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disgust under discussion
is television going too far?
by jael mchenry (@JaelMcHenry)
12.4.06
television


Most of the time, I think any kind of kerfuffle about what's on television is silly. The whole Janet Jackson thing? Pointless. Angry letter campaigns about flashbacks to a teen orgy on "Without a Trace"? Overblown. People who turn away when a camera pretends to zoom down a throat or inside a wound on "CSI" or "House"? Overly sensitive. Seven-second delays to keep popstars from letting a swear word slip at the Grammys? Probably doomed to failure, and besides, who cares, right?

And then they announced that O.J. Simpson was going to appear on FOX in an interview tentatively titled "If I Did It, Here's How It Happened," and I finally hit the wall.

I was disgusted.

It's the same thing and it's not. Networks always have discretion to make decisions about what they deem appropriate to air. There are some standards for profanity, sexual content, and violence, but the envelope is always getting pushed a little bit farther. More nudity, more sex, more drugs, all the time. And like I said, in general this doesn't bother me. It made me wonder if maybe there should be some sort of standard that would keep networks from going too far.

But what made the O.J. special disgusting had nothing to do with the usual things that people claim disgust over. There would have been no violence, no profanity, no nudity.

And yet, I felt it earned my disgust. Because it would have exploited the people who were murdered, almost definitely killed by the person who would have the most to gain from the special airing. Because it would have sent the message that this sort of thing was okay. Murder, and getting away with it, and stepping back into the public eye to soak up the attention of the notorious: totally okay.

Thank goodness, after the public outcry, the TV special and accompanying book were cancelled. And my disgust was replaced with relief.

But it did get me thinking more about whether television in particular, and pop culture in general, is heading toward a no-holds-barred environment where, in fact, everything is okay because everything is permitted.

In real life: starlets without underwear. On network television: almost a dozen shows about murderers, missing children, raped women, and the voyeurism of death. On cable television: more of the same, only more explicit. In the movies: bloody, grotesque "thrillers" that show people being sliced open, tortured, shot, stabbed, and beyond.

Is this what we really want to be watching? What we want to encourage? Who we want to be?

It’s particularly difficult for me to understand the cultural trend toward explicit horror -- it will be interesting to see how a movie called "Turistas" opens this weekend -- but I suppose that’s because it just doesn’t appeal to me. I just don’t know why people would want to sit in a darkened theatre and watch actors pretend to slice other actors open.

Now, this is coming from a person who, when a bloody fistfight on "Deadwood" culminated in a man staggering around with his eyeball hanging out for roughly a minute, said, "Ew," and then shrugged it off. Because it made sense in the context of the show, and even though a dangling eyeball is pretty disgusting on the surface, it didn’t make me feel disgust.

Basically, all I can do is shrug it off, the whole idea of bringing the culture back from the brink. Because there are no standards that can save us from ourselves. Like I said before, if standards and ratings and network censors couldn’t have saved us from O.J., it’s not reasonable to think they could save us from anything.

It may not be the best system, but it’s the system we’ve got. Personal choice. If you don’t like it, don’t watch it. If you don’t want your kids seeing certain television programs, there’s always the V-chip. And if there’s something you think goes too far, get angry about it. In the short term, there are letter-writing campaigns. There are plenty of shows that have been pulled from the airwaves thanks to protest -- "The Book of Daniel," the miniseries about the Reagans -- in just the past few years. I’m not saying it’s always been the right decision, but I am saying that it has happened.

But in the long run, we are the people who shape programming, and not by writing letters. Because shows that don’t get ratings don’t last. If procedural dramas about people getting shot and stabbed and raped and kidnapped didn’t get great ratings, there wouldn’t be so many of them on the schedule. Sure, it can take a while for changes to take effect. It took FOX a while to stop airing its whole chain of “When Animals Attack Cops on the Job Under Surveillance With Nannies Gone Bad II”-type specials. But they did stop.

The only people who can save us from ourselves is us, and that could take a while.


