Sad but true story: When I was in the fourth grade, some well-meaning teachers arranged a special viewing of the movie Charly, which had been released a few years earlier. Based on the novella Flowers for Algernon, the film tells the story of a mildly retarded man named Charly Gordon who, through an experimental surgical procedure, becomes a prodigious intellect. The beneficial effects, however, turn out to be temporary and Charly eventually reverts back to his original level of intelligence--tragically conscious of the enfeebling of his own mind. It's a good story, well told and well acted (Cliff Robertson won an Academy Award for the title role).
Although my teachers had no reason to believe we were a particularly mean-spirited crew to begin with, they figured, I assume, that the movie would inculcate a sense of sympathy so that we would be more sensitive to mentally impaired individuals. We walked away from the theater having learned quite a different lesson, though.
During the film, whenever Charly's co-workers (who are a mean-spirited crew) make a mistake, they inevitably quip, "I pulled a Charly Gordon." The day after we saw the movie, a student knocked over a display in the back of a classroom and, as the teacher began to upbraid him, he turned his palms outward and shrugged. "I pulled a Charly Gordon," he explained as the class erupted into laughter. By the end of the day, the phrase had become a ubiquitous defense for any and all manner of goof-up, mistake, or academic error. And for weeks after, kids--boys and girls, teachers' pets and class cut-ups--hurled the epithet Charly Gordon as an all-purpose invective. Every time the teachers heard the phrase, you could see them grit their teeth and shake their heads--they had no one to blame but themselves.
Besides the self-evident truth that children like to disappoint their elders, there's a larger point to this story, one that bears on the recent and seemingly endless attempts to police popular culture: The audience has a mind of its own. Individuals sitting in a theater, or watching television, or listening to a CD don't always see and hear things the way they're "supposed" to.
Consider TV, for instance. "People talk at it, through it, and around it," observes Constance Penley, a professor of film and women's studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who has extensively studied "fan" communities. The one thing they don't do is merely absorb it, notes Penley, one of a growing number of scholars who stress the audience's role in constructing meaning and value in popular culture. Such media analysts say that consumers of popular culture are not that different from consumers of, say, food and clothing--that is, they are engaged, knowledgeable, discriminating, and self-interested.
That would be news to most participants in the public de-bate over depictions of sex and violence in movies, TV, and music. Liberals and conservatives are as tight as Beavis and Butt-head in agreeing that consumers of popular culture--the very people who make it popular--are little more than tools of the trade. Joe Sixpack and Sally Baglunch--you and I--aren't characters in this script. Just like TV sets or radios, we are dumb receivers that simply transmit whatever is broadcast to us. We do not look at movie screens; we are movie screens, and Hollywood merely projects morality--good, bad, or indifferent--onto us.
"We have reached the point where our popular culture threatens to undermine our character as a nation," Bob Dole thundered last summer in denouncing "nightmares of depravity" and calling for movies that promote "family values." "Bob Dole is a dope," responded actor-director Rob Reiner, a self-described liberal activist. Fair enough, but it apparently takes one to know one: "Hollywood should not be making exploitive violent and exploitive sex films. I think we have a responsibility [to viewers] not to poison their souls," continued Reiner, who rose to prominence playing the role of Meathead on All in the Family.
Token antagonism, then, belies fundamental agreement: Pop culture can undermine (or, implicitly, ennoble) our character; movies can poison (or save) our souls. There is no sense that the ticket-buying public might have a say in the matter, that we might be responsible for our own damnation. Indeed, one of the most striking characteristics of the continuing public discussion regarding popular culture is the eerie sense of solidarity between feuding politicians and players. Scratch the surface and everyone from Bill Clinton to Charlton Heston, Newt Gingrich to Chevy Chase, Janet Reno to Sally Field, agrees: Movies, music, and TV should be the moral equivalent of a high colonic, Sunday school every damn day of the week.
This isn't to suggest that popular culture has no effect on how we think, feel, or act, that we exist somehow forever and apart from what we watch and listen to. But the interplay between pop and its audience is far more complicated than most of its critics acknowledge. It's not just that people such as Bob Dole, who admitted that he hadn't even seen the movies he criticized, and William Bennett, who has most recently lambasted daytime talk shows, don't have a solid working knowledge of popular culture. Even more important, they don't understand the experience of interacting with pop culture, of how individuals react, respond, and revise what they see and hear.
Of course, it is hardly surprising that denizens of Washington and Tinseltown frame the debate so that all interpretive power resides with would-be government regulators and entertainment industry types. Clearly, it makes sense for them to conceptualize popular culture as a top-down affair, one best dealt with by broadcasters and bureaucrats. This consensus, however, has implications far beyond the well-worn notion that entertainment should be properly didactic.
Because it assumes that the viewer, the listener, or the audi-ence member is a passive receiver of popular culture, this consensus must inevitably result in calls for regulation by the government (such as the V-chip, which is part of both the House and Senate telecommunications bills) or paternalism by producers ("More and more we're tending toward all-audience films ...that have civic values in them," Motion Picture Association of America head Jack Valenti told the Los Angeles Times). The viewer simply can't be trusted to handle difficult, sensitive, ironic material--or to bring his own interpretation to bear on what he sees.
Hence the focus on "context," which inevitably refers to the narrative context of a given work. Pop culture regulators assume that if sex and violence are shown within a "moral" framework, the viewer will absorb that framework and, presumably, act accordingly.
In a symposium on media violence in Time magazine, Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) noted, "Violence without con-text and sex without attachment come into our homes too frequently in ways that we cannot control unless we are monitoring the television constantly." Bradley didn't, however, discuss the contexts and attachments into which shows are broadcast. This includes not only how we view TV but, for example, family structure. Now more than ever, technologies such as VCRs and remote controls allow individuals to create their own viewing contexts: We channel-surf, flicking between dozens of stations, switching between a ball game and a performance of Oedipus Rex. We fast-forward through commercials and coming attractions, or stop the tape altogether. Simultaneously, paradoxically, we are both bombarded with more and more media signals and have more and more control over what we watch and when we watch it.
What is on the screen or on the stereo is not irrelevant, of course. But it matters far less than one might suppose. Individuals interpret and reconstruct what they see and hear the way they want to. In a classroom, interpretations can be graded as better or worse, depending on the instructor's criteria. But there is no analogous oversight in the real world and people are free to spin out their own interpretations and cross-references. Reductio ad absurdum: Mark David Chapman read The Catcher in the Rye as legitimizing his murder of John Lennon. Clearly, this is not an A+ interpretation of the novel, but it is an interpretation nonetheless. And it points to a simple truth: The most relevant interpretive context is not the producer's but the consumer's.
A similar fixation on and extremely limited definition of context infuses the recently released UCLA Television Monitoring Report. The study, underwritten by the broadcast networks after Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) threatened them with governmental action in 1993, charts "violence" in the 1994-95 TV season, including prime-time series, made-for-TV movies and miniseries, theatrical films shown on TV, on-air promotions for network shows, and Saturday morning children's programming. The authors go to great pains to distinguish between "appropriate" and "inappropriate" violence, stressing, "Context is the key to the determination of whether or not the use of violence is appropriate." In determining whether violence is objectionable, they rely on a series of questions--"Is the violence integral to the story?," "Is the violence glorified?," "Is the violence intentional or reactional?," etc.--that speaks only to authorial intentions. While such distinctions may allow for a moral (and aesthetic) judgment of a particular program, they don't speak to the viewer's experience. If a viewer, for instance, tunes into or out of a show midway through, he may have no idea of whether violence is integral to the story.