissuade people from wasting money and time on nonsense products.

Rachael has had similar problems herself—fly-by-night companies using her image without permission, selling products to consumers under false pretenses, etc. She says she has a full-time employee whose only job is to identify and police these frauds. They don’t need my sympathy, but they have it here. Being famous has always seemed awful to me, and this is just another manifestation of the awfulness: people steal your face and your words and your name and use them for whatever they want. Rachael says it’s frightening, and Doctor Oz adds, “Not only is it frightening, but it’s scary.”

Turkey-neck Avoidance

Five minutes later, they welcome a third guest, a woman named Sue Hitzmann, who has pioneered the MELT Method of self-care, which promises to reverse the aging process and keep you pain-free for life. She knows everyone hates getting older and wants to feel younger and look younger, and they especially want to “avoid that turkey neck,” a fear she must hold deeply because she mentions turkey neck six times in five minutes and also, unprompted, says she hates her mother’s turkey neck, an unnecessary comment to make unless her mother is, in fact, a turkey or has been vivisected with a turkey. Otherwise it just seems kind of mean.

Sue is specifically here to demonstrate the patented MELT Method 50-second face lift. Everyone in the audience has been given a bag of bullshit that they’re going to use to achieve what is obviously—it needs to be stressed—pseudoscientific bullshit. The MELT website itself looks nice and and the ad copy is comprised of multiple layers of impenetrable bullshit with sciency-sounding words, like promises to help you “assess your body’s stability system,” and “enhancing body awareness, rehydrating connective tissue, and decreasing stuck stress that accumulates from daily living.” Her name on the site is followed by a veritable alphabet of degrees and certifications, none of which seem to mean much of anything. She is a “somatic-movement educator and manual therapist.” She talks like this too, because like Rachael and Dr. Oz, she is excellent at staying on-brand.

But I want to say it again: this method is bullshit and it’s obvious bullshit, and anyone who thinks about it for a few seconds will realize it’s bullshit, but we in the audience have to pretend it’s not because I don’t know why.

Do you know what is happening while you’re working through your anti-aging regimen? You are aging. You are deteriorating. Your organs and muscles and bones are inching toward uselessness. You can fight the good fight, but you will lose. I don’t like it any more than you do. But you’re going to die and I’m going to die, no matter how many creams we rub into our face or how many supplements we ingest. When someone promises to solve that problem, that person is lying to you.

I realize I’m taking this too literally. I realize it’s about eliminating wrinkles and bags under your eyes and turkey neck and it’s about feeling refreshed and so forth.

Supportive Face Joints

Sue H. walks the audience through the 50-second face lift. Everyone opens their free bag of bullshit and removes something that looks like a blue stress ball, or a softer version of a racquetball. She instructs them to hold the ball in their hand for a moment, and instead of throwing it in the trash because it is useless, you’re supposed to get a good feel for the ball. Then you rub it on your face.

What? Yes. You rub the stress ball on your face.

Start behind your ear, which is one of the areas where “aging toxins” build up, in I guess the same way soot builds up inside a chimney. Rubbing the ball gently will “stimulate your tissue” and “create a fluid exchange.” She warns not to press too hard or too soft or to move too fast or too slow, and throughout the brief demonstration she refers to the importance of learning “the secret” to correctly rubbing this ball on your face, all of which is an admittedly clever way to attribute her product’s inevitable failure to user error. Next, you rub the ball on your cheek and then again on your temple, because you want to make the joints in your face more supportive.

Read that sentence again. Feel the joints in your face contorting in disgust. Or maybe rage. I don’t know how flexible your face joints are.

Finally, you kind of randomly press your fingers against parts of your face to “stimulate the lymphatic system in your face cells.” When she’s finished, she turns to the camera and says, “do you see how much better I look already?” And Dr. Oz says, “your lips look bigger!” Then he and Rachael applaud and everyone is happy.

In my notes, I write: FUCK YOU, DR. OZ.

Superstitious Magical Thinking

Here’s the problem: even before Jenny McCarthy—who, as we know, has the blood of hundreds of children on her hands—joined The View, daytime TV was a haven for pseudoscience and non-science. It has long been a place that exalts homespun wisdom and home remedies over actual empirical evidence. This is a place where you can sell miracle elixirs and magical potions to people who desperately want to live forever or at least leave a wrinkle-free corpse behind when they die.

It’s not fair to limit this proclivity toward pseudoscience to daytime TV, of course. Culturally, we pay lip service to the importance of science and deductive reasoning, fetishize it with weird porny depictions of DNA analysis on shows like CSI, but I contend that when it comes down to it, most people don’t actually trust science. Most people trust their gut first, at least on issues that directly affect them. Most people view themselves as the exception to the science. Skepticism is good—it’s essential to good science, even—but I think we’ve moved well beyond skepticism into a state of superstitious magical thinking that is at once understandable and indefensible. There are enough horrifying poll results to underscore this point, and there are enough extraordinarily wealthy and powerful people who know how to exploit this mindset to their benefit.

So how do you combat the problem? It requires a recalibration of cultural values. It requires intelligent people with a platform to be fierce advocates for reason. It requires Dr. Oz to refuse to rub the stupid ball on his face and instead say, “wait—none of this makes sense.” As he constantly reminds us, he’s been a practicing doctor for decades. He knows this is bullshit. He knows that if you want to live longer and healthier, you should exercise and change your diet and make regular doctor’s appointments and hope to avoid freak accidents. He had the opportunity to say just about anything besides “your lips look bigger!” even though her lips didn’t look bigger and also because there is absolutely no way rubbing a stress ball on one’s face will make one’s lips bigger, and why would her lips being bigger even matter? What if she’s just allergic to stress balls?

Doctor Oz is the representative of science on that stage, and just minutes before this demonstration, he was bemoaning the use of his image to endorse bullshit products; hundreds of thousands of people trust him and that trust was violated by the company that used his image without permission. But by tacitly endorsing the MELT method, he made a clear choice to compromise his moral stance for the sake of profit.

So then it becomes clear that it’s not that Dr. Oz has a problem with bullshit products that sell false solutions. He just has a problem with not being paid for endorsing them.

Check back Tuesday for… something. Maybe about The Doctors? Or Steve Harvey? 


Tom McAllister is the Barrelhouse Non-fiction Editor. His memoir, "Bury Me in My Jersey," was published in 2010, and his shorter work has appeared in FiveChapters, Black Warrior Review, elimae, and some other places. He has a novel forthcoming from Algonquin in Spring 2016. He co-hosts the Book Fight podcast and you can find him on twitter @t_mcallister.