Pop Culture Limbo: How Low Can We Go?
David Zagorski
California State University, Los Angeles
Volume 6, Number 2, Summer, 2001

     When was it exactly that I realized that pop culture was careening out of control?

     Maybe it was during the morning commute, when I turned on my radio, and there on KIIS-FM--the most popular radio station among Los Angeles pre-teens-- amidst the sanitized teen pop of ‘N Sync, I heard these lyrics:

Feature this, we were both buck naked /
Bangin’ on the bathroom floor
     Or was it at work, while checking my e-mail, when I ran across an unsolicited invitation to visit a website that promised, “Horny young girls do it for daddy”?

     Or maybe it was later that evening when on the advice of friends, I rented “Scary Movie,” and witnessed the indelible image of a man’s eardrum being pierced by an erect penis.

     Or at 10 PM that same night, when I flipped on the TV, hoping to catch the end of “The Green Mile,” but was treated instead to an HBO documentary entitled “G-String Divas,” spotlighting a bevy of exotic dancers who revealed themselves in intimate interviews (followed by lap dances and spectacular feats of pole-dancing).

    No, I think it was the ad for 99-cent Big Macs plastered all over the sides of every city bus that passed me by that day, exhorting me to “Bite the big one.”  If even McDonald’s has sunk to using crass double-entendres, could this be the beginning of the end?

     Is it possible that subtlety is officially, incontrovertibly dead?

     Explicit lyrics on teenybopper radio stations; computer advertisements promising incest and pedophilia; toilet humor as a pillar of mainstream cinema; full-frontal nudity and XX-rated dialogue in prime time?  What’s this world coming to? Some would argue, “Nowhere it hasn’t been before.”

     Many critics—not all of them conservatives---complain that America has recently devolved into a ‘carnival culture’ or ‘trash culture,’ where everything is “coarsened, vulgarized and trivialized, where the meretricious is more likely to be rewarded than the truly deserving.” (Gabler, 1998, p. 9; Twitchell, 1992)  Others see this trend as having illustrious historical precedents:
Defenders of today’s gross-out festivities point out that the 16th-century ribald French satirist Francois Rabelais, the coarse commedia dell’ arte popular in Italy in the 16th and 17th centuries, and the 19th-century theater of the British music hall all deflated the pretenses of polite society with bouts of flatulence, incontinence, and regurgitation.  (Doherty, 1999, p. B9)

     According to Cooper (1999), “Part of the answer lies in the simple fact that people have always been attracted to the gross and the sensational.  In the 18th century, French citizens took to the streets to witness beheadings.” (p. 60)  Civilized man (and woman), it would seem, has always had a penchant for the violent and the repulsive.  “In the American tradition, the Puritan legacy of uptightness about bodily functions has made below-the-waist activities a favorite site for lowbrow yuks and highbrow yalps.” (Doherty, 1999, p. B9)

     But there is a difference between the carnival culture of today and that of yesteryear.  It used to be that the titillating and the profane were consigned to the peepshows and darker corners. Today, they occupy center stage on the midway.

     “Thirty years ago, one would be hard-pressed to find a reasonable person who would have ever expected to hear the phrase, ‘The President digitally manipulated her genitals,’ on the 6 o’clock news, but Americans have greater and more immediate access to such “news” than ever before.” (Cooper, 1999, p. 60)  Schwarzbaum (2000) adds, with a concern laced with irony, “This is where we are: we know the nickname of the President’s penis and that’s okay; we also know Eminem sings “Bitch, I’ma kill you!” about his mother, and that’s okay, too.” (p. 22)

     Kids are being exposed to formerly taboo input at an alarming rate—they’re becoming virtually unshockable.  Kramer (1999) notes that children growing up today have been made witness to more images of explicit sex and raw physical violence than most adults of earlier generations were exposed to in a lifetime.  Cooper (1999) suggests that one of the principal sources of this overexposure is the Internet.  “The cyberworld,” he writes, “has become a showcase for almost unlimited free speech.” (p. 61)

     Cooper feels that the proliferation of graphically violent and sexual websites has had a significant effect on not only the public, but the media as well:

