Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Susie Banikarim (00:01):

There’s an episode of Oprah Winfrey’s talk show from 1988 that I always think about because it touches on so many things I’ve also struggled with. It’s her highest rated episode of all time, and in it, a svelte Oprah, in tight Calvin Klein jeans, dramatically reveals to her audience that she has just lost 67 pounds and tells them how she did it.

Clips (00:25):

What I did was I fasted, without cheating, for a solid six weeks.

Susie Banikarim (00:31):

And to demonstrate how much weight that is, Oprah will wheel out a visual aid, a classic child’s red wagon that holds a giant clear plastic bag filled with fat, 67 pounds of animal fat to be precise.


I’m Susie Banikarim.

Jessica Bennett (00:52):

And I’m Jessica Bennett.

Susie Banikarim (00:54):

This is In Retrospect where each week we revisit a cultural moment from the past that shaped us.

Jessica Bennett (00:59):

And that we just can’t stop thinking about.

Susie Banikarim (01:01):

Today we’re talking about Oprah’s little red wagon of fat, but we’re also talking about the literal weight we all carry and the pressure women feel to be perfect.

Jessica Bennett (01:18):

So, okay, Susie. There must be thousands of potential Oprah moments we could unpack here. Why the little red wagon of fat?

Susie Banikarim (01:28):

So I don’t know if you know this about me, but I’ve always been a huge Oprah fan. I loved her show and I watched it whenever I could growing up. And while I didn’t watch this particular moment, because it happened in 1988 and I would’ve been pretty young, I’ve seen it so many times because it was just this very famous episode and it’s shown in all of her retrospectives. And I think the reason I wanted to talk about it is there’s something she said at the time when she revealed that she’d lost this weight. And what she said was, “This is the most difficult thing I’ve done in my life. It is my greatest accomplishment.”

Jessica Bennett (02:01):

Wow. Her greatest accomplishment?

Susie Banikarim (02:04):

Yeah. I mean, that’s obviously not the case, right?

Jessica Bennett (02:06):


Susie Banikarim (02:06):

I mean, she’s accomplished so much since and she had accomplished so much even at that point. So it’s a complicated statement and definitely one she’s walked back since. But it resonates for me because I think for a lot of women, myself included, this sense that you’re measured by your physical weight is really pervasive, something you kind of struggle with your whole life. And we’ll get into that. But I’m curious, just before we start, were you an Oprah fan?

Jessica Bennett (02:31):

No, honestly, I think I’m more familiar with today’s Oprah, like media mogul, first Black woman billionaire, trailblazer in so many ways. And of course someone who can always score the first sit down. But I wasn’t an acolyte. I didn’t grow up watching her. I wasn’t the type of person that would rush home every day after school and turn on Oprah. But, Susie, were you that kind of Oprah fan?

Susie Banikarim (02:57):

Yeah. I mean, I think it was just sort of an appointment. Oprah was on at 4:00 PM every day, and especially when I was in school, you come home, you turn on the TV, you do your homework, whatever. But that’s something that feels kind of ever present.


When I eventually would have a DVR, I would DVR the show.

Jessica Bennett (03:14):


Susie Banikarim (03:14):

And I remember once having a guy friend over and him being like, “Do you DVR Oprah?” And being really embarrassed about it.

Jessica Bennett (03:23):


Susie Banikarim (03:23):

Yeah. I mean, because it’s like-

Jessica Bennett (03:25):

This is in high school?

Susie Banikarim (03:26):

No, this was in my 20s.

Jessica Bennett (03:27):


Susie Banikarim (03:28):


Jessica Bennett (03:28):

All right.

Susie Banikarim (03:28):

And I was really defensive. I was like, “I have to watch it for work.” And he was like, “What do you mean? You’re a news journalist.” And I was like, “Yeah, I mean, but I work at ABC and I have to know what’s happening on Oprah.” And by the way, we did cover Oprah a lot on World News Tonight where I worked at that time.

Jessica Bennett (03:42):


Susie Banikarim (03:43):

It was in fact true that it was useful for me to watch Oprah because things would happen on Oprah and we would cover them. She covered serious topics and sometimes she would have guests that news outlets hadn’t gotten.

Jessica Bennett (03:54):

Yeah, that no one else could get. Yes. And I think worth mentioning, celebrities didn’t have a direct line to their fans back then. If you wanted to do an interview or promote a thing or get something out or try to recover from whatever shitty thing you’d done that you were groveling over.

Susie Banikarim (04:08):


Jessica Bennett (04:08):

You would have to go sit on Oprah’s couch.

Susie Banikarim (04:11):

And that was considered a great booking.

Jessica Bennett (04:13):


Susie Banikarim (04:13):

If you were a celebrity, you wanted to be able to go to Oprah. That was as much a boon to you as it was to her, which I don’t think there’s really a comparison to that now.

Jessica Bennett (04:22):

No, absolutely not. I mean, I still always think about the Tom Cruise jumping on her couch moment, even though that was much later.

Susie Banikarim (04:28):

Oh, yeah, that’s such an infamous moment.

Jessica Bennett (04:30):

Right, so all these celebrities would go sit on her couch, and that was a big component of this. But there was also something for the audience about community in watching that show. Isn’t that right? People would gather. You were part of a, I don’t know, would you call it a family?

Susie Banikarim (04:45):

Yes. You were part of this Oprah family. She really drew you in. Eventually there was the famous book club. The idea was you were reading a book with her, you were experiencing bra shopping with her. Her episode about being properly fitted for bras was a really big success for her. She was basically just telling you how to live, as she would put it, your best life. And there were lots of different ways she was teaching you to do that. You could read this book The Secret that was really popular at the time, or The Law of Attraction, and you could manifest things in your life. And specifically you can manifest money, which I think was very appealing to people.

Jessica Bennett (05:25):

Still pretty appealing.

Susie Banikarim (05:26):

Yeah. And I think it’s something you see a lot on TikTok now. It’s part of the vernacular.

Jessica Bennett (05:30):

But we should also state the obvious, which is that it wasn’t just manifesting that got her to where she was. She was a trailblazer in so many ways. Oprah was the first Black female host of a national talk show, and when she became that, she completely broke the mold for what a “traditional” TV host looked like, which was still usually white and mostly male.

Susie Banikarim (05:52):

Yeah, I mean, Oprah tells this story in interviews about how when she was first offered this talk show, she reportedly said to the man who was offering her the job, “But I’m Black and I’m fat.”

Jessica Bennett (06:05):


Susie Banikarim (06:05):

So she’s so aware, not just of the racism, which lets be honest, that could be a whole other show. But she’s also aware that thinness is a really essential part of being seen as a public figure at this time. And so she feels the need to say that even as she’s being offered this huge opportunity.

Jessica Bennett (06:21):

Okay. But she takes the job, obviously.

Susie Banikarim (06:23):

Yeah, she takes the job and it’s a huge success. Her local talk show gets national syndication and she becomes a household name. But really from the moment she starts to get this national coverage, she gets so much attention around her weight.

Jessica Bennett (06:38):

So her weight essentially becomes part of the story.

Susie Banikarim (06:40):

Yeah, it’s always part of her story. And there’s a great example of this. In 1986, she does an interview with Mike Wallace, so it’s right after she’s gone national, and Mike Wallace is on 60 Minutes, which at the time is just this huge show. 23 million people tune in every Sunday night to watch it. I remember we would get together as a family and watch it on Sundays, and this is how that interview unfolds.

Clips (07:03):

When she was 22, she moved to Baltimore, and became an anchor woman on a local TV news show.

Clips (07:08):

This was 60 pounds ago.

Clips (07:11):

You mean you were 60 pounds lighter?

Clips (07:12):

60 pounds ago. I think of my life in terms of my thighs.

Jessica Bennett (07:16):


Susie Banikarim (07:17):

This is just one example of how Oprah has always had to be very public about her weight. It’s almost impossible to tell how much the conversation was driven by media coverage and how much she just decided to share it to preempt kind of all this criticism she knew was coming. And I think it’s also partially why she’s so successful. She’s really vulnerable and relatable, but that comes with a cost.

Jessica Bennett (07:57):

So I want to get back into the moment itself, the little red wagon, of that moment.

Susie Banikarim (08:01):

Do you have any memory of it? Is this something that jogs a memory for you?

Jessica Bennett (08:06):

It’s funny because I don’t know this exact moment, but I do have this very ’80s image in my mind of Oprah standing looking very svelte in a black turtleneck and these kind of chic mom jeans, high-waisted kind of mom jeans.

Susie Banikarim (08:22):

Yeah. Yeah.

Jessica Bennett (08:23):

So I must’ve seen that image in magazines or in retrospectives.

Susie Banikarim (08:27):

Yeah, I mean, I think it’s just one of those images that really follows her around for the rest of her life. And this episode is still to this day, the highest rated one. And I’m going to walk you through it just because it’s fascinating on so many levels.

Jessica Bennett (08:40):

Okay, I’m ready.

Susie Banikarim (08:41):

So this episode airs in November and there’s already been a lot of buildup because when she returned for her show that season in September, she is noticeably thinner.

Jessica Bennett (08:51):

Okay. Okay.

Susie Banikarim (08:51):

She has already lost 30 or 40 pounds.

Jessica Bennett (08:54):

Okay, so people are noticing.

Susie Banikarim (08:54):

Everyone has been asking, “How did she lose the weight? How did she lose the weight?”

Jessica Bennett (08:57):


Susie Banikarim (08:57):

And so she keeps assuring the audience that she’s going to tell them how she does it. And so the AP sends a reporter.

Jessica Bennett (09:03):

Oh wow.

Susie Banikarim (09:04):

Who then makes-

Jessica Bennett (09:04):

To the show?

Susie Banikarim (09:05):

To the show.

Jessica Bennett (09:05):


Susie Banikarim (09:06):

It’s become a national story. And because Oprah-

Jessica Bennett (09:06):

It’s already a national story.

Susie Banikarim (09:09):

It’s already a national story. And, Oprah, because she’s a genius, is like, “I will not tell you until sweeps, which is when-“

Jessica Bennett (09:16):

What’s sweeps?

Susie Banikarim (09:17):

Sweeps is when Nielsen does its annual kind of assessment of ratings.

Jessica Bennett (09:22):

Oh, okay.

Susie Banikarim (09:22):

So your advertising dollars are connected to who watches the show in sweeps. And she is a smart woman, so she’s like, “I will tell you when it is most cost-effective for me.”

Jessica Bennett (09:31):

Of course.

Susie Banikarim (09:31):

So the show starts and Oprah is wearing a red coat.

Clips (09:36):

That is the last time I was in the Calvin Klein size 10 jeans until today.

Susie Banikarim (09:46):

And she’s like, “Ta-dah!” She dramatically flings off this coat.

Jessica Bennett (09:52):


Susie Banikarim (09:52):

To reveal her new-

Jessica Bennett (09:54):

Svelte look.

Susie Banikarim (09:55):

-weight. Svelte look. This black turtleneck. And she’s wearing these Calvin Klein jeans that she hasn’t been able to fit into for years. She saved-

Jessica Bennett (10:03):

Oh, they’re her jeans that’s she’s had.

Susie Banikarim (10:04):

They’re her jeans that she’s saved. They’re her thin jeans.

Jessica Bennett (10:09):


Susie Banikarim (10:09):

And she was like, “I will fit into these again.”

Jessica Bennett (10:10):


Susie Banikarim (10:11):

And now she can fit into them. And she’s tucked her jeans into these kind of cool high heeled-

Jessica Bennett (10:18):

Oh, yeah. They were tucked.

Susie Banikarim (10:18):


Jessica Bennett (10:19):

Yes. Yes, yes, yes.

Susie Banikarim (10:20):

So it becomes this very iconic image of her.

Jessica Bennett (10:22):


Susie Banikarim (10:22):

So this is kind of this wild moment in the studio. The audience goes wild. They’ve been given pompoms. They’re shaking pompoms.

Jessica Bennett (10:31):


Susie Banikarim (10:31):

They’re like, “Yay.”

