November 29, 2004

Desperate Veronese

In the New York Times, Frank Rich writes a very good column about the great indecency hoax:

If we are to believe the outcry... America's youth have been defiled en masse... by the actress Nicollette Sheridan, who dropped her towel in the cheesy promotional spot for the runaway hit "Desperate Housewives" that kicked off "Monday Night Football" on ABC.... Ever since 22 percent of the country's voters said on Nov. 2 that they cared most about "moral values," opportunistic ayatollahs on the right have been working overtime.... It took a British publication, The Economist, to point out that the percentage of American voters citing moral and ethical values as their prime concern is actually down from 2000 (35 percent) and 1996 (40 percent). To see how the hucksters of the right work their scam, there could be no more illustrative example than the "Monday Night Football" episode in which Ms. Sheridan leaped into the arms of the Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens in order to give the declining weekly game (viewership is down 3 percent from 2003) a shot of Viagra.... [W]e are also asked to believe that pro football is what Pat Buchanan calls "the family entertainment, the family sports show" rather than what it actually is: a Boschian jamboree of bumping-and-grinding cheerleaders, erectile-dysfunction pageantry....

And yet... And yet... I don't want either the Eleven-Year-Old or the Fourteen-Year-Old to think that invading someone's locker room, dropping your towel in front of somebody you barely know, and lunging for them buck-naked is an appropriate way to behave. People on TV, in movies, and in plays do jump into bed with one another with alarming speed. And this does threaten to teach relative youngsters trying to figure out how to behave bad lessons. Sex with near-strangers messes with your head. The chances that both near-strange partners will fall for each other are quite low, but sex is magic, and the chance that one will fall--and wind up, in the end, devastated--are quite high. When body gets out of sync with mind and heart, things are likely to go very wrong, and can go wrong very quickly.

Things are tough enough learning how to love under the best of circumstances. Ogged, for example, is bemused at how many seemingly-normal people seem to have had a "bizarro awful too-long early relationship, whether in high-school or college." And he has the grace to admit that of his first love "I'm sure I was her awful first..." In a world full of people who jump into bed much too soon, a lot of people will wind up singing along with Sally Bowles--and doing it over and over again:

Maybe this time, I'll be lucky
Maybe this time, he'll stay
Maybe this time
For the first time
Love won't hurry away

He will hold me fast
I'll be home at last
Not a loser anymore
Like the last time
And the time before...

In this context I find it somewhat alarming that the Fourteen-Year-Old is exposed--in his ninth-grade school curriculum, yet!--to a book that I can only call a near-Lolita scenario.* She is 13 or 14. He is 20 or 21. He sees her across the room and starts stalking her, instantly forgetting his previous infatuation that he had claimed was his "true love." She is flattered and intrigued, trying to cope with hormones and feelings she has never felt before--and soon she is enthralled by his honeyed words and eager to surrender her mind and judgment to his will. The imbalance in power and confidence between the barely-teenaged ingenue and her mature lover--a thug and a killer--is alarming. The only concession to decorum and order is that they are secretly married by a corrupted priest before the panties actually hit the floor.

Fortunately, the Fourteen-Year-Old's English teacher, Mr. La Pointe, skillfully drew out the threads and implications of the story as he led the class discussion. It all ends very badly, in part because they don't trust their parents--she thinks her father hates her lover, when he is actually relatively well-disposed to him (before he kills her brother, that is). The girls in the class all thought long and hard about what kind of relationship you can have with somebody half again as old as you. The boys thought about what kind of intellectual and emotional companion someone only two-thirds your age would make. And all were sobered as they contemplated the wreck and ruin that was the fallout from the two's relationship.

For never was there a tale of more woe,
Than this of Juliet, and her Romeo.

Ah, but the poetry...

JUL: "Wilt thou be gone? It is not yet near
day. It was the nightingale and not
the lark that pierced the fearful
hollow of thine ear. Nightly she sings
on yon pomegranate tree. Believe me,
love, it was the nightingale."

ROM: "It was the lark, the herald of the
morn, No nightingale. Look, love, what
envious streaks do lace the severing
clouds in yonder east. Night's candles
are burnt out, and jocund day stands
tiptoe on the misty mountain tops. I
must be gone and live, or stay and die."

JUL: "Yon light is not daylight, I know it,
I. It is some meteor that the sun exhales
To be to thee this night a torchbearer.
Thou need'st not to be gone."

