What about the Audience?

Philosopher Joseph de Maistre once wrote: “Every country has the government it deserves.” Can the same be said of a country’s mass media?

In “giving the people what they want,” do mass media reflect our, the audience’s choices? Are we, in essence, voting for more content like the content we currently enjoy every time we buy a movie ticket, turn on the TV, stream a video or song? Do the algorithmic recommendations of what we “may also like” serve us the media we deserve?

But does consumption equal endorsement of the values contained within a work? If so, should we be more responsible in our choices? Should we only consume content that matches our values? Should we only endorse media that promote positive values?

How boring would that be?

Don’t we actually choose media based on entertainment value? And doesn’t what we find entertaining often, at least on the surface, go against our values?

I certainly hope fellow fans of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia do not approve of, much less emulate the toxic values and outrageous actions of the gang at Paddy’s Pub.

But isn’t such inexcusable behavior exactly what makes shows like Sunny, You’re the Worst, pretty much everything on FXX, ShamelessBrockmire, etc., so hilarious? Isn’t the appeal of these and many other series that the misanthropic characters have no impulse control or filters, that they say and do things that we would never, ever dare to say or do in reality? Does experiencing such “don’t give a fuck” lives vicariously provide us with a freedom that is lacking in a world where we often feel we must monitor our every word to avoid being “canceled”?

But does this make the question of whether media reflect society’s values far more complicated? Does enjoying Tyler, the Creator’s early songs mean we are pro-rape? Does cheering on Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve, Ad Infinitum, mean we are pro-crime?

Of course, I do not mean to argue there is no connection between media depictions and society’s values, quite the opposite. But I do mean to imply that the relationship between the two is far more complex than depiction or consumption equals endorsement. Perhaps it’s better to look at media as a culture’s discussion board that gives us all common examples with which to explore what we feel the culture’s values are and should be.

Most of all, though, I hope the message you take from the class is that the relationship between mass media and ourselves, both as individuals and collectively as a society, is a relationship. And if we are a bit more conscious in our consumption, maybe we will gain a bit more power over the media we consume. After all, without us, the audience, the media would be nothing but the proverbial tree falling in the forest with no one there to hear it.

Ratings and Regulations: FCC

Unlike other media, television and its content were regulated from the start. The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) was already policing indecency broadcast over the public airwaves long before television swept across the United States during the 1950s. The FCC’s role in regard to indecency over the public airwaves has remained the same to this day, even as the media landscape has greatly changed..

Let’s look at what the FCC can and cannot do. The FCC has no power to change content, especially not before the fact. It is legally forbidden from even commenting on any content before it airs, as that would constitute governmental prior restraint, a violation of the first amendment of the Constitution. Instead, the FCC investigates alleged on-air indecency only after receiving a citizen complaint. And notice the “on-air” restriction. The FCC only polices content broadcast over the public airwaves, which would make the content accessible to anyone of any age, and only between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.

Although the FCC does have a say over certain business practices of cable, satellite and Internet, it has no power over content provided by those “subscription services.” Subscription services fall under a completely different legal category. When subscribers “opt in” to the services, they take on the responsibility of policing the content for themselves. Cable and satellite TV and radio could legally run indecency 24 hours a day, even on basic tier. They generally don’t for two reasons. First, basic tier programming is still largely ad-supported, so they generally, but far from completely, adhere to broadcast standards of content. Second, and probably more important, the providers know consumers will pay more for more “explicit” content on “premium” channels.

This is why Howard Stern can say whatever he wants on SiriusXM without worry, whereas Clear Channel was regularly fined when Stern violated FCC standards on broadcast radio. (Also note that Clear Channel was fined for broadcasting indecency, not Howard Stern for being indecent on the air.)

Many believe it is unfair to hold broadcast networks to stricter standards than cable, satellite or streaming services, especially since almost all Americans watch their network shows through cable or satellite services. Those networks would be freed from FCC indecency standards if they ceased to broadcast over the public airwaves; it is their choice to continue to do so (although many of them now offer exclusive content on their streaming services that might run afoul of the FCC if broadcast).

