Profanity, Nudity, and the Court

While flipping through the broadcast channels on our aging analog television this past Monday, searching in vain for the college football championship game, we happened upon a program called “Fear Factor” just as it presented the strange spectacle of an attractive young woman drinking a soup of animal blood and live maggots. We kept flipping and put it out of mind as quickly as possibly, but were reminded of that distasteful scene while reading up on the latest goings-on at the United States Supreme Court.

Not because the right honorable court is always reminiscent of a reality show gross-out contest, of course, but because the justices heard oral arguments Tuesday in a case concerning the government’s right to regulate the content of programming on the public airwaves. The regulations in question don’t address the kind of vulgarity offered by the likes of “Fear Factor,” only the use of profanity and the depiction of nudity, but at least in some small way the court was weighing in on the declining standards of television.

The wheels of justice apparently turn quite slowly, far more so than our fast-changing popular culture, because the programs involved in the case were “NYPD Blue,” a show we haven’t heard mentioned in many years and assume is long since off the air, and a music awards show featuring the profanity-laced remarks of Cher, a performer we associate with a long-ago era of entertainment. Judging by the questions posed by the justices, the court itself isn’t very up-to-date on matters of popular culture.

The liberal justices seemed unable to understand that not all profanity and nudity are the same. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg decried “the appearance of arbitrariness” when the FCC allowed the discomfiting nudity that underscored the horror of a concentration camp scene in “Schindler’s List” but objected to a titillating flash of a callipygian starlet’s bare buttocks on “NYPD Blue.” A museum that proudly displayed “Venus de Milo” while declining to hang the latest Hustler centerfold could be accused of the same arbitrariness, and probably will be at some point in the post-modern age of cultural relativism, but we’re inclined to call that discernment. Similarly, one can argue that the profanity peppering “Saving Private Ryan” is justified as necessary for verisimilitude, because the soldiers on Omaha Beach probably weren’t saying “Gosh darn it” as the bullets flew, the cinema of the World War II-era notwithstanding, while Cher’s pathetic attempt to seem hip with a few cuss words on an awards show billed as family entertainment is hard to justify on any grounds.

Ginsburg also fretted that the FCC’s strait-laced sensibilities might also deny the over-the-air television audience a chance to see “Hair,” the Broadway musical that was at the cutting edge of popular culture way back in the hippie days. Younger readers are advised to ask their pony-tailed grandfathers for a dissenting opinion about the show, but we expect that if they did encounter it on a broadcast station they would likely find the cutting edge has dulled considerably since then, which probably has more to do with its absence from prime time than any government regulation.

Ginsburg’s apparent fondness for the old peace-and-love, song-and-dance pastiche is typical of a liberal aesthetic sensibility which we blame for a popular culture that is permissive in some ways yet downright puritanical in others. Those of a certain age might fondly recall the old “Dean Martin Show,” which each week showed Dino with a cigarette in one hand and a martini in the other, leering at the cleavage of the buxom Gold Diggers on his arms, but we doubt Ginsburg laments that such sybaritic fare has all but vanished from the airwaves, replaced by sit-coms full of twenty-somethings who hang out at non-smoking coffee shops between sexual conquests.

The conservative justices were also predictably un-hip to the latest happenings on the pop culture scene, as this is an endearing trait common to conservatives of all occupations, but we were surprised that they showed so little faith in free markets. The old three-network hegemony of television has been so thoroughly destroyed that we wound up watching the college football championship on a cable network’s internet site, with plenty of fare that would have made the Marquis de Sade blush just a few mouse clicks away, and most homes now have a wider variety of entertainment options than any Pharoah or Sultan of the past. Yet Chief Justice John Roberts expressed a desire for a “safe haven” network that provided only programming that parents could count on to be free of profanity, nudity, and other offensive material, and seemed concerned that no one would cater to this market without the government’s insistence, a worry that strikes us as baseless.

Roberts also seemed unaware that there is no longer any “safe haven” from profanity even for those who do away with television altogether, as one is now routinely assaulted by harsh language from t-shirts, bumper stickers, and the overly loud patron at the next table in even the swankest restaurants. A few cuss words uttered by a has-been celebrity and a fleeting shot of a shapely bottom are a very small part of what’s wrong with television, and television is an increasingly small part of what’s wrong with the broader popular culture.

Fixing the pop culture problem is beyond the power of Washington, D.C., however, and Hollywood also seems unable to address the matter, so we can only hope that cultural renewal will come from somewhere in the vast area in between.

— Bud Norman

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