ROM: "I have more care to stay than will to go.
Come death, and welcome. Juliet wills it so.
How is't my soul? Let's talk. It is not day."

*Note: at this point in the main text there begins *irony.* IRONY. I-R-O-N-Y!


Here's more from Rich's excellent column:

Oh, the poor, suffering little children. If we are to believe the outcry of the past two weeks, America's youth have been defiled en masse - again. This time the dirty deed was done by the actress Nicollette Sheridan, who dropped her towel in the cheesy promotional spot for the runaway hit "Desperate Housewives" that kicked off "Monday Night Football" on ABC. "I wonder if Walt Disney would be proud," said Michael Powell, the Federal Communications Commission chairman who increasingly fashions himself a commissar of all things cultural, from nipple rings to "Son of Flubber."

It's beginning to look a lot like "Groundhog Day." Ever since 22 percent of the country's voters said on Nov. 2 that they cared most about "moral values," opportunistic ayatollahs on the right have been working overtime.... It took a British publication, The Economist, to point out that the percentage of American voters citing moral and ethical values as their prime concern is actually down from 2000 (35 percent) and 1996 (40 percent).

To see how the hucksters of the right work their scam, there could be no more illustrative example than the "Monday Night Football" episode in which Ms. Sheridan leaped into the arms of the Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens in order to give the declining weekly game (viewership is down 3 percent from 2003) a shot of Viagra. From the get-go, it was a manufactured scandal, as over-the-top as a dinner theater production of "The Crucible."... Rush Limbaugh, taking a break from the legal deliberations of his drug rap and third divorce, set the hysterical tone. "I was stunned!" he told his listeners. "I literally could not believe what I had seen... she's buck naked, folks. I mean when they dropped the towel she's naked. You see enough of her back and rear end to know that she was naked. There's no frontal nudity in the thing, but I mean you don't need that. ...I mean, there are some guys with their kids that sit down to watch 'Monday Night Football.'"

Yes, there are - some, anyway - but you wonder how many of them were as upset as Mr. Limbaugh, whose imagination led him to mistake a lower back for a rear end. (He also said that the Sheridan-Owens encounter reminded him of the Kobe Bryant case; let's not even go there.).... A spokesman for ABC Sports told The Philadelphia Inquirer that he hadn't received a single phone call or email in the immediate aftermath of the broadcast... the flood of complaints... didn't start until more than 24 hours after the incident.... Were any of these complainants actual victims (or even viewers) of "Monday Night Football" or were they just a mob assembled after the fact by "family" groups, emboldened by their triumph in smiting "Saving Private Ryan" from 66 ABC stations the week before?... [W]hen I spoke to an F.C.C. enforcement spokesman after more than two days of such replays, the agency had not yet received a single complaint about the spot's constant recycling on other TV shows, among them the highly rated talk show "The View," where Ms. Sheridan's bare back had been merrily paraded at the child-friendly hour of 11 a.m....

[W]e are also asked to believe that pro football is what Pat Buchanan calls "the family entertainment, the family sports show" rather than what it actually is: a Boschian jamboree of bumping-and-grinding cheerleaders, erectile-dysfunction pageantry and, as Don Imus puts it, "wife-beating drug addicts slamming the hell out of each other" on the field. But there's another, more insidious game being played as well. The F.C.C. and the family values crusaders alike are cooking their numbers. The first empirical evidence was provided this month by Jeff Jarvis.... He had the ingenious idea of filing a Freedom of Information Act request to see the actual viewer complaints that drove the F.C.C. to threaten Fox and its affiliates with the largest indecency fine to date - $1.2 million for the sins of a now-defunct reality program called "Married by America." Though the F.C.C. had cited 159 public complaints... there were actually only 90 complaints, written by 23 individuals... all but 2 were identical repetitions of a form letter posted by the Parents Television Council. In other words, the total of actual, discrete complaints about "Married by America" was 3....

