Must-see TV, or mandatory diversity?

Emma Teitel on TV’s modern censorship crusaders

Short-lived: Lena Dunham (left) wrote a black character into the second season of Girls, a Republican played by Donald Glover (right). (HBO Canada/Astral Media)

Historically, the aim of television censorship has been pretty straightforward, if ultimately doomed: sex, or anything that made you think of having it, was supposed to be as unsexy as humanly possible when it was on TV. “Indecency regulations”—the kind that kept married characters sleeping in separate beds—arrived in the 1930s. In the 1950s, CBS famously cropped out Elvis Presley’s gyrating pelvis on the Ed Sullivan Show, and in 2004, the world saw Janet Jackson’s nipple for a fraction of a second, which, for the Federal Communications Commission in the United States, was one fraction too many (the FCC tried to fine CBS $550,000 for the infamous “nip slip,” but the United States Supreme Court threw out the charge last year). Sex persevered. A study by a U.S. non-profit in 2005 found that sexual content on TV had almost doubled since 1998. I wouldn’t be surprised if that number has quadrupled since. What’s more, censorship initiatives by socially conservative groups that would have certainly succeeded in the nipple-wary past are seldom successful today. Groups like the Parents Television Council, for example, and One Million Moms, consistently try—and fail—to get supposedly inappropriate content off the air: from gay romance on Fox’s Glee, to sacrilege on ABC’s GCB (Good Christian Bitches), some things just don’t shock like they used to. This is certainly one of the reasons networks have stopped trying to appease the traditionally squeamish—but it’s not the only one. They’ve also stopped because there’s a new squeamishness on the rise, one that’s concerned not with what TV portrays too much of, but rather, with what it doesn’t portray enough.

Take CBS: the network is no longer under fire for depicting too much sexuality, but for failing to depict the right kind. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) gave CBS a failing grade on its “network responsibility index” this year, for its apparent lack of sexual diversity; that is, not enough gay and transgendered characters. GLAAD puts out two reports annually, one rating the American networks on overall “LGBT impressions” and another that looks at LGBT characters in the TV season to come. Apparently, the reports work. Matt Kane, GLAAD’s associate director of entertainment media, says, “CBS responded, saying they would do better. We have worked with their diversity department in recent years and they seem to have been making a concerted effort to improve diversity on their network.” Kane says his group’s earlier efforts may have actually led to the production of the gay-themed TV show, Partners, although the comedy was cancelled almost immediately after it aired.

In a similar fashion, HBO’s Girls, arguably the most sexually explicit show on television right now, has also succumbed to public pressure over its lack of diversity. When the show first premiered, social media was rife with complaints that creator Lena Dunham’s omission of non-white characters was “unrealistic” and, some critics suggested, downright racist. Dunham told NPR that she took the criticism very seriously, which is why, presumably, she wrote a black character into the second season of Girls—an African-American Republican named Sandy, who lasted about as long as CBS’s Partners did. It turns out affirmative action and fiction don’t really mix. But the criticism didn’t stop at racial representation. Dunham’s current critics argue that there’s lack of “verbal consent” between sexual partners on Girls, as though the TV show were a public service announcement you’d watch in health class.

Paul Levinson, a media professor at Fordham University in New York and author of the book New New Media, doesn’t find any of this depressing. He’d prefer that audiences—not regulators—pester networks and TV writers. “It’s not as though the gatekeepers who decided what got on television in the past did a very good job, so I think it’s a very healthy thing that viewers have much more power over what gets into television than they ever had before,” he says.

It would be easy to agree with Levinson if we were just discussing the merits of something like Kickstarter—the website that allows users to fund artistic projects (the Veronica Mars movie, for example)—or any other medium that gives an audience freedom of choice. But we’re talking about the merits of an audience manipulating a piece of art so that it meets a certain ethical standard. And that doesn’t sound like power to me. It sounds like censorship.

The people at GLAAD and those who criticize Dunham do not likely see themselves as prudish or censorious. And they certainly don’t see themselves in league with the Parents Television Council or One Million Moms. But their crusade for inclusion is fundamentally no different than their opponents’ crusade for exclusion. Both groups believe that art, fine or popular, must fulfill a moral obligation—that its purpose is not to portray the world as it is, but as it should be. Carried to the extreme, “moral” art like this is just another version of state-sponsored art, the kind you could have found in the Soviet Union yesterday, and Saudi Arabia today. Ironically, it violates the fundamental moral raison d’être behind art since the beginning of campfires: to hold up a mirror to nature. Worse, it violates the fundamental amoral one, which any TV watcher knows is even more important. It’s boring.

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