Here’s how the FCC defines indecency:

Deciding what’s obscene, indecent or profane

Each type of content has a distinct definition:

Obscene content does not have protection by the First Amendment.  For content to be ruled obscene, it must meet a three-pronged test established by the Supreme Court: It must appeal to an average person’s prurient interest; depict or describe sexual conduct in a “patently offensive” way; and, taken as a whole, lack serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

Indecent content portrays sexual or excretory organs or activities in a way that is patently offensive but does not meet the three-prong test for obscenity.

Profane content includes “grossly offensive” language that is considered a public nuisance.

Factors in determining how FCC rules apply include the specific nature of the content, the time of day it was broadcast and the context in which the broadcast took place.

Broadcasting obscene content is prohibited by law at all times of the day. Indecent and profane content are prohibited on broadcast TV and radio between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when there is a reasonable risk that children may be in the audience.

Note there is no mention of violent content, racial slurs or hate speech. These do not fall under the legal definition of indecency (though many believe they should).

Let’s look at one of the most notorious indecency cases of the past few decades. During the halftime show of the 2004 Super Bowl Justin Timberlake exposed Janet Jackson’s right breast for less than a single second:

The response to this “wardrobe malfunction” was immediate and huge. It prompted a record number of calls to both CBS and the FCC (the FCC received 540,000 complaints). Within 24 hours, all of the broadcast networks, not just CBS, reviewed and changed their standards and practices regarding live events. It took the FCC eight years to completely resolve the situation, when the then-record fine against CBS was thrown out. Do we really need the FCC when the marketplace resolves problems so much more quickly?

It should be noted that the reason the fine was thrown out was because the FCC did not give prior notice of its new standards for dealing with “fleeting expletives” during live events. This case served as that notice, so if the same thing were to happen again, the fine would stand. Some believe it has happened again. The FCC received 130,000 complaints about this year’s halftime show featuring Shakira and J-Lo.

Is it a coincidence that all of these complaints are about women’s bodies being exposed? Is it telling that the 2004 incident is usually referred to as Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction, not Justin Timberlake’s, since he is the one who ripped off the bra cup to expose her? Timberlake was invited back to perform in the 2018 Super Bowl halftime show, but not Janet Jackson, whose career seemed to stall after the 2004 Super Bowl appearance.

Does this again imply we have different standards of indecency in regard to different genders? Does the public blame the woman for her indecency, even as they are drawn to it? The 2004 “wardrobe malfunction” drew a record number of complaints, but it also became the most repeatedly viewed moment on Tivo. And it led to the creation of YouTube, fueled by the frustration of one of its co-founders’ missing the seminal event.

Is US culture deeply hypocritical when it comes to media indecency? As a culture, do we seek it out even as we condemn it? Would there be so much indecent pop culture if there were not such a huge audience making it so popular and profitable?

Ratings and Regulations: Film

Do audiences, particularly children, need to be protected from, or at least warned about the content of media such as movies?

From the beginning, filmmakers knew that pushing the lines of acceptability would produce scandals which would, in turn, increase audience curiosity and ticket sales. Most people today do not realize that early movies contained nudity and graphic (for their time) sex scenes, as in D.W. Griffith’s infamous orgy scene in Intolerance.

Of course such content provoked a backlash from various do-gooders trying to hold back the tide of indecency, particularly the Catholic Church. Is the futility of their quest exposed by how mild this scene seems today after a further century of envelope-pushing? But in the 1910s, this seemed quite risque, even raunchy.

In 1930, Will Hays, the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of American (MPPDA), introduced the “Motion Picture Production Code” to allay continuing concerns about immoral films. The Code’s main principles were:

  1. No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.
  2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
  3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.

These principles were followed by page after page of very specific rules of what could not be shown. It looked good, but Hollywood largely ignored it, continuing with business as usual.

The Catholic Church, however, continued to object, and in 1933 created its own National Legion of Decency to rate films for Catholic filmgoers. If the Legion of Decency rated a film C, for condemned, it led to widespread boycotts. When its bottom line became threatened, the MPPDA finally began to enforce its Production Code.