But perhaps the most revealing barometer of the real state of play in American culture in 2004 is "Desperate Housewives" itself... it is a campy, well-made soap opera presenting suburban American family life as a fugue of dysfunction, malice and sex. It's not for nothing that its characters are seen running off to Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder retrospectives.... The children of Mr. Cherry's Wisteria Lane... one preadolescent girl is an extortionist and one teenage daughter all but pimps for her divorced mother. The career-driven husbands are as soulless as the office rats of Wilder's "Apartment," and their wives are, yes, as desperate as those in the Manhattan high-rises of Sondheim's "Company." Whatever else is to be said about "Desperate Housewives" - and I haven't missed an episode - it is not to be confused with the kind of entertainment that the Traditional Values Coalition wants to impose on the airwaves. It not only emulates HBO Sunday night hits like "Sex and the City" and "Six Feet Under" in its cheeky, sardonic tone but brushes right up against them in language and action....

"Desperate Housewives" is hardly a blue-state phenomenon. A hit everywhere, it is even a bigger hit in Oklahoma City than it is in Los Angeles, bigger in Kansas City than it is in New York. All those public moralists who wail about all the kids watching Ms. Sheridan on "Monday Night Football" would probably have apoplexy if they actually watched what Ms. Sheridan was up to in her own series - and then looked closely at its Nielsen numbers. Though children ages 2 to 11 make up a small percentage of the audience of either show, there are actually more in that age group tuning into Mr. Cherry's marital brawls (870,000) than into the N.F.L.'s fisticuffs (540,000). "Desperate Housewives" also ranks No. 5 among all prime-time shows for ages 12-17.... A "moral values" crusade that stands between a TV show this popular and its audience will quickly learn the limits of its power in a country where entertainment is god.

Posted by DeLong at November 29, 2004 06:40 PM | TrackBack
Comments

It should be noted though, that the incomparable Daily Howler, is questioning, convincingly, whether Rich's narrative of the post dropped-towel fallout fully supports his point.

http://www.dailyhowler.com/dh112904.shtml

Posted by: P O'Neill at November 29, 2004 06:50 PM

Perhaps the professor should change the name of his blog to “A Current Affair.” But as his material comes from New York Times, I guess everything is ok. I must confess that I have never watched “Desperate Housewives,” but it sounds a little like “Peyton Place” on steroids. I must also confess that I am not shocked, alarmed, offended or otherwise put off in any way by either the towel dropping matter or racy sitcoms and soap operas. So what I say! We are stuck with the human condition, which I believe is more or less an invariant. Everybody knows that nature (or the Deity) gave men two heads, but only enough blood to nourish one of them at a time.

Posted by: A. Zarkov at November 29, 2004 07:44 PM

So, wait, am I getting that you think we English teachers should be paid more?

Posted by: Jackmormon at November 29, 2004 08:19 PM

Brad,

I just love it when you sing.

We have the same concerns as you express here. The 11 year old and the 8 year old in our house like Smallville, which is one of the tamer WB night time soaps and actually, usually, teaches a very responsible and romantic attitude towards s-e-x. It's about the young Superman after all, and what else would Superman be but a young gentleman? But it still throws us the occasional embarrassing surprise and the ads for WB's other shows that run during Smallville are pretty darn graphic and do portray s-e-x as something beautiful young people do for sport when the tennis courts are full or there's too long a line at the ski lift.

(Yes, s-e-x. I'm spelling it out because Brad's comments bot is a bit too vigilant and won't let me say the word.)

Taping and fast forwarding through the inappropriate parts works if you blindfold the kids while you do it.

I am fast losing patience with the if it bothers you don't watch it crowd. That's becoming a way of saying to concerned parents, sorry, no TV or movies. It's as if by having kids we've somehow lost any right to take part in popular culture.

S-e-x on TV is not a blow for realism. It's a defeat for art and intelligence. Because getting the heroine stripped down to her Victoria's Secret collection is not about being honest about the human condition. It's become an easy way around having to think up interesting plots and good dialogue.

A little restraint on the part of Hollywood would be most appreciated.

It's too late at night for me to make the point coherently but I think there is definitely a connection between the vulgarity of entertainment and the vulgarity of our political discourse.

But we aren't "stuck" with anything. Culture and civilization exist to see to that. They exist because we aren't stuck. Human nature may be invariant but culture is not. It's a way to deal with that invariance. The people who made movies in the 30s and the people who wrote novels in Victorian England had to deal with the same invariant.

Posted by: Dave Reilly at November 29, 2004 09:37 PM

Or are you saying there should be more Kander and Ebb in our schools? I'd be for that. (So would Frank Rich, I bet):

You can like the life you're living
You can live the life you like
You can even marry Harry
But mess around with Ike.

