In my previous blog I discussed the (real and performative) outrage over Will Smith attacking Chris Rock at the Oscars, and the curious lack of outrage over co-host Amy Schumer’s long history of (alleged) racism. From racist jokes to behavior, Schumer’s past would seem to be problematic—especially for an Oscars that, for the first time, was run by an all-black production team. I wondered whether Schumer’s inclusion would only be seen (or, if you prefer, recognized) as problematic in retrospect.
My interest here is the how the subjective assumptions of harm change over time.
The question of “How did we not see this?” is often asked, retrospectively, about problematic entertainment such as beloved teen comedies including The Breakfast Club.
This response is interesting for a couple of reasons, including that the film’s plot contains a problematic theme or message. Of course many popular films and TV shows have potentially problematic plots, ranging from murder to incest to abuse (Game of Thrones, for example, manages a hat trick here); there’s nothing necessarily bad or toxic about messed up plots. So the real concern seems to be that The Breakfast Club—to take just one prominent example—was intended to depict aspirational and healthy real-life situations; that is that the audiences watched the film and believed that the characters’ behaviors were good or should be modeled. For many reasons—including having a background in psychology, education, and media literacy—I don’t actually think that’s a valid assumption (for more on this, see my CFI blog Fifty Shades of…Fear).
Policing Problematic Content
There is a long history of people fearing what nefarious influences in entertainment—typically on those society deems most gullible and feeble-minded; in centuries past this usually meant women and children, and in practice this fear of entertainment was often used to justify censorship and women’s oppression. The same principle underlies recent conservative concerns over Critical Race Theory and the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bills. The foundational fear is that children will be influenced—that is, corrupted—by exposure to information (never mind that Critical Race Theory has never been taught in public schools).
In her 2001 book Not In Front of the Children: ‘Indecency,’ Censorship, and the Innocence of Youth, Marjorie Heins notes that “Contemporary concerns about shielding children and adolescents from corrupting sexual ideas are traceable directly to Victorian-era fears that libidinous thoughts would lead to the ‘secret vice’ of masturbation. Proscriptions against arousing literature, relatively rare before 1800, thus became pervasive in the century that followed.”
Those proscriptions were often formalized into law. “The purpose of obscenity law was thus to prevent immoral literature from falling into the wrong hands, whether they be those of servants, the mentally deficient, women, or minors. That women and mental defectives were included among the classes to be ‘protected’ was consistent with the ideology of an era when, as Peter Gay recounts, women were also classed with ‘criminals, idiots, and minors’ for purposes of property and inheritance law.”
Though ostensibly claimed to protect women, the fears were used to oppress them, deny their agency, and treat them as vulnerable victims. In fact, Anthony Comstock, director of the notorious censorship-happy Society for the Suppression of Vice, singled out feminists for targeting. Concerns over needing to “protect” delicate women from potentially harmful materials was a central feature of Comstock’s misogynistic mission. Suffragette and birth control advocate Mary Ware Dennett wrote a frank (and sex-positive) sex education pamphlet The Sex Side of Life in 1911, which later caused her to be targeted by Comstock. For more, see my interview with feminist sex educator Shelby Knox.
What’s often missed in these arguments is that in many cases there were people objecting to the content at the time, and they were largely ignored. Why? Because the people complaining were often (rightly or wrongly) dismissed as religious fundamentalist ninnies who needed to lighten up and take a joke.
I lived through it and remember it well; the Moral Majority crowd and Tipper Gore, among many others, were trying to tell musicians and artists what content they should create (and succeeded in getting parental warning labels on potentially objectionable music content that remains to this day). For a reminder, see RUN-DMC’s video for their hit “Mary Mary,” which features protesters complaining about the sex and violence in rap videos.