For a sizable portion of the American population, their existence has become commonplace.  As a result, our society has become desensitized enough to such content that we’re willing to accept it in a dramatic format such as film, but not so desensitized that it doesn’t titillate.  Filmmakers, ever the ones to go where no one has gone before, have never had such freedom in expressing their deepest and darkest fears, desires, and proclivities. (p. 60)
     Although the debasing of popular culture has it roots in many things, including increasing commercialism and the breakdown of the family system, I believe that the combination of boredom and accessibility of information is pummeling us with a lethal one-two punch. Huge advances in technology have shortened our attention spans and made us prone to ennui.  In our quest to be amused, gratified and aroused, we’re becoming immune to satiation.  British economist W.F. Lloyd declared in a lecture at Oxford that not only is there “no assignable limit to the desires of mankind,” but also that “in the case of every commodity, its value vanishes at the very instant of satisfaction.” (Cooper, 1999, p. 62)

    Lloyd’s words, spoken almost two centuries ago, are especially fitting in describing the media marketplace of today.  The result of our jaded “been there, done that” view of popular culture is that those who strive to entertain us must go to progressively farther extremes to show us something we haven’t seen before.  Hence the shock value free-for-all in our music, on our TV screens, and in our theaters.  We’ve taken the lowbrow impulses of past centuries and dressed them up in new terminology.  Doherty (1999) explains, “The turn-of-the-millennium academic buzzword for all this is “transgressive,” an honorific assigned to any assault on refined sensibilities that lays bare the repression at the heart of bourgeois civilization.” (p. B8)

     Take a look at the music scene, for example. The lyrics about “bangin’ on the bathroom floor” that I mentioned earlier?  Those come from the current best-selling album and single (“It Wasn’t Me” by Shaggy featuring Rick Ducent) in the nation.  Who buys the most singles?  Teenagers.  The song goes on to list several more locations where the “bangin’” took place (including in the shower and on the sofa) and features the singer counseling his friend to “do a Clinton” and deny any wrongdoing when his girlfriend videotapes him cheating in flagrante delicto.

     When I was a kid, Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s the Night” was considered risqué, even though lines like “spread your wings and let me come inside” sailed right over my 11-year-old head.  But you don’t have to do much imagining anymore—not with Alanis Morrisette growling, “…would she go down on you in a theater?” and “..are you thinking of me when you fuck her?” on Top 40 radio.  Listening to the radio with my 14-year-old niece, I’m often tempted to reach over and change the station when I hear some of the latest lyrics.  Did my parents raise their eyebrows when they heard Donna Summer singing that she “wants to bring a wild man back home”?

     Just over a decade ago, the furor was over the application of obscenity laws to the lyrics of rapper Luther Campell of the group 2 Live Crew.  Those words became a key part of the defense testimony of a group of young men accused of beating and gang-raping a female jogger in what became known as the “wilding” incident in Central Park.  Writer George F. Will thought that the American public should be able to read the lyrics and judge for themselves, so he printed them in his Newsweek column:

 “To have her walkin’ funny we try to abuse it /
  A big stinking pussy can’t do it all /
  So we try real hard just to bust the walls.”
     Will (1990) goes on to quote Aristotle: “Words are what set human beings, the language-using animals, above lower animals.” (p. 64) If this is the way we elevate language to an art form, perhaps evolution is headed in the wrong direction.

     Television programmers have been lowering the bar as well.  In his 1989 book The Evolution of American Television, Comstock writes, “Much of what is on the television today would not have been considered acceptable by broadcasters or the public 20 or even 10 years ago.  Public tastes and social standards have changed, and television has made some contribution to these changes by probing the borders of convention accompanying each season.” (p. 182)

     The first time I was aware that standards in network television were changing was in the mid ‘80s, when the series finale of “St. Elsewhere” broke two television taboos at once by having the lead character moon the camera and growl, “Kiss my ass.”  Not longer afterward, “Saturday Night Live” ran a sketch in which the sole intent was to see how many times the characters could say the word “penis,” just to rile the network censors. Since then, we’ve seen nudity creep into to prime-time TV on “NYPD Blue,” heard Mark Harmon utter the phrase “Shit happens,” on “Chicago Hope,” and witnessed a constant stream of sexual innuendo on shows from “Married With Children” to “Will and Grace.”

