Judge Judy has been on the air since 1996. That’s 18 years of tough justice.
In the beginning, the irrepressible Judge Judy (i.e. Judith Sheindlin) was a welcome antidote to the free-for-all mess that was (and indeed still is) daytime TV. Her enforcing of the law and the frequent verbal smackdowns she delivered to the lazy and the irresponsible came across as a long overdue reality check—not only for those on TV, but also in life!
But now, almost 20 years on, it seems that the Honorable Judge Sheindlin is flirting dangerously close with becoming a parody of herself and her genre. Anymore, when watching her show, one get the impression that they are less watching the legal system in action than they are watching a grandiose performance, Judy playing Judy. Yes, sometimes her rulings are swift and logically justified, but just as many of them come across as peculiar, based more on her personal whims and likes/dislikes than any existing law or regulation. She is increasingly ruled by her peccadilloes and eccentricities; sometimes, you only have to squint to see how much she is morphing into Brando at the end of Apocalypse Now.
Still, as odd as Judy’s attitude and intolerance seems to be getting, there’s something more disturbing than that that is presently being exhibited everyday on her highly-successful syndicated hit.
The majority of people who seem to appear before Judge Judy on a daily basis seem to be those who live near, on or below the poverty line. A disproportionate number also seem to belong to a recognized political and economic minority.
How litigants come to appear in Judge Judy’s courtroom isn’t complicated; nor, of course, is it mandatory. And though a fair number of them are there to simply settle a score or make a pitiful play for “fame” by appearing on TV, many others are there no doubt to collect money that is legitimately owed to them. They are also most probably attracted to the program—as opposed to appearing, say, in a real small claims court—due to the show’s standard “appearance fee,” a small amount of payment that each litigant receives and which is paid to them whether they win or lose the case.
This appearance fee (something shared by all talk and TV court shows currently on the air) seems appropriate—everyone involved should be compensated for their time—but, with just a little thought, this stipend can also easily take on the patina of being just a dingy financial carrot dangled in front of the financially hard-up in order to persuade them to appear on the program, and for them to be on the receiving end of a full, on-air humiliation.
Simply put, it is uncontroversial to say that if it weren’t for a steady stream of the financially in need, Judge Judy wouldn’t have a program.
But it is not only the working class that Judge Judy and her producers depend on. Judy and TV’s other court shows also seem to have a special hunger for the uneducated or, at least, the ineloquent. They are the ones that seem to make for “good TV”, as they can be stymied the fasted and embarrassed the quickest, especially since the good judge Judy is only rarely interested in the details or the complexity of your story anyway. Judy likes every case that appears before her to be simple and straightforward, in accordance with (her) standard logic. She often rants, “If it doesn’t make sense, then it’s not true.” Unfortunately, not every story in the world comes in a neatly digestible, TV-ready, Judge Judy-approved package, nor can they often be expressed succinctly enough to please her either. And when it doesn’t, then it really gives Judy the chance to go on the full-on attack and really vocally lacerate those in front of her.
Ah, such great TV!
So what are we to make of this daily spectacle of this rich white woman (various reports have pegged Judge Judy’s annual salary as anywhere from $12 to $25 million) who, every day, verbally assaults those who have, often, found it financially necessary to appear before her?
With $5,000 the maximum amount that people can sue for in her courtroom, the sums that the litigants in her courtroom sue for is chump change for both retired judge Sheindlin and, it stands to reason, most of her upper production staff. What we’re left with, then, is a sort of one-sided class warfare. Judy may not be some sort of Marie Antoinette, and some of those on the receiving end of her rulings and tongue-lashings might be more than deserving, but they are still, when all is said and done, being exhibited only for our own elitist-style entertainment, a chance to judge and mock those determined to be “less” than us.
Of course, it is not just Judge Judy and TV’s other courtroom shows that engage in this sort of class consciousness. Consider the daily DNA test of Maury Povich (who participants find non-televised genetic testing outside of their financial means) and the ignorance-as-entertainment subtexts of such shows as Raising Hope and, of course, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.
All in all, it seems to suggest that while mockery and belittling based around issues of race or gender is socially and politically verboten these days, debasement for anyone who make under $20,000 for a family of three is very much fair game.