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?

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ADULTERY INEQUALITY

Count me in support of the lefty consensus that
1. What Mark Sanford did as cheating husband to his family was wrong.
2. That personal failing shouldn’t ruin his political career.
3. What Mark Sanford did as stimulus-rejecting Governor to South Carolinians was wrong.
4. That political behavior should ruin his career.
5. If his lack of family values at home hurts his career the way his lack of family values at work should have, it’ll be hard to feel bad for him.
6. Especially given his desire to force patriarchal family archetypes on the rest of us.

All that said, as I was stirring up my usual indignation that John McCain and Newt Gingrich get off the hook about their affairs, I started to wonder for the first time: What would happen if a female politician admitted an affair? How would Americans react? I’m thinking the answer, given the energy our society puts into regulating female sexuality, is: worse. Could a woman who admits adultery salvage her political career today the same way that men do? What about in twenty years? Are there any examples where this has happened? Maybe abroad?

Update (12:55 AM)
: Ask, and the internet answers.

RANDOM THOUGHTS ON DEMOCRATIC DEBATE NUMBER THREE

Is it just me, or was the difference between the questions asked and the questions answered more pronounced in this debate than the previous ones? Maybe because the questions asked the candidates to speak about the extent of racism in America or its role in exacerbating social ills. Maybe the most marked contrast was when the candidates were asked why Blacks with high school degrees are less likely to find jobs than Whites without them; most of the answers were about how to get more Blacks high school degrees.

The order of the candidates led to the delightful spectacle of Chris Dodd making funny faces every round about having to follow Mike Gravel saying something about how craven and nasty everyone else on stage was. And it gave Barack Obama repeated chances to echo John Edwards, one time even saying he was finishing his sentence – does that mean he doesn’t take Edwards seriously as a threat at this point?

The biggest revelation of the night though was that Joe Biden organizes rallies for Black men to tell them they can be manly while wearing condoms. When I say progressive masculinity, you say Joe Biden! Where’s YouTube when you need it? Someone should name a line of condoms after the guy.

CULTURAL CRITICISM, LEFT AND RIGHT

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.

Buried in otherwise unsurprising Reuters piece on a new study on oral sex amongst teens is this line, which suggests exactly the opposite of most anecdotal or empirical evidence I’ve heard:

It was more common for boys to have performed oral sex on girls than vice versa, the report said.

I don’t know the methodology of the study, and this may only reflect teenage boys’ greater willingness to say they’ve “performed” oral sex on girls than vice versa – but even if this study only represents norms about what teenagers think they should say, if more teenage boys who are on the receiving end of oral sex are reporting reciprocating as well, then that’s some degree of progress past the all-too prevalent idea that girls should perform oral sex on boys while boys should refuse to do the same in return. Not to say that oral sex is the right call for most teenagers – just to say that any evidence of an increasing sense among our generation that heterosexual physical intimacy should be aimed at the pleasure of both people would be a good sign for many things.