A Judge Judy Think Piece

by Benjamin Studebaker

The internet is often full of aesthetic think pieces. It’s easy to write them–you identify some show or artist that’s captured the attention and the artistic sensibility of your readers, and you make some vague connection between the themes of that art and some current issue. On prestige websites, you can often find writers pumping out think pieces about prestige programs. Often it’s some big critical hit on HBO like Game of Thrones, or an edgy Netflix original series like House of Cards. These are thought to be the important shows, because they’re the shows our social, cultural, and political elite enjoy. Think pieces get lots of clicks, because they make us feel that the stuff we’re watching, reading, or listening to really matters. But do they matter? The most popular Game of Thrones episode was watched by about 8.9 million people. A new season of House of Cards gets seen by about 5 million. Meanwhile, every week, like clockwork, 10 million people watch Judge Judy.

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Judge Judy has been the most popular daytime TV show the last 7 years in a row, and it’s been on TV for two decades. It’s beaten Oprah. It beats Dr. Phil. It beats Ellen. It beats The O’Reilly Factor. It beats Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Colbert, and Jimmy Kimmel put together.

Nobody talks about Judge Judy. The people are real. The cases are real. The rulings are final. The think pieces are silent. It’s not the kind of show young urban professionals watch. But Judge Judy is a uniquely American phenomenon. Most other countries don’t have court shows, and if they did they would never have a judge like Judith Sheindlin.

Consider for a moment how this show works. People come on the show with some dispute. They agree to let Judy arbitrate that dispute, and sign a contract making her decision legally binding. Judy makes a determination in just a few minutes–no more than 20 at most. Along the way, she interrupts the litigants, yells at them, and calls them names, demanding that they take personal responsibility for themselves. Judy is well-educated–she has an undergraduate degree in government from American University and a law degree from New York Law School. She’s also very well-compensated. Judy works 52 days a year and is paid an annual salary of nearly $50 million, making her the highest paid TV star in the United States.

Many of the people who come on the show are low income, poorly educated, and yes, often apparently quite stupid. Many reality TV shows and daytime TV shows make fun of stupid people from low socioeconomic backgrounds. But rarely is this made explicit–on Here Comes Honey Boo Boo or Jersey Shore, there isn’t a host whose role is to call the stupidity out. It’s just there. Even Dr. Phil is more inclined to scold guests than lob blatant insults at them, demanding they stand there and take it.

More than any other program you can find on television, Judge Judy is about telling people that their problems are all their own fault in the most vicious and dismissive possible way. Its viewers live vicariously through Judy, as she says the things they wish they had the confidence to say to other people. Judge Judy doesn’t just let you see poor people embarrass themselves on TV, it lets you see them lose on TV and get mocked for losing and for being losers.

At its core, the show is incredibly right wing–it’s all about blaming and shaming marginalized individuals for the fact that they’ve been marginalized. And yet, the pull can be difficult to resist. It’s easy to identify with Judy, when she’s berating unqualified private school teachers who locked a special needs student in a closet:

But why do the litigants on Judge Judy behave so poorly? Because they were poorly educated, poorly brought up, disabled, or otherwise disadvantaged in some way. The notion that it’s their fault, rather than the fault of the institutions and policies that made them this way, is the core argument which legitimizes right wing critiques of the welfare state, of redistribution, and of left wing theories of justice more broadly. We shouldn’t be looking to see a wealthy, highly educated judge condemn and verbally brutalize these people before a mass audience. We should be trying to find a way to break the cycles of poverty and violence that marginalize these people in the first place.

Daytime television has two core demographics–retired people and people with nowhere to be. Both of these groups broke for Trump:

Judge Judy didn’t cause Donald Trump to win, but the show’s enduring popularity with the kinds of people who support him suggests that it reflects how many of them feel. People come on the show and lie to Judy. They try to trick her into awarding them money. This is what many Trump supporters think the welfare state and the immigration system are all about–poor people and refugees coming in and lying their way into handouts. But this isn’t true. Fraud rates for most welfare programs are in the low single digits. Foreign born Americans pay taxes and commit fewer crimes than native born citizens do. It doesn’t matter–people don’t know the statistics, or don’t believe them.

And in the meantime, educated writers spend their time watching and thinking about the shows they and their friends and family enjoy. We don’t think about what’s on TV during the day. We’re working and studying then. Nobody thinks about Judge Judy. Why bother? What sort of people watch that?

The sort of people who now run the country.