Must-see TV, or mandatory diversity?

Emma Teitel on TV’s modern censorship crusaders


Short-lived: Lena Dunham (left) wrote a black character into the second season of Girls, a Republican played by Donald Glover (right). (HBO Canada/Astral Media)

Historically, the aim of television censorship has been pretty straightforward, if ultimately doomed: sex, or anything that made you think of having it, was supposed to be as unsexy as humanly possible when it was on TV. “Indecency regulations”—the kind that kept married characters sleeping in separate beds—arrived in the 1930s. In the 1950s, CBS famously cropped out Elvis Presley’s gyrating pelvis on the Ed Sullivan Show, and in 2004, the world saw Janet Jackson’s nipple for a fraction of a second, which, for the Federal Communications Commission in the United States, was one fraction too many (the FCC tried to fine CBS $550,000 for the infamous “nip slip,” but the United States Supreme Court threw out the charge last year). Sex persevered. A study by a U.S. non-profit in 2005 found that sexual content on TV had almost doubled since 1998. I wouldn’t be surprised if that number has quadrupled since. What’s more, censorship initiatives by socially conservative groups that would have certainly succeeded in the nipple-wary past are seldom successful today. Groups like the Parents Television Council, for example, and One Million Moms, consistently try—and fail—to get supposedly inappropriate content off the air: from gay romance on Fox’s Glee, to sacrilege on ABC’s GCB (Good Christian Bitches), some things just don’t shock like they used to. This is certainly one of the reasons networks have stopped trying to appease the traditionally squeamish—but it’s not the only one. They’ve also stopped because there’s a new squeamishness on the rise, one that’s concerned not with what TV portrays too much of, but rather, with what it doesn’t portray enough.

Take CBS: the network is no longer under fire for depicting too much sexuality, but for failing to depict the right kind. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) gave CBS a failing grade on its “network responsibility index” this year, for its apparent lack of sexual diversity; that is, not enough gay and transgendered characters. GLAAD puts out two reports annually, one rating the American networks on overall “LGBT impressions” and another that looks at LGBT characters in the TV season to come. Apparently, the reports work. Matt Kane, GLAAD’s associate director of entertainment media, says, “CBS responded, saying they would do better. We have worked with their diversity department in recent years and they seem to have been making a concerted effort to improve diversity on their network.” Kane says his group’s earlier efforts may have actually led to the production of the gay-themed TV show, Partners, although the comedy was cancelled almost immediately after it aired.

In a similar fashion, HBO’s Girls, arguably the most sexually explicit show on television right now, has also succumbed to public pressure over its lack of diversity. When the show first premiered, social media was rife with complaints that creator Lena Dunham’s omission of non-white characters was “unrealistic” and, some critics suggested, downright racist. Dunham told NPR that she took the criticism very seriously, which is why, presumably, she wrote a black character into the second season of Girls—an African-American Republican named Sandy, who lasted about as long as CBS’s Partners did. It turns out affirmative action and fiction don’t really mix. But the criticism didn’t stop at racial representation. Dunham’s current critics argue that there’s lack of “verbal consent” between sexual partners on Girls, as though the TV show were a public service announcement you’d watch in health class.

Paul Levinson, a media professor at Fordham University in New York and author of the book New New Media, doesn’t find any of this depressing. He’d prefer that audiences—not regulators—pester networks and TV writers. “It’s not as though the gatekeepers who decided what got on television in the past did a very good job, so I think it’s a very healthy thing that viewers have much more power over what gets into television than they ever had before,” he says.

It would be easy to agree with Levinson if we were just discussing the merits of something like Kickstarter—the website that allows users to fund artistic projects (the Veronica Mars movie, for example)—or any other medium that gives an audience freedom of choice. But we’re talking about the merits of an audience manipulating a piece of art so that it meets a certain ethical standard. And that doesn’t sound like power to me. It sounds like censorship.

The people at GLAAD and those who criticize Dunham do not likely see themselves as prudish or censorious. And they certainly don’t see themselves in league with the Parents Television Council or One Million Moms. But their crusade for inclusion is fundamentally no different than their opponents’ crusade for exclusion. Both groups believe that art, fine or popular, must fulfill a moral obligation—that its purpose is not to portray the world as it is, but as it should be. Carried to the extreme, “moral” art like this is just another version of state-sponsored art, the kind you could have found in the Soviet Union yesterday, and Saudi Arabia today. Ironically, it violates the fundamental moral raison d’être behind art since the beginning of campfires: to hold up a mirror to nature. Worse, it violates the fundamental amoral one, which any TV watcher knows is even more important. It’s boring.

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Must-see TV, or mandatory diversity?

  1. One (or many) more reason not to have cable.

  2. Totally disagree with the author of this article. Her point is distressing, actually. Because if I am reading this correctly, she is essentially espousing the “don’t shove diversity down my throat” meme. A popular temper tantrum of conservative bigots. No, I am not saying that people of different backgrounds should be forced on others — but this columnist is annoyed that people of color — and people who recognize that “Hollywood” is still a very racist place — are actually speaking up about it. What she is, essentially, saying is that people who aren’t stoked about the lack of diversity in certain programs should shut up.

    It’s not censorship, Emma, it’s just that people who historically didn’t have a voice, have one now….and they’re speaking up.

    • Despite her “street cred” as a gay woman, Teitel’s “style” has a lot more in common with conservative writers in Canada like say Blatchford. Writing with a healthy dose entitlement with a world view about two inches beyond her face, she professes beweilderment about what these uppity minorities really want, and isn’t afraid to pull out a straw men or sketchy equivalences. Add a passive-aggressive ‘well, just the way I see it’ type attitude, she could “write” for the Sun.

    • “People who historically didn’t have a voice, have one now….and they’re speaking up.” Good lord, is that how undergrads speak today? Not to worry, Penny … you’ll look back and laugh in a few years.

      • No, she will never realize how canned her language sounds. She’ll go on like that forever. First year poly-sci and sociology always sounds like music to those gullible enough to buy into it.

  3. a big yes to what the author is saying people hve gone insaine thinking it’s morden nothing new under the sun

  4. I’m not trying to defend anyone here (and I’m from Brazil) but wasn’t Canada just a few years ago a primarily white conservative country?
    Changes are taking place too fast and a (big) part of the populace seems to need some time to adjust.
    And by that I’m not implying that ethnically diverse people shouldn’t keep pushing to have their voices heard.

  5. Throw out the old excessive, oppressive moralizing, and introduce new excessive, oppressive moralizing.

    That’s why I love watching Japanese television, because there’s a culture that isn’t currently at war with itself.

    In the last eighty years the progressive elites in media and academia have been systematically trying to destroy much of the English-speaking worlds traditional culture. Often with good reason. However the result is the schizophrenic mess we find ourselves in today; where all convictions are extreme positions, and if somebody holds an alternate political or moral view, they must be evil.

    Some point to the internet as the source of this antagonism, but this has been percolating far longer than that.

    The problem is that while rejecting religious beliefs, Anglo progressives and secularists have adopted the piety, fervor and zealotry of religions more aggressive adherents. So convinced are they of the righteousness of their convictions, they can’t comprehend the obvious hypocrisy in their actions. Hence more censorship and moralizing, just by a new, secular faith.

  6. Romans 8:5-7………

    5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. 6 For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. 7 Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be.

  7. Homosexuals, transgenders and other abnormal sexuality accounts for less than 5% of the population. Those practicing abnormal sex would have us believe it is common. It is not.

    There is no reason it should be anything other than rare in the media.