Therapeutic Solutions, Disciplinary Ethics and Medical Truth on Self-Help TV


  • Maryam El-Shall Jamestown Community College, Jamestown, New York, USA



Biopower, biopolitics, Dr. Phil, discipline, truth, self


This article will consider the use of therapy television – specifically the self-help television program The Dr. Phil Show – as a locus of government. Specifically, I will examine the ways in which ethics are addressed as biopolitical problems of the self through the often disciplinary instruction of the therapist. In this respect The Dr. Phil Show is representative of a shift in the talk show genre away from the tabloid model to a pedagogical model. Self-help talk shows are increasingly concerned with the cultivation of the soul, the production of truth and the discipline of the body. I demonstrate this by analyzing a series of Dr. Phil Show episodes centered on the confession and obesity, respectively. I emphasize the connection between TV expertise – here embodied in the discourse of the expert/therapist Dr. Phil McGraw – and neo-liberal goals requiring subjects to both care, and take responsibility, for themselves.


Andrejevic, Mark (2003): Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched, Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield.

The Dr. Phil Show (2004): A Family Divided: Marty’s Confession: (accessed 04 August 2014).

The Dr. Phil Show (2010): The Fat Debate. Online: (accessed 06 February 2012).

Dembling, Sophia & Lisa Gutierrez (2003): The Making of Dr. Phil: The Straight-Talking True Story of Everyone’s Favorite Therapist, New York: Wiley and Sons.

Donald, Mark (2000): ‘Analyze this’, Dallas Observer, 13 April 2000: (accessed 31 December 2012).

Foucault, Michel (1976/1994a): The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. Volume One [Trans. Robert Hurley], New York: Vintage Books.

Foucault, Michel (1984/1994b): The History of Sexuality: The Care of the Self. Volume Three [Trans. Robert Hurley], New York: Vintage Books.

Foucault, Michel (2003): ‘Society Must Be Defended’: Lectures at the College de France 1975-1976 [Trans. David Macey], New York: Picador.

Gamson, Joshua (1998): Freaks Talk Back: Tabloid Talk Shows and Sexual Nonconformity, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226280639.001.0001

Glynn, Kevin (2000): Tabloid Culture:Trash, Taste, and the Transformation of American Television, Durham: Duke University Press.

McCarthy, Anna (2010): The Citizen Machine: Governing By Television in 1950s America, New York and London: New Press.

McGraw, Phil (2011): ‘Putting Obesity Out of Business’ 14 May 2011, Turning Point: Home of Dr. Phil’s Official Blog: (accessed 14 February 2012).

Milchman, Alan & Alan Rosenberg (2005): ‘Michel Foucault: Crises and Problemizations’, The Review of Politics, 67:2, 335-351. DOI: 10.1017/S0034670500033544

Mittell, Jason (2003): ‘Audiences Talking Genre: Television Talk Shows and Cultural Hierarchies’, Journal of Popular Film and Television, 31:1, 36-46. DOI: 10.1080/01956050309602867

Nagel, Rob (2002): U.X.L American Decades, 1990 - 1999. Chicago: U.X.L. Publishing. [e-book]: (accessed 24 December 2013).

Ouellette, Laurie & James Hay (2008): Better Living Through Reality TV: Television and Post-welfare Citizenship, Malden: Blackwell Publishing.

Puhl, Rebecca (2011): Weight Discrimination: A Socially Acceptable Injustice:
(accessed 12 February 2012). (2013): About Empower America:$2
(accessed 24 December 2013).




How to Cite

El-Shall, M. (2014) “Therapeutic Solutions, Disciplinary Ethics and Medical Truth on Self-Help TV”, Culture Unbound, 6(4), pp. 837–855. doi: 10.3384/cu.2000.1525.146837.



Theme: Therapeutic Cultures