The Production Code is often referred to as the “Hays Code,” after the president of the MPPDA who instituted it, but it would be far more accurate to call it the “Breen Code,” after Joseph Breen, the strict Catholic whom Hays appointed to head the newly created Production Code Administration (PCA).

And administer it Breen did. This led to a very clear division between “pre-code” films released before 1934 and “post-code” movies released after:

No screenplay could be produced without PCA approval; no finished motion picture could be released without PCA approval.

By the 1950s, though, many in Hollywood began to bridle at the PCA’s restrictions and interference. Otto Preminger had the temerity to produce the film The Moon Is Blue after its script had been rejected by the PCA for its risque (for the time) subject matter. And United Artists agreed to distribute the film without PCA approval.

Some theaters refused to book The Moon Is Blue without code approval, but the movie was a big success, at least in part because of its notoriety.

Preminger again flouted the code with The Man with the Golden Arm.

For once the Legion of Decency was more lenient than the PCA, rating the harrowing cautionary tale about drug addiction B, for “morally objectionable in part,” instead of C.

The code slowly began to break down and Hollywood began to push the envelope even further, again drawing criticism and claims that Hollywood was corrupting audiences, especially children. And most states, even some cities, still had censor boards that literally cut the films coming into their jurisdictions to meet community standards. Hollywood needed to do something so it could market a uniform product.

In 1966, Jack Valenti became the new president of the Motion Picture Association of America. Two years later, he introduced the film rating system:

That system is still the standard today, although there have been a few adjustments over the years.

In 1984, PG-13 was introduced, largely in response to parental complaints about the violence in Raiders of the Lost Ark . . .

. . . and Gremlins (although they inspired PG-13, both of these films remain PG because they were classified before the new rating existed).

And in 1990, NC-17 was created to replace X. The intent was to differentiate serious films for adults, like Henry & June, the film released with the new rating, from “Triple X” pornography.

However, after the failure of Showgirls (at least in theaters; it later became a cult and/or camp favorite on home video), major studios mostly abandoned NC-17 films, contractually obligating most directors to attain no higher than an R-rating.

And here is where we confront the often confusing application of the ratings. For example, the board said that American Pie would be rated NC-17 if it included this version of the scene . . .

. . . but R if it substituted this version:

Am I the only one who thinks that’s an incredibly arbitrary distinction?

The film included the latter version in theaters, but included the former in the “unrated” home video release, thereby selling the same movie twice to those who had to see “what they couldn’t see in the theaters.”

Many filmmakers now shoot sacrificial scenes to make the content they hope to retain seem less extreme by comparison, as Seth Rogen explains was done with Sausage Party:

“We made it dirtier than we’d originally planned because we were expecting some sort of negotiation, so when we first heard it was getting kickback we felt, OK, let’s change as little as possible,” Rogen recalls. “Then we sent that in and approved it, and we were like, ‘What?!’ We thought that would be the first of fifty back-and-forths that would happen.”

If you want to learn more about the real workings of the ratings board, check out This Film Is Not Yet Rated:

Yet, as flawed as it is, the film ratings system has become the model for other industries who prefer self-regulation to outside interference, so we have labels for music and ratings for video games and TV. There have been calls for a universal rating system that would cover all media, but most view this as unfeasible. Plus, since the entire reason for self-regulation is to keep outsiders from meddling, the individual industries would be sure to fight any such universal plan as violating the first amendment, as well as antitrust laws.

Depiction of Indecency: Classification or Judgment?

We’ve discussed how we define indecency in various media, and even how we apply that definition. However, we haven’t focused a whole lot on how to handle material if and when it has been determined to be indecent.

It is very common to use labels to help us find media content we wish to consume: “I’m in the mood to watch a comedy” or “I’m in a mood to watch a thriller.” Is that how we use indecency: “I’m in the mood to watch some indecency”?

Does indecency refer to a genre of media content or does it describe how the content is presented? Can’t any genre be made indecent if it contains enough explicit material? Aren’t there indecent comedies, thrillers, dramas, etc.? Even indecent animation:

And many people enjoy that type of content and use the label to find media that will appeal to them. There would not be so much indecent media if there were not such a large audience making it highly profitable.