Jessica Bennett (10:33):


Susie Banikarim (10:33):

It’s so exciting.

Jessica Bennett (10:34):

They’ve all been given pompoms. That’s amazing.

Susie Banikarim (10:36):

Yeah, they’ve all been given pompoms.

Jessica Bennett (10:37):

And then the wagon is behind her.

Susie Banikarim (10:39):

So this is the first segment of the show.

Jessica Bennett (10:41):


Susie Banikarim (10:41):

She comes out, she reveals this weight loss.

Jessica Bennett (10:41):

So we’re like, “Rah rah.”

Susie Banikarim (10:44):

And then she’s like commercial. Again because she’s a genius.

Jessica Bennett (10:46):


Susie Banikarim (10:47):

And she’s not going to give you everything up front.

Jessica Bennett (10:51):

It’s great to have your TV knowledge in the background of this because I don’t think about these things.

Susie Banikarim (10:55):

Oh, yeah.

Jessica Bennett (10:56):

Of course, you wait until after the commercial break to keep people there.

Susie Banikarim (10:58):

Right. You’re just constantly trying to keep people reasons to continue to tune in or stay tuned in.

Jessica Bennett (11:02):


Susie Banikarim (11:02):

She gives you the reveal at the top, which becomes a very common talk show trope, this body reveal.

Clips (11:08):

Judy has lost a total of 12 pounds. Judy, let’s see the new you.

Clips (11:11):

Today, Junior can proudly say he lost the most weight of anyone on today’s show. Let’s bring out the new Junior.

Susie Banikarim (11:19):

Eventually it actually becomes pretty common to do these kinds of reveals in a bathing suit. And there’s actually another really famous episode of Oprah with Kirstie Alley where she also does this big reveal.

Clips (11:30):

Exactly one year ago, Kirstie vowed to walk on our stage in a bikini once she reached her goal weight and she did it.

Jessica Bennett (11:38):

Okay. okay.

Susie Banikarim (11:38):

That was a very famous one, but there was a lot of very famous kind of examples of this.

Jessica Bennett (11:42):


Susie Banikarim (11:43):

And so here she is, she’s lost all this weight. There’s a cut to a commercial break. And she knows that she’s got to keep you entertained.

Jessica Bennett (11:48):


Susie Banikarim (11:49):

So what is the idea she has had for the second segment of the show? It is that she comes out and she’s wheeling this little red wagon full of fat.

Jessica Bennett (11:58):

I didn’t think it was a literal wagon of fat.

Susie Banikarim (12:01):

No, it’s like a literal red wagon, like a child’s wagon. Her staff has gone to a local barbecue joint.

Jessica Bennett (12:08):

Oh my gosh.

Susie Banikarim (12:08):

And I’m going to tell you the name of the joint because I discovered it in my research. I had never heard this before.

Jessica Bennett (12:12):

In Chicago?

Susie Banikarim (12:13):

In Chicago. It is called Moo and Oink.

Clips (12:18):


Susie Banikarim (12:20):

That’s the name of the place where they get the fat.

Jessica Bennett (12:23):

Okay. So that’s fine for the name of a barbecue joint.

Susie Banikarim (12:26):

It is.

Jessica Bennett (12:26):

It’s just only made weird by-

Susie Banikarim (12:27):

But in the context of it being like, “This is the weight I’ve lost.”

Jessica Bennett (12:30):

Well, yes. Right.

Susie Banikarim (12:31):

It’s literally in some weird way referring to yourself as a cow or a pig. I don’t know why. It just really struck me as unfortunate that that’s the name, Moo and Oink. So she wheels out this wagon with this clear plastic garbage bag filled with animal fat. And she’s standing next to it addressing the audience.

Clips (12:49):

I have lost, as of this morning, 67 pounds since July 7th. 67 pounds.

Susie Banikarim (12:55):

I think this is the first time she gives you the actual number

Jessica Bennett (12:58):


Susie Banikarim (12:59):

Because, again, she’s trying to keep you engaged. And she also ticks through her measurements and says.

Jessica Bennett (13:06):

Oh, wow.

Susie Banikarim (13:06):

“I’ve lost 30 inches.”

Clips (13:08):

30 inches from my bust, my waist, and my hips.

Susie Banikarim (13:11):

And then she gives you the specifics, seven on my bust, 12 on my waist, 11 on my hips. She’s like pointing.

Clips (13:17):

And this, this, is what 67 pounds of fat looks like.

Susie Banikarim (13:20):

And she’s literally like, “Look at this. I used to carry this around.”

Clips (13:24):

I can’t lift it.

Susie Banikarim (13:24):

“And I can’t even lift it up down.” And she tries to lift it up-

Jessica Bennett (13:27):

So she tries to lift it, okay.

Susie Banikarim (13:27):

She’s like, “It’s so disgusting.”

Clips (13:29):

Is this gross or what?

Susie Banikarim (13:31):

I mean, she’s really inviting the audience to examine and stare at her body in a way that I personally would never choose, and I think is just a super interesting fact about this. Celebrities in general, female celebrities, especially, their bodies are under such a microscope, and in this case, she has kind of embraced that and is putting her own body under this microscope for the audience.

Jessica Bennett (13:57):

Okay, so what comes next?

Susie Banikarim (13:58):

So what comes next is a segment where Stedman, her boyfriend at the time, calls in to congratulate her. But Stedman himself is kind of an interesting character in this because he’s her longtime partner. They are still together. They never got married. But later on, she will say he is the reason she embarked on this particular weight loss journey.

Jessica Bennett (14:19):


Susie Banikarim (14:20):

It will be reported at some point that over dinner one night she asked him if it ever bothered him that she was overweight and that there’s this long pause and he says something along the lines of, “Well, it’s an adjustment.”

Jessica Bennett (14:35):

Oh God, this makes me so sad.

Susie Banikarim (14:37):

Yeah. And she sort of feels this as a gut punch. I think she says at some point, “My instinct was I don’t want to be somebody’s personal growth journey.” Which is just a way of saying, “You’ve basically told me I’m not enough.”

Jessica Bennett (14:52):


Susie Banikarim (14:52):

“Or I’m an adjustment,” which is just a horrible thing to say to someone. And so shortly after that conversation, she embarks on this very intense diet that leads us to this particular moment.

Jessica Bennett (15:03):


Susie Banikarim (15:04):

And another thing that happens in this particular episode is that she reads from her journal entries.

Jessica Bennett (15:08):


Susie Banikarim (15:09):

And I’m going to read you a little piece of this section of her journal that she reads. “What is the bigger issue here? Self-esteem. I realize this fat is just a blocker. It is like having mud on my wings. It keeps me from flying. It has been a way of staying comfortable with other people. My fat puts them at ease, makes them less threatened, makes me insecure. So I dream of walking into a room one day where this fat is not the issue. And that will happen this year because the bigger issue for me is making myself the best that I can be.”

Jessica Bennett (15:40):

It is very vulnerable.

Susie Banikarim (15:41):

It’s very vulnerable.

Jessica Bennett (15:43):

I mean, you can imagine the audience, mostly women probably, who have probably struggled in one way or another because haven’t we all?

Susie Banikarim (15:49):


Jessica Bennett (15:50):

Really feeling like this resonates.

Susie Banikarim (15:53):

Yeah, I mean this obviously resonates for me. I’m someone who’s struggled with my weight my whole life, and I think a lot of women and a lot of men also can really relate to this feeling of, “If I just lost 10 pounds everything would be perfect. If I just lost five pounds, everything would be perfect.” There’s this sense that our weight is very defining for us and it is always this nagging thing we are trying to fix in ourselves. But I think also this vulnerability that Oprah demonstrates is why should she becomes such a big success.

Jessica Bennett (16:23):

That’s so interesting. I’ve never thought about it that way.

Susie Banikarim (16:26):

I mean, I admire her ability to be so vulnerable because I’ve always found it really hard to talk about this subject. I mean, I can talk about a lot of things, but I gained a lot of weight in my late 20s and early 30s, and I was diagnosed with PCOS, which is polycystic ovarian syndrome, which is now something people have heard of, but it wasn’t really well known when I was diagnosed. And even now it’s still pretty poorly understood by the medical establishment. So, honestly, I didn’t tell anyone at the time or even really talk about it with my friends, much less announce it to the whole world. It’s really a lot.

Jessica Bennett (17:01):


Susie Banikarim (17:02):

To go out and reveal so much about yourself.

Jessica Bennett (17:04):

In some ways that’s so different from what we tend to see now, especially on social media where this vulnerability, or I don’t know, faux vulnerability, is almost a currency in some ways. But it sounds like that was definitely not the case back then and certainly not in the talk show landscape in the 1980s. How common was that at the time?

Susie Banikarim (17:25):

It was pretty uncommon. I mean, even Oprah’s initial shows were pretty tabloidy.

Jessica Bennett (17:29):


Susie Banikarim (17:30):

The talk show atmosphere in general was much more tabloidy. It was like Phil Donahue and Sally Jesse Raphael.

Jessica Bennett (17:38):

You’re not the father.

Susie Banikarim (17:39):

You’re not the father. But that becomes a trope a little bit later on. But she is kind of elevating the medium in a way and she will slowly do that over time until there comes a point where The Oprah Show is actually seen as kind of a premium product rather than what it initially is, which is kind of like a tabloidy talk show.

Jessica Bennett (17:59):


Susie Banikarim (18:00):

And one of the ways in which she does that is by being really vulnerable about these things in her life.

Jessica Bennett (18:04):

Okay. Okay.

Susie Banikarim (18:04):

Like about her sex abuse. She experiences a child. About her weight. She really pioneers a thing that now is so common because of reality shows and social media, which is that if you open up your own experiences, people feel much more connected to you.

Jessica Bennett (18:22):


Susie Banikarim (18:22):

And she leads on a dialogue that’s just not very common at that time. She’s talking about sex abuse when that’s still a very taboo subject. She’s acknowledging these issues with her weight when I don’t know how common it was to just say that you’re fat and you’re trying to lose weight.

Jessica Bennett (18:37):


Susie Banikarim (18:38):

She will go on to talk about mental health issues, about race. She’ll do these really difficult race shows where she will have on racists who will say terrible things to her face, and she will explore that. So this is kind of where you start to see that shift happening.

Jessica Bennett (18:55):

Oh, okay. But this episode isn’t intended to be particularly serious, right? It sounds like it was pretty festive. Does she end up getting into the details of how she actually lost the weight?

Susie Banikarim (19:06):

Yeah, she does talk about that. She essentially starves herself to lose this weight. She drinks protein powder shakes of roughly 400 calories a day. If you’re trying to lose weight-

Jessica Bennett (19:17):

Oh my God, wow.

Susie Banikarim (19:18):

-and you’re a woman who’s like, she’s like 5’6″, I think, the usual standard is that you’re eating somewhere between 1200 and 1400 calories.

Jessica Bennett (19:27):

Yeah. Yeah.

Susie Banikarim (19:27):

That’s to lose weight, you’re eating that.

Jessica Bennett (19:29):


Susie Banikarim (19:29):

She is medically supervised. It’s a medically supervised diet.

Jessica Bennett (19:33):


Susie Banikarim (19:33):

But I think it also just reveals the way that the medical establishment approached weight for a long time in this country was pretty barbaric. They would never give you this diet now. It’s insane. But she not only kind of says, “Here’s how I did it.” She literally pulls up the protein shakes and the company that makes-

Jessica Bennett (19:54):

Yeah, were they sponsored?

Susie Banikarim (19:55):

It wasn’t sponsored.

Jessica Bennett (19:55):


Susie Banikarim (19:56):

I mean, I think that’s before people realize that you could get sponsors for stuff like this.

Jessica Bennett (19:59):


Susie Banikarim (19:59):

But she shows it and their sales go through the roof.

Jessica Bennett (20:03):

Oh my God. Okay.

Susie Banikarim (20:03):

I mean, everything crashes for them. It’s a big day.

Jessica Bennett (20:06):

And then later on, she’s not able to keep the weight off.

