Ed Vitagliano | AFA Journal News Editor
Sex, sex and more sex. That seems to be the single-minded recipe
for network programming these days, whether the shows are well-written
or, much more frequently, a pitiful excuse for entertainment.
On the March 13 episode of NBCs popular sitcom Friends, for
example, there was an overflow of vulgar humor about sex: jokes
about Ross promiscuity, his lesbian ex-wife, Ross having sex
with a dinosaur, and the size of Ross genitals; about Chandler
being a homosexual and liking gay porn; about Monica
being transgendered; about Phoebes sex life with Mike; and
about Joeys promiscuity. Thats in a half-hour show
not including commercial air time.
Such sexual blitzkrieg is usually defended by Hollywood supporters
as a reflection of real life, as if sitcoms like Friends were merely
humorous documentaries. In other words, if you want to see how most
Americans are living their lives, take a peek at bed-hopping Joey
Alan Wurtzel, president of research and media development at NBC,
oversees network standards, argued, Its not like TV
is a parallel universe. TV is the reflector of the values society
culture of caricature
Rather than being a reflection of the lives lived by the American
people, however, television is much more likely to be a distortion,
in much the same way a carnival mirror warps the image of the one
staring into it.
Several years ago Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) said, The tastes
of a segment of our society are dictating the culture for everyone.
This is not the America most of us know, yet that is the way we
are portrayed consistently
. [T]he entertainment industry
is transforming us into a culture of caricature.
What does that skewed image look like when it comes to sex? A 1995
editorial in the Omaha World-Herald said it well: Viewed through
the TV screen, America looks like a nation in which men are forever
rutting, women are usually in heat and virtues such as modesty and
politeness have been replaced with dirty dancing and gutter-level
If TV merely reflects reality as Wurtzel claims, then we must assume
that adults frequently turn discussions about the frustrations of
everyday life into conversations with lewd overtones. For example,
on the March 20 episode of NBCs Good Morning, Miami,
Jakes grandmother enters his office and blurts this series
of double entendres (all to abundant audience laughter): I
got dinged in the parking lot.
Im lucky I can still
I got nailed in the rear by a black Escort.
Jake retorts, Please tell me you had an [automobile] accident!
If the small screen presents an accurate picture of real life, then
we must sadly conclude that adults feel no qualms about discussing
masturbation in public. On the February 13 episode of Will &
Grace (NBC), Grace and Karen are in a coffee shop, and Grace
asks her friend why she hasnt even touched her muffin.
In a loud voice, Karen replies that, since she and her husband,
Stan, split up, Ive done nothing but touch my muffin!
If television manifests the truth of American cultural life, then
we must suppose that most discussions about the opposite sex quickly
turn raunchy. On the March 13 episode of Will & Grace,
Karen tells her maid, Rosario, that she just met a new guy.
Are you sure you just didnt lean into the doorknob again?
Later there is a joke about the size of Jacks genitals, as
Jack holds up a large, wooden salt shaker. Will, however, hands
him a small wine bottle cork instead, and laughter makes clear that
the audience has understood the message.
In the real world of television, people frequently joke
about genitals, such as when Deaq tells his partner Van to think
with the big head on the March 7 episode of Fastlane
(Fox). In fact, in the TV version of reality, adults dont
bat an eye when others use crude euphemisms for both male and female
genitals (Good Morning, Miami, February 27, March 6; Will
& Grace, February 20; and Scrubs, NBC, February 20.)
Despite Hollywoods argument that television merely reflects
the lives of most Americans, all evidence points to a different
reality: most Americans are sick of all the sex on TV.
One survey, for example, found that 77% of respondents said there
was too much sexual content on television, while another poll revealed
that 71% of people thought that the more explicit portrayal of sex
and nudity on television encouraged immorality.
Yet, despite the consistently high opposition to so much sexual
content on television, networks are showing sex more often, not
less. According to a study released by the Henry J. Kaiser Family
Foundation, between 1997 and 2002 the percentage of shows with sexual
content rose from 56% to 64%, and the percentage of shows depicting
or strongly implying sexual intercourse doubled.
Real life consequences?
Perhaps the most disturbing characteristic of the sex shown on network
television, however, is that the casual sex lives of regular characters
usually carry no consequences.
Over the last two seasons, Friends at least had the chutzpah
to write into its story line the fact that the characters
swinging lifestyles might have consequences, when Rachel got pregnant
from one errant rendezvous with Ross. However, in its nine-year
history, showing a single consequence for the randy cast of regulars
on Friends is hardly the height of responsibility.
It would have been a more accurate depiction of reality if one of
the characters on Friends had contracted an incurable sexually transmitted
disease just like one in five sexually active adults in the
Such consequences are rarely, if ever, seen on TV. If television
reflects reality, why dont 46% of teenage girls on TV, after
having sexual intercourse just one time, contract the human papilloma
virus just like they do in real life? Why dont one
in five television characters 12 years old and older test positive
for genital herpes just like they do in real life?
One must assume that, in the make-believe world of network television,
that kind of reality is just too difficult to face.