     Today, we have the pre-packaged voyeurism of so-called “reality shows” such as “Big Brother,” “Survivor,” and “Temptation Island.”  The creators of the latter show test the bonds of committed couples by enticing them with attractive members of the opposite sex. “The uncommitted men and women used by the producers are, as David Letterman has pointed out, virtually prostitutes—people encouraged to initiate sex with people they don’t know.”  (Tucker, 2000, p. 59)

     Potter (1998) agrees that network television is constantly testing the limits of what they can get away with: “Many critics complain about television portrayals, especially those in the early evening when children are viewing, yet each year producers keep presenting language that is a bit more outrageous and sexually suggestive behaviors that leave less and less to the imagination.” (p. 173)

     If broadcast television programming is pushing the envelope, then cable content is ripping the envelope wide open.  Schwarzbaum (2000) notes that while the networks, spurred on by declining ratings, are chasing after cable audiences, the cable networks push the limits even farther.

     HBO creates brand differentiation by touting, “It’s not TV; it’s HBO.”  Showtime goes HBO one better with its new slogan: “No limits.” HBO’s “Sex and the City” and Showtime’s ”Queer as Folk” entice subscribers by offering a liberal smattering of nudity and lots of sex talk; routinely taking on such ground-breaking topics as anal sex, the taste of semen, and the joys of golden showers.

     Not surprisingly, the line between network and cable television fare is blurring.  Network TV accomplishes this in part by pretending to admonish cable programming. The comedy sketch series “MadTV” recently ran a dead-on parody of “Sex and the City” retitled “Sluts and the City,” and altered HBO’s tagline to read, “It’s not TV; it’s porn.”  Ironically, the spoof is nearly as visually and verbally graphic as its target.  “MadTV” also ruthlessly skewered Britney Spears’ underage come-on “(Hit Me) Baby One More Time,” exaggerating the suggestive lyrics and Lolita-esque posturing of the 17-year-old singer.  In a parody video retitled, “(Lick My) Baby Back Behind,” it includes such lines as “..too bad our love’s a felony, but mom’s real cool (promise!)—you won’t do time.”

     Are shows such as “MadTV” doing a public service by pointing out the ridiculously excessive nature of popular culture, or are they merely capitalizing on the trend?  Probably a little of both.  Either way, the very nature of these satires (and the fact that we nod and grin in recognition) sends the message, “There’s something very wrong here.”

      Nowhere are the changing boundaries of taste more apparent than on the silver screen.  Film reviewers and social commentators started noticing a regressive trend in mainstream movies as the end of the millennium approached.  Referring to 1998’s crop of movies, which included such fluid-happy releases as “There’s Something About Mary,” “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery” and “Happiness,” among others, Cooper (1999) remarked: “This past year’s (1998) offerings saw a marked increase in the quotient of lurid details that accompanied the sexual and violent content of major films. And moviegoers responded enthusiastically.” (p. 59)

     If anything, the films of 1999 were even cruder.  Suddenly, the words “gross-out comedy” became part of the pop culture vernacular.  The reason?  According to Thomas Doherty, associate professor of film studies at Brandeis University:
When the box office returns came in for the blockbuster summer of 1999, the pun was inevitable: Gross-out equaled big grosses.  Filthy lucre rained down on a series of motion pictures that seemed bent on lowering audience brows to near-Neanderthal levels.”   “The “Austin Powers,” “Big Daddy,” “South Park, “American Pie” quartet raked in more than half a billion dollars on the domestic front.  No longer at the cultural periphery, gross-out comedy is now served up and consumed as mainstream Hollywood fare.” (Doherty, 1999, p. B8)

     It should come as no surprise, then, that some of the biggest crowd-pleasers of 2000, including “Scary Movie,” “The Nutty Professor 2: The Klumps,” and “Road Trip” took the gross-out ball and ran it for a touchdown.  What is surprising is that many critics appear to begrudgingly condone the trend.  Newsweek film reviewer David Ansen wrote of last year’s Jim Carrey vehicle, “Me, Myself and Irene”:

There is always a ‘could you believe?’ moment in a Farrelly brothers movie.  The shot that goes so far beyond any notion of good taste that you gasp before you laugh.  Peter and Bobby Farrelly earn their stripes as the four-star generals of gross-out comedy. In an era when gross reigns supreme, this is no mean feat. (Ansen, 2000, p.60)
     I could be imagining this, but Ansen seems to say this with a tone of indulgent approval, describing one particular gasp-inducing sight gag involving Carrey nursing maniacally at the nipple of a breast-feeding mother thusly: “Discomfort, titillation, surprise and revulsion colliding into a comic bombshell that leaves you slightly woozy with laughter.” (p. 60).

     As Ansen (2000) also points out, in today’s comedies, “no orifice goes uninvaded, no bodily substance goes untasted, no obscenity is left unsaid.” (p. 60)  And movie studios obviously know exactly which lurid, envelope-pushing bits are luring viewers into the theaters.  Witness the newest trend of studios running canny print ad campaigns based on the word-of-mouth gross-out moments of hits such as “There’s Something About Mary” and “American Pie” to entice repeat business.  Referring to those films’ respective sperm-as-hair-gel and bakery defiling scenes, full-page newspapers ads were rife with winking double-entendres like “Come again?” and “Have another piece.”

     The shock value treatment isn’t limited to mass-market comedies.  The latest film to capitalize on word-of-mouth is “Hannibal,” a gory film with a notable pedigree: not only is it the sequel to an Academy Award-anointed box office smash, it is directed by one of this year’s most respected directors, Ridley Scott.  Well aware that the bloody cannibalistic excess of the film’s climax has already spawned wide-eyed water cooler conversation, the film’s print ads now take on a carnival barker’s tone, beckoning in huge 48-point type, “See the ending everyone’s talking about!”  The accompanying still photo from the film depicts Anthony Hopkins, in the role of the film’s titular cannibal, ominously preparing to ladle something (presumably a very nasty something) out of a chafing dish onto the plate of a seated Julianne Moore.

     Shocking images in film are as old as cinema itself—witness the scene of an eyeball being gouged in Buñuel’s “Un Chien Andalou”---but American adoption of this cinematic tradition is a relatively new phenomenon.  “The Buñuel-Dali philosophy of grossness—to use shock as a weapon against the status quo-hasn’t died out, but it’s always ben more at home in Europe than in Hollywood.”  (Ansen, 2000, p. 60)

     Ansen characterizes the American incarnation as “a gesture of liberation as well as offense: a black comic announcement that the cinema and the subculture were going to let it all hang out.” (Ansen, 2000, p. 61)   Cooper (1999) traces the roots of American shock cinema back across the last three decades:

John Waters exposed viewers to some of the more hideous sights in the films of the 1970s, and David Lynch gave us “Blue Velvet” in 1986.  In the ‘90s, unsightly aspects of sex and violence were present in “The Silence of the Lambs,” “Seven,” and “Crash.”  But never before have these aspects been so prominent in such popular, mainstream films. (p. 61)
     “Grossness,” adds Ansen, “isn’t what is used to be.”  Whereas the shocking content of earlier films was aimed at raising the political and social consciousness of a more sophisticated audience, he complains that the “stinky-poo outrages of recent Hollywood fare have no higher agenda than coaxing rowdy laughter from randy teenagers.  Gross equals grosses; crass is mass market.  In America, bad taste is democratic: it’s for everyone to share and enjoy.” (Ansen, 2000, p.61)

     While noting that toilet humor is the cheapest but most cost-effective weapon in the comic arsenal (to use Ansen’s words), some commentators take the trend seriously.  Doherty (1999) offers this for our consideration: “The gross-out comedies warrant serious attention from cultural critics.  Even if the massive popularity of the films could be sidestepped, they provide fertile territory for a foray into aesthetic philosophy.” (Doherty, 1999, p. B8)

     In the past, Doherty writes, no matter how far comedy went to poke fun at social conventions and proper manners, it always operated, whether voluntarily or through coercion, within certain limits:

Throughout most of Hollywood history, screen comedy was forced by fiat to adhere to strict standards.  The Production Code, the commandments that regulated the moral content and refined tastes of classical Hollywood cinema from 1930 to 1968, laid down the law for clowns and comics. ‘Vulgarity is the treatment of the low, disgusting, unpleasant subjects which decent society considers outlawed from normal conversation,’ it declared with touching certainty.  Vulgarity had to be censored out of motion pictures “in precisely the same way as in decent groups of men and women by the dictates of good taste and civilized usage. (Doherty, 1999, B8)
     Today, those strictures have been removed, and filmmakers are exercising a greater degree of creative control than ever before.  Mainstream directors are taking artistic risks--- it’s not just the teen-oriented comedies and splatter films which are changing the boundaries of taste.  Sometimes, those risks are lauded, as with Steven Spielberg’s well-received “Saving Private Ryan,” which was hailed as a triumph of filmmaking despite its graphic and realistic scenes of battlefield carnage.  Often, however, the excesses of A-list directors serve no moral or instructive purpose, and are met with critical scorn.  Take the case of Joel Schumacher, who earned the contempt of reviewers nationwide with the lurid and unwatchable “8mm,” set in the seedy world of sadomasochistic sex and snuff films.

     For now, however, most eyes are watching the trends in big screen humor.  Doherty (1999) sees what’s happening in film as a crucible for the trends in all of popular culture:

At such moments, gross-out comedy highlights the schizophrenia of a culture whose most popular entertainment cannot be spoken of at the dinner table or in classrooms without fear of reprimand or lawsuit.  In an irony thick enough for the filmmakers themselves to appreciate, the success of the genre reverses the usual relationship between private and public manners: The vile stunt once restricted to the locker room or frat house has become popular entertainment, but to describe certain scenes violates the bounds of most private conversations. (p. B9)
      Why all of the scrutiny of comedies, you ask?  Because despite their occasional “R” ratings, these films make most of their money from teenagers.  Need a crash course in everything you always wanted to know about sex and bodily fluids?  Visit the comedy aisle at your local Blockbuster video store, and you can learn about diarrhea (“Dumb and Dumber”), stool samples and penis enlargers (“Austin Powers”), semen (“There’s Something About Mary”), dildoes (“South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut”), and bestiality (“Me, Myself and Irene.”)

     Not everyone is up in arms about the current state of affairs in movies.  Author/film historian William Paul rhapsodizes in his 1994 Laughing, Screaming: Modern Hollywood Horror and Comedy: “In the free-form give-and-take of its licentious manner, this type of film speaks in the voice of festive freedom, uncorrected and unconstrained by the reality principle—fresh, open, aggressive, seemingly improvised, and always ambivalent.” (p. 57)

     Like it or not, authors such as Cooper (1999) seem resigned to the idea that the gross-out movie is here to stay: “There will always be room for wholesome entertainment in Hollywood.  Nevertheless, in a goodly portion of the marketplace, there is a clear tendency to make a spectacle of the disgusting and depraved.” (p. 62).  Doherty (1999) is somewhat more philosophical on the subject: “Maybe that’s a matter of taste, a matter worth contemplating when the line is so thin between what gags make you laugh--- and what laughs make you gag.” (p. B9)

     Entertainment Weekly film critic Lisa Schwarzbaum examined the declining taste level in music, television and film in a risk-taking essay entitled “Lewd Awakenings.”  She admits that in criticizing popular culture’s burgeoning love affair with the profane, she is “biting the hand that feeds her.” (Schwarzbaum, 2000)  Schwarzbaum isn’t alone among media pundits in worrying about the effects of this trend.  In 1992, Michael Medved wrote that “this fascination with filth goes to the heart of the current crisis in popular culture,” and attributed the gross-out trend to “the increasingly influential notion that the most important form of aesthetic expression is that which will shock the public and challenge outmoded standards of decency.” (p. 114)

     George Will, writing in the relatively tame days of 1990, minced even fewer words, and worried about “America’s slide into the sewer” (p. 64)  Tom Fontana, creator of HBO’s gritty prison drama “Oz,” disagrees with that negative assessment: “I think, as a country, that it’s not like we’re spiraling downward so much as it is we’re being more honest with ourselves.”  (Schwarzbaum, 2000, p. 26)

