Yale Sociologist to Discuss His New Book, "Freaks Talk Back"

Yale University sociologist Joshua Gamson will discuss his new book about daytime television talk shows at a free, public reception at the Yale Bookstore on Monday, April 27, at 4 p.m. Videos will be shown and refreshments will be served.

In the book, “Freaks Talk Back: Tabloid Talk Shows and Sexual Nonconformity” (University of Chicago Press, 1998), Gamson focuses on people who expose themselves on television in one of the genre’s emerging conventions: the tell-all show featuring the lives of homosexuals, bisexuals, transexuals and other sexually marginalized groups. This is the first serious study of the strange appeal and surprising effect of these shows. How they are made, how they function within particular viewing communities and how they have evolved since the early days of the relatively sedate “Phil Donahue Show” are issues that Gamson addresses. He brings to life the wild, paradoxical process through which stigmatized individuals become talk show celebrities.

The extraordinary popularity of these tell-all shows is not necessarily a bad thing, Gamson argues. “Silly as they can be, daytime TV talk shows are filled with information about the American environment in which they take root, in which expertise and authenticity and rationality are increasingly problematic, and in which the lines between public and private are shifting so strangely,” Gamson writes in his opening chapter, called “Why I Love Trash.”

He goes on to suggest that the marginalized subjects of talk shows often use television exposure to advance their political and cultural agenda: “The shows, loosely guided by a combination of liberal, therapeutic and bottom-line ideologies, wind up for the most part turning the tables on the anti-gay right, so that the bigots become the freaks.” Talk shows generate social tolerance, Gamson reasons, and give much-needed visibility to sexual nonconformists.

At the same time, the exposure exacerbates all sorts of political and cultural tensions. Talk shows position middle-class guests against their working-class counterparts, and “respectable” gays and lesbians against “queers” and those who flaunt their differences, he says. “The equations start to come clear: uneducated is lazy is sex-loving is sexually perverted is non-middle-class is soulless losers… How exactly do poverty and lack of education, sex and gender nonconformity, and race come to be lumped together and condemned as monstrosities?”

According to Gamson, the best way to understand his study of what he calls “this weird world” is to watch some of the more outrageous talk show exchanges. To that end, he put together an assortment of clips from programs hosted by Jerry Springer, Jenny Jones, Sally Jessy Raphael and others that will be shown during the Yale Bookstore reception. Gamson will comment on the tapes and answer audience questions.

Gamson joined the Yale faculty in 1993 as an assistant professor of sociology. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Swarthmore College in 1985 and his doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley in 1992. He is author of “Claims to Fame: Celebrity in Contemporary America” (University of California Press, 1994) and numerous scholarly articles.

For more information on the event, contact Don Levy at (203) 777-8440.

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Gila Reinstein: gila.reinstein@yale.edu, 203-432-1325