In August 2006, the Food and Drug Administration was considering whether emergency contraception should be sold over the counter, and The View was ready to be a part of the debate. The show’s creator, Barbara Walters, set up the segment that morning from the head of the drop-leaf table at the center of her imitation living-room set. Elisabeth Hasselbeck, the table’s token conservative, was first to respond. “My heart is, like, almost out of my chest right now,” she began. “To me, it’s the same as birthing a baby and leaving it out in the street.” Guest panelist Lisa Loeb tsked: “Oh, I think that is so extreme. I’m sorry.” Joy Behar walked through the process of fertilization and implantation, and then Walters jumped back in: “Let’s say it was someone who was raped by a sex pervert.” The conversation spiraled off into a discussion of exceptions for rape and incest, with Hasselbeck becoming increasingly agitated. “Elisabeth, calm down, dear,” Walters cut in again, offering a condescending primer on civilized debate. “We have to learn how to discuss these things in some sort of rational way.”
The dispute was somehow even more of a mess behind the scenes. In Ladies Who Punch: The Explosive Inside Story of The View, entertainment journalist Ramin Setoodeh reports that the topic first came up in the makeup room that morning. Rosie O’Donnell, who was set to join the cast in September, had stopped by to sit in on a meeting that had left Hasselbeck in tears. After the heated on-air debate, Hasselbeck ripped up her notes and stalked offstage. All the women were still wearing microphones, and Setoodeh, who is Variety’s New York bureau chief, acquired a recording of what happened next. “Fuck that!” Hasselbeck screamed. When a producer found her in her dressing room, she announced she was quitting. But by the time the cameras came back on a few minutes later, Walters and Hasselbeck were beaming and hugging each other at the table. They were professional women, after all, and the audience expected them to make up. They had a show to do.
One way to look at this on-air debate is that it was a mess. The women stabbed wildly at tangential issues, appealed to emotion, plucked extreme examples to illustrate their points, showed no solid grasp of the political or scientific issues at play, and capped it off with a smug lecture on the importance of rational debate. It was embarrassing, unenlightening chaos.
This is also a way of looking at The View itself, which has been on the air since 1997. Over the years, co-hosts have mused on air about 9/11 trutherism, the supposed link between vaccines and autism, and whether the Earth is flat. The show treats politics like a soap opera, and blurs the lines between journalism and opinion. “Nobody wants facts,” O’Donnell liked to say. “Everybody wants feelings.” Meanwhile, as a workplace, it’s leakier than the White House, with backstage disputes constantly playing out in the tabloids and reducing professional conflicts to “catfights”: Star Jones vs. Barbara, Barbara vs. Rosie, Rosie vs. Elisabeth. The View, in both substance and reputation, makes women look like back-stabbing, ill-informed dingbats.
But here’s another way to look at The View. While its daytime rivals peddled paternity-test brawls and soft-focus celebrity interviews, The View was the show that believed that the audience for daytime television—low-income mothers, mostly—could cultivate an interest in politics and policy. It invited senators and presidential candidates to speak to that audience, and made room for women to disagree about everything from the Bush administration to the #MeToo movement. As Setoodeh puts it, the show’s “influence is significant in a way that doesn’t usually get said out loud.”
Ladies Who Punch makes both cases, which is exactly right. On the one hand, The View is the show you watch if you want to see a former Survivor contestant debate a former professional wrestler on the morality of waterboarding. On the other hand, it’s the daytime show that debated waterboarding.
The book is divided into three sections, focusing on Walters, O’Donnell, and Whoopi Goldberg, who has been a cast member since 2007 and is portrayed as a steady, sensible presence behind the scenes. A director compares O’Donnell, by contrast, to Pol Pot. But it’s Hasselbeck, hired in 2003, who emerges accidentally as perhaps the most important figure in the show’s history. Before Hasselbeck’s arrival, the show’s leaders—including Walters—had resisted letting the show dwell on politics. Bickering pundits were for shows like Crossfire, branded as masculine spaces. But The View’s Republican executive producer, Bill Geddie, realized that some ideological diversity would spice things up. Hasselbeck arrived two years into the Bush presidency, and she transformed the table. Conservative viewers loved her, and liberals loved to hate her. Since then, The View has always had a conservative at the table—currently Meghan McCain—and the sparks they generate have continued to make news.
Ladies Who Punch is terrifically fun to read. Setoodeh has been reporting on the show for years, and he knows everyone. The book is studded with juicy little scoops, including firing stories, backstage drama (wait for the story about Walters, Jenny McCarthy, and the tampon), and details about Star Jones’ freebie-laden wedding. O’Donnell admits to Setoodeh that she had a nonsexual kind of crush on Hasselbeck and speculates that her onetime friend—“MVP of a Division One softball team”—may have felt something for her too. Hasselbeck and Goldberg were the only two View cast members who declined Setoodeh’s interview requests for Ladies Who Punch. But Hasselbeck is currently promoting her own memoir, and she knows how to keep a news cycle rolling. Appearing on her old show last week, she dismissed the crush talk as “insulting, disturbing.” But first, she and some of her old co-hosts took a moment to marvel over what they had built together. “I love the fact that we have passion,” Hasselbeck said. “We can have a debate without hating each other.”
The View’s entire brand is discord, both onstage and off. But the show’s own metanarrative also fetishizes harmony and feminine solidarity. The women are constantly congratulating themselves over their ability to have civilized debates, even as the tabloids (and Setoodeh) report otherwise. In a way, they’re right: Politics is rarely personal on The View, and political disagreements seem to be forgotten as soon as the camera flickers off. Personal disagreements, however, are something different. When Hasselbeck stormed off the set after the contraception segment in 2006, she wasn’t mad about her perception that the other panelists wanted to do the equivalent of leaving infants to die on the street. She was angry because Walters had reprimanded her on air. In the end, of course, they made nice for the cameras. Women so often do.
By Ramin Setoodeh. Thomas Dunne Books.
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