Ladies and gentlemen, a round of applause for the Republicans. I want to take this opportunity to congratulate them. President Bush’s moral watchdogs have struck again; another victory for censorship and cultural regression, another reason for Karl Rove to keep that smarmy, arrogant, cartoon evil-genius smirk pasted firmly on his bloated face. You really can’t argue with the facts, these guys are good at what they do. They are the consummate politicians of the present era: dexterous mass-media choreographers, ruthlessly shrewd opportunists. They never fail to blow up and spin the shit out of – here I’d normally say “spin like a dreidel” instead of “spin the shit out of,” but something tells me the Evangelicals might miss the reference – a potential scandal.
In the past year alone we’ve witnessed the backlash from Janet’s nipple and Howard Stern’s antics, the stiffening of FCC indecency regulations because middle-American prudes were offended when Bono got excited and said winning a Billboard Music Award was “Fucking brilliant!” (which, let’s be honest, it is)… and now this. The country is up in arms because of a “Desperate Housewives” plug/ “Monday Night Football” lead-in in which Housewives actress Nicolette Sheridan, clad only in a towel, seduces Eagles wide-receiver Terrell Owens by dropping said towel to reveal – oh jeez – her bare back! Ostensibly naked, she jumps into Owens’ arms.
Sounds like a fun, campy promo, right? That’s what I thought. It turns out the bit was pure, unadulterated indecency. At least that’s what the talking heads have been telling me. Non-stop. For over a week now.
Unless you’ve been locked in a closet or lost at sea since November 15th, I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. Local news programs, sports networks, news channels, and the rest of the media sheep all promptly ran the story, forcing ABC and the NFL to apologize for the “inappropriate,” objectionable segment. But even after these almost instantaneous expressions of regret, the story would not die. Conservative muckrakers and agenda-pushing censorship advocates seized the opportunity to vociferate America’s moral bankruptcy and appeal for even more stringent FCC monitoring.
The weekend rolled around and the pundits were still yapping. I couldn’t believe it. I mean, Janet Jackson’s boob was actual nudity, and Bono went ahead and dropped the f-bomb on primetime; although I quite enjoyed both incidents, I could certainly understand why some viewers were less than thrilled with the networks for allowing them to air.
But as for this “Monday Night Football” nonsense, the best I could offer was give me a break, people. The massive public outcry was patently nonsensical: there is, to my mind, nothing obscene or indecent about bare backs from the waist up. The only fundamental difference between Ms. Sheridan’s appearance in the pre-game skit and the bikini-clad beer-commercial girls or the on-field cheerleaders (who, for what it’s worth, did not arouse a peep of moral outrage) is a small strip of cloth halfway between the waist and the shoulders. Sure, the “Desperate Housewives” bit was sexually charged, but the tone was goofy and whimsical; it was far less suggestive– not to mention less creepy and disturbing – than the myriad cock-medicine ads that ran during the game. Granted, I don’t have kids, but I imagine it would be easier to explain to a child what’s up with the half-naked naked woman hugging the man (after all, kids understand that hugging means you like someone, and as far as the bare back goes, I’m sure they’ve seen it already some afternoon at the beach) than it would be to field questions about a Cialis commercial. Daddy, what’s a four-hour erection?
By refusing to shut up about Nicolette Sheridan dropping her towel, the media ended up devoting countless hours to a trifling non-issue rather than discussing actual news – actual news as in the two overseas ground wars the U.S. is currently fighting. Incessant jabbering about “Desperate Housewives” leaves little time to cover the war in Iraq. By embracing the issue of broadcast decency, the Republicans have succeeded in shifting public scrutiny away from the Bush administration’s bungled effort to “secure the peace” in Iraq. How can we possibly trouble ourselves with the fact that the U.S. military has spent more than a year failing to dismantle the insurgent presence in Fallujah when our children are being corrupted by television? The extreme-right, the President’s steadfast political base, has developed a foolproof system for silencing opposition: when things aren’t going so hot, whip up moral fervor amongst America’s socially conservative masses, and don’t stop harping until everyone’s forgotten to worry about how not hot things are going. Old standards like abortion and gay marriage certainly do the trick; but when the administration is really in a bind, it’s time to summon the issues of sex and obscenity damaging the development of our children, the big guns against which even the most knee-jerk liberal in Manhattan cannot effectively argue.
By late November, the Bush administration definitely was in a tight spot in Iraq. According to Pentagon statistics, by November 22nd, one week after the now infamous Monday Night Football incident, the U.S. military was in the midst of perhaps the deadliest month (as far as U.S. troops are concerned) since the invasion of Iraq began nearly two years ago. Averaging over four fatalities daily, November 2004 had already distinguished itself as the month with the second highest U.S. military death toll – with eight days still to spare. In fact, thirty-two Americans were killed in Iraq in the week subsequent to Nicolette Sheridan and Terrell Owens’ tryst alone. The two-week long battle in Fallujah left more than 2,000 dead, at least fifty-four of which were American Marines.
I found myself, during this same period, in a unique position to examine the impact (or non-impact) pop-news is having on our awareness of what’s happening in Iraq. On November 22nd I was slated to work for Tiger Food, the Princeton campus food delivery service. My job afforded me the opportunity to conduct a relatively scientific survey. While my methodology was obviously less than perfect, the arbitrariness of who happens to order food on any given day and who happens to be in a given restaurant when I arrive to pick up an order provided me with a relatively random sample population. In any case, at least it was better than just polling my friends. So I asked everyone I encountered that night a series of three questions: 1) Do you know about the Desperate Housewives/Monday Night Football scandal? 2) How do you feel about the whole ordeal? 3) Do you have any idea how many U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq this week and/or how many U.S. troops have been killed in the battle for Fallujah?
The results of my informal survey were startling. Out of fifty or so respondents, a handful couldn’t answer any of my questions. But the overwhelming response to question one was “yeah,” and to question two was “I didn’t think it was a big deal.” As for question three, the most common reactions were blank stares, grimaces of uncertainty, “I don’t knows,” and self-deprecating jokes. One guy nodded and said, “I couldn’t tell you, man. I just proved your point, didn’t I?”
He sure did. Only two or three people offered me figures in the right ballpark; not a single respondent answered question three correctly without also answering “yes” to question one. The appropriate conclusion to draw here is not that the Princeton community isn’t up on current events. Quite the contrary: almost everyone knew about the “Desperate Housewives”/ “Monday Night Football” fiasco, and the majority of these people said they hadn’t seen it live, but rather heard it talked about or saw it replayed on the news (I didn’t ask how they knew about it, but the vast majority of those I spoke with offered this information on their own accord). My respondents had consciously sought out current events information – the sources of this news simply preferred to focus on the indecency scandal and ignore the war in Iraq.
I’m not going to claim that the results of my poll prove anything conclusively. Suffice it to say, for all the conservatives’ talk about censoring mass media until primetime broadcasts are family friendly, inoffensive, Hallmark movie-of-the-week PG crap, if they were actually successful in this endeavor their diversion would be compromised. The façade of capable governance broken, the Bush administration would be exposed and the Bible Belt would finally be forced to reckon with W’s foreign policy ineptitude. The President would be, to borrow from Bono’s lexicon (sorry FCC), fucked. The truth of the matter is Republicans love filthy-mouthed, lurid, graphically sexual TV programming. Without it, Americans would surely notice that “Operation Iraqi Freedom” has become a filthy-intentioned, lurid, graphically violent mess.