Retail Therapy

Maybe I’m just jealous because my therapist has never given me a flat-screen TV, but it seemed that for a while, every time I turned on the Dr. Phil show, someone who’d struggled to face his or her demons was being rewarded with merchandise from Circuit City or a travel package from Orbitz.com. I’ve long admired Dr. Phil, but over the last year I began wondering what had happened to the big, balding man I’d come to think of as a friendly sort of sage with a heavy Texas drawl—a cognitive behaviorist cowboy, slinging sound advice and shooting down denial. Had he been swallowed whole by Bob Barker? Tell them what they’ve won, Bob! The Price is Right. The Pathology is Right. The Life Lesson is Right. On one episode, Dr. Phil reunited a twenty-something with the mother who’d given her up for adoption. “I never stopped thinking about you!” the mother cried, or something like that, and embraced her daughter. They were sent off on an all-expenses paid trip, and I thought, I’m not sure I’d want to vacation with a stranger I just met, and who also happened to abandon me as a child. Moments later, and with more clarity, I thought, What’s my problem? It’s a vacation. I’d go anywhere Dr. Phil would send me.

Dr. Phil launched his televised therapy career on The Oprah Winfrey Show, the year the focus of that show was “Finding Your Spirit” and Oprah hauled in a succession of psychologists and therapists in an effort to help us all, en masse, knock down whatever blocks were preventing us from becoming our most “authentic selves.” That era of Oprah brought Gary Zukav, author of The Seat of the Soul and The Dancing Wu Li Masters; it brought Iyanla Vanzant, author of Yesterday I Cried and One Day My Soul Just Opened Up. And then there was Dr. Phil’s “Get Real Challenge,” during which a group of people were sequestered for a week of therapy boot camp with the doctor. Their hard work and epiphanies were videotaped and aired throughout a season of Oprah, as Dr. Phil and Oprah commented on the happenings like those two old Muppets in the balcony.

It was great television. The folks in the “Get Real Challenge” sobbed and confronted, spoke the truth and got real and left with a lighter psychological load, carry-ons instead of heavy-duty Samsonites. And Dr. Phil and Oprah were explicit about their intention—the point of airing everyone’s dirty laundry wasn’t to engender any kind of schadenfreude in the audience, but instead, they hoped, to provide models of insight and bravery for us couch potatoes. Maybe we would see something of ourselves in those stories of marriages gone awry, of family feuds, of feeling disconnected. Maybe it would get us off our butts to get real, too.

But what did it mean to “get real”? While Oprah was finding her spirit and we rooted around for ours, we were encouraged to be grateful for small daily blessings, to come to terms with our painful pasts and live in the present with clarity, and to take responsibility for our choices. The effect was a sort of “Free to Be You and Me” for adults. (Remember when Rosey Grier sang, “It’s all right to cry. Crying gets the sad out of you”?) Soon, it seemed that every celebrity who appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show needed a Kleenex. Promoting his darker drama, The Majestic, Jim Carrey burst into tears; when Oprah acknowledged John Travolta’s good heart, he, too, turned on the faucets. Halle Berry got real about ex-hubby Eric Benet’s sex addiction, but then later showed Oprah and the studio audience how to use a bullwhip (Catwoman was about to open). Tom Cruise, of course, recently did perhaps the ultimate job of getting real, unleashing all those pent-up emotions and bouncing away on Oprah’s couch.

Everyone was getting real, and then suddenly everyone—real folks like us—was getting presents. Sure, Martha Stewart has her good things, but they usually require some elbow grease, pinecones, and a staple gun. On Oprah’s first “favorite things” show, a stunned and ecstatic audience left with thousands of dollars’ worth of merchandise, and they did absolutely nothing. And in perhaps her best-known giveaway, an entire Oprah audience left with Pontiacs.

This spring, Dr. Phil, whose show is produced by Harpo Productions, Oprah’s company, celebrated his five-hundredth episode. And since her appearances on Oprah, Iyanla Vanzant has become the lead therapist on Starting Over, a reality show in which a group of women live in a house together and beat their demons to a pulp, and whose tagline is Life Has Never Been More Real. Hasn’t life always been real, even if it’s been shitty?

 

Somehow, while trying to figure out what goes into getting real, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs popped into my mind. My rudimentary understanding of Maslow’s work is that he placed human motivation and development on a sort of ladder. On the bottom rungs were basic physiological requirements—air, food, water, shelter, sex. Higher up came needs for safety, then social needs like love, belonging, and acceptance. Once those needs were met, Maslow believed humans were driven to meet a need for esteem—to behave in ways that allowed them to feel respect and achievement. Finally, at the top of the ladder sat self-actualization: the need to become all that one is capable of being. To be one’s most authentic self, as Oprah might say. To Get Real.

