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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.

Game of Thrones: How circular is “A Golden Crown”?

[ 11 ] November 12, 2012 |

Very. I know you’re tired of hearing me talk about circles, but it’s not my fault: the series is making me do it. Consider the set design of the Eyrie:

Got_eyrie1

Circles within circles—and significantly, the Moon Door, which had been in a wall in the novel, was shifted to the center of the circular audience chamber for the series:

Game of thrones - a golden crown00050

I mentioned in the previous post that I wouldn’t talk about “empty centers,” but this one is too significant not to. At the center of the seat of power in the Vale is, literally, nothing. A hole. (An execution hole.) An absence that, should someone step into it, well:

Read more…

I know who was in those Republican focus groups

[ 17 ] November 12, 2012 |

These people:

“We focus-grouped it to people and realized pretty quickly that viewers wanted debate,” hot-shot First Take producer Jamie Horowitz told Men’s Journal. “In particular, they wanted to see Skip [Bayless] debate.”

Given how legitimately great his younger brother is, I’m sure he’s nicknamed “Skip” because his parents wish they had.

Great moments in anonymous punditry

[ 82 ] November 8, 2012 |

By request, a roughly chronological account of the last few months of our favorite troll’s life:

Romney already hitting it out of the park. Stick a fork in Obama, he’s done.

PPP Polling (an outfit funded by Soros and used by DailyKos) has Obama up only five in Ohio even right after his convention! Right after a convention, in a Democrat-run poll, and +5 is the best BHO can do.

Looks like we’ll be up very late on election night. The race is tight.

STILL panicked over Ryan? You guys are absolutely desperate. It doesn’t matter what Bitme and TOTUS does tonight–it is all overshadowed by tomorrow’s dismal jobs report. No bounce for you.

Romney up by FIVE in new national poll taken from Sept. 4 to Sept. 7th! The bounce is over!

Romney more than exceeded expectations. The whole meme of Romney being wooden or being robotic were smashed tonight. Next week Romney vaults into a lead outside the margin of error. Obama should be panicked, this was a wonderful convention for Republicans.

A NEVER BEFORE SEEN Obama RACE SPEECH video is going to come on tonight, at the Daily Caller and Fox News, 9 PM E.T., contains an accent he never adopts in public, shout-outs to Rev. Wright, anti-white sentiment, portrays America as a zero-sum racist society, insults the poor! This is THE October surprise!

Enjoy the tied race while it lasts because after the convention word is that Romney and the Super PACs are going to bring down the hammer on BHO–and bring it down HARD.Romney now up two in Ohio after the latest poll, right after another one showed him tied there. It’s all slipping away for him, isn’t it?

Romney and his Super PACs have been holding back, but the floodgates will open the fuck up in the fall.

Keep ignoring Citizens United and the coming Super PAC flood (they’ve been holding back for the Fall. The Dems have actually outspent us so far when looking at campaign+party+Super PAC spending, but have far more cash on hand now), the two jobs reports left, and of course the election integrity laws that will stop the kind of shenanigans that happened in 2008. Also ignore that Romney is surging in Wisconsin, in Michigan, and even beginning to put Connecticut in play.

Change is coming to Washington.

Come November you’ll be screaming WE WUZ ROBBED! just like you did in 2000 and 2004.

Watching Obama giving his concession speech will be funny. Good thing I don’t live near the city, because urban riots will inevitably follow, especially with Democrats pre-emptively inflaming the blacks with tales of “Voter supression.”

ObamaCare repealed, a strict constructionist SCOTUS majority for the next five decades at least, across the board tax cuts, a strong national defense and Iran challenged, the keystone pipeline built and offshore drilling driving to new heights, entitlement reforms through means testing and privatization, the global warming scam ended once and for all, and taking a chainsaw to economic regulations.

And that’s just the first term.

By 2021 we will have repealed everything that’s left of the Great Society and the New Deal.

