The Moving Icon: Primetime Blush
Sex in the media is nothing new: look at Canterbury Tales or Shakespeare’s plays. We’re constantly bombarded by references in music, print and online, but there’s one medium to which we dedicate much of our free time: TV. Every home has at least one, and with the touch of a button, we’re open to whatever is being broadcast. In between the quality programming, we’re also exposed to a host of harmful social-moral messages including profanity, violence, self-centredness and rebellion – but this podcast is focused on sexual references and whether they have any impact on society’s sexual norms.
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Throughout the history of TV certain shows have become extremely popular, scheduled into the prized primetime slot. Most of these shows start off playing it safe, then once they start to amass popularity begin to push the limits. Though there are many shows currently world-wide hits, such as Games of Thrones or Modern Family, I’ve instead selected shows which are cult classics as they are more likely to have had some impact on society’s attitudes.
Thereonce was a time when audiences didn’t have to worry about seeing something that would make them blush. This was thanks to the Production Code which embodied the moral values of the time. The I Love Lucy show, running from 1951-1957, can be described as the most ‘pure’ family-friendly sitcom of all time. Lucy, along with her real-life husband Ricky, lived out their lives in optimistic post-war America. Despite being a married couple it was prohibited by the Code to show them sleeping together; instead in two separate beds which was also the real-life practice of many married couples in America at the time. However, just to deviate a little, this social taboo was defied for the first time in Michael Gordon’s 1959 film Pillowtalk. Two scenes were edited splitting the screen to show Rock Hudson and Doris Day talking over the phone but juxtaposed to look as if they were in bed and a bathtub, together. In I Love Lucy Show another controversy concerned Lucy and Ricky having a baby. The term ‘expecting’ rather than ‘pregnant’ was used. In a documentary film, it showed a photo of a Catholic priest, a pastor and rabbi blessing the script.
Over the next twenty years, shows like Happy Days and The Brandy Bunch came and went, but then came MASH, one of the most successful TV shows in history, always pushing the boundaries during its primetime slot. MASH was a satirical show against war and especially Vietnam, and it also contained low-level sexual references. Between saving lives, fighting injustice and playing pranks, characters Hawkeye and Trapper were frequently shown seducing nurses taking them on romantic dates, usually to the storeroom. However, nothing explicit was ever shown and it was never directly implied that Trapper, a married man, was ever unfaithful. These tamed shenanigans were popular with audiences during this era of the 1970s college-movies. Then there was the long-term affair between Margaret Houlihan, aka Hotlips, and Major Frank Burns, which revealed Frank’s double-standards. The only other cases of infidelity concerned character B.J Honeycutt who strayed twice during the series. Sexual references in the show were never for titillation but humour, never explicit and if anything an examination of fidelity, love and reconciliation against the backdrop of war.
In the late-80s/early 90s, TV standards concerning sex changed dramatically. Like all forms of mass-media, TV has a ‘normalising’ effect on established social norms or challenging them and replacing them with new ones. This is due to the omnipresence of TV. When a program is broadcast, it’s seen by millions of people at once while compared to cinema when a film is screened it’s seen only by a limited audience at a time.
Seinfeld(1989-1998) had a major impact on pop culture on many levels. It took the bold step of not being a family-sitcom but instead about a bunch of single, 30-somethings. This produced storylines relevant to people within this age group. Most episodes included themes relating to dating and relationships frequently touching on sex and sexual identity – remember The Contest episode or the “we’re not gay, not that there’s anything wrong with it” line? Then there was the constant revolving door of ‘fresh-meat’, beautiful supermodel women who would date Jerry or George and at the end of the episode be gone. Though done to generate storylines, it painted an unrealistic picture of dating and expectations of relationships. Yet, this was the backbone of Charlie Sheen’s character in Two and a half Men.
Though it’s recently been announced the show is ending in 2015, I’m still amazed how it managed to stay on-air for 12 seasons. Basically it’s a show about strong sexual innuendoes, sexist stereotypes and bullying – yet despite this, it’s odd to think the show’s main audience are actually women. Though many will argue that the show shouldn’t be taken seriously, but the effect of such content has the ability to make us become accustom to such behaviour, seeing it as normal. Most of the women Charlie and Allen date are slim, dumb or crazy supermodels who are ‘loose’ sexually. It’s also worth mentioning how the women treat the men, especially Allen, effectively bullying him. Is this what family-time comedy should be about?
By the same creators of Two and a half Men, The Big Bang Theory is a slightly toned down version. In my research I came across on a well-respected TV website stating that the title, which I always thought related to the scientific nature and themes of the show, actually refers to sex – the big ‘Bang’ – nudge, nudge, wink, wink. However, in comparison to Two and a half Men more emphasis, especially in earlier seasons, was on technology and modern life, though now it’s become more like the Friends sitcom with greater emphasis on the couples’ relationships.
In shows like Glee, though not graphic, deal with themes such as virginity and gay relationships with much ease and openness. It is concerning since the show’s main audience are teenage girls between the ages of 10-14 years, a most vulnerable and impressible age to be confronted with such issues. An off-shoot is the American Horror Story series which combines graphic sexual references with horror.
As with all the shows mentioned, just because they don’t show actual sexual acts but imply it should not excuse it. Placing the image in the audience’s mind, enabling them to visualise it, is the same as physical showing it.
Through mass-media social norms, both new and old, are communicated to the audience and can potentially alter people’s perception and attitudes towards sexual behaviour. For example, the repeat indoctrination in many popular sitcoms of the 3 dates equals sex rule. But again does TV really cause and promote the loosening of sexual values? One has to consider the nature of TV production and programming compared to other forms of entertainment media.
The production of film and literature, compared to TV, moves much slower. It may take many years and several attempts to secure a studio deal or publication. By the time the work is made whatever sexual themes it may contain may need to be re-written so as to be brought ‘up-to-date’ with current trends and social ‘norms’. To say film and literature peddle sexual change is true, but the rate at which is does and its effectiveness may be affected by this production time-lag. Whilst on TV, episodes can adopt and promote various themes and ideas much more quickly. While it may take between 6 to 12 months for a film to be made and released, a sitcom can make 12-20 episodes in the same time period. However, where the effectiveness of TV communicating sexual exploits fails is the restrictions placed upon it by censorship. As TV can be easily accessed by children, unlike entry to a cinema, the standards of how sex can be portrayed during primetime is more restricted.
However, you can argue music is faster at peddling sexual themes than TV. The imagery is more ‘cryptic’, making the listener concentrate, visualising the lyrics into actions. Even faster again are social networks. News or information about sex, including setexting, can spread or be ignored at neck-break speed. It can also be used to peddle publicity stunts or legislative campaigns in ways more dynamic and quicker than TV could ever dream about.
However, perhaps it’s not really the media’s fault. Maybe it’s the massive changes that have occurred in the last 150 years, and especially the last 60 years, in Western society altering sexual identity. This includes changes to laws, education, the Sexual Revolution, lobbying, pornography industry, changes in technology and remodeling of the traditional family-unit which all affect the community’s moral-social attitudes. This probably has a greater impact on sexual relationships with the media merely ‘mirroring’ what’s happening and thereby normalising these changes.
But what’s most important to remember is that every person has a mind and free-will. We need to ensure we equip ourselves with at least some spiritual amour to protect ourselves from these influences.
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Thanks for listening.