washingtonpost.com  > Opinion > Columnists > Marjorie Williams

Propriety Malfunction

By Marjorie Williams
Thursday, February 5, 2004; Page A21

Let me get this straight. The federal government and a huge posse of editorial writers have got their knickers in a twist because Super Bowl watchers -- children, even! -- were exposed for a few seconds to the corrupting sight of Janet Jackson's right breast.

Two objections spring quickly to mind. If the powers that be had their way, we would erase the whole episode and be deprived of the wonderful coinage "wardrobe malfunction," which is singer Justin Timberlake's craven explanation of how the whole thing happened. As it is, the Federal Communications Commission has launched an investigation of the entire halftime show; CBS has apologized for the behavior of its Viacom-owned sibling network, MTV; MTV has claimed it had no idea that its performers had planned a finale so vulgar it could appear only on, well, MTV. And the NFL has threatened to do . . . something.

"That was fun," said Justin Timberlake of his performance with Janet Jackson, before changing his tune. (Win Mcnamee -- Reuters)

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The other objection is this: It seems that only the desecration of a sacred, adult-male-oriented rite can awaken Authority's outrage at the slime in which our children are daily bathed. (The Super Bowl isn't supposed to be about nudity, dammit! It's supposed to be about enormous men trying to maim each other's kidneys!) Janet Jackson's breast is probably the most wholesome thing your average 12-year-old has seen in a year of Sundays.

It's almost boring to repeat the long list of hazards parents are supposed to police. There's basic cable (including MTV), which is increasingly the only way you can have television worth watching. There are movies, and their phony ratings. The federal government publishes a pocket guide to our various ratings systems, advising that there are two ways a movie can get bumped up from PG to PG-13: Either for "mature scenes" (I'm not quite sure what a mature scene is, but it probably leads to breasts and such) plus a single act of violence, or for "violence, including bloody aftermath of a shooting." It would be funny, if it weren't so damning, that we can so earnestly codify a distinction like that one.

Remember the noisy debate that followed a 2000 Federal Trade Commission report nailing the "pervasive and aggressive marketing" that Hollywood used to lure kids even to R-rated movies? Today, PG films are still preceded by trailers for violent movies. PG-13 movies have merchandising spinoffs intended for 5-year-olds. Even movies made for kids are full of smarmy innuendo, apparently devised as little winks to keep the adults amused. But the entire debate has drifted to the deepfreeze where all politically opportunistic issues go until they need to be recycled.

Not that Hollywood is the only sinner. You may have to be the parent of a preteen boy to appreciate how central video games have become to their peer culture -- and the deviousness with which violent games are marketed even to 10-year-olds. The industry tirelessly blurs the distinction between games rated "E" (for Everyone) and "T" (anyone between 13 and 17, when theoretically they can move up to the true mayhem suggested by an "M" rating -- for "Mature"). In strategy magazines, Pokemon and Harry Potter games are listed, with no ratings shown, side by side with games like "Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe."

Check out ads for the new, T-rated game "Go! Go! Hypergrind." ("Crude. Crazy. Constitutionally Protected," its maker crows in Nintendo Power, a magazine for owners of the ubiquitous portable Game Boy or the larger GameCube system.) "The wacky, cel-shaded skateboarders can be subjected to numerous humiliations, such as being set on fire, flattened, and covered in caca!" Tell me that "caca" is intended to lure 15-year-olds, and I'll sell you the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

Episodes of outrage at pop culture always end with finger-wagging in the direction of parents. Yes, of course, we parents must draw lines. We could refuse to ever take our 10-year-olds to a PG-13 movie; we could avoid fast-food restaurants, one of the major gateways through which younger kids are made aware of products supposedly intended for older ones; we could refuse to cave to the lure of video games. We could program our V-chips (however they work) and forbid any television content more mature than SpongeBob.

We can police their use of the Internet stringently: say, sign them up for America Online's toughest e-mail screening program. When I checked my 8-year-old's mail just now, I saw that it offered her a look at "P.A.R.I.S. H.I.L.T.O.N. XXX Video!" and a "prescription drug blowout sale, valium, xanax and many others," but at least she didn't get any offers this week to enlarge her penis. (In fairness to AOL, it does prevent my kids from actually entering these sites. But I don't really want to explain to my daughter how Paris Hilton got famous, in between arguments about why I won't buy any of the roughly 85 percent of clothes manufactured in size 8 that are calculated to make a little girl look like a hooker.) Popular culture, as every parent knows, is the air we breathe. And mediating it for our kids presents the ultimate slippery slope. One day my daughter is bopping to the tunes of Professional Virgin Britney Spears, whom she first heard in a Pokemon movie soundtrack; blink, and Britney is locking tongues with Madonna on TV.

So forgive me if I am nothing but sourly amused at the outrage over Janet Jackson's breast. It serves the hypocrites at all the official fonts of indignation right that they, and we, are nothing but pawns in the marketing of her new CD. Wake me when it's over.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company