Dr. Laura: Moral Dominatrix



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—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 questions: 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 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 this popular since Rush Limbaugh
rallied “ditto- heads” across the country. Schles- singer’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
and How Could You Do That?!: The Abdication
of Character, Courage, and Conscience
—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 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 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.


Her callers 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 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.


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, wrong. She claims science as well as God
on her side. Patiently explaining her views of same-sex desire, Schles- singer
is 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? For sexual deviants…there
are no 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 Schles- singer’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.Stop- DrLaura.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 Schles- singer 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 each, 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
who raised the specter of violence by mentioning “physical safety”—
protest organizers had planned a picket. 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.”


It is not news that homosexuals are held to a different standard than other
minorities. Even the Supreme Court, in Bowers v. Hardwick, denied homosexuals
a constitutional right to privacy for sexual activity, while admitting that
the same sexual acts performed by heterosexuals were constitutionally protected.
So why shouldn’t Paramount make money off Schlessinger’s homophobia
if they could?


But there is something else here as well. Although Dr. Laura’s comments
and opinions about homosexuality probably take up less than 20 percent of
her air time, they are intrinsic to the appeal of the show. The bulk of Dr.
Laura’s listeners are heterosexuals who are subjected to endless criticism
of their actions and desires, but as difficult as this message might be to
them there is always someone who is worse. The unarticulated message to heterosexual
listeners is: as bad as you are you are not a biological mistake, as stupidly
as you might have acted you are not a deviant. Dr. Laura’s profound homophobia
is not simply that she is against gay parents or gay marriage but that she
continually uses homosexuality to reassure her straight listeners that they
are not all that terrible.


While it might seem ironic that gay activists are leading the charge against
Dr. Laura’s moralism, political conservatism, and sheer nastiness it
also makes perfect sense. Who better than they to recognize Schlessingers’s
hypocrisy and dishonesty. Gay culture has always provided a—usually much
needed—critique of mainstream culture. Indeed, no one, gay or straight,
should have to put up with this abuse. It is not useful, it is not principled,
it is not ethical.


But 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 offers, over and over, the same
cheap thrill: vulnerable people being faced down by an out-of-control woman
who can’t stop herself from telling them how bad they are. 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 to
have a few beers with her. 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.


Part of the reason Dr. Laura is a monster is that radio calls for, even demands,
caricature. 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.


It is a real 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. If she keeps
up this act on television, viewers will be turned off, not on. On the radio,
Dr. Laura’s brand of cruelty can be entertaining. On television, it would
simply be cruel.    Z


Michael Bronski is the author of The Pleasure Principle: Sex, Backlash,
and the Struggle for Gay Freedom, which is now available in paperback
from St. Martin’s Press.