Even though the bailiff on Judge Judy doesn’t really do anything, I still think he’s my favorite part of the show. His name is Petri Hawkins-Byrd, and as far as I can tell, his primary job is to look unimpressed. A hulking 51 year-old black man, he looms above the plaintiffs with his arms crossed and head tilted skeptically, as if he’s just asking you to test him. He very rarely says anything, and when he does it’s usually terse and sarcastic, acting the straight man to the mouthy and acerbic Judge Judy. But really, his primary job is to intimidate, to step in and deliver the hurt should anybody ever put it into their fool head to try to throttle the shrill and scrawny judge.
“Judge Judy,” which debuted in 1996, has been a staple of afternoon TV from the start, having been nominated for 11 Daytime Emmy Awards, which seems a somewhat dubious distinction. No matter, the classic show is presided over by 66 year-old Judge Judith Sheindlin. A tough as nails New Yorker, she’s always reminded me of the bitchy grandmother who was never satisfied with the way you mowed her lawn. There’s something utterly loveless in her approach, and this, of course, is what makes her show television gold.
On the program, Sheindlin, who was an actual family courts judge back in the day, arbitrates over small claims. For the most part, the matters brought before her are petty, poorly articulated affairs. This, inevitably, leads Judge Judy to lose her shit, causing her to humiliate and eviscerate whoever has the misfortune to be standing in front of her and an audience of millions.
As you might imagine, the plaintiffs, who have found themselves settling their affairs in a fake court on daytime TV, are not the cream of the crop. Think of Jerry Springer guests dressed up and behaving for church, and you pretty much have the right idea.
A typical episode, like one I saw the other day, featured a woman who was suing her ex for assault and failure to repay a loan. She wore her sharpest pantsuit, and had a look on her face that was simultaneously focused and uncertain. When she began to speak, her cocky ex began to interrupt and speak over her. The judge was having none of it, silencing him with vicious looks and barked commands. The defendant, his own worst enemy, was barely able to contain himself, and although he remained mostly quiet, his face became a concert of aggrieved and disbelieving expressions which he had the class to embellish by making the “she’s nuts ” motion by his head whenever his ex said something he disagreed with.
In no time at all, both parties were caught up in a digressive and bitter tangle of mutual accusations and justifications. They were no longer talking about what happened, but why it happened, and clearly what they were really after was emotional compensation, rather than financial. They wanted reassurance and validation, in front of the entire world, that they were the sane one and it was the other one who was nuts. Really, they just want to be heard and the truth is the show is more therapy than justice, with each episode carrying with it the emotional catharsis of a soap opera.
In this particular episode, the smug ex-boyfriend was easy to hate, but the judge hardly paid any attention to him. Instead, she focused on the woman, tearing holes in her narrative of helplessness and abuse. Judge Judy, coming across as the streetwise voice of experience, dismissed the victim status the plaintiff draped around herself. It was actually kind of difficult to watch, as you could see whatever confidence the woman had tried to fashion for her big day in “court” drain right out of her, while her preening ex, just a few feet away, smirked like the abusive dink he most surely was.
It’s clear from watching that the attitude Judge Judy has toward women is complex. The pre-feminist Sheindlin was the only woman, out of 126 students, in her class at the Washington College of Law. Obviously, this must have been an extremely difficult and chauvinistic environment, but it seems that instead of making her more sympathetic to the plight of women, it’s hardened her. Rising from a man’s world, before the ascension of feminism, she’s grown to have little sympathy for entitlements or excuses, expecting everybody to just suck it up, exactly the way that she did some 40 years earlier.
It’s a curious position to assume on a daytime TV show, where the majority of viewers are women, but it’s been successful, managing to tap into a sort of cannibalistic voyeurism. There’s a sense of Schadenfreude that permeates “Judge Judy,” and it’s easy to imagine the audience at home— like the paid extras playing the courtroom audience on set— tittering like happy gossips when they see one of their own reach out and ask for more than they deserve, only to be slapped down, also, by one of their own.
Michael Murray is a freelance writer. For the last three and a half years he’s written a weekly column for the Ottawa Citizen about watching television. He presently lives in Toronto. You can find more of his musings on his blog, or check out his Facebook page.