It’s satire, of course, but represents a vocal minority that tried to curb entertainment, from RUN DMC and NWA to Guns N Roses to Judas Priest. It wasn’t just rap lyrics; it was also violent video games and even tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons—with all the accompanying Satanic Panic fears. And, yes, it was also raunchy teen comedies of the 1980s and 1990s, claimed to be exposing impressionable youth to inappropriate language, nudity, and sex.
I always wonder what things we take as acceptable today will be considered problematic in 20 or 30 years. For example the recent Superbowl halftime performance was widely praised, but featured at least three performers who have been accused of rape, abuse against women, and/or having violent, rapey and homophobic lyrics (Eminem, Dre, and Snoop Dogg). Some conservatives predictably groused, but the liberals and progressives were another matter. Most of them (rightly) praised the show for its diversity and performance, but were conspicuously silent about the problematic pasts of several of the performers. Like Amy Schumer four months later—and, arguably, like The Breakfast Club some 37 years earlier—it was ignored.
To be clear: I take no particular offense at any of these performers—Dre’s NWA colleague Eazy-E is more my style, and I’ve seen Schumer perform live—but why their problematic pasts were ignored is an interesting question: Is it a lack of sufficient sensitivity (what some might derisively term “wokeness”), or due to the inherently subjective and ambiguous nature of outrage and offense, or even hypocrisy?
Were 2022 audiences oblivious to, or unaware of, Schumer’s racist past or the problematic pasts of Eminem, Dre, and Snoop Dogg? Possibly. Or they just didn’t care or take it seriously because they were enjoying the show.
Were 1985 audiences oblivious to, or unaware of, the (apparently) problematic themes in The Breakfast Club? Possibly. Or they just didn’t care or take it seriously because they were enjoying the show.
Will our kids look back and shake their heads in dismay about why we didn’t stand up and protest? Are we right now to let those things pass without objection, or were we right then? In other words if the difference is that we (that is, kids today and ourselves) are more enlightened than we were back then, why aren’t we (and they) expressing due outrage now?
Part of the answer may lie in the fact that the idea that lay audiences have a social obligation to complain or “make their voices heard” and warn others about potentially problematic scenes and themes in entertainment is a relatively recent development. In decades past, some people might complain about sex or violence in entertainment, but it was often a handful of self-appointed moral guardians (Anthony Comstock, Fredric Wertham, or Tipper Gore, for example) who would champion the cause, often for personal and political gain.
But there has been a rise in offense culture over the past decade—greatly enabled by social media—of people who feel the need to denounce and highlight materials they believe are socially damaging, regardless of whether there is any objective evidence for that harm or not. It’s not so much that audiences in the 1980s didn’t necessarily find some of the materials objectionable—although most didn’t—rather, most just didn’t feel the need to vigorously denounce it. Cultural sensitivity has dramatically changed, but it’s also that most people in the 1980s and 1990s didn’t fear that innocuous teen films of the era would or could damage America’s moral fiber.
Chronically popular-but-politically incorrect (and often sexually explicit) television shows such as Archer, Shameless, Family Guy, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Girls, and Game of Thrones, to name just a few, demonstrate that American appetites for crudity are as strong as ever. Game of Thrones is an especially interesting example; it was widely praised and beloved by critics and fans alike, winning a Peabody, 59 Emmies, and eight Screen Actors Guild Awards. It was also criticized by some for depictions of rape, as well as gratuitous nudity and violence. Will the next generation wonder how such a (potentially) problematic and sexist show could have been so popular among both women and men?
It would be a difficult task to find an American over the age of 13 who has not seen some of this questionable content; the fact that acting like the characters in these shows is not an epidemic problem in our country bears out the theory that viewers are able to enjoy crude comedies or dramas without absorbing some polluting message that will alter their behavior or morals. By the same token, introducing grade schoolers to age-appropriate gender identity issues isn’t likely to cause harm. As long as the debate remains unanchored in scientific evidence of demonstrable harm, the cycle will continue.
A longer version of this piece appeared on my CFI website blog.