MORE ON EXPOSURE VERSUS ENDORSEMENT


Alyssa’s post this week on Game of Thrones inspired me to dredge up a 2005 post I wrote on differences between the approaches liberals and conservatives bring to media criticism:

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?

My original post is here. This led Alek to post a thoughtful response in the comments here. I don’t think Alek and I are too far apart on this.

I also want “a simple policy of letting media creators both expose and endorse whatever they want.” I don’t believe in obscenity laws (or the overturned ban on depicting animal cruelty, or libel laws for that matter). That’s why I started the post staking out my disagreement with Rick Santorum’s view that “if it’s legal, it must be right…it must be moral” (and thus if it isn’t moral, it shouldn’t be legal). But we should still talk about the stuff they’re creating, right?

My point was that conservative and liberal ways of criticizing media are often distinguished not just by what the evils are that we don’t want advanced in media, but also that conservative media criticism is more likely to focus on how much of something (nudity, homosexuality, drug use, etc.) is portrayed, rather than how it’s portrayed. I also wrote that post because it bothers me when people on the left devote their energy to criticizing the amount of stuff we oppose (bigotry, rape, etc.) shown on TV, rather than how it’s shown.

But Alek makes an important point that arguing what a cultural product endorses involves a lot of difficulty and subjectivity. In particular, I agree that the authors’ intentions and the audience’s interpretation may vary greatly, and that more interesting art is often more subtle or ambiguous in its moral claims. (“Apocalypse Now” and “Wall Street” come to mind as movies criticized for glamorizing what they may have intended to criticize)

That said, TV and movies are overflowing with what strike me as clear-cut examples of endorsements of conservative tropes. Take sitcoms whose main characters are all depicted as basically sympathetic and are persecuted by the fear of Black people calling them racist, or share a lack of belief in male bisexuality. Take action movies with clear-cut good guys and bad guys where the good guys also boss around women and manipulate them for sex. When I was in Jewish day school, there was a big controversy over whether a play would be performed depicting HIV positive characters (because high school students supposedly shouldn’t be exposed to the issue), but no controversy at all about our performance of “Me And My Girl,” which features a subplot where a whiny woman becomes content and easygoing once her husband spanks her.

I’m not quite sure what Alek means at the end of his comment about being “inclined towards the position that content doesn’t matter.” If something “attracts lots of people,” doesn’t it matter that much more so? I agree with Alek that “rape fantasies contribute to rape culture” and that we should combat it in “other ways besides ignoring/censoring speech” – that, in part, is why I think cultural criticism is important. And it’s why I think disproportionate focus on the most explicit art is misguided.

On a sort of currents events-y (and sort of past events-y) note, Rick Santorum’s new exploratory committee got me thinking about Dan Savage’s successful campaign to repurpose Santorum’s name on the internet to refer to a byproduct of anal sex (Santorum also inspired me to add “Let America Be America Again” to our seder for the first time). I was trying to think what mirror image equivalent campaign a right-winger could inflict on a left-wing politician and I couldn’t really. Using Bernie Sanders’ name to refer to rape? To refer to union-busting? It doesn’t really work, because Bernie Sanders doesn’t express his opposition to rape and union-busting by trying to discourage people from talking about them. Just as Tennessee Republicans are moving to ban acknowledging gay people’s existence in middle schools, but no Democrats are moving to ban acknowledging the problem of rape. The “Spreading Santorum” campaign is funny because it plays on a discomfort with hearing certain things talked about in any context that’s more typical of conservatism than of liberalism.

Update: Alek responds in the comments below.

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2 thoughts on “MORE ON EXPOSURE VERSUS ENDORSEMENT

  1. Understood – I was using shorthand. I’m pretty sure it was obvious that I was not suggesting we refrain from talking about the content of cultural expressions. When I said that content “doesn’t matter,” I meant that against the backdrop of Santorum’s view that legal ought to equal “moral,” and another view that both he and people on the left would presumably espouse: “whether or not something’s legal, if it’s not moral, then moral people should not participate in it and should be encouraged not to participate.”

    As someone who takes what I participate in very seriously, I frequently find myself up against that proposition, feeling pissed and conflicted. I love Eminem. I love Odd Future, including the incredibly uncomfortable (and uncomfortably frequent) rape and serial killer talk. I also love (or at least like) Raymond Chandler, James Bond, Modern Family, and many other textbook examples of “clear-cut endorsements of conservative tropes.” Yes, the content matters, but certainly not to the question of whether something should be legal, and also – I increasingly feel – not to the question of whether something should be made, publicized, supported, or participated in. Mostly for the reasons I stated about the difficulty of figuring out what’s being endorsed – EVEN as applied to those “clear-cut” cases. Because although the perspective of a creator may be fairly clear (and I emphasize MAY – think of all the old-school classics created by people with much less traditional identities/politics), what the audience wants and takes away will vary widely.

    Quite simply, I don’t like the structure of the discussion. “Legal” and “moral,” in the context of expression, are both about figuring out what is and isn’t wrong with speech. We tend to draw the legal line based on the presence of foreseeability of harm, and I draw the moral line there as well. I have just as little sympathy with people trying to ban pornography as with people who vigorously defend it under the law but badmouth it as “immoral” and try to discourage people from buying it. In the context of expression, again, I find that hypocritical and slightly ridiculous.

    Of course, we are left with the problem that when we analyze a cultural expression, we may find ways in which it contributes to overarching social phenomena that themselves play some role in precipitating harm. E.g. the casualness of rape talk (I cannot stand the word “rapey,” for example, though it’s been used in funny ways) contributes to rape culture, which in turn protects and (perhaps) prompts instances of rape. But I couldn’t stomach living in a society where we tried to limit (either legally or through voluntary moral decision) certain kinds of content in order to…improve the gestalt, somehow. It’s naive to think that one could figure out what to buy/not buy, or to think that one could predict how taking such an action would affect the overall culture.

    And that is how I justify buying all this stuff that it makes me uncomfortable to own. PS I again recommend the Ann Powers piece, as it also suggests a reframing of the debate more along these lines than the ones you suggest.

  2. Pingback: ARE ARTISTIC STANDARDS ENOUGH? « Josh Eidelson

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