A Useless Woman? b/w Dancing in the Aisles (Of the Grocery Store)
A Further Note on “Oldies”

The Entertainment Industry and the Ratchet Effect

Sunday Night Journal — February 8, 2004

The biggest and most ludicrous news story of the past week has been the brief exposure of a pop singer’s breast during a half-time concert at the Super Bowl. I myself did not witness the great event, although I watched most of the game. As probably happened in many American households, the husband went off at half-time to do something else while the wife—and in our case, a daughter—watched the entertainment. My daughter, who is in her high school band, has something of a professional interest in half-time shows, although I think she knew there would be little in the way of marching bands, batons, and flags.

I don’t think the flash made a great impression on them. After half-time, they commented to me only that the show was crude and stupid, that it was just as well I’d missed it, and that they wished the NFL would do something along the lines of the shows that are traditional in non-professional football games. It was only the next day that I realized the level of shock and outrage that had been generated. My first reaction was to wonder why anyone should be so very upset by this one moment when—as I assumed and has been amply confirmed since—the entire show had been one big exercise in vulgarity. This sort of thing is what big-time pop music stars do for a living, and why would anyone expect anything different from them?

For many of those in the audience, though, the nudity seems to have been a last straw, a definitive crossing of a boundary. Where does one draw, or find, a line of acceptability between the relatively mild sexuality of the dancing seen in (for instance) many old Hollywood musicals that are now considered fairly tame, and the much more salacious moves and gestures now tolerated? There is a real and significant difference, of course, and I have no patience with those who argue—from either the libertine or the puritanical extremes—that that there is none. But it is difficult, in the face of an entertainment industry consciously committed to what it likes to call, with manifest self-congratulation, “pushing the envelope,” to specify in a precise and legalistic way exactly where the line is. (I say “legalistic” because that is the only way such things can be approached now, appeals to simple respect and common sense being no longer of much use.) So the vast majority of Americans who deplore and despise the commerce in lewd entertainment have found themselves for the most part able only to fume impotently. Anyone who dares raise a voice against it can expect to be vilified by the entertainment industry and much of the news media—which latter are, after all, only an arm of the same industry. Consider the case of Tipper Gore, who made a very moderate attempt to pressure the industry to clean itself up and was rewarded with intense vituperation. (Unfortunately, Mrs. Gore seems to have learned her lesson, or at least learned not to offend potential contributors to the Democratic party, and has long since dropped and effectively repudiated her campaign.)

But a specific instance of nudity, even one as brief as this one, is a clear and definable action to which one may voice a clear and definable objection. And the intensity and volume of the reaction is probably in part an effect of the long-suppressed frustration of many people. “We can’t even sit down with our children to watch a football game,” goes the typical comment, “without them shoving this stuff at us. We’ve had enough, and we’re not going to take it anymore.” Some commentators of a traditionalist tendency, such as Peggy Noonan, have expressed the hope that this is the beginning of a reversal of the long trend toward increasing salaciousness in entertainment, and that the number of people making it clear, by voting with their attention and therefore their money, that they want a change will be great enough to make the industry react.

Perhaps it’s my natural pessimism, but I don’t think this is very likely. A temporary retreat may occur, but I don’t think such a great change can happen that easily. The most prestigious and powerful people in the country are against it; in the latter category I refer above all to the courts. More importantly, the people at large are, if not actually in agreement with, then disinclined or unable to make a stand against, the shallow libertarianism which is expressed in letters and phone calls to my local newspaper, as no doubt also to yours, by the argument “If you don’t like it, you don’t have to watch it.” (Or listen to it, or read it, or purchase it, as applicable.)

This argument is sound enough as an approach to minor differences. I like to watch football and baseball games on television, so I do. I don’t like to watch basketball games, so I don’t, and yet I feel no impulse to suppress basketball. Is this not a model for reconciling all differences? Of course it isn’t, unless you insist on reducing every possible component of our culture to a matter of subjective taste. Never mind, for the moment, the philosophical argument about relativism: as a practical matter, this tactic (which is all it really is) denies the possibility of culture—not of any culture in particular, but of any culture at all, because culture is by definition an expression of shared beliefs and attitudes.

But everyone knows at heart, even if he denies it with his mind and voice, that man is as much a culture-making as a biological creature, and the question is not whether there will be a culture but what it will be. If any practice or expression at all, no matter how repellent to most or many people, is to be accorded the same respect as any other, and if the only recourse of those who object is to attempt to hide, what is happening is either the disintegration of culture or the displacement of one culture by another, necessarily requiring either the expulsion or the assimilation of adherents of the older culture. And that, as has been noted by many observers of the culture war of the last generation or two, is what is really happening here. It is not just any offensive practice or expression which is to be tolerated, it is those that offend what can loosely be termed moral traditionalists, especially Christians.

I think the hopes of Peggy Noonan and others will be disappointed because I believe that the sexualization of popular culture is an essential a part of a cultural movement which is now so powerful, so well-established, and so deeply rooted in interpretations (however flawed) of the American ideal of liberty, that it is unlikely to be turned back unless by some crisis which makes its destructive frivolity untenable and unacceptable.

When my wife and I discussed this she remarked that “This stuff never gets rolled back. It might stop going forward for a while, but it never goes back.” Exactly. Like a ratchet that allows a wheel to turn in one direction but not the other, forces both inside and outside the entertainment industry will allow, for a while, a temporary halt in its progress toward some imagined end point of perfect “liberation” (and who can imagine what that might be?), but do not permit reversal.

Who will disengage, or perhaps destroy, this mechanism? Many of the powerful wish its operation to continue, and the people are uncertain and divided. Considering that we cannot, as a society, take action toward making hard-core pornography significantly less available on the Internet, even though the vast majority of us can agree that it is at least unhealthy, I see no reason to expect that the entertainment industry will not continue to ratchet up the sleaze which it has incorrectly associated with artistic merit but, it seems, quite accurately associated with commercial success. And the latter point is, of course, the most important: in the end the power is in the hands of the people. Whatever other factors may be involved, it is certain that as long as most people are unwilling to withold the patronage that insures profitability, the industry will continue to allow and encourage the sleaze-mongers among them.

You may have noticed that I have not mentioned the names of the performers who took part in the Super Bowl exhibition, nor the name of the television network which sponsored it, nor the other television network which produced it. Given that publicity of any kind is the lifeblood of the entertainment industry, the withholding of these names is a tiny gesture of opposition which I have enjoyed making, however futile it may be.



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