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December 7, 2009

What the Heck Is Wrong with You Americans?


Family entertainment


Not


My goodness, Americans these days are effed up.*

I refer specifically to the behaviors that are tolerated nowadays on your television shows and in your workaday lives—as contrasted with behaviors that still aren’t. To wit, three case studies.

Case Study 1: The evolution of sex and violence on network TV.

The last time I lived in America for a full year, police... Hey! I'm talking to you here! Would you stop looking at the red-headed lady? Please. I mean, those are some very cute bosoms. So cute, in fact, that you can stare at that picture for minutes without noticing all the weird-ass shit going on in the background. Anyway, let's just agree that those are some very cute bosoms and more on, shall we?

As I was saying...

The last time I lived in America for a full year, police dramas featured abundant gunplay, much to the chagrin of right-thinking parents, but little gore. Victims were fatally shot in the chest or back, never in the head, and their lives trickled out of them ever so subtly, with nothing more than a dime-sized spot of blood on their shirts to show for it by commercial break. Far more popular than cop shows at that time were the jiggle-fests of the day as exemplified by Charlie’s Angels and Three’s Company. The miniseries Roots had recently shattered the ethnic-boobs-in-prime-time barrier, so there was every expectation that Caucasian nipples too would become standard network fare before the passing of Cheryl Ladd's prime.

Fast-forward thirty years, and what hath Aaron Spelling wrought? Granted, bare butts and women of no less radiance than Katherine Heigl can be ogled nightly in their underwear. But bare boobs of any hue? Janet Jackson’s mishap at the 2004 Super Bowl still haunts network executives. To this day, there exist people who in tremulous whispers refer to the episode as “Nipplegate.”

Meanwhile, a typical episode of a series like NCIS or Bones shows not only the grisly demise of at least one person, but what happens to that person after the commercial break—i.e., the autopsy. It appears that the cheery, unflappable medical examiner—a literal sawbones—has emerged as a sort of comic stock character in American television of our era, like the nosey neighbor of old sitcoms or the volcanic, empty-threat-hurling lieutenant of old cop shows. The autopsy doctor is the spoonful of sugar that helps the bitter medicine—i.e., having to watch a realistic facsimile of a human being get ripped apart—go down.

Of course, there is always some strategic blurring in these scenes to protect the fragile sensibilities of our youth. Not of the sawing or the ripping, mind you, but of the groin area and, if the victim is female, the chest. For that is America in the year 2009 in a nutshell: Watching a dead lady’s face get peeled off her skull? Now, that’s family entertainment. Just make sure the kids aren’t exposed to her nipples. Good heavens. Back in the Seventies, Quincy was a medical examiner, too. But he never actually examined anybody.

I typed the preceding paragraphs while watching American network TV shows, and in the course of my typing, I saw a man get speared through the head (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles) and another man get sucked arm-first through a demonically possessed garbage disposal (Supernatural). There was also a “sex scene” in there with hot actors, one of whom used to be a dork on 90210, pulling off each other’s shirts, but the exposure ended at lingerie. Cut, go to commercial, then post-coital chitchat with the sheets pulled up to the collarbones.

Well into the twenty-first century, Americans still live in a world where a woman on a network series who wakes up in the morning naked will actually pull the bedsheets off the bed and wrap them around her body to make the brief walk off-screen, even if she is home alone, rather than expose her nude body for two seconds. I don’t want to live in such a world as America in 2009 seems to be. That’s one reason why, in fact, I don’t.

Case Study 2: Cursing.

When George Carlin introduced the seven words that you can’t say on TV in 1972, he acknowledged that the list was fated to become outdated. He was mainly ambivalent about putting tits on it, and as expected, the word is frequently flaunted on TV nowadays even as tits themselves remain taboo. Piss is no big deal these days and even shit and asshole have made inroads.

At the same time, another of Carlin’s marginal choices has actually gained a few megatons of destructive power since 1972. I refer, of course, to cunt. Personally, I’ve always found the word rather repugnant, not to mention unsexy, and have eschewed it except when quoting others. But no one in 1972 could have foreseen lowly cunt acquiring the gasp-inducing status that it holds today. The pivotal role it played in the 2007 film Atonement caused quite a stir; and the writers of 30 Rock had a lot of fun dancing around the word’s articulation in a memorable episode.

I suspect cunt experienced this heady ascendency by default as its erstwhile sidekick bitch gradually lost its shock value. Women sort of co-opted bitch over the years the same way gays defanged queer—no one more so than the estimable Elizabeth Wurtzel. But that’s beside the point, the point being: What’s wrong with you Americans, who can say tits and piss the livelong day and even throw in the occasional asshole, but still react to cunt as if it were holy water and sunlight?

Case Study 3: Sex Acts

I realize that I’m straying dangerously into Andy Rooney old-crank territory here, but what is up with all the fellatio nowadays? And yes, there is so a lot more fellatio than there used to be. William Saletan at Slate wrote a piece about the normalization of oral sex last year. Predictably, he immediately heard from scores of weenies calling him a fuddy-duddy for not realizing that oral sex had always been common. Just as predictably, Saletan fired back quickly with data to back up his thesis.

And come on. Even without the data, any American over forty knows that oral sex used to be the last thing couples did together, not the first. In my high school, hearing that certain couples had started “doing it” was mundane—if depressing—news, easily forgotten by the end of study hall. Hearing that Sally VanderVinne had actually put Woody Woodbridge's wood in her mouth, on the other hand… Well, one never looked at either of them the same way after that.

Generally, I’m not one to benumb youngsters with tales of How Bad Things Used to Be. I’ve always wanted a better world for my nieces and nephews. I’ve never begrudged them their cushier lives. But this is too much. I’m sorry, but there’s no way that you ungrateful little weasels deserve to experience the joys of giving and receiving oral sex more frequently and carelessly than my generation did. We survived the Disco Era, for God’s sake.

Then again, I can hardly pin the blame on you younger folks for getting your license to enjoy guilt-free oral sex. It was a certain someone half a generation older than me, after all, who got those balls rolling. Yes, it was Clinton more than any other individual who helped codify the notion that fellatio doesn’t count as an actual act of sex, but falls rather into the same category as a very vigorous handshake.

That today’s high school students not only revel in fellatio but frequently film each other doing it is all Clinton’s fault, critics say, and I am inclined to agree, though I would quibble with the use of “fault.” If the man has actually and permanently made blowjobs safe for democracy, then I would call that a legacy rather than a fault—likely his best chance of getting his face on money if there is any justice (and any paper money) in the future.

Having said all that, though, you Americans today, I tell you… You sure are effed up.



* I labored for a good ten minutes over that lede, typing first “you Americans” and then “we Americans.” Neither worked, and I finally came to the realization that what I want to write about today is not my identity crisis as an expat American but rather the pluperfect effed-upedness of Americans still living in America.