A brief (and oversimplified) cultural history of pornography and profanity on American television

In 1993, the American Family Association convinced 57 ABC affiliates not to air the series premier of NYPD Blue because it contained the word “asshole.” A few years later, many conservative groups called for a boycott of the show when news that Dennis Franz’s ass would be shown in an episode. Which isn’t to say that the ’90s were a quaint time in which profanity and pornography only existed on the cultural margins, only that there existed a consensus among network television producers to behave as if they did. Television audiences in the ’90s weren’t shocked by the profane or pornographic content, only that it was appearing on networks during primetime—but they were shocked, as the producers of NYPD Blue intended them to be.

And it was a superficially quainter time: the ability to be shocked by hearing a character curse is completely lost on people whose knowledge of televisual culture can be characterized as post-September 11th. I know because I teach them. Here’s the thing: in order to shock people whose baseline includes all the colors of George Carlin’s rainbow something more extreme must be endeavored. Something like Deadwood. I brought up that sentence in class on Thursday and read it aloud:

Ellsworth: I’ll tell you what: I may have fucked my life up flatter than hammered shit, but I stand here before you today beholden to no human cocksucker.

After discussing its literary quality for a moment, I asked them why their jaded faces had blanched when I read it. The answer, in the end, is because David Milch, who’d outraged audiences in the ’90s with “assholes” and asses on NYPD Blue had found a way to reinvest profanity with its ability to shock. How? When South Park reveled in “shit” in 2001, it became clear that repeating a word robs it of its offensive intent. So Milch went literal: the phrase “hammered shit” offends not because of the presence of the word “shit,” but because “shit” actually signifies shit, and the image of what happens when someone hammers actual shit is disturbing.

Then he introduced an implicit comparison: “human cocksucker.” Ellsworth is “beholden to no human cocksucker,” a qualification with disturbing implications: is he beholden to an inhuman cocksucker? What is an inhuman cocksucker? Why are we even talking about human versus inhuman cocksuckers? The answer to that last one is easy: because David Milch planted that thought in our heads. We didn’t want it there—we would rather have never had to think about it—but it can’t be unthought anymore than certain images can be unseen. Milch recuperated profanity for a generation whose ears would otherwise be dead to it.

A similar dynamic is at work in Game of Thrones, only this time it relates to the pornographic instead of the profane. Contemporary culture is steeped in pornography: if someone traveled back to 1996 with an episode of Jersey Shore they might be arrested for transporting it across state lines, but if they actually managed to air it? The amount of incidental nudity in a single episode of Jersey Shore would drop jaws and make eyes bleed. Remember what happened with Dennis Franz’s ass? One old white ass had conservatives screaming about Nero and his fiddle. How effective would an old white ass be today? Would it shock?

Absolutely not. It would seem neither more nor less appropriate than half the ads on mainstream news sites, much less what college-aged people actually read online. In order to reinvest nudity with its ability to discomfit, Game of Thrones treats sexual situations with the same attitude Milch brought to pornography. Imagine watching a scene in which Littlefinger was Littlefingering with your mother? Pornography may be ubiquitous in contemporary American culture, but it still has its place—and that place is typically a private one that bears little resemblance to you and your mother sitting on a couch. Point being:

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