Have you ever watched a movie or TV show just because a friend said they couldn’t believe what they saw, how far the show or movie went? If given the choice, would you watch the rated or unrated version of a movie? Don’t you want to see “The Version You Couldn’t See in Theaters”?

Do many of us never entirely outgrow our childhood curiosity about hidden things we know we are not supposed to see? Do we still seek out “forbidden fruit”? Do media depictions give us a way to explore, even vicariously experience risky and/or risque behavior safely and without harm?

Showgirls was the first (and ultimately only) NC-17 film, to receive widespread distribution:

Some did not think this was the right marketing strategy:

“I think they’re being fairly optimistic and I don’t think that’s the right way to go with the thing,” said one Southern California exhibitor, who predicted possible protests of the film by religious or women’s groups. “I think I would try going the route of art houses. But, they’re going to end up with a lot of controversy on this one. And that’s probably what they’re hoping for.”

In other words, the studios hoped that uptight complaints about the down and dirty film would sell tickets to those who were curious about what all of the controversy was about, hoped that negative publicity would lead to positive box office. This strategy took a while to work. The movie tanked in the theaters, but it went on to become a huge hit on DVD. Perhaps people are more comfortable watching indecent content in private instead of risking bumping into someone who might judge them?

For as popular as indecency is, there is still judgment. And even those who enjoy it are often made to feel guilty about their pleasure. We know we are not “supposed” to enjoy it. Is this a holdover of the puritanical values at our nation’s core?

Is it surprising that consumers in “red states” conduct more online searches for porn than those in blue states? Is there a lot of hypocrisy in how our culture addresses indecent material? Do many condemn other people’s consumption while denying or clearing their own browsing histories? Or go through contortions to explain why the indecency they enjoy is not really indecency at all.

Fifty Shades of Grey is not indecent, it’s erotica. It’s not porn, there’s a plot. (Of course, whether the writing is aesthetically indecent is a whole other question.) Yes, there was a plot, but would the book and the series have been nearly so popular if not for the “dirty parts”?

What about the book’s impact? Were readers’ lives affected? Most of the evidence is anecdotal, but there are numerous stories of how the book empowered women to take control of their own sex lives. I am not just talking about readers imitating scenes from the book (although, as previously noted, the book led to increased sales of rope and sex toys), but that they were inspired to think about what they really wanted from their own sex lives and how to get it. I once had a male student who thought Fifty Shades was the best book ever written. He had never read it and had no intention of doing so, but after his wife read it, she started talking openly about her sexual fantasies. This led to an open dialogue about exactly what they each desired and it totally reinvigorated their sex life together. He could not praise the book highly enough.

But we more often hear about the negatives of indecency, about porn leading to an addiction that takes over its consumers’ lives:

In one episode of Friends, Chandler and Joey discovered they had free porn. Of course, they couldn’t turn it off because it might not have come back on. The constant porn soon began to affect the way they saw the world, particularly the way they saw the women in it.

And of course, if there is even a chance that indecent media has a negative impact, something must be done about it, right? At a minimum, it must be kept away from children.

Depiction of Indecency: “Dirty” Music

Your special someone is coming over for a romantic evening. You’ve lit the candles and spread the rose petals. What music do you put on to set the proper mood to get a little, well, improper?

Maybe a little Marvin Gaye?

Barry White? Lewis Taylor? Who? Yeah, I know you’ve never heard of him, but this is a great song:

Maxwell? Jason Derulo? Weeknd? R. Kelly? Only if she’s 12. (May he rot in prison.)

But is a song like this going to get you a little sumthin’ sumthin’?

Is the difference between these songs the difference between the bedroom and the club? The difference between making love and fucking?

Does that last pair of words highlight the difference between denotation and connotation? Denotatively, making love and fucking refer to the exact same physical act, the same body parts interacting in the same way. However, connotatively, the two words tend to evoke very different associations. Is this the difference between seduction and raw, animal lust?

Which is Muddy Waters referring to?