ABOUT JAEL MCHENRY

Jael is tired of being stereotyped as just another novelist/poet/former English teacher/tour guide/"Jeopardy!" semifinalist/bellydancing editor-in-chief with an MFA who was once an overachieving oboe-playing alto newspaper editor valedictorian from Iowa. She was also captain of the football cheerleading squad. Follow me on Twitter: @jaelmchenry

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COMMENTS

juli mccarthy
12.4.06 @ 12:14a

I don't like explicit, whether it's violent, sexual or even clinical. I can tolerate explicitness in reading material, because I seem to have developed a skim filter, but video and audio explicitness make me cringe. I don't tell other people what not to watch, but there's no way anyone can make ME watch it.

Still, I am amused that on a lot of TV shows, they'll bleep "explicit" language. First of all, that highlights, rather than disguises, the language, and second, I find it ludicrous that we should be protected from the word "fuck" by the same people who thinks it's OK to show a rape or murder in graphic detail.

robert melos
12.4.06 @ 4:20a

I'm the type who looks away when things are bloody or grotesque, or snakes. I hate snakes. Howver I too find it silly to censor any of these things or language.

I also think it was wrong to cancel O.J.'s book. Personally I didn't care one way or another, and I'm one of the few people in the country who didn't watch the O.J. trial. I knew he was an okay football player and a mediocre, at best, actor. I didn't care whether or not he killed his ex-wife and her friend. They were dead, and it was wrong.

The legal system found him not guilty of the murders. If he chooses to cash in on a tell-all faux confession, that is his choice and he should be allowed to publish it. If the public clamors for such a thing, then let them have it.

Personally I think he should tried cashing in with a book about how he was innocent, his perspective of the trial, and how he felt, all from the frame of mind of being innocent. Sure it would've been fiction, but not as big of a seller as the faux confession. I still think it will surface somewhere. I still won't buy it because I just don't care.

sandra thompson
12.4.06 @ 8:06a

My grandgeeks grew up on a steady diet of PBS or baseball games, sitting with me in my room on my bed with our snacks, Leggos and pennies for playing poker, strewn at our feet. As grownups they don't watch much TV, and when they're not playing video games they watch films for entertainment, but mostly they're so busy with their jobs, classes, workouts and girlfriends they don't have a lot of time for entertainment that isn't somehow productive. Nobody ever censored anything they watched or listened to, and they have exquisitely good taste in everything from music to sculpture. I can't explain their, or my, utter devotion to Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith after all those years of Nova, Nature and Masterpiece Theatre.

ken mohnkern
12.4.06 @ 11:10a

Wonderful first paragraph, Jael.

"The whole Janet Jackson thing? (hee) Pointless. Angry letter campaigns about flashbacks to a teen orgy on "Without a Trace"? Over(har!)blown. People who turn away when a camera pretends to zoom down a throat or inside a wound on "CSI" or "House"? Overly (ugh) sensitive."

And kudos for using kerfuffle.

tracey kelley
12.4.06 @ 5:19p

"Personally I think he should tried cashing in with a book about how he was innocent, his perspective of the trial, and how he felt, all from the frame of mind of being innocent. Sure it would've been fiction, but not as big of a seller as the faux confession."

That's it right there, Robert - the jackpot. Worked for Jerry Springer, so O.J. thought it would work for him, too.

And that's what is really sad. None of us on this site, for example, would have bought the thing or watched the thing. But some Springer-trash would have, expecting to get "the scoop." And for what purpose?

I can't watch horror flicks or read books like that anymore. It's just trash in my brain, and I have enough 80s pop-song lyrics cluttering that space as it is.

russ carr
12.5.06 @ 6:02p

At least we're not as bad as the Dutch. Not yet, at least.

[edited]

jael mchenry
12.6.06 @ 9:01a

Wow. The last show mentioned in that article, about the audience helping a woman choose a sperm donor, is ironically the least offensive one on the list. Considering it was cancelled and all this other stuff actually aired.

dan gonzalez
12.14.06 @ 1:31a

almost definitely killed

This ambiguity says it all.

Thank goodness, after the public outcry, the TV special and accompanying book were cancelled. And my disgust was replaced with relief.

Somehow mob outrage lead to a common sense outcome?

Give me a break. It's like you're all for uncensored transgressive media as long as it's obvious fiction that benefits a viewpoint you agree with.

O.J. was acquitted. PERIOD. Just like Clinton was acquitted. They're both free to captilize on their memoirs, however fictional their versions may appear.

It's a dark day when censorship becomes a subjective tool based on the mass hysteria of an illogical society.

I say, let's hear O.J.'s version!

[edited]



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