A series of dust-ups in the media about the media this summer – from the flap on Kos about an ad with women mudwrestling to Jon Stewart’s arguments with Bernard Goldberg, Zell Miller, and Rick Santorum about whether the culture has coarsened – has gotten me thinking about the different ways liberals and conservatives consider and critique what’s in the movies and on TV.

One clear but too-often-obscured distinction is between criticism and calls for censorship. Rick Santorum gets at this in his book when he insists in his book that “If it’s legal, it must be right…it must be moral.” If one accepts Santorum’s frame – which is also Catherine McKinnon’s – then the question of what should be in the media and the question of what should be censored from the media are – at least in particularly agregious cases – mapped onto each other. Too often, progressives answer other progressives’ media criticism as if it were an implicit call for censorship, rather than as the “more speech” which the left has traditionally and rightly seen as the answer to bad speech.

Liberal and conservative approaches to media criticism are also distinguished by choice – or at least prioritization – of boogeymen from amongst sex, violence, bigotry, et al. And, arguably, by the question of how much we should care at all.

But related, and – I think – more interesting – is a distinction I haven’t seen discussed: Is the problem what kind of behaviors and images are shown on TV, or what kind of ideology is advanced there? Do we care what the media exposes or what it endorses? By asking the question and making the distinction, I guess, I’ve already pegged myself in the liberal camp that says that the distinction is a meaningful one and that what’s endorsed is a more worthwhile ground for consideration or condemnation than what’s exposed. That’s not to say that it’s possible to present images or actions with neutrality – only that it’s possible to present the same ones with a whole range of meanings and judgments.

If we’re concerned about sex, we can worry about whether sex happens on TV or we can worry about whether the sex on TV is portrayed as a good or bad (or healthy or unhealthy, or cool or uncool) thing. If we’re concerned about sexism, we can worry about whether people are portrayed being or acting sexist on TV or we can worry about whether that sexism is presented in a favorable light. In each case, I’d say that if you see the thing as an evil (my take: sexism is, sex isn’t), your time and energy is better spent worrying about how good or bad that evil is portrayed to be than about how often it appears on the screen.

That’s why the fixation on nudity on TV is doubly conservative – conservative for the contention that human sexuality is what media consumers should be guarded against and conservative for the concern over the naked image itself rather than the social meaning with which it appears. Sure it’s easier to keep a tally of naked breasts than of positive portrayals of behaviors you think are negative, but the tendency of right-wing critics to go for the former approach seems to be about more than convenience. And that approach – grouping together breasts shown breast-feeding, breasts shown in an intimate moment between spouses, and breasts shown on a child being molested – leaves them looking that much more like middle-schoolers.

Among the problems with an approach to media criticism which fixates on what viewers are exposed to rather than what they see endorsed is that it lets pass all kinds of social meanings which are problematic but not explicit. Whatever your values, your chances of seeing them spread in society are affected more by G-rated movies than Playboy.



  1. Pingback: THIS ANNOYED ME ENOUGH TO TRANSCRIBE IT « Little Wild Bouquet

  2. Sure, it’s a matter of convenience. But what you’re suggesting – an analysis of what kinds of behaviors we endorse in media – involves some serious dives down the rabbit hole, and I don’t know whether they’re worth it, at least compared to a simple policy of letting media creators both expose and endorse whatever they want. I did not used to have this opinion, but it’s grown on me over the years.

    I see two main problems with your analysis: 1) it assumes that the “endorsement” will be clear; and 2) it assumes that the endorsement is made by the creator, and not by the audience or some combination.

    For example, many of us prize forms of media that present “realist” perspectives – that present people as they are, with no morals, no neat narrative closure, and no characters manufactured to provide whatever counterpoint/commentary would normally allow the audience to understand the creator’s intended stance. E.g. in classic crime fiction, we often are permitted to root for the bad guy because we understand from the other circumstances that he is still wrong and his behavior should not be endorsed. But in realist media, whether fiction or not, moral and legal transgressions are often rewarded and admired. In that situation, can you reasonably say what the creator has “endorsed?”

    Or, take the example of totally extreme forms of culture – rape/murder fantasy, torture porn, etc. The purpose of these things is to vicariously titillate, and they definitely glorify activity that we would prefer to condemn. But we love the transgression. So what exactly has been endorsed? I think the answer to that question depends on how much work you think the audience is doing in constructing the ultimate message. If the purpose of the stuff is to transgress, to give us that transgressive thrill, then all it’s really endorsing is the proposition that we should push our limits. Sometimes (as in the case of Eminem) I think the purpose is to be authentic, in the sense that people do have these thoughts and fantasies and art is a way to express them. At that point, the question is whether the audience is meant to enjoy or identify, and if to identify, whether we’re meant to identify with dark thoughts we all have (which might actually be healthy) or to identify in the sense of finding solidarity and support for something that should be condemned.

    For all those reasons, I’m more inclined towards the position that the content doesn’t matter – it really doesn’t. If it turns lots of people off, they won’t listen, and if it attracts lots of people, they will. And if it contributes to a culture (as, I think, rape fantasies contribute to rape culture), we have to figure out other ways besides ignoring/censoring speech to combat it.

    If you haven’t read Ann Powers’ piece “In Defense of Nasty Art,” I recommend it.



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