I’d be surprised if it can even look itself in the mirror now, much less show its face around here.

My first ever NSFW post. Enjoy!

[ 7 ] November 8, 2012 |

One of the issues with teaching Game of Thrones is that nudity is treated very casually—so casually that the very idea of watching it with your mother feels deeply wrong. But it must be accounted for, and one of my classes decided to name the regular appearance of casual nudity after scenes in which Peter Baelish conducts important business while people behind him are getting down to business. (About which more shortly.) Today we were discussing scenes in which wolves and lions were isolated, and I was pointing out that in the exchange between Bran and Maester Luwin, the director prefers to give each of them their own frame instead allowing them to share a single. So I’m letting the scene run as I speak :

Littlefingering010
LITTLEFINGER11

When all of a sudden I look out at the class and everyone is staring at me. Not in that glass-eyed way that they normally do, but with an intensity that made me want to ask them about their corn. So I said:

Read more…

It’s like they replaced his dog-whistle with a bull-horn and gave the control booth over to deaf people who can’t tell the difference.

[ 48 ] November 6, 2012 |

Bill O’Reilly is on FOX arguing that the “white establishment” would’ve “roundly defeated Obama” and elected Romney 20 years ago, but that’s because back then we lived in a “traditional America.” He’s also arguing that women, blacks and Hispanics “want stuff, they want stuff, and who’s going to give them stuff? Not a traditional American.”

This has all the makings of a top-notch meltdown. Not to be missed. Two thumbs WAY up! You won’t find a finer racist rant this holiday season. It’s sexism for the whole family!

Now playing on FOX.

[SL] Elle has the quote.  O’Reilly has a long history of this kind of thing:

O’REILLY: All right. Because black birth rate is fairly stable, right?

MCMANUS: Proportionately, black birth rate and increases in their population will level out and be less significant in growth in that time period. I think Bill will be able to address the numbers better than I can, but…

O’REILLY: OK. And how about Asian? What’s the situation with that?

MCMANUS: Asian — we’re going to see a 213 percent increase, according to the Census Bureau projection, and so that will be a very rapid increase of the percentage of their population in the U.S. as well.

O’REILLY: All right. Now, Doctor, the Census Bureau really doesn’t tell us how this is going to affect the country. Do you have any theories on it?

WILLIAM FREY, PH.D., BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: Well, I really think what’s happening is going to be this phasing out or fading out of the white baby boom population. It is a 50-year time period we’re talking about…

O’REILLY: Yes. We’ll all be dead. Thank God, right?

[SEK again] I generally distrust my transcription skills, being deaf and all, but Other Scott’s link indicates that not only did I basically get it right, but it’s actually worse than I made it out to be. And I was trying to hand him some rope to hang himself with.

[And again] Sarah Palin’s trying valiantly to hold back her tears. I’m not saying that means anything, I’m just saying I enjoy watching her try not to weep: “But four more years, of him doing this to our Constitution, this socialism, to what our Founders with their smarts made, it’s just, just, all this socialism …”

[And once more for good measure] Taste their tears. Their precious, precious tears

Because it’s 3:19 a.m. and my Facebook feed is already full of declarations of rank despair …

[ 50 ] November 6, 2012 |

… I’ll share this Facebook post someone whose opinion I trust mightily wrote last night:

Dear People Flipping Out,

I’ve mentioned this before, but about a decade ago I was in a sabermetric-oriented simulated baseball league with someone I’ll call “Sate Nilver.” I eventually quit that league because no one could defeat “Nilver,” because “Nilver” cared about nothing but being correct. His assiduous devotion to developing models that could defeat your models sapped all the fun out of simulating baseball games with a group of stats nerds. Now, sleep easy, because tomorrow he will “win” again.

I believe in the guy who believes in this guy like he was my son or possibly myself.

