Home > Television > See: Baggage or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Jerry Springer

See: Baggage or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Jerry Springer


I‘ve been hesitant to write about my new favorite TV addiction, Baggage (the dating game show hosted by Jerry Springer on the Game Show Network), because it is the most mind-boggling combination of insulting, terrible, refreshing, subversive, and normative. I’ve flip floppped back and forth in my mind how best to watch the show, and I think I’ve reached a tentative hypothesis. But first, let me explain a little how the show works for the uninitiated.

The show features an eligible bachelor or bachelorette who is looking to find love. It is assumed that said single is at least a little bit desperate. The single has a deep dark secret however, his or her baggage, contained within a large, red suitcase. Jerry tempts the studio audience by offering three possibilities for what the case may contain, one of which is true. Then three possible future mates are brought on stage for the eligible bachelor(ette) to select from. Only, each of the three suitors comes with three suitcases, ranging from small, medium, to large. The size of the suitcase corresponds to how dramatic the secret baggage is. Generally the small baggage is something along the line of “I have smelly feet” or something of that ilk, while the bigger bags contain things like “I left my wife to date her younger sister”, etc. In the first round all the suitors open up their smallest bag and explain/justify/minimize it. Then Jerry opens up the medium cases which have been placed randomly, so that the single and looking contestant has no idea whose baggage is whose. He or she must then pick which of the secrets is a deal breaker, and that contestant is eliminated. In the third round, the suitors open up their biggest cases and try to explain them. The bachelor(ette) decides which of the two remaining has the most acceptable baggage. But it doesn’t end there, as the bachelor(ette) must open his or her big red case, revealing their own enormous baggage, and the suitor is now given the chance to say if all this baggage is too much to handle. So, it’s a bit like the other popular game show, Deal or No Deal, what with all the cases opening and people rejecting things.

Let me try to explain my hypothesis, which is that Baggage is possibly the closest thing we’ll ever come to subversive queerness that we will ever get to on a game show. Yes, even more so than shows like “Big Brother” or “Survivor” that frequently feature gay and lesbian contestants. And here’s why I finally feel confident saying that: Baggage demonstrates that the “otherness” of queer individuals is really just a figment of society’s imagination. Through the guise of a heteronormative dating show (to date there has not been an episode matching up same-sex  partners), Baggage reveals that there is no such thing as “normal” and that you can’t always pick out the queer by their asymmetrical haircut. I don’t just mean that is shows us that normal is a construct because no one on the show is normal, what I mean is that queer sexuality in all its forms (not just same-sex attraction) has infiltrated a show designed to pair up men and women.   

Of course, this is still mainstream television, and so any baggage that is nonheteronomrative is met with a studio full of “oooooo’s” and gasps. However, the important part isn’t whether or not a studio audience condones the baggage or not, but that seemingly normal singles are suddenly revealed to be even just a little bit queer; it pulls the rug from under our feet, in a good way. The power of Baggage, unlike Big Brother is that you really never know when queerness is going to spring out at you. In Big Brother there is usually the gay contestant, and he or she (99% of the time HE) is cast very specifically as the gay one. While visibility is a good thing, game show visibility is usually mere tokenism disguised as acceptance. Baggage dispenses with the empty gestures of false acceptance and just bombards the viewer with visibility, saying to hell with what people think. The people with queer baggage in the show aren’t there as token others, but as regular people floating about in the straight-world dating pool.

For example, my favorite pairing ever in the show’s brief history was a couple consisting of a woman who did not believe in monogamy and a man who feels sexiest when dressed up as a woman (the show ran its credits over a picture of him in drag, wearing his wig, makeup, and a slinky red dress that episode). That pairing does more to dismantle assumptions about straight coupledom than any other show I’ve seen on TV. Or last night, one single didn’t believe in the institution of marriage. Straight men have admitted to gogo dancing in gay bars to pay for college, people admit to enjoying sadomasochism in the bedroom, selling sex toys, dating a transsexual, preferring group sex, and having sugar mommas. It’s a queer, queer world out there!

The best episodes are arguably the special “cougar editions” in which a cougar (a woman of a certain age) chooses between three sexy twenty-something men, all vying for the chance to be with an older woman.  I know the whole cougar culture thing has been absorbed into heteronormative culture, but it still belongs in the category of cross-generational sex. Unsurprisingly, the Cougar episodes are the most highly sexual, with almost every comment and secret focusing on what the cougars and their “cubs” would shortly be doing in bed together. Interestingly, the term cub has long been used in the Bear subculture before it entered the Cougar vernacular.

It all reminds me off an oldie but a goodie foundational text in sexuality studies, Gayle Rubin’s essay “Thinking Sex”, in which she outlines Western culture’s “charmed circle” of “good/natural sex”. Watching Baggage is like checking off the list of “bad sex” and “unnatural acts”:

Unmarried, Promiscuous, Non-procreative, Commercial, Group sex, Casual, Cross-generational, With manufactured objects, Sadomasochism… Transvestites, Transsexuals, Fetishists (11-12).

I‘ve seen all of those on Baggage! I’m not arguing that there isn’t yet a long way to go on TV, nor that Baggage is indeed a beacon of queerness in the wasteland of heteronormativity, but as far as game shows go (and trust me, I watch a lot of them), Baggage at least shows us that queerness is not necessarily reserved for those society deems other.

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  1. nome
    2010/07/09 at 12:18 pm

    I find your lumping in of transsexuals with random transgressive sexualities othering. In that simple inclusion, you are firstly reducing gender identity down to sexuality. You are also implying that we are an unattractive, undesirable lot. Sure, that is the message we here from this cissexist society all the time, but I would hope that these assumptions are smacked down rather than upheld as an unchallenged truth.

    • 2010/07/09 at 1:43 pm

      I feel very strongly that it was in no way implying transsexuals are a “unattractive, undesirable lot”, though I would agree with you that the show Baggage does present being transsexual as a deficit rather than just as an aspect of a whole person. While I am arguing for a more positive reading of a problematic TV show, I am in no way championing it as a model for perfect inclusivity or sensitivity. It has its major failures, as you rightly point out; they are assumptions that should be smacked down and Baggage fails to do so 99% of the time. That doesn’t change my basic argument that Baggage is successful in challenging the “otherness” of the other.
      As for the claim that I’ve incorrectly lumped gender and sexuality, I was not in fact arguing for a queerness simply in terms of sexuality. Queer, at least to me, includes gender and sexuality without necessarily implying the other. In arguing that Baggage has queer potential because it includes transsexuals, transgenders, sadomasochists, etc. I am not arguing that transsexuality is a element of sexuality nor am I conflating gender and sexuality. I am however combining both under the umbrella term queer, which may not suit how you choose to identify yourself.

      • 2010/07/09 at 1:51 pm

        I would concede that in the third paragraph the phrase “queer sexualities” is better phrased as “queerness”, which then avoids the confusion later when I use queerness in its more general terms.

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