Not That There’s Anything Wrong With That
Americans expect our pop cultural entertainment to use sexy words. We are, after all, the culture that pioneered jazz, blues and rock ‘n roll, each of which has flirted with risqué double entendres and earthy lyrics since its inception. In January 2011, Cee-Lo Green’s top 10 pop hit “Fuck You” was nominated for a Grammy. A “clean” version rewritten as “Forget You” airs on the radio, but the original is accessible via iTunes and YouTube.
On TV, premium cable networks have become synonymous with explicit sexual content. Showtime has “Californication;” HBO has “Big Love,” “Hung” and my personal favorite, “True Blood,” which is virtually nothing but gore and nudity from beginning credits to ending credits.
Yet we’re of two minds when it comes to entertainment children might be exposed to. Network TV already has very different standards than cable, and half of us want that difference to be even more pronounced. A 2005 poll in Time Magazine demonstrated that 53% of Americans wanted the FCC to control sex and violence on network TV more strictly.
Network TV is bound, by federal law, to uphold the standards of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The standard holds that networks are not to air “indecent” or “profane” material between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. The First Amendment prevents the FCC from banning offensive (but not “obscene”) material outright, but the time of day when children are most likely to be watching is supposed to be a safe haven of family-friendly language.
It isn’t. As Jeff Schult has said, “We’re that much closer to there not being any words you can’t say on television. Somewhere, George Carlin is smiling.”
This One Time, At Band Camp…
In my network TV market, during the lull between nightly news and prime time I can choose between syndicated episodes of “Two and a Half Men” and “How I Met Your Mother”. I've viewed several seasons of both. They’re both raunchy (and absolutely hilarious).
In one episode of “How I Met Your Mother” (HIMYM), Marshall is indignant that his best friend Ted brought a date, a stranger, to a 32nd birthday party for Marshall’s wife Lily. Ted’s date is a baker, and she makes Lily a cake. The cake reads “Happy 42nd Birthday Lori.” Marshall snaps, “Does this hot piece of ass look like she’s 42?!”
She doesn’t. Lily is played by Alyson Hannigan, who looks much the same as she did when she starred on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” from 1997 to 2003. “Buffy” was criticized for its explicit romantic interludes between lesbian characters Willow and Tara; Hannigan played Willow. She’s also remembered for a line in the teen sex comedy “American Pie”: “This one time, at band camp, I stuck a flute in my pussy.”
The most memorable character on HIMYM may be Barney Stinson. Barney is played by Neil Patrick Harris, who is gay, happily married to David Burtka and raising two sets of twins. Barney, by contrast, is the ultimate heterosexual player, ideologically opposed to monogamy, marriage and child-rearing. He attains his conquests through a series of elaborate ruses, including telling one woman he is a genie and if she rubs his penis the right way, it will grant her a wish.
Although the premise of HIMYM is that the sitcom is a story an older Ted is telling to his teenage children, much of the dialogue is inappropriate for children. How many fathers would really tell their children about a guessing game involving obscure Canadian sex acts?
HIMYM airs on CBS the same night as “Two and a Half Men,” the #1 comedy on TV (at least until Charlie Sheen used tiger blood and Adonis DNA to cure himself of alcoholism, sending the show into limbo). Where Neil Patrick Harris plays against type, Charlie Sheen plays a fictionalized version of himself, a booze-fueled, porn-loving womanizer also named Charlie. Charlie and his straight-laced brother Alan freely discuss masturbation, sexually transmitted diseases and prostitution, all for comedic effect. The language is often euphemistic, but the message is clear: prime time TV has never been dirtier.
There’s some research-based evidence that watching violent television programming influences a fairly small percentage of violent acts by young people. Is there any evidence that sexually-suggestive language on television is harmful to society? Visit the Parents Television Council website, and you’ll find a stunning list of claims like “watching sex on TV influences teens to have sex.” The evidence comes from a 2004 study conducted by the RAND Corporation. Look closer and you’ll discover that watching sex on TV is only one of the factors that influences teens to lose their virginity. Having older friends versus friends of the same age, grades, religious background, mental health, and parental involvement all play a role.
In the end, the Parents Television Council says less about how TV makes kids behave and more about how parents feel about TV. There are plenty of polls showing that adults don’t like sex on TV. Very little suggests Americans act on those feelings; TV ratings show we’re not tuning out the programs with racy words and scenes.
Educators bemoan the inappropriate, “vulgar” and “ugly” words they hear in the halls between classes. Even teachers who work with four-year-olds say they repeat adult language, often without understanding it. When this happens, adults may feel pressured to explain concepts children aren’t ready to hear. Experts suggest adults should underreact to inappropriate language from young children, simply stating which words aren’t allowed without a big fuss. A big fuss acts as a reward.
Is TV really to blame, though? Psychologists believe young children pick up most of their vocabulary from their parents. Older children and teens perceive forbidden words as “adult” and therefore use them to make themselves sound more “grown up.” The experts suggest there’s little to worry about as long as teens aren’t using profanity as part of a larger pattern of aggressive behavior and know when it’s time to switch to formal, clean English.
CBS is not the only network using raunchy language for comic gold. Fox’s animated sitcoms “American Dad” and “Family Guy” regularly push the bounds of taste, and Fox is but one further example. Yet the FCC allows this without putting too large a dent in network TV finances. The FCC’s standards have relaxed somewhat since July 2010, when the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the commission. The FCC indecent language guidelines, the court ruled, were unconstitutionally vague.
Disgust at TV programming is cyclical. In the '60s, “The Newlywed Game” and dating game shows took flak for being too risqué when contestants whipped out one-liners like, “My father is Welsh and my mother is Hungarian, which makes me Well-Hung.” In the '80s and into the '90s, Phil Donahue, Geraldo Rivera and Oprah Winfrey were criticized for bringing "trash" to TV by giving guests a platform to uncover family secrets. The reality shows of the last decade have been accused of everything from breaking up real-life relationships to encouraging eating disorders and promoting negative racial and gender stereotypes. Every few years a new genre takes on TV’s boundaries; the sitcom’s time is now.
Although it faces increased competition from cable, the Internet and content for portable devices, network television doesn’t seem to be going anywhere any time soon. Whether you love or hate the loosening of language restrictions on TV, expect a lot more sitcom wives to be described as hot pieces of ass. Expect George Carlin to keep smiling.