I overheard some greatest-generation types the other day (that is to say, people over seventy) talking about “the culture” and where that elusive beast is heading, and I realized that their conversation revolved almost exclusively around the presence of certain words that I will not type for publication on Conservative Reformed Mafia but whose isolated occurrence nonetheless never has really offended me. So I set out to give an account for my own lack of offense.
Words You Can’t Say on TV
One problem with talking about obscenity (not the only by any means) is that our cultural memory is so short. People who like cussing pop culture and people offended by the same seem to treat history as if it started with the invention of television. In that historical narrative, the good guys and the bad guys switch, depending on who is telling the story, but the story’s elements are basically the same. In the beginning (of the television era), those who controlled what content did or did not allow anything on air that did not conform to Victorian-era morality, roughly defined. As decades passed and social factors changed (this is an attempt at a neutral account), the content of television programming shifted away from Victorian morality. Now, in the age of subscription cable television, DVD rentals, and consumer-driven media markets, popular entertainment bears little resemblance at all to that of the beginning (of the TV era).
The problem, of course, is that history is much older than television.
I am not a historian by trade, much less a historian of popular entertainment, but I do know that Plato seems like he’s making a fairly radical statement when he suggests that children should not watch plays involving the gods’ immorality. I also know that of the playwrights that plied their trade in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries AD, Shakespeare, even with his stories of witchcraft and murder and rape and cannibalism (read Titus Andronicus if you don’t believe me), would be one of the least offensive to those early television producers. And the playwrights of those days, when they looked for exemplars of playcraft, often went to the brutal, bloody, horror-movie-like plays of Seneca, a moral philosopher who tried to reform the emperor Nero. On the other hand, medieval plays almost always concerned biblical and moral scenes, and by the time McGuffey’s reader became a standard in American public schools, sections of Shakespeare were excerpted as poetry, but the full plays never happened except in saloons, the only places immoral enough to have such entertainments.
None of this is to say that all entertainment is relative, but I do say that entertainment is always historical. On one hand the (egotistical and almost intolerable but undeniably talented) writer of HBO’s Deadwood riddles his show with expletives and scenes of sex and violence, obsessing on the “special features disc” of the DVD set about his own resistance to Victorian morality in televised entertainment. On the other, late-seventeenth century English plays drew no small joy from frequent anatomical jokes involving, among other images, swords and scabbards, jokes explicit enough that they would not have been televised in 1953. (Okay, so I put a reference to the content of a dirty joke on CRM. I suppose I’ll take it down if Don Jeff tells me.) There is no uniform movement from moral to immoral in entertainment, and what counts for moral and immoral changes.
Again, such is not to say that everything is relative; instead I say that the task of evaluating forms of entertainment falls to us today, and the education of children (which always comes into discussions of entertainments) always falls to parents right now.
The Letter and the Spirit
Contrary to some Christian writers, literal interpretation is still interpretation. To read or to translate a text literally is to choose the constituent elements (litteris in Latin means “letters”) as the main site of interpretation over other options such as structure, interaction with contexts, and reader response. And the kind of interpretation of pop culture artifacts that focuses on the occurrence and frequency of certain words and images is a literal reading. The assumption behind what I call the checklist test of morality is that the most important thing to consider is the presence or absence of certain elements within a television episode or movie. Arguments about their context or their role in the piece as a whole are, to these checklist interpreters, simply excuses on the parts of people who wish to enjoy the titillation of seeing and hearing such things.
The checklist model is not entirely bad; what enemies of Plato often forget when they wax eloquent about his “hatred of poetry” is that, in Republic, for the most part, he simply wants to keep children away from such things, and he is right that until a certain age, children cannot “read” such things in context. Plato says that stories and entertainments are acceptable and might even be worthwhile for people who can read allegorically (I would expand that to say literarily), but he is right that until children attain a certain capacity for complex thought, such things can do no better than to confuse and might to much worse.
The trick, of course, is how to decide what to do when a child reaches allegorical/literary capacity. The first part of my answer, the one to remember as I proceed, is that the parents or the people charged with caring for the young person, not anybody else, should make such calls. Such takes care of the when question. As far as the what question goes, I am more inclined towards a hermeneutic of truth and falsity of spirit than I am towards a checklist interpretation, and that means by extension that ultimately what a mature Christian should do is not only simple consumption and avoidance but also evaluation. Ultimately mature engagement with popular culture has to be the product of a process of education.
Learning to Watch Dirty Television
To use Deadwood as my thought experiment (because it’s such an extreme example), I acknowledge from the outset that no adolescents should see any of that show until they can read, understand, and draw moral conclusions about literary works at least as morally complex as Kurt Vonnegut. One of the mistakes of our televised culture* is to introduce moral complexity in television shows, in which things come so fast as to preclude reflective thought, before our students and children take on the same content in print, where we can stop and think without cheating with a remote control. Reading allows one to see plot structure, imagery, and character development at a slower pace than movies allow, and without engaging characters like Mishima’s Kiyoaki Matsugae (from Spring Snow) and Tolkien’s Boromir (from Fellowship of the Ring), one simply lacks the literary tools to understand Deadwood‘s Al Swearengen.