He may use the words “make love,” but do his growl and lack of interest in anything else she might do for him make it clear that he is actually referring to fucking? Of course, he could not use that word and get on the radio or the charts in 1954 (when the song reached #4 on the Billboard R&B chart).

Times have since changed, plus radio is no longer nearly so crucial to a song’s popularity, so artists no longer beat around the bush . . .

. . . as they try to get a, uh, head:

What about this bit of unsolicited advice?

You probably would not have batted an eye if those lyrics had been rapped over trap beats, but is it surprising to hear such graphic words in a country song? Country has a reputation of being wholesome, though I don’t know why with all of the songs about sex in the beds of pickup trucks. Is it okay because they refer to it as “making love”?

Is it a coincidence that these songs all focus on male pleasure, pleasing the stick, not the box?

And is it strange that many female rappers also give lip service to these values?

(Last fall, CupcakKe announced she was retiring because she had come to believe she was “corrupting the youth.” Of course, she never pulled her offending music like she said she would. And just last month she dropped a new song. It may be titled “Lawd Jesus,” but it sure ain’t no gospel tune.)

Are some female artists now demanding reciprocity?

Even when guesting on a male performer’s track?

Uh, thinkin’ out loud, if she “lick [him] like a lollipop,” isn’t it just fair play that Lil Wayne should “eat it in the morning”:

Still, these songs are made up of just words. They all include “dirty” words, but can a song be a “dirty” song, even without “dirty” words?

I must have heard Rihanna’s “What’s My Name?” hundreds of times, even sung along with it in my car (where no one else would be subjected to my awful voice) before I really listened to the words:

Yeah, you know word of mouth
The square root of 69 is 8 somethin’, right?
‘Cause I’ve been tryna work it out, oh
Good weed, white wine . . .

Hey boy, I really wanna see if you can go downtown with a girl like me
Hey boy, I really wanna be with you ’cause you just my type oh na na na na
I need a boy to take it over
Looking for a guy to put in work

“69”? “Eight/Ate somethin'”? “Go downtown”? I finally twigged it was about cunnilingus. This was a dirty song, even if it did not contain any dirty words.

Of course, all of this raises a question: Why are there so many songs about sex? Has that always been the case in popular music?

In 1955, Abel Green wrote an editorial for Variety complaining about the “leer-ics” in the newly popular rock ‘n’ roll music. (At least newly popular with White teens; the indecency didn’t seem to be a problem when only Black teens listened to it.) Songwriter Al Stillman, no rock ‘n’ roller he, responded:

It seems to me that, as far as I remember, practically all lyrics, except “Barney Google,” have been dirty, with the carriage trade practitioners–Porter, Hart, etc.–contributing their share. . . .  Actually, the object of all leericists, outside of Gilbert, has always been to get as close to the Main Subject as possible, without stating it and/or “cleaning it up” by marrying ’em off in the last line. . . .  The current crop of rock ‘n’ rollers are not beating around the bush, but without condoning ’em, it’s at least a less hypocritical approach.

But the guardians of culture continued to fight dirty words in music (of course, teen slang usually stayed several steps ahead of them, which is its purpose). In 1964, the Kingsmen’s recording of “Louie Louie” was investigated by the U.S. Post Office, the F.B.I. and the F.C.C. due to a rumor that the song contained the word “fuck.” I’ve got it cued up to the part of the song under contention:

Did you hear it?

No one else could either, even though the record and its (one track) master tape went through the F.B.I. lab at least three times. The F.C.C. closed its investigation by declaring the record “unintelligible at any speed we played it.”

Of course, the supposed dirty lyrics collected in the F.B.I. file are mild compared to commonplace lyrics of today. The song is alleged to have given a single fuck, which wouldn’t cause many of today’s listeners to give a fuck.

Oh, by the way, before you think this generation of artists was the first to use Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say on TV” in music, check out this song Jelly Roll Morton (the self-proclaimed inventor of jazz) recorded at the Library of Congress in 1938:

And remember, both the “jazz” and “rock ‘n’ roll” genre labels refer to sex. (There is some debate over the origin of the word  jazz, but no one contests that rock ‘n’ roll was slang for fucking.)