And that's
Good,
isn't it
Grand,
isn't it
Great,
isn't it
Swell,
isn't it
Fun,
isn't it...
But nothing stays

In fifty years or so
It's gonna change, you know
But, oh, it's heaven
Nowadays

Posted by: Delicious Pundit at November 29, 2004 09:42 PM

Dave Reilly has it right, in his posting below
**************************************************
I am fast losing patience with the if it bothers you don't watch it crowd. That's becoming a way of saying to concerned parents, sorry, no TV or movies. It's as if by having kids we've somehow lost any right to take part in popular culture.
**************************************************
I know exactly what you mean. I sold my immortal soul to the Dark One, and you know what happens to us when the G word is used by a sincere (New Testament) Christian? A frenzied demon claws his way out of our nostrils and escapes back to the bad place, and it takes WEEKS to get another one. No poontang, no riches, no ability to turn to smoke and seep through walls and steal beer from Christians...all the stuff I made that deal for in the first place.
So I believe in a truth in labeling law for TV. You can show anything you want, even sincere Christians, as long as you label them as C rated, or X rated, or Z rated for violence, or Y rated for secularist stuff like evolution. (What a laugh! Are you going to be surprised when you see our dinosaur bones facility!)
Me and Reilly just want to control what our children see. Is that so bad?

Posted by: wkwillis at November 29, 2004 10:00 PM

“The people who made movies in the 30s and the people who wrote novels in Victorian England had to deal with the same invariant.”

Actually there were some 30s movies that were quite racy, the blue codes for movies came much later. The Victorians also said that “Do what you want, just don’t do it in the street and scare the horses.” You can try to sanitize our perceptions of human behavior, but you won’t change the way people actually behave. If you want to say that lack of restraint can lead to bad art, I quite agree. But even good art won’t improve people, as Robert Hughes discussed in his series “The Shock of the New.”

Posted by: A. Zarkov at November 30, 2004 12:41 AM

Well, the key is to teach our children the difference between fiction and reality . . .

Posted by: rea at November 30, 2004 03:31 AM

The Christian Right acts as if it believes that s-e-x was invented by an alliance between hippies and the devil sometime in 1968, and if we could just restore 1955 or so, everything would be OK again.

Unfortunately, their scenario is not rooted in reality.

Posted by: Chuck Nolan at November 30, 2004 05:00 AM

You know, when I was 15 I vowed I would never date a girl more than 3 years younger or older than myself.

This was mostly due to the fact that as a Freshman in highschool I really liked this one girl, call her "Katie" who was 14, but she was dating this senior guy 18.

How can a poor 14 year old compete with someone who has a car and a job and older friends? They can't. So I vowed I would never break some poor little geeky freshman boy's heart.

Of course, I too had that fucked up relationship in highschool with a girl 11 days younger than myself. That saga lasted at least 4 years and now its behind us and she's my best friend. Go figure.

Posted by: MNPundit at November 30, 2004 05:31 AM

Sure, the MNF/DH brouhaha was about casual s-e-x (which apparently can't be spelled as normal, due to filtering (wtf, t-a-l-k trips it?)), which we're all obviously interested in and t-a-l-king about, but I'm still trying to figure out why Terrell Owens, who left his clothes on, is apologizing for his participation, while Nicolette Sheridan, who, ah, didn't, hasn't apologized, afaik.

I think it's about race as well as s-e-x.

Posted by: Chris at November 30, 2004 06:04 AM

I wasn't offended by the MNF promo, but I have some sympathy for people who had no way of knowing it was coming. The problem wasn't the content of the promo, but that it was on Monday Night Football. I'm all in favor of steamy s-e-x-u-a-l content on TV, but I want to know where to find it -- and others ought to be able to know where to avoid it.

Posted by: C.J.Colucci at November 30, 2004 07:56 AM

**************************************************
I am fast losing patience with the if it bothers you don't watch it crowd. That's becoming a way of saying to concerned parents, sorry, no TV or movies. It's as if by having kids we've somehow lost any right to take part in popular culture.
**************************************************

I am fast losing patience with all those people who use "protection of children" as a way to interfer with other adults' lives.

In my view, it is your problem if your kids do not accept your values/views, not mine.

Posted by: pat at November 30, 2004 08:09 AM

"I am fast losing patience with all those people who use "protection of children" as a way to interfer with other adults' lives.

In my view, it is your problem if your kids do not accept your values/views, not mine."