     Director Paul Verhoeven, auteur of such films as “Basic Instinct” and “Showgirls,” resents the ideas that the creative personnel should somehow be responsible for protecting the minds of the American public: “I feel that I have no responsibility except to myself.  It’s my moral judgment—what I can tolerate.  And that is what an artist is for—the antennae of society.  Art should not be something that’s nice and friendly and safe.” (Schwarzbaum, 2000)

     Schwarzbaum and Verhoeven, locked in an ideological staredown, both bring up a sticky point:  Who’s to decide what constitutes art?  Was “Showgirls” art?  Maybe what critics are concerned about isn’t the obscenity itself, but the lack of political or cultural context.  While the European tradition, reaching back to Rabelais, Swift, Chaucer and even the ancient Greek comic playwrights, was about challenging existing structures and stimulating debate, this newest wave of shock treatment seems aimed at younger and more vulnerable audiences.

     Of course, I mostly fret about the effects of all of this unbridled excess on the “fragile little minds,” of our youngsters (to borrow a phrase from “South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut.”)  I’m not alone in that concern (see Zuckermann, 1995).  But somewhere, deep down, it must me taking its toll on all of us. Are adults becoming unshockable, too?

     Perhaps we are prisoners of our own desires and our own inertia, like a pleasure boat headed on an inexorable course toward a whirlpool.  Potter (1998) likens our need for increasingly shocking and explicit fare to the effects of a highly addictive drug: “When we build up a tolerance for an effect, we want more.  Each time we go back, we require more from the media to get the same rush.  With entertainment, we want a more outrageous story line, more attractive characters, more visual effects.  If the media can give us only the same kind of messages, we do not feel the rush.” (p. 274)

     Cooper (1999) concurs: “With regard to the subject at hand, it seems that the movies will be caught in a vicious cycle.  To the extent that certain movie patrons find the most crude aspects of sex and violence desirable, filmmakers will have to go to greater lengths to satiate their appetites.”  (p. 62)

     Will (1990) is convinced that we are becoming hardened to our cultural input, and that our social structures are suffering for it: “Certainly, the coarsening of a community, the desensitizing of a society will have behavioral consequences.” (p. 64)  In failing to present a blunter analysis of this trend, Will suggests that the media are complicit:

 There is nothing new about selling the talentless to the tasteless.  What is new is the combination of extreme infantilism and menace in the profit-driven degeneration of popular entertainment.  This slide into the sewer is greased by praise.  When journalism flinches from presenting the raw reality, and instead says [for example] only that 2 Live Crew’s lyrics are ‘explicit’ and ‘controversial’ and ‘provocative,’ there is an undertone of approval.  Antonyms of those adjectives are ‘vague’ and ‘bland’ and ‘unchallenging.’ (Will, 1990, p. 64)
     Schwarzbaum (2000) charges that our own passivity makes us complicit as well:  “So eager are we not the be the kind of rubes unsettled by provocateurs like Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor, so indulgent are we… of anything that at least doesn’t bore us, that we’re unnecessarily tolerant of raunch. The notion of indecency has become obsolete.” (p. 22)

     Maybe adults, myself included, are being hypocritical---after all, no one forces me to watch “Sex and the City,” or even to subscribe to cable in the first place.  After all, aren’t the media just giving us what we want?  We’re consumers: we vote with our checkbooks.  The duc de la Rouchefoucauld said it best all those years ago: “Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue.”  Our hypocrisy, however,  comes at a steep price.  As a society, we heed the rallying cry to save endangered species and to battle the tobacco industry, but we’re curiously uncritical of the media content we expose ourselves and our children to.  As George Will writes, “Only a deeply confused society is more concerned about protecting lungs than minds, trout than black women.” (Will, 1990, p. 64)

     Schwarzbaum (2000) alludes to the real danger:

If anything goes, then these days we’re going particularly fast and far.  The fence that separates the decent from the indecent has so many holes in it that homophobes, racists, misogynists, and common potty mouths step through unchallenged.  Smirking all the way to the bank, they’re indistinguishable from artists and innovators of real, if disturbing, substance. (p. 22)


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