The media making a mess of sex on the airwaves

UNSTEREOTYPICAL: Eric Stonestreet, left, and Jesse Tyler Ferguson in
UNSTEREOTYPICAL: Eric Stonestreet, left, and Jesse Tyler Ferguson in "Modern Family." (Mitch Haddad/abc Via Associated Press)
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By Tom Shales
Tuesday, October 12, 2010

It's one thing for sex to be inescapable on TV sitcoms and topical dramas; we expect it. But now sex is a recurring topic in political campaigns, and hence intrudes on the morning news programs and Sunday conversationals. Nutty candidates for relatively high office, all but ignoring such truly worrisome issues as the economy, ecological catastrophe and bigotry, talk instead about masturbation, Internet porn and Gay Pride parades.

Only Monday, that living saint Oprah Winfrey, and her gazillions of faithful followers, breathed sighs of relief when a teacher at Winfrey's Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa was acquitted of fondling and coddling students. Naturally the subject had to be dealt with all over the tube. And that meant parents had some explaining to do to naturally inquisitive and curious kids.

Complaining about sex and nudity on TV is almost as old as the medium itself. A primeval diva named Dagmar was famous and infamous for the cleavage she brandished on an early precursor of NBC's "Tonight Show" -- she was early TV's response to Mae West of early talkies. Even prim Faye Emerson, who traveled from panel show to panel show, was chided for occasionally showing too much skin via one of her "gowns."

At virtually any point along the way, it seemed valid to chastise television for cheapening and exploiting sex, even if what seemed like a prime example in 1958 would look ludicrous if cited for offensiveness now. Television dealt with sexual issues, if at all, in primarily nervous, diffident, euphemistic ways.

But somehow even dark ages of denial may sometimes seem preferable to the letting of it all hang out, which has been standard operating procedure for a few crazy mixed-up decades now. No wonder some of us may feel like starting, or joining, a group called Prude Pride, and wondering if maybe there aren't worse things to be called than "old-fashioned" when it comes to such troubling phenomena as the swapping of nude pictures by teenagers via cellphone and "sexting."

We all know what happened once the '50s ended (in the early '60s, really); hypocritical repression gave way to wanton liberation. Girls in bikinis danced with jokes grease-painted to their epidermis on "Rowan & Martin's 'Laugh-In,' " while virtually every one of producer Norman Lear's "relevant" and "controversial" sitcoms was sure to include a Very Special Episode dealing with homosexuality.

Today there is clear cause for encouragement, at least in this particular realm. ABC's intelligently hilarious sitcom "Modern Family" depicts a gay-male marriage in which both partners are refreshingly dimensional, believable human beings. The writers dare to make them flawed and thus fully delineated, but they're not flawed in the silly, stereotypical ways that once dominated such portrayals.

Carl Paladino, headline-grabbing Republican candidate for the governorship of New York, still has trouble with male sexuality, it appears, and with homosexuality especially. On NBC's "Today" show and other welcoming venues, Paladino has used gay men as whipping boys, so to speak. "There is nothing to be proud of in being a dysfunctional homosexual," Paladino has grumbled along the old campaign trail. "That's not how God created us."

Paladino has had plenty to say on the matter of Gay Pride, the homosexual activists' response to decades, if not centuries, in which homosexuals were encouraged in self-loathing. By saying "dysfunctional" and "homosexual" are synonymous, Paldino was implicitly urging a return to those Bad Old Days.

What the public figures all seem to forget is that Americans get their impressions of homosexuals and their behavior not just from media; they get them from relatives -- from brothers, uncles, cousins, neighbors, teachers, clergymen, whatever. So it is that they may be repelled by media images of gay sexual flaunting yet sympathetic to demands for equal rights, including military service without shame and the ability to marry and raise reasonable facsimiles of ordinary families.

Nudity or near-nudity, meanwhile, innocuous as it may seem in the larger context of sexual subject matter, continues to be a reliable newsmaker -- especially on the "reality" shows where absence of clothing, whether among the nubile teens of MTV's "Real World" or the physically fit boomers and post-boomers of CBS's "Survivor" series, is a reliable viewer lure -- but is also sure to bring forth angry denunciations.

Even the festive -- but brief -- costumes on ABC's seemingly wholesome "Dancing With the Stars" have drawn criticism. In some cases, the display of skin has seemed curious. Erin Andrews, the ESPN star who was justifiably outraged when a stalker (subsequently tried and convicted) snapped nude photos of her through the peepholes in the doors of her hotel rooms, nevertheless turned up the sexual heat in her outfits and the dance moves she did with professional dancer Maxim "Maks" Chmerkovskiy. Was there cause for, if hardly alarm, then confusion?

Or perhaps there is nothing mysterious about objecting, on one hand, to a loutish invasion of privacy and celebrating, on the other, physical beauty and fitness (by dancing around in scanty duds on an entertainment show). The term "sexual confusion" may be a redundancy in itself. Where there is sex, there is confusion -- but why is it that media, instead of making any perceptible attempt to clear up some of that confusion, seem instead hellbent on compounding it?

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