I am sure that if you, like me, see the footage of the “wardrobe malfunction” one more time you’re going to hurl your TV out the window. An entire week of the Dean scream, and now this. (Will we see, except on “The Daily Show,” repeated images of Bush’s multiple flubs on “Meet The Press”?) How much lower can TV news go, expressing its faux outrage so that it can show the offending video clip for the billionth time? It would be nice if the details of the Bush energy bill, or of Medicare “reform,” or of how many homeless people are freezing this winter had gotten a fraction of the coverage.
And don’t you love the newly sanctimonious FCC Chairman Michael Powell, who all of a sudden cares about media content and possible regulation? We’re going to have an “investigation” into how and why Janet Jackson flashed her boob on national television, but not one into ongoing media consolidation? It would have been nice, with the FCC suddenly in the news and all, if the networks and cable channels had noted how Congress, under the cover of an omnibus bill, further eased restrictions on the number of television stations the corporate behemoths can own. But of course, who’s going to cover their own raiding of the candy store? As media theorist Bob McChesney has repeatedly pointed out, it is the relentless commercialization of every aspect of the media that has gotten us to this half-time-show-as-striptease pass. The notion of any regulation coming from the event is laughable. Powell doesn’t want to regulate anyone; he’d actually like to see the FCC go away.
Having said all this, however, and acknowledging how totally overblown the Jackson incident was, I think most of us also understand why the breast flash hit a nerve. Parents on the left and the right really are fed up with the barrage of soft-core porn that urges our daughters to dress like hookers and our sons to see themselves primarily as sex machines who must dominate women at all costs. And some of these very same parents grew up during and helped launch the sexual revolution, and even we have had it.
One of the things my daughter and I fight about on a regular basis is what she watches on TV. She can’t stand having me in the same room when, say, MTV’s “The Real World” is on, because all I do is rant and rave, asking why everyone has to be having sex in hot tubs or, during the more reflective parts of the episode, complaining about who is a bitch or a jerk. Of course, it’s not like listening to the radio when you’re driving your kids around offers any relief. Sure, we had songs like “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and “Let’s Spend the Night Together.” But songs with f*ck in the title, or entire songs about blow jobs? And the covers of magazines geared to young men and women, like Cosmo and Maxim, scream out that they are, primarily, sex manuals.
I am the last one to suggest that baby boomers grew up in some media Valhalla, surrounded, as we were, by “Mr. Ed,” “My Favorite Martian,” and “The Flying Nun.” Much of TV was utterly moronic and overly puritanical (how quaint it seems today that “I Dream of Jeannie” dared not reveal a belly button). But parents didn’t feel that on top of everything else, they had to become in-house censors, and young people didn’t feel swamped by incessant media insistence that they must turn themselves into delectable, ever-ready sex objects who nonetheless must also “just say no.”
And, of course, this hyper-sexualized media environment would not be complete without the double standard. We see who had to apologize and who got kicked off the Grammys: the woman involved in the incident but not the man.
So here is the question always raised by such an incident: If you oppose censorship but are fed up by a media culture that bombards us with corporately produced exhortations to obsess about sex — and that especially urges our daughters to objectify themselves — what do you do? Is yelling at the TV (or throwing it in the trash) our only option? I don’t know about you, but when I hear myself start to sound like Bob Dole raving about the “nightmares of depravity” in the media, I think we’ve come to an especially bad pass in the media environment that surrounds us.
Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.