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

[ 26 ] November 12, 2012 |

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:

You can’t divorce rhetorical effect from historical context. What worked in 1996 fails to offend in 2012. This is a blindingly obvious fact to most people of drinking age, but most of the people I teach aren’t of drinking age. I share this with you because most of the emails I’ve received since the “Littlefinger” post concerned how I deal with the pornography in the classroom when I’m not being flip about it. The answer, as should be clear, is that I contextualize it.

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  1. arguingwithsignposts says:

    You might qualify that as American broadcast television, because I can assure you profanity and pr0n were no stranger to HBO, Showtime or Skinemax from the get go, as a teenage boy from the early 80s could attest.

    • SEK says:

      I did, sort of, at the beginning, but you’re obviously correct. The shift from ABC to HBO and MTV and Comedy Central is a important one, though almost everyone had cable by the end of the ’90s. That, and I’m still mostly talking about the attenuated effect of profanity and pornographic and methods of reinvigorating it.

      • arguingwithsignposts says:

        I don’t know if you’ve ever watched American Horror Story, but it’s on FX, and they had a full shower scene with a naked woman in ep. 2 of season 2 (no full frontal but plenty of T&A), and a male butt in ep. 1. Not being exposed to TV that much (cord-cutter), I was shocked to see that.

  2. SEK says:

    Also, I should note that I don’t think I’m describing a slippery slope here, nor am I blaming David Milch for building it. I just used Milch as a marker because of my relationship with his work.

  3. efgoldman says:

    As someone who worked in radio from the late 70s to the mid 90s, but who had HBO, etc. in the early 80s, I was not so shocked by the language.
    But it shocked the living shit out of me, the first several times I saw (or heard) hard liquor ads on broadcast radio/TV.
    You young ‘uns don’t know, but they were as rare as bare breasts on broadcast TV, although it was a self-imposed prohibition, not any kind of regulation.

  4. Left_Wing_Fox says:

    I’ve joked a few times that the big difference between Canada’s CRTC and America’s FCC was that the FCC is scared to death that you’ll see a naked man’s ass on TV, the CRTC wants to be sure that ass is Canadian Content.

    The most surprising for me was in 2004.
    The US: “Tonight, ComedyCentral is showing Eddie Murphy’s RAW uncut and uncensored at 3am!”
    Canada: Today at Noon, Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares Marathon on FoodTV! Oh, viewer discretion is advised, cause this brit chef’s gonna out-fuck Murphy in the first 15 minutes.

    • Jonas says:

      I remember MuchMusic in the 90s devoting a whole special on how censorship works on Canadian TV vs American. One of the interesting things I remember is that the Radiohead video for ‘Paranoid Android’ ran into censorship issues on both MuchMusic and MTV. MTV refused to show it due to cartoon nudity, and only allowed its broadcast after the cartoon nipples were edited out. MuchMusic didn’t care about cartoon nudity, they showed videos with real nudity. But they restricted when it could be shown due to the cartoon violence.

      • waverby says:

        I’ve always been fond of the radio edit of Teenage Dirtbag, which goes “Her boyfriend’s a dick, he brings a … to school, but he’d simply kick my ass if he knew the truth”.

  5. ralphdibny says:

    I learned the word “goddamn” from Archie Bunker. Someone using that word on network TV today would cause stock in fainting couches to go through the roof.

  6. blowback says:

    Is Game of Thrones really pornography – I would have thought it would be better described as erotica.

  7. arguingwithsignposts says:

    I should take this moment again to bitch about HBO’s stupid online licensing system. I am not going to pay $100-ish a month just to watch HBO on my computer (the cost of a cable subscription). Fuck them.

  8. fourmorewars says:

    I’ll have you and David Milch know that Seinfeld had characters say ‘complete bullshit,’ ‘crock of shit’ and ‘what an asshole’ in a sngle episode that predates NYPD Blue.

    Of course they said it under their breaths. But I heard something.

  9. rea says:

    Imagine watching a scene in which Littlefinger was Littlefingering with your mother?

    What a thing to say about our mothers, most of whom have never met the guy . . .

    [I really did think that was what you were sugesting the first couple of times I read the sentence through]

  10. HP says:

    Some angel recently uploaded the full run of ITV’s 1982 series “Hammer’s House of Horror” to YouTube. As a horror fan, I’d heard of it years ago, and was astonished that a Hammer Films TV series was never syndicated in the US.

    I watched the series over the weekend, remembered what US TV looked like in 1982, and went, “Oh. That explains it.”

    (Actually, 30 years later, Hammer’s House of Horror would probably still not get aired in the US, due the combination of copious blood, tits, and profanity with child actors. There’s a lot you can get away with on American TV these days, but I suspect that dousing a ten-year-old with Kensington gore is not one of them.)

  11. Observer says:

    When David Milch runs out of things to shock the public,he will be forced to rely on talent.

    • Leeds man says:

      Couldn’t the same be said of many writers of modern, cuttin’ edge TV drama? Keep the rubes’ adrenalin levels high, and worry about tying up loose ends only in the finale. I’m thinking of the odd episodes of BSG, Lost, The Walking Dead that I’ve been able to sit through. Not pornography or profanity necessarily, but shock/crisis anyway.

  12. Informant says:

    Your class was actually shocked by that quote from Deadwood? Seriously??? The only way I could envision that quote as shocking would be if I attended the class unaware that there was going to be a significant amount of swearing in it.

  13. Steve says:

    I find the sexuality and frankness in GOT to be refreshing. I am tired of living amongst the publicly prude but privately depraved in this country. Every town ought to have a bawdy house, and did, until the early-mid 20th Century.

  14. Halloween Jack says:

    A couple of minor nitpicks:

    1) I don’t think that it was a matter of the boundaries suddenly being pushed in the 90s on television. The seventies had a couple of TV movies, Born Innocent (with Linda Blair) and Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway (with Eve Plumb of the Brady Bunch) which portrayed, respectively, sexual abuse in juvenile detention and underage prostitution. Of course, there wasn’t any real nudity or particularly explicit scenes, although the scene where Blair is being raped with a plunger handle is fairly direct in what’s going on. That, plus the adaptation of the Judy Blume book Forever (teens having sex) and general acknowledgement and acceptance of sex in the culture in general (X-rated movies being advertised in newspapers, porn magazines showing women topless on their covers), seemed to be a trend, until the conservatism of the eighties and Edwin Meese’s war on pornography got underway.

    2) I also think that there was more leeway in what could and was shown on public television, if my friends’ indication that there was at least one topless scene in the 1975 adaptation of Moll Flanders is/was any indication.

  15. Lis Riba says:

    Speaking of milestones, I remember huge controversy when the “Uncle Buck” sitcom had one character say something “sucks” – looked it up, and that was only 1990.

    Regarding PBS, “educational material” has always had a bit more leeway. Growing up, people joked about National Geographic as a place to view naked breasts…

  16. Lis Riba says:

    One further thought – if the show really is interested in pushing boundaries, then I wish they’d go all-the-way and do so in an equal opportunity manner, and show us male genitalia as often as they show women.

    It’s impressive how much sex the men have, even changing positions on camera, without ever showing a cock. [I've only recently started watching, and am just 2 episodes into Season 2 so far. Maybe the situation improves?]

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