Susie Banikarim (20:10):

No, she can’t keep the weight off. So she basically does this for four months. She says later on, “I literally starved myself. I did not eat anything, basically. I didn’t have a morsel of food.” And then she will say at some point that this just basically shot her metabolism and that two weeks after she returned to eating food, she had already gained 10 pounds.

Jessica Bennett (20:30):

I mean, that’s not a surprise, right?

Susie Banikarim (20:32):

No. I mean this kind of thing is unsustainable. You can’t just drink shakes for the rest of your life. So now they’ll tell you that you have to do it in a different kind of way. But back in the ’80s, there was just this idea that losing weight in any way, no matter how drastic, was always good.

Jessica Bennett (20:48):

Okay, so I feel like it’s worth pausing for a moment to talk about what was going on in the world at this time.

Susie Banikarim (20:56):

Yes. I would love to know more about that.

Jessica Bennett (20:57):

It’s 1988. There’s no Lizzo, body positivity, big girls show. There’s no, “I love my curvy wife guy.”

Susie Banikarim (21:07):

Yeah, I mean, and thank God that guy wasn’t around.

Jessica Bennett (21:09):

Totally. We’re not having debates about whether fat or curvy or plus size or overweight is the right and most inclusive terminology.

Susie Banikarim (21:20):


Jessica Bennett (21:22):

This is the ’80s. This is the era of Jane Fonda and leotards.

Clips (21:27):

Jane Fonda’s workouts are constantly improving the science of staying fit.

Jessica Bennett (21:31):

And SlimFast, which had been pulled from the shelves in the 1970s, is now back on the market.

Clips (21:36):

Give us a week, we’ll take off the weight.

Jessica Bennett (21:38):

Jenny Craig has launched, which was another subscription weight loss.

Susie Banikarim (21:43):

Oh, I’m aware. I’m pretty sure my mom did Jenny Craig.

Clips (21:44):

We help you lose weight and teach you what you need to know to keep it off.

Jessica Bennett (21:47):

Lean Cuisine.

Susie Banikarim (21:48):


Jessica Bennett (21:49):

Those disgusting TV dinners that were on suburban American TV trays all across America.

Susie Banikarim (21:54):

Why are you describing that to me as if I’ve never had Lean Cuisine?

Jessica Bennett (21:56):

Because maybe our audience is younger than us.

Clips (22:01):

It’s not just the calories that count, it’s the taste.

Susie Banikarim (22:02):

But I also want to tell you that in my most anorexic phase, my best friend from college, Claire, remembers and always talks about this moment when I was really, really having disordered eating. Which was not an expression I knew at the time. And she spent a weekend with me and I ate half a Lean Cuisine pizza and was like, “Yum. I’m so full.”

Jessica Bennett (22:22):


Susie Banikarim (22:22):

And she was like, “There’s no way you’re full from that tiny piece of bread you just consumed.”

Jessica Bennett (22:27):


Susie Banikarim (22:28):


Jessica Bennett (22:29):

Which brings me to this is also five years after Karen Carpenter, who was one half of the folk duo The Carpenters, had died from complications related to anorexia, basically.

Susie Banikarim (22:42):


Clips (22:42):

Karen Carpenter died this morning, the victim of cardiac arrest. The Grammy Award-winning singer was only 32 years old.

Jessica Bennett (22:48):

So we’re sort of just waking up to this idea that diet culture is a thing.

Susie Banikarim (22:54):

I don’t know even if it’s that or if it’s just that we’re slowly beginning to realize that not all weight loss is just an objective good.

Jessica Bennett (23:01):

Yes. Yes.

Susie Banikarim (23:02):

I think up until this point, it’s just losing weight is an objective good. And that is really part of housewife culture for a long time. But I think what happens in the ’80s is that it becomes just a broader national obsession where everyone’s learning to exercise.

Jessica Bennett (23:16):

Well, and it’s health.

Susie Banikarim (23:16):

It’s health.

Jessica Bennett (23:17):

There’s a Senate report put out in the late 1970s that basically says, “Americans need to stop eating so much fat.”

Susie Banikarim (23:23):

I have such a connection to that because my mom was always trying to lose weight. So I just remember all of these diets. I remember kind of the intensity of that in the ’80s, how much we were constantly being bombarded by these images of, “You need to lose weight, you need to lose weight.”

Jessica Bennett (23:38):


Susie Banikarim (23:38):

“And here are the ways in which you could be doing that.”

Jessica Bennett (23:41):

In that context, honestly, Oprah’s diet doesn’t seem that shocking.

Susie Banikarim (23:44):

Yeah. And the thing we know now is that Oprah will struggle with her weight, and this will be an ongoing topic of discussion for her for the rest of her life.

Jessica Bennett (23:51):


Susie Banikarim (23:55):

That kind of leads us back to the point I mentioned at the top, which is the reason we’re talking about this, which is that she says, and I’ll quote, “This is her greatest accomplishment.”

Jessica Bennett (24:05):

I think it’s worth pausing to just review some of Oprah’s accomplishments. Because at this point, she’s starred in The Color Purple.

Susie Banikarim (24:14):


Jessica Bennett (24:14):

Which was nominated for an Oscar.

Susie Banikarim (24:16):

She was nominated for an Oscar. She was actually, for her particular role. And it was a Steven Spielberg movie. So even if she hadn’t been nominated for an Oscar, just being in a Steven Spielberg movie is a huge accomplishment. It’s like something to be proud of. Also, she’s just launched this talk show. It’s only been two years when this episode airs and she’s already getting 16 million people who regularly watched the show. I mean, that’s a huge number, even by those standards. That would be an insane number today, but at that time even, it was a wildly successful number. And on top of that, The New York Times reported that the year that she made this episode, she made $25 million.

Jessica Bennett (24:56):


Susie Banikarim (24:57):

She will also go on to become the first Black female billionaire in 2003. There’s really not many people who can say they’ve accomplished as much as Oprah. But let’s pause here and do what Oprah would do, which is pick up after the break.

Jessica Bennett (25:21):

Okay, Susie, so I want to talk a bit more about your personal connection to this moment. You mentioned earlier on in the show that you struggled with your weight and that was part of why you wanted to take this subject on.

Susie Banikarim (25:32):

Yeah. I mean, listen, I think weight was always a big topic in my house. It was always a big issue, I think, because my mom struggled with her weight.

Jessica Bennett (25:39):


Susie Banikarim (25:40):

And I sort of first became conscious of weight in relationship to her and the struggles she was having and how much she was constantly kind of trying to lose weight. And much like the Stedman story, I think some of that did come from my father and her sense that he might in some ways be displeased by her not being as thin as she once was. And then slowly over time, I took in those messages and then eventually I turned them on myself. And what’s fascinating is when I go back and look at pictures of her from this time, she was by no objective measure fat.

Jessica Bennett (26:15):


Susie Banikarim (26:15):

But she kind of was teaching me, unintentionally because it was something she was struggling with herself, that what she looked like was unacceptable. And so I remember being like, “Oh, she is fat.” Kind of accepting her version of what she was. And in some ways, that’s why I try never to talk about my issues with my weight.

Jessica Bennett (26:34):


Susie Banikarim (26:35):

You and I have never really talked about this particular thing for me because I think one thing I have very consciously done as an adult is try not to project this struggle outwards because I don’t want everyone to kind of be focused on my weight.

Jessica Bennett (26:54):


Susie Banikarim (26:54):

And I feel like if I’m talking about it all the time, I’m inviting.

Jessica Bennett (26:56):

Yes. Yeah, yeah, yes.

Susie Banikarim (26:58):

It’s kind of like the Oprah thing, right?

Jessica Bennett (26:58):

It’s Oprah, yeah.

Susie Banikarim (26:58):

I’m inviting everyone to have an opinion about my situation. And I think also, I had gained a bunch of weight right before middle school, and then my dad actually died right before I was in middle school. And I remember my mom saying to me, “He was really worried about your weight.”

Jessica Bennett (27:13):

Oh wow.

Susie Banikarim (27:13):

And I think that’s when it really started to take hold for me where I was like, I started to always be on a diet.

Jessica Bennett (27:19):


Susie Banikarim (27:19):

And then I went to boarding school, and I think there’s this period, this relative period, where I’m fine. I don’t remember kind of obsessing. I was pretty thin at boarding school. The focus at boarding school was on why I wasn’t blonde and blue-eyed. So it was like I wasn’t constantly obsessing about my weight. But then slowly after college, I started to gain weight again. And probably in my late 20s and early 30s, I really struggled. And I think in some ways that’s why I picked this moment, because I was always aware of this moment, and I was always aware of how much Oprah’s weight was part of her kind of journey. But I think as I got older and I started to feel those same feelings, that nothing I did would ever really be a success unless I also could take control of my weight. I really felt a lot of shame about it. I really struggled with dating, which I had not really struggled with before, because I really saw it as a personal failing in myself that I had started to gain this weight. Even though there were very clear medical reasons.

Jessica Bennett (28:24):

Right, right.

Susie Banikarim (28:24):

It’s not rational, but I had this really intense sense that I was failing in this really big way, and that is why nothing else in my life was perfect.

Jessica Bennett (28:41):

It’s so interesting the way you put that, because it both feels so closely aligned to what Oprah said about this being her, “greatest accomplishment.” But also how this is something of a universal experience among women.

Susie Banikarim (28:55):


Jessica Bennett (28:55):

If it’s not our weight, it is something else we feel holds us back from, I don’t know, maybe as Oprah would put it, living our best life.

Susie Banikarim (29:04):

Yeah. Nothing is ever quite enough. So it’s like I’m hugely successful, but I never had kids. I’m hugely successful, but I’m fat. I’m hugely successful, but I never got married or I’m divorced. You’re always looking for the thing in yourself that is the flaw that keeps you from being able to feel-

Jessica Bennett (29:20):


Susie Banikarim (29:21):

Perfect and whole and successful. And as the years have gone on, this moment has resonated for me more and more, as I’ve re-seen it, as I’ve sort of had the context for it.

Jessica Bennett (29:32):


Susie Banikarim (29:32):

I sort of go back and re-look at this moment and re-examine it and re-watch it because it really starts to feel like a thing I can see myself having done in her position.


There is a lot of ways in which we could look back and say, “Oprah contributed to diet culture.” And she did. But she was a victim of that culture, right?

Jessica Bennett (29:54):


Susie Banikarim (29:55):

She made people feel less alone in that journey, but she also reinforced these ideas.

Jessica Bennett (29:59):

Yeah, that they needed that journey,

Susie Banikarim (30:00):

That they needed that journey.

Jessica Bennett (30:02):

It sounds like she was trying to make this her story. People could come cover this event, whatever, but it was going to be her event. She was going to kind of control this narrative.

Susie Banikarim (30:11):


Jessica Bennett (30:11):

Or at least profit on it.

Susie Banikarim (30:12):

Yeah. I mean, I think that’s definitely the case. But what it also does is instead of giving her ownership over the story, which may have been what her intention was.

Jessica Bennett (30:20):


Susie Banikarim (30:20):

She actually completely loses control of the story.

Jessica Bennett (30:23):

Okay. And you said before that this episode was super successful, right?

Susie Banikarim (30:27):

Yeah. I mean, 18 million people watched this episode. It was the most watched episode ever in her 25 year run.

Jessica Bennett (30:33):

Oh wow.

Susie Banikarim (30:34):

But then she is for months and months after this, just absolutely hounded by paparazzi.

Jessica Bennett (30:42):

Oh, who want to see if she’s keeping it off.

Susie Banikarim (30:42):

Who want to take pictures of what she’s eating.

Jessica Bennett (30:43):

Oh wow.

Susie Banikarim (30:43):

Who want to comment on whether or not she’s continuing to gain weight again.

Jessica Bennett (30:47):

Okay, okay.

Susie Banikarim (30:47):

There is just this huge ongoing conversation in the media with nutritionists and doctors and commentators talking about, “Was this a healthy way to lose weight? Can she keep the weight off? What will happen?” And so instead of actually taking control of the story, she’s kind of given the story over in a way.

