Why Maury’s Paternity Tests were Satisfying to Watch — But also Deeply Messed Up

“Maury” was the reigning king of daytime television in the early 2000’s, and though it’s not as popular as it once was, it’s still been renewed through to at least the 2020 television season.

A mixture of the shamelessness of Jerry Springer, but with just enough of the self-empowerment of Oprah, the tabloid-themed talk show is sometimes credited as the start of “black-trash TV”.

Maury's Paternity Tests

The show’s bread and butter was undoubtedly the Paternity Test segment. Day after day it’s the same — a young black single mother, low on the socioeconomic totem pole, embarrasses herself on national TV as she recounts all the different possible men who could be the father. There’s usually one (or more) “prime suspects” on the show and the two are encouraged to fight it out in front of the audience. They pull up the young child’s picture and the couple argue about facial features.

Maury is a constant figure on stage, using his journalistic skills to poke and prod the feud in just the right ways, sometimes masquerading as a sort of comforting therapist, sometimes pretending to be indignant. The viewer themselves is encouraged to pick sides in the fight.

Of course, Maury has the results of the paternity test in his hands. He knows the answer even before the show started. But at just the right moment, the screen flashes “THE RESULTS ARE IN!” Maury then opens the comically oversized envelope, the audience captivated and dead silent. He utters the same phrase, the only difference being the inclusion of one word. “You are NOT! the father.”

Pandemonium erupts. One side is inevitably proven right and they take their gratuitious victory lap, often running the shocked mother or newly confirmed father clear off the stage.

Maury finally tries to wrap up the segment by getting a promise from the new father to “do what’s right” or pledging to help the mother test more men in future episodes. It’s a feel-good note to end with. Then onto the next one.

Of course, I haven’t explained the show in a good light. But there’s no doubt that millions of viewers love this show and are obsessed with watching it every day. What is the draw?

First, the show perfectly encapsulates conflict. In real life, arguments and strife are messy. The true motivations of the other person aren’t known, the problem can be difficult to understand, and the resolution often comes months later or not at all. With these Paternity Test segments, you not only got an easily digestible premise, but you get a binary, “Yes or No” answer on the spot. Second, by having predominantly trashy people on the show, the viewer inherently feels superior about themselves and their own life. Overall, the show is a one-two punch of a dramatically satisfying narrative and a dose of self-satisfaction.
But this narrative comes at a steep cost, both in exploiting the couple who appear on the show and perpetuating damaging stereotypes about race and sex.

Upfront, a significant majority of the guests on the show are black, which contributes to longstanding racial stereotypes about families and black fathers, and the belief that a lot of blacks — moreso than whites — go out and have reckless sex, making random babies with strangers without the full grasp of the consequences.

Second, while nobody forces these people to come on the show, there’s no doubt that the producers deliberately fan the flames of conflict and make sure it plays out in the most exploitative and damaging possible way. Whenever a tearful mother races backstage, the camera crew huffing behind her so as to never miss a moment or give her a safe space to process what has just happened, it’s hard to deny that she is being exploited and traumatized for the pleasure of the viewing audience.

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