According to my college psychology textbook, Mother Teresa, Gandhi, and Eleanor Roosevelt had all climbed to the top of Maslow’s hierarchy. (So much for sex.) This led to my assumption that anyone reaching self-actualization would be poor and/or have no fashion sense and/or have wrinkled skin and glasses. But Oprah has self-actualized—she is living to the fullest and giving back to the community. Who knew that giving back meant Pontiacs and Wacoal bras and Josh Groban CDs?

Could it be that, in America, the top rungs of the ladder have collapsed on themselves? Have our social and esteem needs become conflated with self-actualization? When Oprah was finding her spirit, I sobbed along with everyone else who felt lost and empty and was looking to connect with the world in a more profound way. When Oprah found a good bra, I got on the Internet and ordered it. The transition from internal satisfaction to, shall we say, external support had been, ah, seamless. Then Dr. Phil, along with handing out advice, began giving out the goods, too.

Couples on Dr. Phil’s “Premarital Boot Camp” shows ran through obstacle courses together, dealt with surprise visits from the in-laws (another kind of obstacle course), cared for fake babies, and answered tough questions about religion, money, and their expectations about sex. (One guy wanted to do it two or three times a day once he was married; his bride-to-be was terrified.) The boot campers were rewarded for their efforts with cash, electronics, and honeymoons. On the “Desperate Spouses” show, a harried househusband with five kids lamented his one-hundred-pound weight gain. He had given all of his energy to the children, and eaten all of their leftover food. To help him “reclaim” himself, he was rewarded with golf at a local club, a gentleman’s day at a spa, and a one-year gym membership.

On what was billed as “the most intense Dr. Phil ever,” the good doc confronted Sheila, who had nearly beaten her alcoholic husband to death and had contacted the show in desperation after seeing Dr. Phil help an abusive alcoholic. Then he delivered a caveat regarding “getting real” on TV. “I’ve never been under the misapprehension or illusion that I’m doing eight-minute cures or one-hour cures on this stage,” Dr. Phil told Sheila, her husband Steve, and the audience. “I’m trying to be a mental-emotional compass. I’m trying to point people in the right direction.”

 

Maybe I was just bitter. But was I the only one getting confused by the maddening jumble of makeover shows—Trading Spaces, Queer Eye, Ambush Makeover—and the talk-therapy/life-makeover/self-improvement shows like Oprah and Dr. Phil? Had self-actualization in America come to include freshly painted walls, designer active wear, and teeth whitening? Because it really did seem that the less screwed up you were, the more likely you were to leave the Dr. Phil show with presents.

In search of answers, I turned to my own expert. Kirk Olson works at Minneapolis’ Iconoculture Inc., where he brings together research and psychological and semiotic theories, all in an effort to understand what captures our attention and makes us open our wallets. I asked him what he thought about the conflation of game show-style giveaways and authentic therapeutic or spiritual progress.

“A plasma TV is not about self-actualization; it’s about esteem,” Olson said, suggesting that when Dr. Phil gives someone a television, he’s recognizing the progress that person has made. But shouldn’t the progress be its own reward? “The reality,” Olson gently reminded me, “is that Dr. Phil, though he may be a psychologist, is also an entertainer. And Oprah as well is an entertainer.”

Olson also revealed some new thinking about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. “We don’t look at it as a ladder,” he started off. A person living without safety, he explained, is certainly able to think about God (one of the higher concerns formerly reserved for the self-actualized), “and it doesn’t mean that they aren’t capable of working toward making their neighborhood a better place.” The ladder, he suggested, is really something more fluid, and scholars have since added some rungs. Between esteem and self-actualization now exists the need for self-expression, and beyond self-actualization has emerged transcendence, a position concerned with helping others.

“There is a desire among people to be recognized,” Olson said, and so when Dr. Phil gives away a TV, “in the viewer there is a feeling that they’re watching someone with status be generous; they’re watching him give back to others. And with Oprah,” he continued, “people do feel that it’s coming from a genuine place.” It’s true—I recalled that all those audience members who drove off in their Pontiacs had been chosen specifically because they were hardworking folks who really did need cars but couldn’t afford them. And that the guests on Dr. Phil (and even Montel, who’s been bringing in his own doctors lately) are getting therapy after they leave the show that they probably wouldn’t be able to pay for themselves.

Maybe Oprah and Dr. Phil—along with the host of other shows devoted to making our lives more productive and aesthetically pleasing and mentally healthy—have picked up where our government has left off. The corporate-sponsored, advertising-subsidized makeover/therapy shows have reached out to give the public a helping hand. Making us feel like we belong to a more generous society, eight minutes to an hour at a time.