I was as disappointed as you were by "Soap," or its first installment, anyway. Occasionally funny, generally just silly-suggestive and scarcely distinguishable from the TV farces to which we have already become accustomed, it was certainly far from being the great pop-culture porn event to which the nation had been summoned.
Reflecting on my own disappointment, however, I was bound to admit that once you stripped away the layers of high-minded hypocrisy in which I had wrapped it, the feeling was slightly more squalid than the program itself had been. It reminded me of nothing so much as the letdown a generation of 10-year-olds once felt upon finally inspecting the much-whispered-about forbidden passages of "Tobacco Road": That's all? I don't think I'm alone in this. It is my impression that there is not just something irredeemably third-rate about most of what passes for sexually frank or amusing entertainment on the screen and in the prints these days, but also something irredeemably grade-school about our approach to it. We have smut and snickers aplenty - but that is quite different from the tradition of great bawdy literature, which is currently in short supply.
The politics of the "Soap" dispute provides a fairly good measure of the national confusion. On the right there were the would-be moral scourges, on the left the great "understanders," a group that has more or less put its critical faculty on automatic where these things are concerned, categorizing even the most depraved sexual expressions as "controversial" and therefore (somehow) indispensable to a "realistic"understanding of life.
The scourges, however, are the ones who interest me most in this dispute. Even granting that there was a great deal of advertising of "Soap" as a breakthrough on the obscenity front, and conceding that the programmers - in panic - toned it down before the first program, you have to ask yourself how the protesters manage to choose one program to go after out of the wealth of candidates available to them. My point is that TV, the newsstands, the films, the culture generally - high and low - is absolutely saturated with the kind of thing the anti-"Soap" brigade seemed to find distinctively offensive.
Consider the evidence. Serious political reporting is thought by many of its leading practitioners to require at least enough fourth-grade "naughty talk" to demonstrate . . . well, who knows what? The "obligatory" sex scene, as it is somewhat disingenously described by its creators, has become a staple of the new fiction being produced by political figures - never mind that most of it is about as sexy as an obscene phone call. The fashion models in our tony magazines are not very subtly purveying, amid a great tangle of limbs, at least as many suggestions for innovative swining as for how to tie your little $400 silk-chiffon scarf. Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler, is out with a new journal of self-abuse. And day as well as night the tube promotes a leering quasi-sexuality that is alternately meant to be funny or - God help us - "significant."
"Soap" is truly but a bubble amidst all this, and I would argue that the things I have just listed, though seeming perhaps to be very different in kind, are in an important sense all part of the same degraded style. The key to it, I think, is something infantile, something that requires an audience and rests on a hoped-for capacity to shock. It is what makes the term "adult" so inappropriate to its common use here - "adult bookstore," "adult entertainment." Charles Rembar, the distinguished First Amendment lawyer, has aptly noted that much of TV comedy now suffers "from a blue-brown flood of double-meaning jokes, stupidities accompanied by high cackles from the studio audience."
That "cackle" is what it seems to be about: a laugh, whether simulated or real, that draws its mirth, such as it is, from the wickedness of it all, from the ever-present danger of being found out by authority and - what? - made to stay after school. The humor is not the abundantly available humor of adult sexuality. Rather it is the humor that says: "Ho, ho, ho . . . Imagine him saying that, Fred right up there on TV, if you know what I mean . . . and with Aunt Maude probably watching too."
Aunt Maude, or the idea of her anyway, is needed to complete the thought and the joke. As the whole process gets less lighthearted, childish and inape, the assumed and essential spectator, there to be shocked, becomes even more important. The sadistic streak that is pronounced in much that we characterize as sexual adventure and entertainment, the running together of tin-pot porn and unspeakable violence, is an all but inevitable consequence of this essentially cold and sexless approach to sex. M. J. Sobran, in a brilliant essay called "Nothing to Look At: Perversity and Public Amusements," speaks in this connection of an appetitie "for human indignity . . . for the violation of personality."
It is this hideous aspect of Larry Flynt's publications that strikes one most forcibly on picking up that newsstand junk. It is not sexual or sexy. It is sexually thwarted and deranged. And it seems absolutely fitting and unsurprising to find among the dirty-old-man fantasies an article hypothesizing Jimmy Carter's assassination, complete with an artist's bloody rendition of how it might look.
Right about here I should say that I am myself something of a porn fan or at least a devotee of much of the great funny sexy, bawdy culture that goes back anyway to the classics, that finds expression in Shakespeare and Terry Southern and Norman Mailer and Vladimir Nabokov and Geoffrey Chaucer, among others, and - yes - sometimes too in some TV entertainments, those that have a feeling for what is funny about the great cosmic joke. And from that I draw another point - an appeal on behalf of poor Aund Maude. I think our promoters and packagers of entertainment should give the old girl a break. They should quite trying to shock her, gigle and run away. They should liberate themselves from the notion that sex is . . . dirty . . . and that sexual thrills are those sensations that proceed from affronting the teacher and getting away with it.
The beginning of grown-up wisdom, after all, is acknowledgment of the fact that Aunt Maude probably has her secrets too and that one of them is that she is a normal human being with a normal interest in things sexual and a normal capacity to be moved and entertained and - yes - made to laugh by a skilled interpreter of the sexual follies of men and women. We can argue later about when all this comes on and whether the children should be in bed and if the magazine cover should be explicit or not. The point is, first things first. And the first thing that needs doing is to put the adult back into adult entertainment.