Jessica Bennett (31:05):


Susie Banikarim (31:06):

And it spins wildly out of her control. And she does really resent that. I mean, she says later on how harmful it felt to her to have this conversation about her all the time. And all this coverage kind of prompts this real defensiveness in her.

Jessica Bennett (31:22):

Right. How could it not?

Susie Banikarim (31:23):

Where she is saying things like, “I never was happy being fat. I’ll never be fat again. Never.” She becomes really irritated when people are commenting on this stuff and she says things like, “Asking me if I’ll keep the weight off is like asking me ‘Will you ever be in a relationship again where you allow yourself to be emotionally battered?’ I’ve been there and I don’t intend to go back.”

Jessica Bennett (31:44):

She talks about herself almost as if it was her former fat self and her present skinny self. She has severed these two parts of herself.

Susie Banikarim (31:52):

Yeah, 100%. It is just this real distinction she draws where she talks about that person with disdain. She’s like, “I am now fixed. This is an inflection point. I will never go back to being that person.”

Jessica Bennett (32:06):

Which, if you think about it, so then when you do go back to being that person, because everybody fluctuates.

Susie Banikarim (32:11):


Jessica Bennett (32:12):

And you’ve completely publicly said that that person is disgusting.

Susie Banikarim (32:16):


Jessica Bennett (32:17):

What does that do to your psyche?

Susie Banikarim (32:18):

Right. You’ve describe this version of yourself as a bad version of yourself.

Jessica Bennett (32:22):


Susie Banikarim (32:23):

And then you do eventually go back to that version. And at the same time, you’re dealing with your own internal struggle with the fact that you clearly hate this version of yourself, so much that you wanted to hold up a bag of animal fat and be like, “This was me.” But at the same time, you’re also being inundated with headlines about, “Look, you’ve gained weight again. Look what your weight is. Why are you gaining weight? What did you do wrong?”

Jessica Bennett (32:51):

“What are you eating?”

Susie Banikarim (32:51):

And that messaging, which I mean I cannot imagine with my own weight issues, having that layered on top. I mean, that has to feel insane. And there’s this fascinating quote in the BBC from this profile in 2011 that I found where it literally says, “If Oprah is remembered for anything, it will be her body shape, which mirrored America’s obsession with its own body shape.” How can that be what she will be remembered for? She is quite literally one of the most successful women on the planet.


You know what we’ve never talked about though, is I don’t actually think I know anything about your relationship to your weight or weight loss or body issues.

Jessica Bennett (33:30):

I mean, I feel like to some extent, growing up in ’80s, ’90s, was it possible to come out of that with a healthy body image?

Susie Banikarim (33:39):

I certainly did not.

Jessica Bennett (33:40):

I had come up in this sort of ’90s Seattle-

Susie Banikarim (33:43):


Jessica Bennett (33:44):


Susie Banikarim (33:45):


Jessica Bennett (33:45):

Kind of like waify-

Susie Banikarim (33:46):

Heroin chic.

Jessica Bennett (33:47):

Yes. Basically heroin chic.

Susie Banikarim (33:49):


Jessica Bennett (33:49):

And I remember specifically having this tag from a pair of Calvin Klein underwear. I wasn’t allowed to buy name brand stuff. I had saved my money to get, do you remember those Calvin Klein underwear that had the band on the top?

Susie Banikarim (34:01):

Yes, yes.

Jessica Bennett (34:01):

And they would sort of show above your jeans.

Susie Banikarim (34:05):


Jessica Bennett (34:05):

And Kate Moss was the model for them.

Susie Banikarim (34:07):


Jessica Bennett (34:08):

And so she was on the tag, and it was her and the underwear and her perfect waify, probably anorexic stomach.

Susie Banikarim (34:16):


Jessica Bennett (34:16):

And I kept that tag in my underwear drawer so I could look at it and compare how my stomach was compared to that.

Susie Banikarim (34:25):


Jessica Bennett (34:25):

My parents would be horrified. Had they found that they would’ve had to have a serious conversation with me about weight. And I was thin, so it wasn’t a concern. We didn’t really talk about it. But, yeah, we all dabbled in starving ourselves.

Susie Banikarim (34:40):

So I think it really was impossible to be a girl in this country. Or maybe it’s still impossible.

Jessica Bennett (34:47):

Well, that’s the question. So, okay, now we talk about dieting as health and wellness. And now we just want to be healthy.

Susie Banikarim (34:57):

We just want to be healthy.

Jessica Bennett (34:57):

And our intermittent fasting is because it’s actually better for our brains and whatever.

Susie Banikarim (35:02):

Yeah, it’s hacking. It’s like bio-hacking now.

Jessica Bennett (35:03):


Susie Banikarim (35:04):

All the Silicon Valley dudes are dieting, but they don’t call it dieting. They call it bio-hacking.

Jessica Bennett (35:07):


Susie Banikarim (35:09):

And that makes it more acceptable because it’s less feminine.

Jessica Bennett (35:12):

Right. Right, right, right. Totally.

Susie Banikarim (35:12):

It’s like, “Diets are for girls.”

Jessica Bennett (35:14):

And we can celebrate that all body types are wearing crop tops now.

Susie Banikarim (35:17):


Jessica Bennett (35:18):

And then if you actually look into the data, you find that, yeah, rates of anorexia have not gone down.

Susie Banikarim (35:24):

No, they’ve gone up actually.

Jessica Bennett (35:25):

Yes. So it’s like we’ve packaged it.

Susie Banikarim (35:27):

Yeah, we’ve just repackaged it in a way to make it less embarrassing to talk about.

Jessica Bennett (35:31):


Susie Banikarim (35:31):

One of the things that drives me crazy is that we just replaced the word diet with fasting. And fasting is acceptable. Like, “Oh, I’m going on a liquid fast.” It’s like, “No, that’s not good for you.”

Jessica Bennett (35:38):


Susie Banikarim (35:40):

Drinking juice for four or five days or whatever is not actually good for you. And anyone who knows anything about nutrition will say to you, “That is a terrible way to lose weight.” But because we call them cleanses, juice cleanses.

Jessica Bennett (35:52):

Right, it’s a cleanse.

Susie Banikarim (35:53):

No one can say to you, “Hey, is that a good idea?” Because it’s like you’re just trying to be healthier and who could argue with that? But it is this really complicated thing because on the one hand, we’re like body positivity, and on the other hand, Selena Gomez goes to an award show and then is inundated with comments about how she looks like she’s gained weight. So I don’t think celebrities feel less scrutiny about this.

Jessica Bennett (36:19):


Susie Banikarim (36:19):

I think we just pretend there’s less scrutiny.

Jessica Bennett (36:22):

It’s interesting too, so it’s like then once you become a celebrity who is larger, the culture turns on you if you do lose the weight, like Adele.

Susie Banikarim (36:32):

I mean, sort of similar to what happened to Oprah. When she lost the weight, there was a little bit of a backlash to it, and when she started to gain it back, people in the audience would be like, “We love you fat.”

Jessica Bennett (36:42):

Right, right.

Susie Banikarim (36:43):

That is kind of this complicated thing. Adele lost a bunch of weight, and I feel like there was this real sort of complicated relationship with it.

Jessica Bennett (36:49):

Oh, yeah.

Susie Banikarim (36:50):

But the most notable example of that is I think Lizzo is vegan now, and at some point she shared on her TikTok this shake she was having and there was this enormous backlash. “You’re supposed to be body positive, you’re promoting unhealthy eating,” et cetera, et cetera, and that also feels unfair.

Jessica Bennett (37:07):


Susie Banikarim (37:07):

Because Lizzo is allowed to make decisions about her body without being judged.

Jessica Bennett (37:13):

Well, it’s sort of like all diets have been framed as wellness, but then when a person is actually doing it for health, we criticize them for dieting.

Susie Banikarim (37:22):


Jessica Bennett (37:23):

And now of course, we’re in the age of Ozempic. This is the diabetes turned weight loss drug.

Susie Banikarim (37:28):


Jessica Bennett (37:28):

It’s on magazine covers, seemingly everyone is on it, and there’s all this backlash to celebrities who are believed to be taking it.

Susie Banikarim (37:34):

So I think the Ozempic conversation is interesting because it just shows another way in which we want to control how women deal with their bodies. We want our celebrities to be thin, but not if they’re not doing the hard work getting thin.

Jessica Bennett (37:49):


Susie Banikarim (37:50):

You have to earn thinness. Thinness is something to attain, to work hard at, and it’s felt like it’s cheating to take this diet drug. There is this sense in America that you should be able to overcome your problems just with sheer toughness. And so that’s how we feel about mental health, and that’s also how we feel about weight loss.

Jessica Bennett (38:07):

I think that’s so right.

Susie Banikarim (38:09):

Yeah, and what’s interesting is we’ve been working on this episode for a while and thinking about these issues.

Jessica Bennett (38:14):


Susie Banikarim (38:14):

And then Oprah just recently released this special on her site, Oprah Daily, and the special is called The Life You Want Class: The State of Weight, and it’s about Ozempic and Mounjaro and these class of drugs.

Jessica Bennett (38:27):

Oh. Okay.

Susie Banikarim (38:27):

And she talks about this exact thing that we think about weight as a matter of willpower, but really it’s a medical issue.

Clips (38:35):

One of the things I carry so much shame because I was publicly shamed about it, and even when I first started hearing about the weight loss drugs at the same time I was going through knee surgery and I felt, “I’ve got to do this on my own. I’ve got to do this on my own because if I take the drug, that’s the easy way out.”

Jessica Bennett (38:54):

It’s so interesting to hear her say that because there’ve been so many rumors that she of late is on Ozempic. Does she address that directly in the special?

Susie Banikarim (39:04):

She doesn’t address it directly. And I think she doesn’t have to. It’s like those are just rumors. She doesn’t have to explain to the world how she is or isn’t losing weight. I mean, that’s very much the thing she’s been fighting against, right?

Jessica Bennett (39:14):


Susie Banikarim (39:15):

But what’s so interesting about the special to me is that it really focuses on how we’re just now as a culture really coming to understand that obesity is a disease. It’s not this behavioral thing. And even though the American Medical Association declared obesity a disease 10 years ago, that really hasn’t taken shape.

Jessica Bennett (39:38):

Yeah, we didn’t really get that. Yeah.

Susie Banikarim (39:40):

On the special, there are these doctors from Harvard and NYU Langone, and there’s actually the CEO of Weight Watchers because even they now need to understand that it’s not just a matter of keeping track of points.

Jessica Bennett (39:54):

That’s so interesting because wasn’t Oprah at one point a spokesperson or an investor in some way at Weight Watchers?

Susie Banikarim (40:00):

Yeah, so I think she owns a stake in Weight Watchers and that’s mentioned in the sort of conversation with the Weight Watchers person, but I think that is the issue, is that for years, if you did Weight Watchers, lost weight, and then regained the weight, you thought that the problem was you.

Jessica Bennett (40:15):


Susie Banikarim (40:16):

But in fact that these are actually your genetics at play or your brain. There’s lots of scientific reasons why you may struggle with weight loss and also with maintaining weight loss. And even for Oprah, who has followed this for so long, she says that it’s an idea that even she is now just starting to embrace.

Clips (40:37):

One of the things that I’ve been so ashamed, shamed myself about, and was shamed in the tabloids every week about for 25 years is not having the willpower.

Jessica Bennett (40:49):

It’s just crazy to hear her say that because it truly has followed her. That’s what we’ve been talking about here, throughout her career.

Susie Banikarim (40:56):

Yeah, it really feels like this moment, this red wagon moment, is something that set a tone for the way people felt like they could talk about her and her weight. And it’s something she looks back on with a lot of regret. Over the years, when she talks about this episode, this red wagon episode, she says, it’s hard to watch, and when she watches it, she wants to say to herself, “Don’t do it, even though it’s a great TV moment.” And that really gets to the heart of this story. I think this is one of the most watched episodes in arguably the most popular talk show of all time.

Jessica Bennett (41:31):


Susie Banikarim (41:31):

But it’s definitely not something Oprah would now say was one of her greatest accomplishments. Which makes sense. It opened up a conversation about her that she was then plagued by.