Our imaginary adolescent being properly read, I would smack in the head any parent (or guardian figure) who let the child take on Deadwood in a room alone. If an adolescents cannot watch a piece with parents in the room, they should not be watching it in the first place. Of course, this would also require parents willing to take such things on. Beyond the objections of seventy-year-olds, some adults are less comfortable with others watching things with nudity and foul language. (Deadwood has both.) In such cases, we come to an impasse: on one hand, Deadwood on a literal level has, in the course of three seasons, a grand total of somewhere around three thousand f-words. On the other, it tells stories about humans and their life together at the dawn of the mechanized age with a degree of skill that, I think, makes it worthwhile to watch. I do not condemn any parents who do not wish to take that in. On the other hand, ultimately, I’d rather watch good literature rather than clean TV, and I’d rather my own children know Deadwood‘s stories than those that John Wayne movies tell.
Such questions, as with the “when” question, are ultimately the province of parents. But to proceed in my thought experiment, ultimately the decision to watch Deadwood could not be the last step in the process. As the adolescent and the adult become familiar with Seth Bullock, Al Swearengen, and all the other people in the series, and as the violence of Deadwood, Dakota Territory drives the plot, the parents (who, as you would well note, act as the primary educators, as my English teacher father served as mine) would have to dig in to the moral questions that the series asks and attempts to answer. The easy ones first: no, prostitution is not right. Revenge killing is not right. Murdering workers for organizing as unions is not right. Then they get harder: although Trixie is connected to Al emotionally, ultimately her life will be better if she marries Sol. The camp’s problems will come to a temporary close if someone assassinates George Hearst, but ultimately it won’t bring the kind of peace that will happen if he leaves on his own. Then the really tough, the questions that I don’t have ready answers to: when Al Swearengen kills the preacher, is it murder or euthanasia? What is Ellsworth’s most important obligation to Sofia? What exactly can we say about Sam Fields and Drunk Steve?
None of the above questions will make sense to someone who has not watched the series (I have), and that is part of the point. Beyond the checklist, there are complexities to this television series worthy of the name literature, complexities that movies like The Magnificent Seven, though less likely to show up on watch lists, simply do not exhibit. And that brings me to my (tentative) conclusion: for those parents patient enough to read with their children first and teach them the tools of interpretation, willing to set aside the checklist and endure the kind of language that people in the streets speak (but more so), and ready to ask and entertain questions about what’s going on in the series, even something as checklist-shredding as Deadwood stands to be a site for education. My grand point is not that every parent should go out and rent this series (most should not) but that, if disciplined and intentional reading-and-watching together can bring good from this series, a fortiori some of the PG-13 stuff that teenagers are wont to watch could be valid sites for teaching interaction. The point is not to avoid movies but to be parents when they come on.
The Dirty Television Watcher Gets Prudish
All that said, reading for spirit does not make excuses for all television and movies. In fact, it might make one even choosier when it comes to such things. Setting aside the checklist frees up the mind to take in the spirit of all works, not just good ones. Some pop culture artifacts violate the checklist but offer enough humanity that they have potential for moral instruction. Others may or may not violate the checklist but paint big pictures so dehumanizing that in the process of evaluation one must turn Ebert’s thumb down. (Relax–Ebert’s the one who’s still alive.) I will not go into the detail that I did for Deadwood, but some recent movies that I’ve taken in offer little complexity in exchange for their resistance to Victorian sensibility. Closer, with Julia Roberts and Jude Law, simply revels in making dirty innuendos (but no on-screen sex, surprisingly) without saying anything real about how men and women live together. Friends did nothing that would have gotten it yanked from the air, yet none of its seemingly interminable seasons (or at least none of the reruns that Mary has made me sit through with her) offers any real alternative to sexual consumerism–it just happens that, at series’s end, most of the characters had sampled enough and settled on products they liked. Wedding Crashers (which I did not finish) is both brainless and full of empty innuendo. It relies on a narrative about getting “burnt out” on sexual consumerism and then finding the perfect product. And there is on-screen sex. And that’s just the first forty-five minutes.
The bad exemplars abound, and I will not go into more length. My final wrap-up point is that even when movies are bad, they provide a negative space for better alternatives. We ought not to condemn those who avoid such movies, and I do not, but neither should we treat them merely as consumer goods for which one person has this taste and the other that. Instead, the artifact itself should always be the beginning of the conversation and, even more importantly, of the teaching.
* I do not say post-literate because of the fifty bestselling books of all time, ten were published in the last twenty years. Whatever else has happened in the last twenty years, people have also been buying some serious books.