home > archive > 2004 > this article

America: A nation of prudes?

By W. James Antle III
web posted May 10, 2004

The idea is occasionally batted around that the United States is some kind of uniquely prudish, neo-Victorian, censorious country. Granted, America is not one big red light district stretching from sea to shining sea, but from where I sit simply don't see what these critics are seeing.

Turn on a TV. Yes, yes, I know that some mainstream European and Japanese television stations are likely to broadcast things that the major networks wouldn't end up showing here. But everything from beer commercials to news-magazine type programs consists of a prolonged, pronounced celebration of the libido. "Friends," one of the tamer shows in its genre, ended its 10-year run with Ross and Rachel deciding to turn their sporadic sleeping with one another into a relationship (awfully sporting of them, considering that they have a child), but not a marriage.

If you want sex, profanity and hedonism, in America it really isn't that hard to find it. Uptightness about sex certainly isn't a quality people would associate us with in, say, the Islamic world. Yet to listen to some people you would think there is some massive fundamentalist crusade that it on the verge of turning the entire country into some kind of Puritanical nightmare, reducing our television viewing options to old reruns of the "Lawrence Welk Show."

The latest crusader to see the sky falling on our free speech is radio shock jock Howard Stern, whose sophomoric show has been impacted by the backlash against Janet Jackson's breast-baring Super Bowl performance, leading to some unpleasantness with Clear Channel and the FCC. The upshot of it is that stations have dropped Sterns' program and he has responded by inveighing against those who would muzzle him.

Howard SternStern blames President Bush and the religious right for this turn of events and has begun sharply criticizing both. His website, where one would expect pictures of Howard yukking it up with scantily clad women, now looks like a composite of material rejected by Mother Jones. At the top is a self-serving (not to mention self-righteous) invocation of the late liberal Supreme Court Justice William Brennan on the First Amendment's protection of expressing ideas, as if Stern is mainly trafficking in ideas. Throughout are links to liberal opinion outlets and news stories about censorship, antiwar activism and the evils of Republicans. He has an entire section of "Bush Facts" which link to anti-Bush commentary on sites like BushWatch.com, SmirkingChimp.com and the Democratic Underground.

All of this marks something of a change for Stern, who briefly considered running for governor of New York on the Libertarian Party ticket in 1994. In his past occasional forays into politics, he has usually endorsed Republicans like George Pataki. Forget Al Gore and Al Franken. As a talk show host with millions of nonideological swing voters in his vast audience, Sterns' shift to the left is a far greater threat to Bush's reelection prospects than Air America or Gore's new liberal TV network could ever hope to be.

But precisely the fact that we live in a country where millions of people listen to Howard Stern and could potentially be mobilized against any effort to stifle his off-color jokes demonstrates that this isn't a nation of prudes. Yet the myth persists. About a month ago, Canadian pop star Alanis Morissette engaged in a little skit at the Juno Awards tweaking the censorial tendencies south of the 49th parallel. Complaining about how radio stations in the U.S. wouldn't play her using the word "a—hole" in a song, she boasted that she was happy to be home in Canada where free speech is embraced.

Aiming at the still-simmering Janet Jackson controversy, Morissette disrobed onstage. Except she wasn't really naked, just wearing a skin-colored suit that made it look like she was. As they implicitly conceded in the skit, she couldn't have appeared naked on this Canadian broadcast either. Perhaps nearly a decade after her hit song "Ironic," Morissette has finally learned the meaning of irony. (She is also, as I write this, about to go on tour with the Bare Naked Ladies. Isn't that ironic, dontcha think?)

Personally, I tend to be libertarian on these questions. I don't think we need a spate of government regulations to eradicate the F word or crack down on shock jocks and Super Bowl halftime shows. I don't lie awake nights worrying about what "Will and Grace" will do to Western civilization. I find a lot of conservative fretting about Hollywood, such as columnist Kathleen Parker's suggestion that the soldiers who abused Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib were imitating the Farrelly Brothers, excessive and silly. But I also understand why parents don't want to expose their children to this sort of content and I have no objections to them trying to carve out an oasis where they are not constantly bombarded with filth as they try to go about their daily lives.

This is really what people who find Americans overly prudish are offended by – the existence of concerned parents, devoutly religious people and others who form value judgments about popular culture and find it offensive. To consider an extreme example of what such people object to, look at the AIDS scandal rocking the pornography industry. No fewer than five porn actors have been found HIV-positive. It is not a superstition that subordinating self-control to sexual desire can have consequences; it is a plain fact. When raising children, what might seem like prudishness to the unattached urban single is really common sense.

Parents often find their struggle to coexist with the prevailing pop culture a never-ending battle. Even if they do occasionally succeed at getting some foul-mouthed DJ tossed off the air, the balance generally tips against them. The idea that prim fundamentalists have John Ashcroft dictating what the rest of the country can watch or listen to is so easily refuted by flipping through the channels as to make you wonder how it can be taken seriously. If these are the people secretly controlling our airwaves, then they must be bigger fans of nudity, the F word and Britney Spears than anyone suspected.

W. James Antle III is an assistant editor of The American Conservative and a senior editor for Enter Stage Right. The views expressed above represent his alone.

Printer friendly version
Printer friendly version
Send a link to this page!
Send a link to this story

Printer friendly version Send a link to this page!

Get weekly updates about new issues of ESR!



1996-2019, Enter Stage Right and/or its creators. All rights reserved.