Jessica Bennett (41:43):


Susie Banikarim (41:43):

And I want to let her have the last word on how she thinks about it all now. Here’s what she said in her recent special.

Clips (41:50):

Whatever your choice is for your body and your weight health, it should be yours to own and not to be shamed about it. As a person who’s been shamed for so many years, I’m just sick of it. I’m just sick of it. I’m just sick of it. And I hope this conversation begins the unshaming,

Susie Banikarim (42:11):

This is In Retrospect. Thanks for listening. Is there a cultural moment you can’t stop thinking about and want us to explore in a future episode? Email us at [email protected] or find us on Instagram @inretropod.

Jessica Bennett (42:25):

If you love this podcast, please rate and review us on Apple or Spotify or wherever you listen. If you hate it, you can post nasty comments on our Instagram which we may or may not delete.

Susie Banikarim (42:35):

You can also find us on Instagram @jessicabennett and @susiebnyc. Also check out Jessica’s books, Feminist Fight Club and This is 18.

Jessica Bennett (42:44):

In Retrospect is a production of iHeart podcast and The Meteor. Lauren Hansen is our supervising producer. Derrick Clements is our engineer and sound designer. Sharon Attia is our researcher and associate producer.

Susie Banikarim (42:57):

Our executive producer from The Meteor is Cindy Leive. Our executive producers from iHeart are Anna Stumpf and Katrina Norvell. Our artwork is from Pentagram. Additional editing help from Mary Do and Mike Coscarelli. Sound correction and mastering by Amanda Rose Smith. We are your hosts, Susie Banikarim.

Jessica Bennett (43:15):

And Jessica Bennett. We’re also executive producers. For even more, check out inretropod.com. See you next week.

Susie Banikarim: It may have been fictional, but this wedding, a two-day television event, was celebrated by fans as the wedding of the decade. More people watched it than the real wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, which happened that same year. But what is often forgotten about this iconic soap opera couple, is that just a few years before this, Luke sexually assaulted Laura. [00:01:00] I’m Susie Banikarim.

Jessica Bennett: And I’m Jessica Bennett.

Susie Banikarim: This is In Retrospect, where each week we revisit a cultural moment from the past that shaped us.

Jessica Bennett: And that we just can’t stop thinking about.

Susie Banikarim: Today we’re talking about how one of TV’s most famous and beloved relationships started with a rape. But we’re also talking about the incredible powers soap operas once had in shaping public perception. For better and for worse.

Jessica Bennett: So Susie, I know nothing about soap operas except that there is one starring a woman named Jessica Bennett, who shares my name.

Susie Banikarim: Is that true?

Jessica Bennett: Uh, it’s called Passion. Yeah.

Susie Banikarim: Oh, Passion. That was a short-lived, but very wild soap opera.

Jessica Bennett: She remains on Wikipedia. Anyway, were you a huge General Hospital fan, like, how- what led you to this moment?

Susie Banikarim: So I wasn’t a General Hospital fan, specifically. I did occasionally watch it, but I was a huge soap opera fan. I would come home in middle [00:02:00] school and watch soap operas every afternoon.

Jessica Bennett: Okay.

Susie Banikarim: I was a Days of Our Life-

Jessica Bennett: Girl.

Susie Banikarim: One Life to Live girl, which was kind of unusual, because it was split. Days of Our Lives was-

Jessica Bennett: Oh, right.

Susie Banikarim: … on NBC. Do you remember the tagline for Days of Our Lives?

Jessica Bennett: No.

Susie Banikarim: Like sands through the hourglass…

CLIP: Like sands through the hourglass…

Jessica Bennett: Oh, yeah, I do remember. Okay.

Susie Banikarim: … so are the days of our lives.

CLIP: … so are the days of our lives.

Susie Banikarim: I would come home from school and I would watch with a snack every afternoon and then eventually I went to boarding school for high school, but when I came home, it was, like, something I looked forward to. Like a summer or winter break indulgence. And I think that’s kind of why I wanted to focus on this subject, this relationship, because soap operas were just so influential for generations of American girls and women. I mean, also some boys, obviously, but they really were geared towards women and this particular plot line really came at the peak of their popularity. And so it seems worth exploring this [00:03:00] relationship that was seen as so romantic, but started with an assault.

Jessica Bennett: As you say that, I’m remembering that I mentioned this to my mother-in-law recently and she revealed that actually my husband, like, the first three years of his life, she would constantly have this show on in the background while they were just, I don’t know, hanging out doing baby stuff or whatever.

Susie Banikarim: [laughs]

Jessica Bennett: And, you know, guess what? She remembers this relationship between Luke and Laura as completely romantic.

Susie Banikarim: I think that’s what most people thought.

Jessica Bennett: Yeah, and they go on to have this decades long relationship, so that makes a lot of sense. I mean, Laura is still actually a character on the show, but for those who didn’t grow up on General Hospital, can you give us a little primer on what the show was?

Susie Banikarim: Yeah. It was a soap opera that started in 1963.

CLIP: General Hospital.

Susie Banikarim: And had its heyday in the 1980s. It was just hugely popular. It was about two families living in the fictional town of Port Charles, New York, and their various trials and tribulations and not surprisingly, it was centered in a hospital. You might [00:04:00] say it was the original Grey’s Anatomy and what went on there, sometimes it would go off in weird adventures, but that’s really been the core of the show for the last 60 years.

Jessica Bennett: Okay, so Luke and Laura are characters who do not work in that hospital?

Susie Banikarim: Yeah. No, they don’t work in the hospital. Not literally everyone on the show works in the hospital.

Jessica Bennett: Got it.

Susie Banikarim: They just live in Port Charles.

Jessica Bennett: Okay. And where should we begin in terms of their, can we call it a relationship?

Susie Banikarim: Yeah, I mean, it’s not a relationship in the beginning, right? Because of the way it starts, but I actually want to begin with the wedding, because I think that that’s the moment that becomes such a cultural phenomenon.

Jessica Bennett: Right, right.

Susie Banikarim: It was a two-day event, so it’s two hours long.

Jessica Bennett: Oh, wow.

Susie Banikarim: There’s, like, really long stretches of them just, like, driving up in cars.

Jessica Bennett: Uh-huh, uh-huh.

Susie Banikarim: Like, the bridesmaids, the groomsmen.

Jessica Bennett: Yup.

Susie Banikarim: And then there’s this really long stretch of them just, like, literally greeting the guests.

Jessica Bennett: It’s like an actual wedding.

Susie Banikarim: Which is why it’s fascinating that it was the most watched soap opera episode of all time.

Jessica Bennett: [00:05:00] Wow.

Susie Banikarim: Like, people loved it. They wanted to feel like they were there at this wedding, because they were obsessed with this couple.

Jessica Bennett: Wow. Why were people so obsessed with this couple? Like, what was the appeal?

Susie Banikarim: So, I mean, it’s hard to say. You- to some degree you don’t ever know why people become really attached to certain characters on television or certain storylines, but Laura’s actually kind of an interesting character-

Jessica Bennett: Mm-hmm.

Susie Banikarim: … because she’s already become a pretty central character to General Hospital when Luke is introduced.

Jessica Bennett: Okay.

Susie Banikarim: And that’s because they’re trying to push towards younger audiences.

Jessica Bennett: Ah, okay.

Susie Banikarim: So she’s a teenager.

Jessica Bennett: Interesting.

Susie Banikarim: And I think one of the quotes I read from a fan was, like, we love her because she’s 16 like us, but she lives the life of a 28-year-old.

Jessica Bennett: Okay.

Susie Banikarim: That’s partially why I wanted to start with the wedding, because you kind of need to understand that this wasn’t just, like, a popular episode of television. It was literally the closest thing Americans had to a royal wedding. A- and just to prove that I’m not exaggerating-

Jessica Bennett: Mm-hmm.

Susie Banikarim: … more people tuned in to watch this fake wedding than tuned in when Meghan Markle and Prince [00:06:00] Harry had their actual wedding in 2018.

Jessica Bennett: Whoa. What, that is wild.

Susie Banikarim: Yeah. And, like, local news sent correspondents to viewing parties, like, all across Manhattan. From an office in Madison Avenue to a dorm at NYU.

Jessica Bennett: [laughs]

NEWS CLIP: Fans all across the country watched for the big moment. To them it was their wedding.

NEWS CLIP: Of course we’re excited.

NEWS CLIP: Not a dry eye in the house.

NEWS CLIP: By the way, three years for them to get married, I feel like [inaudible 00:06:22].

NEWS CLIP: You like Luke?

NEWS CLIP: I love Luke.


NEWS CLIP: Uh, he’s sexy. It’s time for them to get together.

NEWS CLIP: It’s been two years. It’s time for them to-

NEWS CLIP: You know, they’re very much in love and it’s really a beautiful thing.

Susie Banikarim: It was just this wildly popular thing, even among celebrities. Like, Elizabeth Taylor was such a fan of the show that she requested to be on it.

Jessica Bennett: Okay.

Susie Banikarim: And made a guest appearance and you can kind of see her in-

Jessica Bennett: Yes, yes.

Susie Banikarim: … the background of many shots. She’s playing a villain who is cursing them-

Jessica Bennett: Oh, okay.

Susie Banikarim: … on their wedding day. And also, this is the year where Diana and Charles got married.

Jessica Bennett: Okay.

Susie Banikarim: And they had a real wedding.

Jessica Bennett: Right.

Susie Banikarim: But then this is such a big [00:07:00] moment that Diana sends champagne for this fake wedding. [laughs] She sends the actors-

Jessica Bennett: Whoa.

Susie Banikarim: … champagne to congratulate them on their fake wedding.

Jessica Bennett: Oh, wow. Oh my God, okay.

Susie Banikarim: Which, like, an amazing little detail here is that Genie Francis is underage when this wedding happens.

Jessica Bennett: Genie Francis who plays Laura.

Susie Banikarim: Genie Francis who plays Laura Spencer is 20, and so they don’t-

Jessica Bennett: She can’t drink.

Susie Banikarim: … even give it to her. She doesn’t know about the champagne until years later when they’re doing an interview.

Jessica Bennett: What kind of champagne do you think it was?

Susie Banikarim: I don’t know. I don’t know what kind of champagne it was, but, um, I think Luke said he liked kept the bo- I mean, it-

Jessica Bennett: Oh, wow.

Susie Banikarim: … imagine getting a bottle of champagne from who- what was, like, the most famous woman in the world at that time.

Jessica Bennett: So wha- okay, so the culture or the world is kind of treating this fake wedding like a real wedding.

Susie Banikarim: People took the day off work. And there’s, like, a note in the research that someone was, like, hey, I told my boss I was going to a wedding, because I was.

Jessica Bennett: Oh my God. [laughs]

Susie Banikarim: You know, like, bars played it. Like, people gathered around in bars at lunchtime in droves-

Jessica Bennett: Yeah.

Susie Banikarim: … to watch this wedding and, I mean, a thing that I think people sort of forget, [00:08:00] it’s hard now to remember what a stranglehold soap operas had on the culture-

Jessica Bennett: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

Susie Banikarim: … in the 80s.

Jessica Bennett: Or even television.

Susie Banikarim: Yeah, and television. I mean, they also made the most money.

Jessica Bennett: Yeah.

Susie Banikarim: And like, I think part of the thing is, yes, a lot of people watch them, but more than that, for the networks, uh, ABC, for example, they made up 50% of revenue.

Jessica Bennett: Oh wow.

Susie Banikarim: So had an enormous amount of power.

Jessica Bennett: Yes.

Susie Banikarim: And that’s why suddenly you see all these actors, these famous actors who got their start on soap operas, it’s because soap operas have money to pay actors and prime time, you know, it had money, but not the way soap operas did. And that wasn’t always the case, right? Soap operas initially were kind of seen as this thing for women, made by women.

Jessica Bennett: Mm-hmm.

Susie Banikarim: This sort of silly ridiculous thing. And, you know, it could be silly and ridiculous and we can talk about that, but daytime was an enormously powerful arena at this point.

