August 17, 2006
Commodified Conversion and The Dr. Phil Show
— R. Danielle Egan and Stephen Papson
One aspect of the pervasive "religiosecular" character of American culture is the marriage of capitalism and conversion experiences, particularly in "self-help" television. Psychologist cum life coach Phil McGraw, who got his start on Oprah, hosts the talk television program The Dr. Phil Show. Airing on 210 television stations, with an average audience of 7 million, it regularly ranks among the top ten household shows across America. With a contract good through the 2013-2014 season, Dr. Phil shows no sign of slowing down. We suggest that while Dr. Phil rarely refers to religion directly, the predominant structure undergirding his show is quasireligious in nature and mimics the conversion experience.
"Today I'm talking to addicts," Dr. Phil announces, introducing an episode with his characteristic show of concern. Following a commercial break, viewers meet Joann, whose downcast face projects shame and desperation. Flanked by her husband and Dr. Phil, Joann begins her confession in a pre-taped montage: "I'm running out of pills .... I wrote to Dr. Phil because I felt that it was my last hope. I began taking Vicadin in May 2000 .... I don't have any self esteem Š. Some days I think this is how I'm going to die. Dr. Phil, how can I kick this habit and stay alive for the sake of my family?"
Joann is searching for salvation, and according to Dr. Phil, he is just the one to help her find it. Indeed, the structure of a typical episode is comparable to that of many religious conversion experiences: A person in need of help confesses, is forgiven, accepted into a community, and goes on to testify to his or her redemption. Dr. Phil receives the confession, offering advice and admonition, and ultimately granting forgiveness and welcoming the person into a new life changed for the better — relieved of drug addiction, marital tensions, excess weight, etc. Participants often appear in later shows to testify to their transformations back to normalcy, further attesting to the effectiveness and pervasiveness of their changes.
Within this highly commodified entertainment spectacle, Dr. Phil, who rarely mentions religion explicitly, both reproduces and exploits certain social functions of religion. Individual episodes generally develop according to an easily reproducible pattern for eliciting "conversion" experiences. This happens in three ways. First, Dr. Phil generates an aura of moral authority. His "tell it like is" and "get real" style creates a clear binary of good and evil, right and wrong. Drawing heavily on a rational-utilitarian discourse, he speaks with authority and a tone of certainty, mapping clear paths back to normalcy for participants.
Second, he produces a sense of empowerment in those whom he counsels, through participation in his moral authority. Within the structure of the confession, his predominantly female participants gain the sense of having a "voice." They share their stories — of painful addictions, the anguish of bad relationships, and the shame they feel over being unable to control their weight — with someone who listens and promises concrete help. Echoing Nike's effective "Just do it" slogan, Dr. Phil's advice is simple: Just change your life. And though everyday life does not often bend to such a simple edict, Dr. Phil nevertheless constructs an arena in which a sense of personal agency is able to emerge and flourish.
Third, Dr. Phil creates a sense of community. Organized around a television show, a website (www.drphil.com), and listserves, this largely virtual but remarkably coherent community galvanizes its members to the end of resisting some of the symptoms of contemporary secularization: anomie, privatization, cultural fragmentation, and moral uncertainty.
This quasireligious structure is foundational to the Dr. Phil empire and its incredible prosperity. Phil McGraw's success extends far beyond that of the television show alone; he has a profitable lecture circuit, a webpage, a forum for giving advice on Match.com, and has authored five No. 1 New York Times bestsellers as well as several workbooks. His method resonates widely, generating concomitant profit.
Yet Dr. Phil is not a force of "secularization" in any simple way; in fact, he offers remedies to the problems of secularization precisely through a kind of resacralization — albeit in a highly commodified form. He does not seek to replace religion (many among his audience are members of religious communities, primarily Judeo-Christian), but instead performs many of the same social functions that religion does — communicating moral authority, providing a sense of meaning within the vicissitudes of everyday life, and establishing a stable and supportive (virtual) community.
The Dr. Phil Show thus appropriates religious structures and functions toward capitalist ends. While an entertainment spectacle driven by audience ratings may not appear to constitute the sacred, in this case, the line separating the religious and the secular is certainly far from clear.
For a more detailed discussion of conversion in the Dr. Phil Show, see the earlier article by the same authors, "'You Either Get It or You Don't': Conversion Experiences and The Dr. Phil Show," Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, vol. 10, (Summer 2005), http://www.usask.ca/relst/jrpc/articles10.html.
R. Danielle Egan is Associate Professor of Gender Studies at St. Lawrence University and author of Dancing for Dollars and Paying for Love and co-editor (with Katherine Frank and Merri Lisa Johnson) of Flesh for Fantasy: The Production and Consumption of Exotic Dance.
Stephen Papson is Professor of Film Studies at St. Lawrence University and has co-authored (with Robert Goldman) Sign Wars and Nike Culture.