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The Price Wasn’t Always Right: The racism and sexism legacy of Bob Barker

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The Price Is Right TV game show, which first aired in 1956, was a staple when I was a kid growing up in the 1970s and 80s.

Everyone knew who Bob Barker was. He hosted and helped produce the show from 1972 to 2007. Even won Emmy Awards for his hosting.

One thing that stood out to me back then was the lame cars they gave away, like the Fiat Strada, Chevy Vega, Renault Alliance, and Pontiac station wagons, and of course the Maytag dishwashers. But as a teenager, another thing I recall was the glamorous models Barker used to help him play the games and give away prizes.

Janice Pennington, Dian Parkinson, Anitra Ford, Holly Hallstrom.

One thing these women had in common was they were all white.

It wasn’t until 44 years into the show, when I was already a junior in college, with two decades of bias shoved into my soul, that Bob Barker hired a permanent Black model.

Kathleen Bradley, known as one of “Barker’s Beauties,” was featured on the show from 1990 to 2000, before being abruptly fired when she truthfully answered questions about Barker’s conduct.

A few years later, another Black model on the show, Deborah Curling, filed a lawsuit claiming Barker subjected her to hostile working conditions and leveled racial slurs at her. She also described an atmosphere in which Black contestants were treated poorly.

But all we had was his word against hers, so the lawsuit never went anywhere. You need more than a he-said-she-said to win in court.

The show’s air of white superiority wasn’t limited to the model department. The operation under Barker exemplified America’s pervasive conscious and unconscious effort to reinforce racial imagery that showcased whites as our heroes — people to envy and admire — and almost always omitted Black people from those same roles.

The effects of that constant parade of white contestants, with few Black ones, are still unconsciously felt by Boomers and Gen Xers today.

I recall watching the show religiously in the 1970s and 80s. The contestants didn’t start fairly representing America’s diversity for nearly two decades. With occasional exceptions every two months or so, contestants were primarily white and attractive.

After “Come on down! You’re the next contestant on The Price is Right!” some good-looking white woman or man would come running down the aisle with joy in their eyes as they tried to win a washer and dryer.

Post-Barker, the show does a great job. Contestants are white, Black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay couples, you name it. The show accommodates hearing-impaired, visually impaired, little people and wheelchair-bound players. There’s a variety of body shapes, from petite to plus-size. And there’s age inclusion, from kids to octogenarians.

But that welcome change was no thanks to Barker, whose legacy also fairs badly when it comes to women.

Longtime Barker model Dian Parkinson, who quit the show in 1993, sued him for $8 million, alleging sexual assault and harassment. She claimed Barker used various forms of coercion, including force, to make her perform oral acts on him on every week for three and a half years. She further alleged that she slept with him for fear of losing her job and that he paid her $1,000 a month to keep her silent. Barker claimed they had a consensual arrangement.

Fellow Price is Right model Holly Hallstrom later claimed Barker urged her to go on record saying Parkinson was a liar. Hallstrom refused and said that Barker consequently fired her. In the end, Parkinson dropped her lawsuit, citing health problems. If that were the end of the story, we might be left wondering who was telling the truth.

But Hallstrom, a Barker’s Beauty for 19 years, also sued Barker and the show for age and gender discrimination. She claimed that when Barker no longer considered her a “beauty,” she was let go. Her life got so bad she was living out of her car and was bankrupt. But in the end, the court agreed with her claims and awarded her millions of dollars.

Another one of the game show’s models, Janice Pennington, had her own run-ins with Barker during her 29 years on the show.

Bob Barker passed away today at age 99.

I’m gonna sit out society’s celebration of the life and times of one of TV game show’s supposed “icons.” He’s not my icon.

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Jeffrey Kass

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