Game of Thrones: Everyone is alone, everyone is surrounded in “The Wolf and The Lion”

[ 16 ] November 5, 2012 |

I always say that titles don’t matter, then I go on to demonstrate how they do, so I see no harm in doing so again: the definite articles in the title matter because this episode focuses on what it’s like to be “the” Stark (wolf) or “the” Lannister (lion) in the room. And the roles keep reversing. In “Lord Snow,” Jon Snow (wolf) stood alone in the middle of a circle, surrounded by people who wished him ill and observed by Tyrion Lannister (lion); in “The Wolf and the Lion,” Tyrion stands in the center of a circle, surrounded by people who wish him ill and observed by Lady Stark (wolf):

Game of thrones - wolf and lion00002

The shots are not identical in scale, but they are nearly identical in composition: in both cases a significant character is nearly, but not quite, occupying the center the frame:

Game of thrones - wolf and lion00002a

I don’t want to harp on about explicitly literary tropes like “empty centers,” so instead I’ll just note that the reason the center is empty both in “Lord Snow” and this episode is partly because the top half of the frame occupies fifty percent of the shot and is (ostensibly) empty of people. The features of the landscape are dominating the characters, and with good reason: the Wall in “Lord Snow” and the Eastern Road here represent (or in this case pose) more of a threat to the characters than they do to each other. Even if, as is almost the case above, a character’s head sat square in the cross-hairs, he or she still wouldn’t be a dominant element in the frame. The (very) long shot allows the viewer to understand that whatever threats or pleas these characters enjoin, those hills behind them don’t care, nor do the people in them:

Read more…

The King demands your vote

[ 87 ] November 5, 2012 |

I’m far too refined to write about something as petty and droll as a Presidential election, but I thought I’d share this utterly unrelated series of images I concocted for my Game of Thrones class. The idea is simple: this one character, Joffrey, believes he should sit on the Iron Throne because

BECAUSE I LOOK KINGLY

As if looking like someone central casting would consider a king should be a consideration. But there are more substantive reasons he believes he should have the Iron Throne, for example

BECAUSE I WANT IT

Why does he want it? Because

Read more…

I am become History

[ 131 ] November 1, 2012 |

It just dawned on me that I asked my students to write about the historical context of race and gender relations in 1996.

They have no idea what it was like to be beaten up for being gay—despite not being gay, just reading books, which same difference—in high school, and when I tell them that there wasn’t a single person out in my entire high school, they stare at me in disbelief. And with good reason: when I ask them if they attended a school in which no one was out, no one raises their hand. They live in a different—and frankly better—world, and they have no idea how historically unique their lives are.

All of which is me building up to my point, which was that after I informed them that when I started college I couldn’t buy books online because the Internet wasn’t robust enough to accommodate tiny pictures of book covers, one of my male students looked at me, horror in his eyes, and asked “Then how did you get your porn?”

Which is the second-best porn-related question I’ve ever been asked in a classroom. It fought the good fight, but I think we can agree that the champion retains her belt.

Then the grasshopper said, “You’ve got a drink named ‘Doug’?”

[ 59 ] October 30, 2012 |

The person who subtitled Alias is either brilliant or an idiot:

SYDNEY: WHERE IS THE ANECDOTE!

RUSSIAN SPY: THERE IS NO ANECDOTE!

SYDNEY: GIVE US THE ANECDOTE NOW!

RUSSIAN SPY: ALRIGHT! Alright, I’ll tell you …

It’s like a spy novel written by old Jews.

True visionaries in the the field of New Lows

[ 30 ] October 29, 2012 |

No video yet:

FOX NEWS WEATHER PERSON: These power outages could last up to a week, right through election day, which could be really great news for Romney.

FOX NEWS BLONDE WOMAN #3: Because even if the power’s back on, people will have a lot more on their mind than voting.

FOX NEWS WEATHER PERSON: It’s not like the South, where people know how to handle this sort of weather.

I shouldn’t be surprised, but FOX News is a real pioneer.