Violence Good, Sex Bad


I haven’t seen the episode of Law and Order: SVU that Lee Goldberg pans here, but one of the points he makes is a very interesting one: that even as networks have tightened language/sex censorship in the post-Janet-Jackson era, those same networks have loosened or all but eliminated restrictions on violence, blood, mutilation. Some network shows probably have more violence, or at least more exploitative violence, than The Sopranos (where violence was usually more like real life: sudden, horrifying and unattractive), and apart from violence, the level of exploitative/prurient content seems to be up.

On broadcast network TV now, you can show almost as much blood as you want….hell, you can spend five minutes with the camera lingering on the autopsy of a charred corpse…and discuss in explicit detail the murder, rape and mutilation of the man, woman or child before they were set ablaze. That’s entertainment!

But don’t you dare show a woman’s nipple (unless it has been mutilated and belongs to a corpse) or two people naked (unless they’re covered in blood and, preferably, dead), or having sex (unless you’re rescuing a victim from being molested or raped) because then you’ve crossed a line.

On “free” TV we can show graphic violence but not two people in love having sex. We can show naked corpses on an autopsy table, and even watch as they are cut open and their guts exposed, but we can’t show two naked people in bed.

What the hell is the matter with us?

I have to think there’s some cause-and-effect going on here: the more restrictions the networks operate under with regard to sex and nudity, the more they pump up the violence, which brings in fewer complaints (at least from the pressure groups that really worry the network executives). It’s kind of screwed-up that violence on TV probably gets fewer angry letters than sex between consenting adults, but that’s the way it is. Also, on shows like CSI, SVU and even shows without initials in them, there’s a sense of traditional morality that pervades the whole thing. The bad guys get punished, but also, people get punished in the Old Hollywood, Hays Code type of way for enjoying sex too much. (I like CSI, but its biggest weakness has always been that so many of its plots hinge on the idea that women, horror-movie-style, get killed after having sex.) TV still suffers from Brenda Walsh’s disease, named for the way Darren Star got into trouble for letting Brenda lose her virginity to Dylan on the original, non-sucky 90210. You can have all the exploitative content you want, but anything non-exploitative is a big risk.

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Violence Good, Sex Bad

  1. I’ve always thought this rather strange. Especially since I am opposed to violence but view sex rather favourably.

  2. My wife and I have all but stopped watching the Law and Order/CSI style shows. Not out of any puritan zeal, but because we were growing uncomfortable with murder being the core theme of our nightly entertainment. I worry about becoming numbed from a proper response to the real life thing.

    In a related topic, pay attention to the way the networks handle real life dead bodies on the news – they have a habit of showing a hundred dead Iraqi civilians like so much debris from a building, yet rarely show the bodies of North Americans without great warnings about the graphic and disturbing nature of what they are about to show.

    Getting back to sex, I’ve yet to hear how the sight of a penis, breasts or vagina is supposed to corrupt someone. And you’re right, the double standard that makes nudity more acceptable in the form of a murder victim is insane.

    But since I can’t even enjoy the Daily Show without f**k being bleeped out, I expect these will be hard trends to change.

  3. It really makes perfect sense. Most people aren’t afraid that their children are going to turn into serial killers or join the mob. All the violence is therefore “fantasy land” fodder. It is clearly unacceptable real-life behavior.

    Sex, on the other hand, is something most people do participate in, even the most religious. The lobbying groups that object to sex on T.V. are probably parents/family values/religious groups who want their children to believe that sex should occur only in the marriage bed. Gratuitous sex on TV undermines their values.

    Aside from them there are also womens groups who are trying to hold back the tide on exploitation of women.

  4. The Wire had several explicit – even lesbian explicit – sex scenes. Perhaps HBO is a different story, though.

    For the life of me I can’t understand why “people object” is an argument in this day and age. They always have the option of expending 0.025 joules of energy by changing the channel on the remote. “Think of the children” is about the stupidest argument ever; it’s always “think fo the totally unsupervised and irresponsibly parented children” in disguise.

    Down with censorship!

  5. I lived in England for years and they had something called the watershed. Before 9:30 pm, no sex/violence on tv, after 9:30, it was just about anything goes and any child still awake at that hour was considered mature enough to be watching.

    Seemed like a good compromise to me.

  6. Jack, in the spirit of free speech, could you describe those scenes from The Wire in greater detail? We’ve gotta fight censorship at every turn.

    Gisele, good point about sex hitting closer to home, in terms of potential behaviour.

    Can anyone explain to me why I can’t watch the Daily Show, unbleeped, at 11:00 at night? Drives me nuts.

  7. Sean S., what was striking about the Wire scenes, straight and gay alike, was that they weren’t just “leave it to the imagination” shots with a quick cutaway. Oh no, oh no sirree.

    Btw, if you haven’t seen The Wire you should seriously check it out – best show ever. And I’m not just talking about the sex scenes, yo. Best characters, best script, best social engagement, best everything. There are 5 seasons, though, so you may have to kiss a few weeks of your life goodbye once you start.

  8. I wanted to watch Grey’s Anatomy but operating scenes were much too graphic.

  9. Yes! Finally, someone sees exactly where I’m coming from. I felt like I was the only one.

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