Jessica Bennett: I don’t think I fully appreciated that. That soap operas had huge power to shape culture and also that it was women both making and watching them.

Susie Banikarim: [00:09:00] Yeah. Initially soap operas were really watched by stay-at-home moms and that’s kind of why initially they’re dismissed.

Jessica Bennett: Mm-hmm.

Susie Banikarim: But then this thing happens at the end of the 70s where a lot of women enter the workforce and there’s a dip in viewership.

Jessica Bennett: Okay.

Susie Banikarim: But then the women who are staying at home start to allow their children to watch TV with them.

Jessica Bennett: Okay, okay.

Susie Banikarim: That’s kind of like a shift. And so a lot of girls and boys who are home with their moms become addicted to these shows.

Jessica Bennett: I see.

Susie Banikarim: And then it becomes common to be a college student who gathers around-

Jessica Bennett: Right, this is why there’s viewing parties in these dorm rooms.

Susie Banikarim: Yes. You know, a common thing that was talked about amongst soap fans, is that they would schedule their classes around their soap operas.

Jessica Bennett: Wow. It’s such a different time.

Susie Banikarim: It’s, like, worth noting that even though soap operas aren’t that popular now, General Hospital is still on the air.

Jessica Bennett: Oh, right.

Susie Banikarim: I mean, people forget that.

Jessica Bennett: Yes.

Susie Banikarim: But it is the longest running scripted drama and the longest running American soap opera. I- I-

Jessica Bennett: How do you watch that now?

Susie Banikarim: It started airing in 1963. You can watch it on television. What do you mean? You watch it on ABC.

Jessica Bennett: Like, watch it, [00:10:00] you do?

Susie Banikarim: Yeah. You could watch it in the afternoon on ABC. And by the way, two million people still do.

Jessica Bennett: Okay, okay.

Susie Banikarim: And I think the thing that’s different is there’s, like, a lot of options now.

Jessica Bennett: Yeah.

Susie Banikarim: So it doesn’t seem as popular.

Jessica Bennett: Right.

Susie Banikarim: But two million people is not a paltry number. That’s way more than most cable shows get.

Jessica Bennett: Right.

Susie Banikarim: But we don’t think about it as a cultural phenomenon because it seems so low in comparison to the fact that in their heyday-

Jessica Bennett: Right.

Susie Banikarim: … one in fifteen Americans watched General Hospital.

Jessica Bennett: So we’re talking about a storyline on General Hospital involving the two most popular characters, Luke and Laura. These are characters America obsessed over in the 1980s. 30 million people tuned in to watch their wedding. But when you say out loud how that relationship [00:11:00] began, which is with Luke assaulting Laura, it almost feels like it can’t be true.

Susie Banikarim: Yeah. It is hard to believe. And we’re about to walk you through the assault scene, which will make it feel unfortunately very real. But first I want to give you some background on how we get to that scene.

Jessica Bennett: Mm-hmm.

Susie Banikarim: And I’m going to actually blow your mind-

Jessica Bennett: [laughs]

Susie Banikarim: … with so many things here, because to begin with, Luke is Laura’s boss.

Jessica Bennett: Oh, okay. Where did they work?

Susie Banikarim: Um, at a disco.

Jessica Bennett: They work at a disco.

Susie Banikarim: Laura is 17. Luckily for Laura she’s already married. She’s 17 and married.

Jessica Bennett: Oh, okay. Only a crime.

Susie Banikarim: So Laura and Scotty were actually, like, a pretty popular soap opera couple in their own right, but, you know, the whole thing on soap operas is if there’s a happy couple, they must face, like, an-

Jessica Bennett: Right.

Susie Banikarim: … extraordinary number of obstacles. Like they must get kidnapped, they must get cloned, so the obstacle that’s thrown in Laura’s and Scotty’s relationship is Luke. There is a nurse at the hospital that’s [00:12:00] obsessed with Scotty. So she asks her brother, Luke, to come to town and try and seduce Laura.

Jessica Bennett: Okay.

Susie Banikarim: And Luke wasn’t even really supposed to be a major character on the show. He was just brought in as a temporary character who was going to be a bad boy, an obstacle in Laura’s relationship with her husband, Scotty. But the writers had planned from the beginning that he was going to rape her, because they wanted that storyline for ratings.

Jessica Bennett: Wild.

Susie Banikarim: Wild. The- the- the ratings have started to wane. You know, they’re making an effort to bring in younger viewers. It’s working a little bit with Laura, but this is the last rated TV show.

Jessica Bennett: Oh, so it’s not doing good at this time.

Susie Banikarim: At this time it’s not doing good. It’s the lowest rated soap opera on TV. It’s, like, number 12 or something.

Jessica Bennett: Okay.

Susie Banikarim: And there’s so many soap operas on TV-

Jessica Bennett: Right.

Susie Banikarim: … at this time. And that’s actually what makes it so remarkable that within three years, it’s literally the number one show.

Jessica Bennett: Can you imagine being, like, ah, our show’s doing really bad. What can we do to- to get better ratings? I know-

Susie Banikarim: Right.

Jessica Bennett: … let’s stage a rape.

Susie Banikarim: Yeah. [00:13:00] I mean, it is wild. But it does work.

Jessica Bennett: Okay.

Susie Banikarim: And I think one of the things that’s interesting is the executive producer that was brought in at that time came from TV movies where rape was a much more common topic.

Jessica Bennett: Mm-hmm.

Susie Banikarim: But it was presented more from, like, the crime aspect. And so I think that’s why-

Jessica Bennett: Not a love story?

Susie Banikarim: Not a love story. And I think that’s why she has this idea to introduce this rape-

Jessica Bennett: Okay.

Susie Banikarim: … and knows that that is, like, popular with viewers. That must be kind of what she’s thinking when she introduces this character.

Jessica Bennett: Okay. So this new 32-year-old character, Luke, ends up hiring 17-year-old Laura at his nightclub.

Susie Banikarim: Yes. So Laura has gone to Luke who runs the big disco in town to ask for a job and he hires her and meanwhile, he has some shady backdoor dealings with the mob. That’s why he’s, like, such a bad boy.

Jessica Bennett: Okay.

Susie Banikarim: And that’s his back story. So the context of this scene is that Luke has gotten mixed up with these mobsters who are forcing him to [00:14:00] kill a local politician-

Jessica Bennett: Okay.

Susie Banikarim: … and he feels like if he kills this other person, he will also be killed.

Jessica Bennett: Okay.

Susie Banikarim: And so this scene picks up where she has seen him crying, because he is like, “I’m a dead man walking.”

Jessica Bennett: Okay.

CLIP Laura: How come you’re crying?

CLIP Luke: I wasn’t crying.

CLIP Laura: Yes, you were. And you didn’t know that I was here.

Jessica Bennett: At first I was, like, oh, that’s kind of progressive of them. Like, you’re showing tears.

Susie Banikarim: It’s not going to be so progressive.

CLIP Laura: Luke, I’m sure that whatever it is, it can be worked out in time.

CLIP Luke: Time is what I don’t have.

Jessica Bennett: They’re sort of setting it up that, like, if you don’t have time, then you must have the woman you love.

Susie Banikarim: And that’s definitely how the story plays, that he knows he’s running out of time, he’s so in love with her-

Jessica Bennett: Right.

Susie Banikarim: That he must have her this one time.

Jessica Bennett: He ra- he has to act on this love lust.

CLIP Luke: I said I was going to be dead, killed, little lady. Can’t you get that through your head? Now get out of here.

Susie Banikarim: So [00:15:00] he’s pushing her away, because essentially the message is he can’t control himself. And then he professes his love.

CLIP Luke: Dammit, Laura. I’m in love with you.

CLIP Laura: No, I d- I don’t think it’s really love, Luke. I-

CLIP Luke: Oh, yes. It’s just what it is.

Susie Banikarim: And then randomly in the middle of all of this, Luke walks over dramatically to the record player, flips it on and a song comes on and he turns to her and says, “I can’t die without holding you in my arms just one time.”

CLIP Luke: Dance with me, Laura.

CLIP Laura: No.

Jessica Bennett: You really feel that the tension is building and then things clearly unravel.

CLIP Laura: Luke, let me call a taxi, please.

Jessica Bennett: And so you don’t see the rape itself.

CLIP Laura: No. Don’t, Luke, let me go.

Susie Banikarim: But it’s unambiguous.

CLIP Laura: No. No.

Jessica Bennett: Yes.

Susie Banikarim: You definitely hear a rape.

Jessica Bennett: So clothes are ripped. She’s looking upset. She’s crying.

Susie Banikarim: She’s cowering.

Jessica Bennett: She’s clearly said no ahead of time.

Susie Banikarim: Yeah, she’s screaming no when it-

Jessica Bennett: Yes.

Susie Banikarim: … starts and grows. It’s a kind of jarring moment because it happens pretty suddenly. Like, you go [00:16:00] from being, like-

Jessica Bennett: I actually do get goosebumps watching it.

Susie Banikarim: Yeah. Because you’re sort of, like, oh, it’s going to be a seduction and then suddenly it’s a rape.

Jessica Bennett: Yes.

Susie Banikarim: And cut to disco lights. There’s a commercial break. We come back. We’re back on the disco lights. It’s, like, very-

Jessica Bennett: Yes, yes.

Susie Banikarim: … surreal kind of vibe. And then the thing that really drives home that this is a rape is she’s now lying on the ground. She is cowering.

Jessica Bennett: Her clothes are torn.

Susie Banikarim: She’s crying. Her clothes are torn. He is standing above her. He seems like he’s in a bit of a daze. And the phone rings and you sort of get the sense that that’s supposed to, like, break his reverie.

Jessica Bennett: Yes, yes.

Susie Banikarim: And she sneaks away.

Jessica Bennett: And it’s her husband, Scotty.

Susie Banikarim: And it’s her husband on the phone and he’s like, “Have you seen Laura?” And Luke lies about it. So that’s kind of the acknowledgement that he knows he’s done something wrong.

Jessica Bennett: Yes.

Susie Banikarim: Because he’s lying about whether or not she’s been there. And that’s the scene.

Jessica Bennett: Okay, that was a lot. But one other strange detail I have to mention is, [00:17:00] so that song that’s playing in the background when the assault occurs. This is the song that Luke kind of dramatically goes up to the record player and turns on and it’s this jazz funk instrumental hit. This is a real song. It’s called, Rise. And that song then goes on to become number one on the Billboard charts.

Susie Banikarim: I know, it’s crazy.

Jessica Bennett: And, like, for a jazz funk instrumental, that was as rare then as it is today.

Susie Banikarim: Yeah.

Jessica Bennett: And it’s funny, actually. I don’t know if you remember this, you called me and I was in Palm Springs with a friend.

Susie Banikarim: Yeah.

Jessica Bennett: And, uh, you know, we had shopped, naturally-

Susie Banikarim: [laughs]

Jessica Bennett: … um, and… Yeah, exactly.

Susie Banikarim: That’s where either of us would be at any given moment.

Jessica Bennett: And we had just gotten out of the car where that song was playing. And this friend of mine who happens to have written her, like, college thesis on rape in soap operas-

Susie Banikarim: Amazing.

Jessica Bennett: … I know, maybe we should call her, is like, “Oh, do you know what this song is?” And she explains this to me and I’m like, “What?” And then you called me and you’re like, “Remember that moment in General Hospital?” Which of course I didn’t really remember, but this song goes on to be at the top of all of the charts [00:18:00] and actually, our younger listeners, uh, might recognize it because 20 years later, Puff Daddy actually puts a clip of it into Biggie’s song, Hypnotize.

Susie Banikarim: Oh yeah, excellent song, by the way.

Jessica Bennett: Which, like, I can hear that in the back of my mind as we’re listening to this. So it’s sampled in Hypnotize in 1997, because Puffy later says in an interview, like, this was the song of the summer when he was, like, 10 years old in New York. Like, all the kids-

Susie Banikarim: Everyone was listening to it.