Gee this is heading toward flame territory, but I just can't let that pass without comment. My son is 7 years old. This issue isn't that he doesn't accept my values, it's that his values are in the process of being formed. I personally think Rich is right, and the who MNF thing is blown way out of proportion. On the other hand, the "background level" of casual use of s-e-x-u-a-l-i-t-y is a problem. Try watching a football game with a 7-year-old boy (works best if it's your own child), and deal with questions, comments or (most likely) transfixed, silent staring during the Coors Lite commercials.

At least do some of us the courtesy of acknowledging that it's a complicated issue for parents to manage.

Posted by: Patrick Allen at November 30, 2004 08:23 AM

Let me second--and amplify--Chris's insight. The real point of this "football crisis" is r-a-c-e, not s-e-x. Had the blonde actress jumped n-a-k-e-d-l-y into the arms of Jeremy Shockey or Peyton Manning, we'd be reading about e-c-o-n-o-m-i-c-s right now.

BTW, r-a-c-e is also the subtext of the whole Ron Artest flap, as well. Seems like the only millionaires we are allowed to criticize these days are professional athletes.

Posted by: jlw at November 30, 2004 08:25 AM

Race not s e x was much of the text. There might have no notice taken other than amusement had the characters been white.


Good, grief. The passage can not be sent if the word s e x is printed with not apaces.

Posted by: lise at November 30, 2004 09:08 AM

I think parents probably need to think outside the box when it comes to this kind of thing. My own son, when he was 13, was watching TV with us and in response to some jiggling advertisement or another, exclaimed, "Why do they keep doing that?"

I couldn't have been prouder as a parent at that moment.

My answer was, "because they want to control you."

This is the real problem with escalating s-e-x-u-a-l-i-t-y on television. No one is trying to deal with all the messy realities. They want to use our most powerful, intimate and beautiful feelings to sell junk.

Ok, I take that back. There are a few things I can think of that do try to deal with this. "American Beauty" for one. I want both my children to see it in a couple years. Oh, and "Clerks" had a very nice theme through it. I'm sure there are others.

Likewise, "Saving Private Ryan" gives a whole different take on violence, as does the Turner
"Gettysburg".

Posted by: Jay at November 30, 2004 09:24 AM

The poetry reminded me of seeing "Shakespeare in Love" a few years ago. Not having seen the play itself in quite a while, it was an astonishing reminder of just how beautiful the language of Romeo & Juliet is. And it's not even one of the Bard's best...

Posted by: Jonathan Goldberg at November 30, 2004 10:21 AM

While all my kids adore R&J only the older two, (aged 8 and 6) liked Much Ado About Nothing. My son, aged 4, was terribly disappointed that there were no sword fights in the latter.

I promised that we'd make it all up with Hamlet...

Posted by: Pouncer at November 30, 2004 10:31 AM

1) All my English teachers thought that R&J were a pair of immature, impetuous, overly romantic fools. It's certainly the reading supported by the text.

2) TiVo has resensitized me to ads. This is a good thing. When forced to watch TV in real time, I make running commentary on the subtext of the ads. It annoys and amuses the bf, by turns.

3) I think that prime-time, sanitized violence is more damaging than the real thing. To wit, people should know that ---
* Gunshot wounds hurt. A lot.
* People knocked unconscious don't often wake up unharmed.
* Lift-threatening trauma seldom leaves just a single delicate spot of blood on the pavement.

I also think that kids 9+ should be present during feeding time at the zoo. It's good to know that the big fuzzy critters don't have your best interests at heart.

Posted by: Mark Wise at November 30, 2004 10:45 AM

1) All my English teachers thought that R&J were a pair of immature, impetuous, overly romantic fools. It's certainly the reading supported by the text.

2) TiVo has resensitized me to ads. This is a good thing. When forced to watch TV in real time, I make running commentary on the subtext of the ads. It annoys and amuses the bf, by turns.

3) I think that prime-time, sanitized violence is more damaging than the real thing. To wit, people should know that ---
* Gunshot wounds hurt. A lot.
* People knocked unconscious don't often wake up unharmed.
* Lift-threatening trauma seldom leaves just a single delicate spot of blood on the pavement.

I also think that kids 9+ should be present during feeding time at the zoo. It's good to know that the big fuzzy critters don't have your best interests at heart.

Posted by: Mark Wise at November 30, 2004 10:47 AM
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