The Talk (part 2): Get Empowered, Stupid



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NOTE: This post is part 3 in an ongoing series of reviews of syndicated daytime TV shows by Barrelhouse editor Tom McAllister

Despite its obvious flaws, The Talk makes a decent first impression because Julie Chen, who does most of the talking, is competent, which goes a long way in this genre. But also I hold general goodwill toward co-host and former Roseanne star Sara Gilbert, who has actual talent and is politically active in support of a variety of causes I support and who has a cool musician wife and who never shouts or mugs desperately at the camera when she thinks it’s been too long since her last comment. She seems like an interesting, self-aware person who is just trying to make a living; she won me over with the unmistakable expression of quiet contempt on her face when Cedric the Entertainer joked that he’d like to “change her” from being a lesbian and everyone laughed uproariously. I’d like to think that if I somehow ended up at a hellish cocktail party for the stars of daytime TV, she and I would at some point find ourselves sitting in a corner, drinking cheap wine and making fun of all the other people in the room.

In the opening segment of the first episode I watched, Gilbert and Chen were the dominant presences, and so I briefly thought I would be reporting to you that the show is innocuous and pleasant enough (if not exactly interesting), but I cannot report that. The thing is: although at first it seems to be innocuous and pleasant enough (if not exactly interesting), after repeated viewings, The Talk transforms into something much more insidious than that. It’s like that first friend you made at college, the guy who sat next to you at orientation and happened to live on the same floor as you in the dorms and knew a couple guys who could get you into a party. He seemed cool, he seemed kind of funny, he had some quirks but you could overlook them because you just needed someone to spend time with while you acclimated to a new world, but once you were acclimated and realized how annoying he was, he just kept show just kept hanging around, letting himself into your room at all hours and drinking your beer and playing video games in your dorm room until four AM and talking about how awesome it would be if you guys started your own frat or opened a bar someday and eventually you kind of hate him but don’t know how to cut the relationship off, and so then you hunker down for four decades of spending happy hours and couples’ weekends and ski trips with some idiot you only bonded with because he was the first person you met.

The Talk doesn’t drink your beer or play your video games, so it’s maybe not a perfect analogy. But it does quickly overstay its welcome and begin actively making your life worse.

One obvious problem with the show, aside from its abuse of the language, is the presence of Sharon Osbourne, who has no discernible talents or interests beyond her interest in staying on TV.[1] Like the world’s overly affectionate crazy aunt, she touches the guests too often; when Paul Stanley was the guest, she held both of his hands throughout the interview. It needs to be stated plainly: this level of touching is not ok. It is never ok. She has said exactly zero useful things during the episodes I’ve watched, and when she has to go off-script, you can see her calculating what the zany, rock-chick thing to say would be. Often, she simply resorts to yelling and clapping.

Ultimately, though, the show’s greatest sin is its false message of empowerment. Some variation of the words “empower” and “inspire” is uttered in nearly every segment of every episode, so that after a week you will feel like you should have been empowered but you will not actually feel empowered in any way.[2] When speaking to the skin cancer expert, for example, Osbourne says, “I know one of your goals is to empower women through the use of sunscreen.” TV Personality Debbie Matenopoulous  is inspiring women with her low-fat Greek cooking. Paul Stanley thinks everyone should find their passion in life.

But then, like any good women’s magazine, the show juxtaposes its faux-empowerment with constant reminders to women that they aren’t good enough. It’s a show, in fact, that is actively hostile to women, and acts as a Trojan Horse concealing anxiety-ridden messages beneath the façade of empowerment. The list of things women are doing wrong is endless. Your cell phone is giving you wrinkles. Your diet is making your cheeks sag. You need to give your breakfast a beauty boost by eating “the Brangelina of vegetables,” a term that so angered me I forgot my windows were open and so my neighbors heard me yelling No, That is not a thing. You need get “bangtox” to look younger.[3] You need to rub an ice cube on your face every 12 hours to “wipe away toxins” (and sure you might be skeptical, but doesn’t that explain why polar bears have such nice skin)? If you’re not being sexually harassed by men on the street, then you are probably too old. You need to not be needy, because men hate needy women, and Osbourne wants to smack needy women. She wants to hit women who are needy, and as she pantomimes hitting a needy woman in the face, the audience cheers. Chen says it’s ok to be needy as long as you just internalize all your anxieties and never, ever let your husband see them, because, as her husband conveniently said to her that morning, “Julie, I love you so much because it’s like you don’t even need me ever.” But, she confesses, “on the inside I was falling apart.”

After their obligatory condemnations of Donald Sterling (Underwood, quite possibly overstating the case: “he’s one of the biggest racist nutjobs in the world.”), the women mainly reserved their invective for his mistress Vanessa Stiviano. They spend a lot of time on her, but in short: she’s a ho, a bitch, a hot mess, totally crazy, and a skank. She dubiously claims to be Sterling’s archivist, and Aisha Tyler suggests her job is “archivist for semen.”

I don’t love using Stiviano as an example here, because she seems self-evidently terrible, but the tone of the Stiviano talk and the enthusiasm with which the women (on stage and in the audience) condemn her is a pretty good illustration of the show’s hostility toward women. It’s not that I’m saying women shouldn’t ever be critical of other women, exactly; this isn’t an issue of breaking ranks and ruining gender-wide solidarity. It’s more about the general atmosphere of the show which feels depressinglyanti-woman, or more accurately, designed to cultivate, at the expense of all diversity and the full spectrum of human expression, one specific kind of woman, the type of woman who spends a lot of money on beauty products and designer clothes concealing flaws she didn’t even know she had. It’s about a culture in which we repeat platitudes about self-esteem and loving ourselves and then use those same platitudes to sell a pair of shoes or  cream that magically erases skin-based toxifiers. It’s about how we create an extraordinarily narrow image of The Perfect Woman, make that image unattainable to all but the relative handful lucky enough to be rich and genetically gifted enough to achieve it, and then condemn those who can’t pull it off. It’s about the ways we turn the language into a jackhammer that creates holes within us that can only be filled by buying more and more and more shit until we feel a little less lonely, a little less like failures.


[1] She does accidentally sum up the show’s problem with empty language when Chen rolls some clip from a goofy local newscast and asks her co-hosts for reactions; Osbourne says, “There is nothing to say about this person!” but one suspects she doesn’t realize the full implications of this comment.

[2] It’s worth exploring whether that word actually means anything anymore, or whether it’s just like lit students calling everything they read “relatable” [LINK]

[3] You also need to smile and tolerate a person who uses the term “bangtox,” which refers to “a painless, non-surgical method of reversing your aging,” and then explains that bangtox is—are you ready for this? Because I think you’re probably not ready—growing out your bangs. Or you can buy “bang implants,” which are exactly what you think they are.

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.