Under The Influence

March 06, 1994|By J. D. Considine

People have always complained about the pernicious

influence of popular culture, but until recently, it was considered a fairly minor menace. Reading Superman instead of Shakespeare or choosing Chuck Berry over Beethoven might coarsen your taste or stunt your intellectual growth, but it certainly wouldn't kill you.

These days, we're not so sure.

Concern over the amount of sex and violence in television, movies, pop music and video games -- from "Basic Instinct" to "Mortal Kombat" to "NYPD Blue" to Snoop Doggy Dogg's "Doggy Style" -- has escalated beyond outrage to public protest. At the same time, citizens are shocked by a record-breaking arrest rate for children and a national homicide rate that's growing six times as fast as the population.

Is there a connection between entertainment and anti-social behavior?

A lot of people think so. Pressure to put an end to sexist and violent entertainment has increased during the last six months, as action groups like the National Coalition on Television Violence and the National Political Congress of Black Women have issued statements and organized protests to help put an end to murder-filled TV shows and misogynous rap records.

Meanwhile, Illinois Sen. Paul Simon and Attorney General Janet Reno have threatened that if the entertainment industry doesn't clean up its act, the government will do the job.

Unfortunately, sex and violence aren't as easy to define as the activists and politicians would have us believe, nor are the supposed links between such entertainment and anti-social behavior quite so clearly drawn.

In fact, despite the urgency with which this crusade to clean up popular culture is being presented, there's reason to wonder if it represents anything more than just another cycle in the continuing conflict between America's government and its entertainment industries.

That's not to say that popular culture is entirely without blame, or that the problems posed by this sort of entertainment aren't worth examining. But unless we put the issues into context, we'll never have an accurate sense of the impact fictionalized sex and violence have on American culture.


What do we mean when we talk about sex and violence in popular culture?

It's not as naive a question as it might seem. Movies, music, television and video are all representational forms -- that is, they use images and metaphors instead of physical reality -- and as such deal with these topics both explicitly and implicitly. Consequently, what we see may be as obvious as a bare buttock, or as subtle as a cocked hip and sly smile.

Nor is the audience impact necessarily gauged to the degree of explicitness. Some movies show battle scenes where soldiers die by the score, and all the audience registers is the slight excitement of noise and action; others may suggest a slap by offering only a sound and a cringing reaction from another character, and leave everyone in the theater with a racing pulse and raging emotions.

Most talk of regulating sexual and violent content ignores such subtleties, though. What we get instead are tote-lists and incident-per-hour counts that reduce content to an undifferentiated mass of "sex" or "violence." That kind of approach may make sense if you're talking about the amount of fat in foods, but not when you're dealing with something as complex as popular culture.

Take TV violence. "During the gulf war, we saw all kinds of vicious imagery being commented on in chortling fashion by Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell," observes Frank Lentricchia, the Katherine Everett Gilbert professor of literature at Duke University. "Watching these bombs go down chimneys, watching the reporters laugh at the quips of Powell or Schwarzkopf. And there was humor along with it.

"I'm not saying I didn't enjoy the humor myself. But is this OK? Or should we censor this as well?"

It's not just an idle question. Although anti-violence activists speak dreamily of a ratings system and even a V-chip in TV sets that will automatically screen out violent programming, it's worth remembering that much of the violence depicted on broadcast television these days arrives in the form of news-based programming -- anything from "48 Hours" to "America's Most Wanted" to "Cops." In fact, if you take reality-based programming out of the equation, the TV-violence rate is at its lowest point in almost two decades, according to xxxxxx. So if we cut back on violence, do we then censor the news?

Likewise, some of the sexiest stuff on the tube these days isn't programming, but advertisement.

"[Movie director] Brian DePalma makes the point that 'if you're going to censor me, you'll also have to censor Calvin Klein,' " says Linda Kauffman, a professor of English at the University of Maryland. But as she points out, there's far less pressure on advertisers to regulate content or reduce sexual objectification, because advertising is seen not as art but as business.

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