Jessica Bennett: … were, like, jamming and rollerskating to this song. Which, of course, was popular because of this rape scene. How do we get from this clearly very traumatic scene between Luke and Laura, which happens in 1979, to then this star-studded royal level wedding two years later?

Susie Banikarim: That’s the crazy part, right? As I mentioned, Luke was supposed to be a temporary character. He was supposed to come on, you know, have this violent scene with [00:19:00] Laura and then he was supposed to be killed.

Jessica Bennett: Mm-hmm.

Susie Banikarim: And what happens is, audiences respond so well to him and, again, let me acknowledge how wild that is, he was so immediately popular that producers decided they wanted to find a way to keep him on the show.

Jessica Bennett: Wait, and how did they know he’s so popular?

Susie Banikarim: Well, partially because the way soaps worked is, since they were being produced so quickly-

Jessica Bennett: Uh-huh.

Susie Banikarim: … and because they’re on every day-

Jessica Bennett: Yeah.

Susie Banikarim: … the network is able to gauge almost immediately audience sentiment.

Jessica Bennett: Okay.

Susie Banikarim: So they’re using actual data that’s showing them that Luke is quite popular.

Jessica Bennett: Okay. So, like, we’ve got to keep Luke.

Susie Banikarim: Yeah. This gets some coverage at the time. The ratings weren’t good before this. The ratings started to creep up, so they do not kill him off.

Jessica Bennett: Okay.

Susie Banikarim: But that leaves them-

Jessica Bennett: With a problem.

Susie Banikarim: … with a bit of a conundrum, which is, if audiences are falling in love with Luke and really feel drawn to this romance between him and Laura-

Jessica Bennett: Mm-hmm.

Susie Banikarim: … and want Laura to end up with Luke, not Scotty, [00:20:00] how do they reconcile that with the violent rape-

Jessica Bennett: That has occurred.

Susie Banikarim: … has occurred, and also that they have acknowledged as such. And just to really put a fine point on the fact that the show never really tried to make the rape ambiguous. Initially, she goes to crisis counseling after this, on the show.

Jessica Bennett: Okay.

Susie Banikarim: Like, they do not initially shy away from the fact that it’s a rape. They will eventually and we’ll get into all of that, but when it happens, it is really clear what’s happened. Tony Geary, the actor who played Luke-

Jessica Bennett: Okay.

Susie Banikarim: … actually says in an interview at some point, we never expected the audience to be, like, on Luke’s side. And so, we did a rape and then the audience fell in love with Luke and that wasn’t our fault, so what were we supposed to do? And, like, maybe the thing you were supposed to do, was be, like, hey guys, rape is bad.

Jessica Bennett: Right.

Susie Banikarim: But instead, they are moving the needle over and over again.

Jessica Bennett: Okay.

Susie Banikarim: Until they literally re-shoot [00:21:00] the scenes. They literally go back-

Jessica Bennett: So that they can appear in flashbacks?

Susie Banikarim: So that the scenes they’re showing for flashbacks aren’t as disturbing.

Jessica Bennett: Oh, wow.

Susie Banikarim: They’re literally softening the thing over and over and over again. And the characters being gaslit in real time, the audience is being gaslit in real time.

CLIP Luke: Maybe you should name me as the rapist.

CLIP Laura: They’ll put you in jail.

CLIP Luke: Maybe that’s where I belong.

CLIP Laura: No, don’t say that. You’re not a criminal.

Susie Banikarim: Then, by the time the wedding happens, the thing that’s kind of interesting is that by the time 30 million people are watching the wedding, a lot of those people have never seen the rape. They don’t even know-

Jessica Bennett: They don’t even know how the relationship began.

Susie Banikarim: Right, and they have only seen these sanitized, softened, more romantic flashbacks. And actually they even removed the song. They stopped playing the song, because the song is, like, so associated-

Jessica Bennett: Oh. Evokes…

Susie Banikarim: … with the rape.

Jessica Bennett: Oh, that’s so interesting.

Susie Banikarim: And when they’re, [00:22:00] like, re-shooting these scenes and softening them up, there’s a thing that happens that’s actually quite controversial for the people at the time who remember that it’s a rape. I mean, there is an audience that remembers.

Jessica Bennett: Yeah.

Susie Banikarim: And at one point Laura is narrating the scene and she describes it as the first time Luke and I made love.

Jessica Bennett: Oh, wow.

Susie Banikarim: And there is a reaction. It’s not, like, a huge national reaction or anything, but there are people at that time who were, like, what is happening?

Jessica Bennett: And actually we know one of those people. One of our executive producers, Cindy Leive.

Susie Banikarim: Yeah, Cindy is a journalist, the former editor of Glamour magazine and the co-founder of The Meteor. But most relevant to this conversation, she was a General Hospital super fan.

Cindy Leive: I started watching it probably in 1979 and watched it with varying levels of religious devotion until around 1984 or ’85. I was part of that generation X, so called latchkey kid generation [00:23:00] and so I used to come home and General Hospital was kind of my babysitter. Like, my parents were divorced and my mom worked and I would race home from school so that I could turn on ABC, Channel 7, and watch it at three o’clock. Usually with a humongous bowl of coffee ice cream. It was, like, a comfort hour for me.

Susie Banikarim: Why did you love it so much?

Cindy Leive: [laughs] Um, it was just fascinating. I just had never seen anything like it before. I remember these super adult plots. Prostitution, there was Bobby Spencer who used to be a quote, unquote, hooker and there were a lot of plots around infidelity. And then there was Luke and Laura. Laura was supposed to be sort of in her late teens, even though she seemed incredibly glamorous and grown up to me at the time.

Susie Banikarim: Do you remember what you initially thought when Luke showed up?

Cindy Leive: I have a vague memory that Luke Spencer was supposed to be a kind of bad boy character. He [00:24:00] ran a disco. Mostly I remember his kind of open neck shirts and his permed hair, although I didn’t know it was permed at the time. But he had kind of an allure.

Susie Banikarim: You’ve told me in the past that you were watching the episode when Luke raped Laura. Can you describe that experience?

Cindy Leive: So there’s this one Friday. I couldn’t tell you what time of year it was. I couldn’t tell you the month, but I know it was a Friday afternoon, which is when they always did the big happenings or cliffhangers. And I came home from school, I was watching by myself. And Luke was at his club, Luke’s place and Laura, she was there. And Luke is clearly in love with Laura and telling her how much he wants her. And then all of a sudden it clearly becomes a rape scene. And I don’t know if I even knew the word, rape, then. But I knew it was [00:25:00] violent. And it was really an unsettling scene, because they weren’t shying away from how violent it was.

He’s, like, pushing her down on the ground. She’s saying no. And the next scene, as I remember it, she’s walking around outside and she’s dazed. And she’s clearly been through a violent act. And yet, was it violent? Because the messed up thing is it’s also portrayed as romantic. Like, he wants her so much, he can’t stop himself. And he doesn’t stop himself. And he keeps going. That scene definitely led me to think that it had something to do with desire. It was a bad thing and it hurt her and that was clear. But it hurt her because he loved her so much, he couldn’t help but hurt her.

There’s also this sub-scene that she kind of pities him. [00:26:00] Because poor guy, you know, he can’t help it. And I think now seen in the cold light of day and a bunch of decades more experienced, like, that’s a very classic way that women are taught to think about bad men or violent men. That they can’t help it and are you really going to hold them accountable for their actions? Poor guys. They’ve suffered enough. But I didn’t see any of that at the time. I just sort of witnessed that they continued to fall in love. And that it was, like, heller romantic.

Susie Banikarim: Were you rooting for them?

Cindy Leive: I was totally rooting for them. I mean, not them that day of the rape, but as time went on and- and everybody was rooting for them. And, you know, it culminated in this wedding, which I was probably too young to really care about, but man, that wedding was a really big deal.

Susie Banikarim: Do you remember talking to your friends about it? Talking of- to them about the rape?

Cindy Leive: N- I don’t remember talking to any friends about it at the time. [00:27:00] But a couple of years after that scene aired on General Hospital, and it was still kind of the only reference point I had for rape, I was walking home from school and I was on this sort of, like, backwoods road and this guy pulled up next to me in a TransAm. I was probably 13 at the time and he had his pants down around his knees and, you know, was flashing me. Said something to me. I screamed, ran away, ran home, called my friend, and I said, “You’re not going to believe what just happened to me on the way home from school.” I was, like, shaking. I’m sure my voice was trembling. And she said, “Did you get raped?” And it was, like, we didn’t know enough to know how awful that would have been. Like, to her it was this dangerous, alarming, but still kind of hot thing that could have happened.

Susie Banikarim: Looking back on it now, how do you think about it?

Cindy Leive: [00:28:00] My friends and I talk about this all the time. Like, my friends who I grew up with. Like, can you believe that Luke raped Laura? Nope, still can’t believe that Luke raped Laura and that that’s what led to this relationship. And particularly over time, like, I stopped watching soap operas probably when I was in high school, but when I look back on it, it’s such a fundamental messing with how a whole generation of girls who weren’t really getting any kind of education around consent. All the things we talk about now with varying degrees of success, we weren’t talking about at all then. And it’s such a devastating message about what a guy will do if he loves you enough. Like, he’s going to hurt you. And, you know, you should forgive him for that because, poor guy.

Susie Banikarim: This storyline between Luke and Laura was obviously a [00:29:00] very serious subject matter, but one of the things that occurred to me when we started to work on this episode, is that now we’re sort of looking back on it and talking about it in a serious way, but the reason soap operas were often dismissed, is that they did have, and I just want to make sure we don’t lose sight of this, but man, have absolutely wild storylines, like demonic possession-

Jessica Bennett: Okay.

Susie Banikarim: … and, you know, clones, like, you would get in an accident. Someone would clone you. You’d have a baby, it would turn out to be the devil. There was, like, a storyline on One Life to Live where they time traveled. I mean, there were these just, like, insane storylines. And Luke and Laura weren’t an exception. They would go on these Raiders of the Ark type adventures. But then there is this period in the late 80s and 90s where it becomes quite fantastical.

Jessica Bennett: Okay.

Susie Banikarim: That is partially why soap operas get this rap as a silly, sort of cheesy thing.

Jessica Bennett: Right.

Susie Banikarim: But at the same time, there were a lot of social issues are introduced.

Jessica Bennett: [00:30:00] Mm-hmm.

Susie Banikarim: Partially because women are not being hired to make prestige television. They’re not being hired on prime time shows. They are making these soap operas. They are hiring other women to be the writers. And so a lot of topics that those women are interested in gets discussed here.

Jessica Bennett: Oh, that’s really interesting. So this is the place that a woman show runner or a woman writer could actually thrive.

Susie Banikarim: And yeah, thrive and actually explore real issues that women were facing. Domestic violence, addiction. So you sort of have this idea, oh, it would have been handled more sensitively, but I think this just reflects how people genuinely think about rape.

Jessica Bennett: Right. And that’s- yeah, that’s interesting too. It’s, like, actually maybe this is more accurate to what we really did think of it at the time.

Susie Banikarim: Well, and also, maybe this was a sensitive handling for the time.

Jessica Bennett: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

Susie Banikarim: Like, maybe the way this would have been handled in previous iterations is she wouldn’t have been believed or-

Jessica Bennett: Yeah.

Susie Banikarim: … she would have been dismissed. Like, there is an attempt made here to handle this with sensitivity. They have [00:31:00] Genie Francis and Tony Geary, the actors, meet with a social worker before they taped the scene. I mean, there is an acknowledgement-

Jessica Bennett: Prior to.

Susie Banikarim: … that this is a difficult-

Jessica Bennett: Yeah.

Susie Banikarim: … subject to tackle.

Jessica Bennett: Yeah.

Susie Banikarim: It’s just interesting that even their version of sensitivity-

Jessica Bennett: Mm-hmm.

Susie Banikarim: … is so baked in to the era that it represents-

Jessica Bennett: Yep.

Susie Banikarim: … that it still reveals these really outdated notions about rape.

Danielle Thompson: I can give you my perspective here.

