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A Certain Slant

Invitation to a Stoning

By Kathryn Cornell

With this issue we inaugurate a new column by Associate Editor, Kate Cornell. Besides being intelligent and literate, Kate also has a wicked sense of humor we are pleased to share with our readers.

Imagine that you could regularly witness public punishments for errant wives, adulterers, incorrigible children and others who deviate from a conservative moral code. Is this the Massachusetts Bay Colony? Pre-revolutionary France? The Taliban's Afghanistan? Some biblical reconstructionists dream? No, it's a daytime television talk show: Sally Jesse Raphael, to be precise. Although Sally lacks the overt salacious entreaties to "tell-all" of Jenny Jones, and does not stage inter-guest fighting like Jerry Springer, she has her place in the daytime line-up as the queen of pursed-lip puritanical self-righteousness.

Sally puts transgressors on display for the audience in the studio (and at home) to judge and then, perchance, to punish. "Guests" (much nicer than "the accused") are routinely tried, convicted and punished by the host, the "experts", and sometimes the studio audience. Recalcitrant, truant or sexually active teenagers are routinely "sentenced" by the shows own judge-for-hire. The offenders are forced to stand on the street with placards emblazoned with their "crimes" around their necks: Passers-by jeer, ridicule and humiliate them. The atmosphere inside the studio is no kinder.

The fury, outrage and frustration of the audience are palpable. Often red-hot mad and ready to blow, they taunt, jeer and shake their fists at the stage. Burly crew members frequently rush out to physically restrain the whipped up mini-mob. If the audience is too docile, an "expert" is called out of the wings to chide and taunt them into anger. Even children in the audience sometimes shout advice and condemnation at adulterers and pregnant teens. And indeed, teenage pregnancy is a favorite topic.

Sinful girls are caught and questioned by The Host-Inquisitor: "And just who is the father?" "Who is going to support this child?" "Whatever were you thinking?" The questions can go on and on in this scold-a-rama, no topic is too personal or taboo -- except one. There's one question that Sally never asks: "Have you considered having an abortion?"

One of the main advertisers on "Sally" in my area is the Massachusetts Council For Life (MCFL). Two commercials regularly appear throughout the show. One is a woman who "used to be pro-choice" until she had a baby and wonders why "...when I wanted the baby it was a baby, and when I didn't want it, it was [with a look of distaste] something else." The other ad features a woman spending yet another tortured and sleepless night staring out the window, lamenting all the things "they told me..." about abortion. Both spots are high quality and expensively produced.

Could they be the reason for "Sally's" squeamishness about abortion? Or perhaps MCFL merely found a "family-friendly" show for their message: a show on which audience members curse, shout and call guests "whores" and "bitches" and exhort them to keep their pants up and their genitalia in and to listen to their parents and to stop cheating on their spouses.

It's a carny side-show come-on: Puritanism in a short skirt crooks her finger and invites us to a stoning. That's Puritainment! No case need be dismissed or continued for lack of evidence. Check it out sometime - you be the judge.

© Copyright 1998, Kathryn Cornell

About the title of this column: Many thanks and apologies to Ms. Emily Dickenson, a marvelous poet and observer, for her poem from which the phrase "a certain slant of light" (which leaves nothing unchanged after it is gone) is borrowed.

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