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.