Susie Banikarim: So, we did end up calling your friend, Danielle Thompson, who you mentioned at the top of the show.

Jessica Bennett: Oh, good. I’m so glad.

Danielle Thompson: The history of soaps is so vast and expansive that it’s like saying, let me tell you the history of the world in, like, five minutes.

Jessica Bennett: For those listening. This is Danielle Thompson. She’s a longtime television writer and- and researcher and the person that I basically go to whenever I have a really intricate question about TV of the past. So what did she say?

Susie Banikarim: Well, first she said that it wasn’t her thesis that she wrote about soaps and sexual assault. So you lied.

Jessica Bennett: Oh, whoops.

Susie Banikarim: But it [00:32:00] was a very long college essay, so you weren’t that far off.

Jessica Bennett: I mean, close enough.

Susie Banikarim: But besides being able to share what she learned about this very specific topic, she just has this crazy extensive knowledge about the topic and she was such a huge soap fan, so she really delivers.

Danielle Thompson: I think that you have to remember that soaps don’t just have love in the afternoon. In fact, that’s actually why I stopped watching soaps, because there is not enough romance. It’s kind of know for dealing with serious issues always. And sometimes they get it right and sometimes they don’t. But, like, in 1973, the first legal abortion on television showed on All My Children. The first gay teenager on TV, that was Billy Douglas, played by Ryan Phillippe on One Life to Live, 1992. You have the first gay marriage in 2009 in All My Children. The first transgender coming out storyline in 2006.

Soap operas are actually the place where serious issues are addressed. And so, just to, like, put Luke and Laura’s scene in context of the time. The [00:33:00] phrase, date rape, was not even coined until 1975 by Susan Brown Miller in her book, Against Her Will. And so for further context, it was 1982 when Ms. Magazine ran what was, like, a groundbreaking study about the subject of date rape, which was still not really known as a concept, because most people at the time thought of rape as being something that was committed by a stranger, not someone that was known.

So I think in that context, Luke and Laura is kind of radical because it’s bringing up an issue that was something people had not really understood or known that is of extreme relevance to its viewers, which are primarily women. And I think what’s interesting about Luke and Laura is that the character was never intended to be a romantic companion for her. This is definitely not the first act of sexual violence in soaps, but it is from my understanding, the first relationship where the relationship followed the act of sexual violence instead of preceded it. But I don’t necessarily think that it kind of sparked off [00:34:00] this new trope of sexual assaults in soap operas. I think if anything, it kind of broadened the conversation in a way that changed it and because awareness grew, I think that storylines about it became more pervasive.

Jessica Bennett: So one question I have is, all right, so multiple decades have past. It was actually just a couple of years ago that it was the 40th anniversary of the wedding and so there was all this sort of quote, unquote, in retrospect coverage of it and Genie Francis spoke about it. So, are those who were involved in the show at the time expressing different perspectives on it when they look back today?

Susie Banikarim: Yeah, 100%. I think they’re expressing different perspectives and also admitting that they had different perspectives even at the time.

Jessica Bennett: Okay.

Susie Banikarim: It’s also worth noting that the show itself has acknowledged and revisited the assault a few times since it originally aired. Obviously, you know, we think about these things differently now and the show is aware of that. And so there have [00:35:00] been a few times in the show’s history where they tried to confront that. And there was this scene between Luke and Laura at some point where they discuss what happened and she confronts him many years later and he apologizes.

CLIP Laura: We should talk about what happened that night then. That one bad night 20 years ago.

Susie Banikarim: Eventually Luke and Laura are going to have kids, so, you know, as the show is evolving there’s also a confrontation between Luke and his son with Laura. Strangely their kid is named, Lucky, and he confronts Luke about assaulting his mother.

CLIP Luke: You’re not going anywhere until we have this out.

CLIP Lucky: What are you going to do, Dad? Why, if I walked out the door, what would you do? Force me to stay, why, because you’re stronger than me?

CLIP Luke: What do you know?

Susie Banikarim: And Luke, of course, apologizes again here because it’s always part of a redemption arc they’re trying to give him.

CLIP Luke: You were conceived, born and raised in love. Nothing but love.

Susie Banikarim: But, what’s also [00:36:00] happened, is that I think there was a lot of questions about this rape when the wedding occurred. It’s not like journalists who were covering the wedding at the time didn’t ask about it.

Jessica Bennett: Mm-hmm.

Susie Banikarim: And the onus was really put, especially on Genie Francis, who was quite young. She would sort of explain this thing.

Jessica Bennett: Mm-hmm.

Susie Banikarim: She was often asked about it and she felt like she had to defend it and I think Tony Geary also felt that way and neither of them seem like they really appreciated being put in that position, to be honest.

Jessica Bennett: Right, right.

Susie Banikarim: They both left the show not long after the wedding and then returned.

Jessica Bennett: Oh, for those later storylines. Okay.

Susie Banikarim: For those later storylines. I mean, not just for those later storylines, but then they just returned to the show in the 90s. And she’s gotten to the point where she o- very openly now, even though she’s still on the show today, rejects having been put in this position. And has said, and I- I’ll read a quote from her. “As a young kid at 17, I was told to play rape and I played it. I didn’t even know what it was. But at 17 you follow the rules. You do as you are told and you aim to please. And now at 60 I don’t feel the need to defend that anymore. I [00:37:00] think that story was inappropriate. I don’t condone it. It’s been the burden that I’ve had to carry to try to justify that story. So I’m not doing that anymore.”

Jessica Bennett: That’s interesting. And, you know, to think about how these things play out differently. Today it was interesting you mentioned that at the time-

Susie Banikarim: Yeah.

Jessica Bennett: … the actors playing Luke and Laura actually saw a social worker to talk about the playing of this. But now you would have an intimacy coordinator on set.

Susie Banikarim: Yeah. It would be a totally different ballgame. Or you’d hope that it would be a totally different ballgame. I think, look, Genie Francis is in her sixties now, right. She’s had 40 years to reflect on this thing that happened to her, but she was a 17-year-old girl playing with a 30-something year old actor.

Jessica Bennett: Right, right.

Susie Banikarim: Right? I mean, just the whole thing would be handled so differently now, because in addition to the rape, there would be the statutory issues. There just is, I think, a better understanding of how power dynamics work. Like, it wasn’t even really brought up at the time that he was her boss.

Jessica Bennett: It’s also, like, were the scene to play out today, there would be a concurrent dialogue happening on Twitter and elsewhere about how it was handled. [00:38:00] Immediately, in real time. And so you would be having to preemptively prepare for the criticism that you knew you were going to face and really make sure it was handled delicately.

Susie Banikarim: Yeah. I mean, an interesting thing is, is did you The Accused when it came out?

Jessica Bennett: Yes.

Susie Banikarim: That was sort of, like, one of the first depictions I ever saw of gang rape and now the dialogue around that movie has actually even shifted.

Jessica Bennett: Mm-hmm.

Susie Banikarim: Like, I think it’s kind of fascinating because I’ve seen dialogue about how it’s too violent. It’s presenting-

Jessica Bennett: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

Susie Banikarim: … and too drawing away. It’s not, it’s, like, triggering. And I think that’s really interesting because the reason that movie was so groundbreaking when it happened is because it was presented in so violent a way. It sort of forced you to face the reality of that violence.

Jessica Bennett: Yeah, yeah.

Susie Banikarim: But now if you played it so violently, they would say it was exploitative, right? Like, if you did that scene now, you would want to handle it with more sensitivity because we get that rape is violent. We don’t need to, like, shove it in your face that same way. But that cultural context is important. When that movie happened, people didn’t really understand how violent rape could be, so it had [00:39:00] to be so aggressive.

Jessica Bennett: I think now too, storylines are forced to grapple with the enduring trauma of something like that happening.

Susie Banikarim: Right.

Jessica Bennett: And- and that that has to be written in.

Susie Banikarim: Yeah. And I think, let’s be honest, we’ve all or most of us have watched many years of Law & Order SVU.

Jessica Bennett: Mm-hmm.

Susie Banikarim: And that has in many ways changed the way that rape is handled on other shows. That’s an interesting example of a show that not only has kind of moved the needle in terms of how a lot of us understand sexual assault, but has actually changed the way other shows handle it because it has really introduced a lot of ideas into the culture that are now very commonly acknowledged as facts. And those things continue to evolve.

Jessica Bennett: Okay. So, I feel like we need to take a moment to just pause and re-acknowledge what we’re talking about. This show is about how we internalize these messages.

Susie Banikarim: Right.

Jessica Bennett: So look, like, 1981 I was not born when this hit. Like, [00:40:00] this was a little bit before our time, but when you think about the time when we were sexually coming of age, like, how the strands of this might have still impacted us in the way that we saw ourselves. And the culture, like, yes, was it okay for guys to be really aggressive when they wanted to pursue you?

Susie Banikarim: I mean, I definitely-

Jessica Bennett: Yes.

Susie Banikarim: … thought that the answer to that was yes. I think I put up with a lot of things that now I see in my niece, like, that she would never put up with. You know, we just accepted a certain level of behavior that-

Jessica Bennett: We wouldn’t now.

Susie Banikarim: No. And now it’s understood that this is completely unacceptable.

Jessica Bennett: Mm-hmm.

Susie Banikarim: But, you know, at that time, I think people just really didn’t understand what the boundaries were. Like, this reminds me of this crazy jarring anecdote that I read, which has really stayed with me. It’s that Tony Geary, the actor who plays Luke, told the story that when he would go to, like, soap opera conventions and events, [00:41:00] after the scene aired, women would come up to him and say, “Rape me, Luke.”

Jessica Bennett: Oh my God.

Susie Banikarim: Yeah, and that’s like a thing that he would tell because he was so disturbed by it.

Jessica Bennett: But I think it says so much about what we’ve been talking about here, which is that there’s this underlying sense that a woman should, like, want to be found irresistible.

Susie Banikarim: Right. And it just introduces this idea that men express love or this, like, need through violence and then if you experience it as violence and not love, the problem is with you and not the thing that’s happened to you.

Jessica Bennett: Mm-hmm. Right. I’d be really interested to hear from Cindy as someone who actually lived through this.

Cindy Leive: I think I learned that as a woman it’s incredibly flattering and important to be desired by a man and that even if that quote, unquote, desire is violent and hurts you or hurts other people, that, like, on some level that’s okay. I feel like in a way I’m a best case [00:42:00] scenario. I had a very feminist mom who did not truck with those kinds of stereotypes at all. I’m lucky that in those years after watching that on General Hospital I didn’t have any kind of rape experience myself, which is unusual, I think, for women.

But still on some level I think it just underlined this very present message in our culture that you’re kind of nobody unless a guy has overwhelming desire for you. I mean, when you think about it, General Hospital taught a whole generation of women like me, girls at the time, what relationships were. What family secrets were about, what infidelity was. And also what sexual violence is. And I don’t think it taught us accurately.

Susie Banikarim: This is In Retrospect. Thanks for listening. Is there a cultural moment you can’t stop [00:43:00] thinking about and want us to explore in a future episode? Email us at [email protected] or find us on Instagram @inretropod.

Jessica Bennett: If you love this podcast, please rate and review us on Apple or Spotify or wherever you listen. If you hate it, you can post nasty comments on our Instagram which we may or may not delete.

Susie Banikarim: You can also find us on Instagram @jessicabennett and @susiebnyc. Also check out Jessica’s books, Feminist Fight Club and This is 18.

Jessica Bennett: In Retrospect is a production of iHeart podcast and The Meteor. Lauren Hansen is our supervising producer. Derrick Clements is our engineer and sound designer. Sharon Attia is our researcher and associate producer.

Susie Banikarim: Our executive producer from The Meteor is Cindy Leive. Our executive producers from iHeart are Anna Stumpf and Katrina Norvell. Our artwork is from Pentagram. Additional editing help from Mary Do and Mike Coscarelli. Sound correction and mastering by Amanda Rose Smith. We are your hosts, Susie Banikarim.

Jessica Bennett: And Jessica Bennett. [00:44:00] We’re also executive producers. For even more, check out inretropod.com. See you next week.