But is sex the only subject that rises to the level of indecency in music?

Extremely harsh and disturbing lyrics. Do they endorse the events they detail or offer them as a cautionary tale? Even if it is meant as a warning against the indecent, inexcusable actions being detailed, is the song still indecent due to that detail?

And then there’s Tyler, the Creator. His early albums are filled with indecent language and imagery, from gay slurs to rape fantasies. Tyler is responsible for the notorious songs “Tron Cat,” with his most infamous line, “Rape a pregnant bitch and tell my friends I had a threesome” (that’s really quite sophisticated wordplay for such a noxious image – are we condoning its values if we laugh at it?), and “Yonkers”:

Is it like Tyler compiled a list of every topic society finds indecent and checked them off one by one? In doing so, does he offer a mirror to society’s values? Is Tyler like a little kid being outrageous just to get attention? And love him or hate him, don’t we give him that attention?

Depiction of Indecency: “Dirty” Books

As long as there has been art, there has been “dirty” art, even before cave drawings, some of which were also “dirty.” As long as there has been literature, there has been “dirty” literature, going back to clay tablets. As long as there has been a printing press there have been “dirty” books; it did not take printers long to move from publishing bibles to publishing smut.*

And each time it has set up a conflict between the do-gooders who wish to “protect” the public from indecent material and the public that clamors for it. One city became so well know for censoring indecent material that “Banned in Boston” became a point of pride, and good publicity for many performers, including comedienne Rusty Warren, the “Knockers Up! Girl”:

William S. Burroughs’s novel Naked Lunch was “Banned in Boston” in 1962, which was overturned by the Massachusetts Supreme Court in the last major U.S. obscenity trial regarding literature.

The defense of Naked Lunch hinged on its artistic merit, but there was also a large market for less high-minded smut. These cheap paperbacks were sold on spinning racks in the back corners of newsstands and drugstores. The books had no artistic pretensions; their only goal was to titillate and arouse. Many later successful writers, including Anne Rice, Dean Koontz, Lawrence Block and Donald E. Westlake, cranked out these books under numerous pseudonyms to pay the rent while hoping for their big breaks under their own names.

Here is an excerpt from Lust Prowl by later-screenwriter Marilyn Goldin, under the name Alan Marshall (a publishing “house name” also sometimes used by Westlake, among others):

She shifted her body and felt his warm breath against her belly. His fingers remained at the top of her thighs, touching her, caressing her, causing delicious thrills to mount inside her body.

Then, his lips found her.

She rolled her head back and forth on the cool plastic of the car seat as wave after wave of passion and delight seemed to vibrate against her, and each vibration set up an answering spasm in herself. The intensity of it was almost too much for her to stand.

He kept it up for what seemed like an eternity. Her body arched and shuddered against him and little cries began to escape her lips. Finally, she could endure it no longer.

She drew his face away from her. He looked up, his eyes bright with desire.

“Please, Jud,” she hissed. “I can’t stand any more. Now . . . do it now!”

Westlake referred to these 1960s books as “euphemism books,” because the writer was supposed to paint as clear a picture as possible without ever being explicit enough to cross the line to obscene.

Authors no longer feel the need to hide behind euphemisms.

And this Goofy reading from the book:

The NPD Group reports that Fifty Shades of Grey was by far the best-selling book of the 2010s, followed by the other two volumes in the trilogy. Undoubtedly, the sedate, even elegant cover made the book less embarrassing to be seen reading in public than your average “bodice-ripper.”

And considering that the books hit the market just as e-reading was rising, no one had to know what you were reading at all. Soon enough, though, so many women were reading the book that there was no longer any reason to hide it. Fifty Shades of Grey, which began as Twilight fan fiction, also led to major increases in sales of many products mentioned in the books, from classical music to lingerie; even rope sale dramatically increased.

