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‘Maury’ Turned Parenthood into a Circus of Shame

For decades now, America has had a sick addiction to hearing, ‘You are not the father’

This September, the daytime talk show Maury — hosted by Maury Povich for a staggering 31 years — will shut down. Povich, now 83, had long planned this retirement, and said of the series’ conclusion, “As I occasionally tell my guests on Maury, ‘Enough, already!’” The more than 3,600 episodes produced will continue to air in syndication for who knows how long.

While Maury touched on lots of controversial issues over the decades, I wouldn’t be surprised if the rerun schedule tends to favor the segments that made the greatest impression on viewers: “Who’s the Daddy?” Beginning in 1998, the show partnered with DNA Diagnostics Center (DDC) to stage dramatic, often humiliating reveals of paternity before a live studio audience. A mother would come on as a guest, along with a man she believed to be the father of her child. The man would deny it vehemently. Their argument would rev up the crowd while Povich built suspense for the court-admissible results from DDC, which he claimed to not know in advance. The man accused waited to hear one of two phrases: “You are the father,” or “You are not the father.”  

Of course, it wasn’t proof of paternity that the audience wanted. True, there may have been some ugly satisfaction to seeing a man brought low by the realization that he was now, at the very least, on the hook for child support. But far more entertaining to the masses — and this includes my teenage self when I watched Maury on sick days home from school — was confirmation of non-fatherhood, at which point the guy often celebrated with a dance and emphatic declarations of victory while the mother cried, raged or literally fled backstage as a cameraperson chased them to record their entire breakdown. Meanwhile, the crowd matched the raucous ecstasy of the male guest, reveling in the perceived sluttiness of the woman unable to figure out who she’d conceived with. As these DNA tests became a staple of Maury, the reactions got bigger, and Povich rarely got past the word “not” before the room exploded.

As even YouTube commenters will point out, it’s a strange form of climax, because when the man is first brought on to proclaim his “innocence,” he’s assumed to be lying. The audience (heavily coached on its feedback) boos his entrance and first remarks, actively rooting for the mother to nail him. But the second they learn someone else got her pregnant, she becomes a gold-digger and fallen woman. At the same time, the dude gets thunderous applause for doing backflips in front of screens displaying the kid he is so relieved to have no relationship with. 

The footage of those babies and toddlers was one of Maury’s grossest ethical violations. I’d argue the disproportionate focus on Black couples was another. Worst of all, though, was the pretense that any of this had to do with helping the guests, or the need to uphold traditional norms. Before opening his little envelope, Povich liked to extract a promise from the potential father that, in the case of a genetic match, he would be “in” the child’s life. It served as a moral excuse for the spectacle to follow. I cringe today, remembering how I laughed at these scenes, the cruelty toward ordinary people who appeared on TV for a meager paycheck and the chance to establish basic facts about their own lives. Yet if you want to understand the paradoxical theme of “family values” in American politics — the way a vaguely defined set of ideals is less a blueprint for success than a weapon made to shame and dehumanize — then look no further.