Judging Judy

As far back as I can remember I’ve wanted to be a cop. When I was a kid, I would ride around in a plastic fire engine, barking orders into my personal megaphone, and pausing my rounds to arrest my sister or handcuff my parents. I was always very concerned with things being fair, mostly because I had a younger sister who was babied and relieved of our shared responsibilities. My desire to be a cop changed when I turned ten and was able to occasionally watch Judge Judy with my babysitter on weekdays. Now, for most kids at my age, Judge Judy was irrelevant and unappealing. A reality court show with an abrasive female judge adjudicating dramatic small claim disputes could not be farther from the encouraged “kid friendly “media.  But, due to the fact that I was not allowed to watch any television except baseball (without commercials), the occasional Judge Judy episode was a treasured privilege, an act of secrecy, and rebellion.

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Judge Judy was one of the only successful reality court shows on television in the early twenty first century, however, the popularity of the show stemmed from components of reality television that were widely devalued in society. Judge Judy was a daytime show targeted at women – typically stay at home moms or females with short workdays – and entertained viewers with a ball-busting Judith Sheindlin. Judy was pure drama. She was bossy, insulting, abrasive, and a tough judge that literally called out the bulls*** that took place in every case between the conflicting parties. The show was never aimed at instilling the values and virtues of the justice system; it functioned solely to entertain viewers. Drama is the core of reality television, there are few important matters addressed or promoted, and thus reality television was (and still is) regarded as mindless entertainment never to be taken seriously. Judge Judy represented the stereotypical “hardass” female character that couldn’t care less about what people thought or felt, and had the authority to say whatever she damn wanted, even if it was wildly inappropriate. Additionally, Judge Judy exemplified the fakeness of reality television; she crossed all the boundaries of an appropriate judge in an official courtroom and affirmed the belief that reality television was not reflective of real life, simply a reflection of real crazy people.

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Judge Judy may have represented trash television at the time, but as a young girl, I had never seen such a powerful woman on television and surprisingly, she seemed inspiring. Judge Judy may have been crass at times, but she was advocating for justice, and she delivered it. At the most basic level of poaching, Judge Judy showed me that there were, and could be, female judges; she was the visual representation of women in positions of authority and judicial power.

On a more substantial level of poaching, I found myself incorporating elements of the show into my perspective and behavior. As mentioned earlier, I was a firm believer in fairness because of my experience as an older sibling. Instances where my sister would get easier chores, or run crying to my mom after an altercation between us, truly angered me because the circumstances were unfair and I couldn’t resist my parent’s authority when they punished me. In Griffin’s article, Henry Jenkins’s study describes how “children draw upon prefabricated characters and situations of popular culture to make sense of their own social experience, reworking them to satisfy their own needs and desires” (104). My preoccupation with fairness at a young age was satisfied by the reworking of Judge Judy as a positive symbol of justice. Judge Judy re-affirmed and perpetuated my belief in speaking up for what I carefully concluded was “fair”, and was a position I took up with my parents to effectively convey the injustices (I know, maybe a little harsh) that they were unconsciously inflicting upon me. Judge Judy spoke her mind disrespectfully because she was the boss, the authority, but I was not in my family. Thus I learned to negotiate my own authority through logical arguments.

I felt like a pretty mature kid and watching Judge Judy empowered me to voice my beliefs and question the righteousness of decisions made by the adults around me. If I was standing up for equality, like Judy, I had enough justification to express it even to authority figures. This belief highlights the concept Griffin discusses regarding the power dynamic between children and the society that attempts to control them. I was challenging authority by watching Judge Judy, and I was directly challenging my parents, using what Michael de Certeau deems a “tactic”, “to resist the impositions of the hegemonic strategy” (110). I was creating my own understanding of Judge Judy, one that differed from the dominant hegemonic understanding in many ways, but strengthed both the rebellious and ethical parts of me. Similar to the variety of relationships children had with Davey Crockett, I had parentally and socially deemed “good” (ethics) and “bad” (rebel) elements of my negotiated poaching of Judge Judy.

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3 thoughts on “Judging Judy

  1. Jess! I think it is so great that you watched Judge Judy when you were younger because I used to watch it too!. My brother and I would be like “It is 4 o’clock, it is time for Judge Judy.” My great aunt would usually fall asleep, but my brother and I would be so engrossed in each court case. Since my aunt never had children of her own and did not own a VCR tape, the logical television show would be Judge Judy. Judge Judy did not speak to me a child, but I found that the people that came on the show were extremely interesting. The problems were always the same: girl loans sketchy boyfriend money, he doesn’t pay her back, she wants to sue him. If my aunt wasn’t sleeping, she would subtly say things under her breath to me along the lines of “Don’t marry a fool like that” or “Don’t be like that young woman.” I didn’t understand all the legal stuff associated with Judge Judy, but I did learn about the type of man that is “bad” because he treats women badly or not to be like some of the woman on the show that let their husbands and boyfriends boss them around and take all of their money. My aunt gave me some pretty simple life lessons all from watching Judge Judy.

  2. I also watched Judge Judy a bit when I was younger. However, I had a completely different experience based on the people I viewed the show with. When I watched the show it was mostly with my father. Having grown up in a stereotypical Mexican-American household, he carried over some basic idea of traditional gender roles (i.e. men should be more agressive than women and women should be less confrontational). Because of this, he made a lot of comments about Judge Judy being too agressive and ultimately too masculine. While I didn’t immediately agree with these assertions, I did begin the question why it was necessary that in order for a woman to gain respect she had to be even more masculine than a man in her position. This led me away from seeing Judge Judy as a role model.

  3. Love this discussion here — it really points to how multi-valenced a text like Judge Judy really is. That she could be a role model AND evidence of sexism proves how heavily context and subjectivity are involved in the interpretation process. Great post, Jess.

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