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Too much information? Teary confessions have their limits

You don’t have to cry to be authentic, argues Susan Gordon.

Why has a particular type of confessional media endured for so long?

As a child, I sometimes found myself watching The Oprah Winfrey Show on television in the afternoons. It was broadcast on one of the free channels. There seemed to be a lot of women in the audience, a lot of solidarity, and a lot of…tears.

So much solidarity, and so much crying. This was the era of Britpop and Xena: Warrior Princess, (also Hercules, if you were really keen), a time with a cheerful ambience, when Richard Curtis romcoms charmed rather than grated. So Oprah’s tearful coterie stood out.

This good ol’ public cry, accompanied by the giving and receiving of advice, was then quite distinctive. Oprah Winfrey’s peers were notably more garish, in fact crudity was their substance, Jerry Springer’s notorious show being the best (or worst) example. At least there was no moral ambivalence about Oprah Winfrey – her show was there to help people.

If Oprah Winfrey was an emerging independent broadcaster today, (she was 32 when her television show first aired), and she launched a podcast with the same ingredients as the legendary TV show, it would sit comfortably in the current crop. It is a sign of her immense influence. In 1998, Time magazine wrote: “The compassion and intimacy she put into (the talk show format)…created a new way for us to talk to one another”, an assessment that still holds true.

But why has a particular type of confessional media endured for so long, and indeed become so widespread? I’m not sure Oprah Winfrey’s remarkable strength and success is the only reason. I argue that our professional and personal existence online has not just maintained, but fuelled, its growth.

A recent Desert Island Discs featured the keep-fit online sensation Joe Wicks. Not long into the interview, we heard Wicks’ voice crack as he talked about his father, and then again, later. The social media response was enthusiastic, praising his authenticity. At the same time, I spotted tweets lambasting Morrissey – these were in response to a repeat broadcast of a Desert Island Discs recorded with the music legend about 10 years ago. Curious, I decided to listen. What outrageous things did he say, to provoke so much irritation?

He did not say anything outrageous. In fact, I thought it was the interviewer’s questions that were not always in the most positive spirit. “Your mother was a vegetarian…That’s very interesting,” she said. Is it? Not (at the time) more than 30 years experience in the music industry, not being a leading light in cultural commentary and creative response?

Morrissey’s art and work is authentic, indeed it could be called confessional, but he doesn’t belong to the world of confessional media when so many contemporary personalities and artists do. Why not?

It is not just a question of talent – some contemporary playwrights and scriptwriters (Michaela Coel and Phoebe Waller-Bridge to name only two of the most high profile) are thriving as a consequence of work with a strong confessional streak, but no-one is questioning their abilities.

Like many great talents in music and also literature, it is clear that Morrissey’s art and performances are more than enough for public consumption. His fans seem quite respectful and understand that he is entitled to a private life. Music downloads and concert tickets are paid for, and there is nothing intrusive about them as products – we don’t need to go into Morrissey’s kitchen, and see him making breakfast, to feel part of it. And unlike television and theatre, we don’t need to be convinced that the music is ‘real’.

How has life lived online fuelled confessional media?

YouTube, Vimeo and Instagram make it easy to be film-makers and actors, without the apparatus of professional film-making. Yet, as many new writers will tell you, finding a subject is not always easy. For documentary makers, access is often the most significant barrier. So many of emerging broadcasters turn the camera on themselves and their lives, instead.

People connect and by sharing their experiences, which encourages openness about personal events. This need for connection and community would logically increase in times of uncertainty and conflict. Confessional dialogue can also have real therapeutic value.

Personality and individualism are hugely powerful in marketing, too, and, for better or worse, more dramatic stories get more notice.

Although there are no indications that the appetite for confessional media has been sated, too much of anything is detrimental. I see two dangers. The first is that art not obviously attached to personal experience is neglected, deemed not as ‘authentic’ or exciting as the alternative. This would be disastrous. Artists should never be discouraged from exploring experiences beyond their own. The result would be a drastically narrowed range of artistic expression.

The second danger is a disregard for the privacy of artists. Creative work is challenging enough as it is, without feeling the need to compromise one’s private life. I believe it is important for one’s mental stability to maintain a separation between work and home life.

I care about what we consume. Variety is essential to broadcasting, and hegemony toxic. There are many different ways to entertain, and as intriguing as confessional material is, if it not supported by artistic integrity, the crowds soon move on.

In this spirit, the future will not mirror the past, or the present.

We must recognise the limits of confession and catharsis. On their own, they are not enough. They are quite adult and introspective modes of behaviour, taking us further away from a childlike enthusiasm and interest in the world. But we need our most youthful energy to take the next step forward.

Photo credit: Oprah Winfrey speaks with Barack Obama on her US chat show

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Susan Gordon

Susan Gordon is a journalist, writer and copywriter. In 2016, she trained as a journalist, and joined the Catholic Herald as a freelance writer. Since late 2018, she has worked as an independent producer and writer for various organisations. She is currently writing her first book.

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