Crossing the lines

Culture | To sex and violence, now add scatology, pedophilia, and other new frontiers

Issue: "Y2K: Binary blowout?," Aug. 22, 1998

Pop culture is in a taboo-breaking mode, crossing new lines and pioneering new ways to be offensive. Only last year, the movie version of Lolita, directed by Adrian Lyne and based on Vladimir Nabokov's novel about an adult's sexual relationship with a 12-year-old girl, was considered too much even for Hollywood. In light of recent revelations about the horrors of child sexual abuse, no distributor would have anything to do with a movie depicting pedophilia. But such "censorship"-as if not choosing to buy something is censorship-made it a cause célèbre. The American Civil Liberties Union sponsored a benefit screening. Showtime, the premium cable movie channel, picked up the film and aired it on Aug. 2. Now a company, Samuel Goldwyn, has agreed to release it to theaters. Its defenders point out that Lolita was named the fourth best novel of the 20th century by the Modern Library listmakers, as if the 100-best list were not influenced by the controversy around the movie. Mr. Nabokov did have a way with language, but Lolita is probably not even his best book. And, as reviewers have said, the movie leaves out the language and the subtleties, leaving only 15-year-old Dominique Swain acting sexy for a lugubrious Jeremy Irons. Defenders also point out that the movie is really not so bad. After all, Miss Swain had a body-double, who was of age, for the sex scenes, as if the need to provide a body-double did not suggest that there was something wrong with the concept. Though defenders claim the movie shows the protagonist struggling with his pedophilia-which is presented as a bad thing-critics have drawn attention to another subtext: Little Lolita, with her short skirts and flirtatious ways, actually seduces him, the child molester's fantasy and excuse. Well, this is only a movie, the defenders continue, with a fine performance by Mr. Irons. Artists should be free to explore all dimensions of life, free from the threat of censorship. But exploration of pedophilia is condemned not only by the Bible but by many cultures; having sex with children has been one of the few remaining taboos even in our age of sexual revolution. When the culture allows something to be shown, it is, by definition, no longer taboo. There is another reason the entertainment industry, from cable TV to theater middle-men, reversed its earlier decision. When your business is entertainment, you almost always have to, as they say, push the envelope. People are so entertainment-saturated that they get satiated and jaded. Just as a heroin addict needs bigger and bigger doses to get the same high, entertainment addicts-who once might have been satisfied with a nude scene or some violent special effect-need more and more stimulation to keep them titillated. Besides, there is a certain aesthetic effect that comes only from the sense of transgression. The thrill of doing something wrong, to our sinful nature, is a powerful allure. It remains to be seen if the general public is ready for Lolita, at least yet. But the public has caught on to a new category of offensiveness that Hollywood is pioneering. To sex, bad language, and violence, we can now add scatology. That is, as the dictionary genteelly defines it, obsession with excrement, excretion, and, we might add, other bodily fluids. TV's South Park has blazed that trail. That's the kiddie-style cartoon about foul-mouthed children, one of whom every week dies a horrible death. The program, on Comedy Central-a cable channel that is, unlike Showtime, available free on just about every cable system-carries a warning that it is not suitable for children, but of course children are among its biggest fans. Recently, a new character was introduced: a living, talking product of a bowel movement. Now the creators of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, are in a movie called BASEketball, featuring lots of vomit as well as other bodily functions (not to mention an 8-year-old getting drunk and the usual sex jokes). Perhaps the biggest sleeper hit of the summer, however, is There's Something about Mary, the brainchild of Dumb and Dumber's Peter and Bobby Farrelly. Critics describe it as a "sweet" and very funny comedy. But it breaks new ground in grossness, including having semen clinging to the hero's ear (don't ask) and then being mistaken by the heroine for hair-gel. Now that the vulgarity dike is broken, expect a flood. Now we are told that all the studios are hurrying to imitate There's Something about Mary. Expect attempts to emulate South Park's grossness from network TV, which has already given us Ally McBeal's co-ed bathroom, among other coarse scenes. In fact, once-stodgy CBS has just signed on The Howard Stern Radio Show to compete with Saturday Night Live. And yet it is possible to sink even lower than scatology. A new sitcom scheduled to premiere this fall on UPN (United Paramount Network), The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer, is about a black houseservant in Lincoln's White House. Here's how New York Times TV critic Bill Carter-in a review panning the series-describes the pilot episode: "Lincoln downs brandy doctored with an aphrodisiac that leaves him so charged up that he starts rhapsodizing about all those boys going to war with 'big biceps' and 'washboard stomachs,' and winds up in a hug with his black aide, declaring, 'It's not right for one man to own another-respect, care for, vacation together, maybe.'" In addition to a bisexual Honest Abe, we have Mary Todd Lincoln, who is-in Mr. Carter's report-"upset because Abe has hired a new secretary, Mona, with an especially low-cut bodice. (Abe does growl like a wolf at the prospect of Mona taking dictation.) ... Later Mrs. Lincoln laments that she and Abe haven't had much of a love life since that war started and, from her bubble bath, she makes a play for Desmond." Since there is no moral center, this is not satire. It is nothing but heartless mockery. That hilarious War Between the States. Making fun of Mrs. Lincoln, mad with grief over the death of her children, and of President Lincoln, the jovial but tormented leader presiding over a fratricidal bloodbath, is worse than tasteless. It is not just that nothing is sacred, though that is doubtless the ultimate problem. For those who could make such a sitcom, nothing is honored; nothing is respected; nothing is serious. The new grossness is more than a Hollywood fad; it is a cultural sign. What the series about Lincoln is doing is dragging the 19th century down to the standards of the present. President Clinton sold access to the Lincoln Bedroom; now President Lincoln is imagined in terms of the Clinton bedroom.

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Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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