This marked a major shift in America’s attitude towards dirty, sexual, erotic material. A half a century ago, a book that detailed BDSM sex (not that the actual BDSM community felt it accurately portrayed their lifestyle) would have been found obscene and sold “under the counter,” if at all. Now women were openly reading “mommy porn” at the pool, on the subway, wherever. Did this series lead to changes in America’s attitude toward dirty books or did the popularity of this dirty book reflect changes in America’s attitude towards indecent media? Both?

And how does the book’s indecency compare to that of the movie that was inevitably made from it?

Did the visuals increase the indecency or did they dilute it from the vivid images the book inspired in readers’ minds?


* I have uploaded a PDF of John Tierney’s 1994 New York Times article “Porn, the Low-Slung Engine of Progress” to the class Blackboard site. Tierney details how porn has always been quick to capitalize on any new communication technology (with the exception of radio and TV; the “public airwaves” were regulated almost from the beginning), and often the first to make them profitable.

Depiction of Indecency: “Dirty” Words

When most people think about indecency, they think about visuals, “dirty” pictures or “dirty” movies. But does indecency also apply to words, either the words themselves or the acts they describe?

What are “dirty” words?

Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker and tits.

What exactly is dirty here? Is it the word or what it describes? (And is it a coincidence that they all relate to sex, excretion or our “private” parts?) It must be these particular words because we accept other words to describe the same things: poop, tinkle, make love, . . .  And it seems the dirtiness of a word can change, because few seem to have a problem when tits is now said on TV (when they are shown, well, that may be an issue, depending upon where).

What makes them dirty?

Here is the uncut version of Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz’ huge hit “Get Low”:

Here is the “clean” version, made so the song could air on broadcast radio without violating FCC indecency standards:

They edited out “motherfucker” and “goddamn,” replaced “bitches” with “females.” They got rid of all of the dirty words, right?

Or did they? What about “skeet”? Is “skeet” a dirty word? Perhaps it depends upon whom you ask.

Did you catch the reaction shot after Chappelle said, “White people don’t know what it means yet”? You can clearly tell who knows what “skeet” means and who does not.

Perhaps this explains why many “urban” (read, Black) stations bleeped “skeet” while “mainstream” (read, White) stations did not?

But it also raises the question of whether a word is dirty if we don’t know what it means.

There are few things funnier than a kid cursing, an innocent child saying a not-so-innocent word:

You may have seen this in person. A kid blurts out a word he or she overheard, and all of the adults in the room try their hardest not to laugh. (They know that if they laugh the kid will keep saying it, but if no one reacts the kid will quickly forget the word.) Are these kids saying dirty words? The adults recognize them as such, but aren’t the kids just repeating a nonsense syllable?

Does that still apply for adults? Is a word dirty in itself, or only after we know its meaning?

Take felch. Is felch a dirty word? I’m guessing many (most?) of you have never heard that word. But I bet you are now curious and want to know what it means. No, I am not going to give you a link; you’ll have to type it into Urban Dictionary yourself.

Are you back? Felch is now a dirty word to you, isn’t it? (Of course, just about every word has a dirty connotation on Urban Dictionary.) If a dirty word is not dirty until we already know its meaning, does that mean dirty words cannot corrupt us?

What happens when dirty words are strung together into a dirty joke? Does the dirtiness increase exponentially?

For those of you who have not seen the movie The Aristocrats (which I’m guessing is most of you), it is a compilation of 100 comedians telling different versions of the same joke. The joke is seldom told onstage, but is shared after hours, with comedians trying to top (bottom?) each other in how filthy they can make the joke. This is a relatively mild version of the joke:

Bob Saget offers a particularly extreme and disgusting version of the joke (NOT for the fainthearted) , which comes as a big surprise to those who only know him as Danny Tanner of Full House, but not to those who are familiar with his extremely blue stand-up comedy career. Does this show us how our expectations can factor into our interpretation of indecency?

But as disgusting as the joke can be, and is intended to be, it is still just words. Would we respond differently if we saw it acted out?

There is one version in the movie that does act the joke out, in public. And what’s interesting is how little those passing by react. You now know the joke, so you are well aware of what the mime is miming, but those walking by do not seem to see it as indecent at all.

Does this imply that indecency is interactive, that not just with words, but also with visuals, indecency needs our understanding to complete it?