Dems' Boob Tube Dilemma

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What do the Democrats need to do to win back the White House, etc? One answer is to woo married parents–who preferred Bush to Kerry by 20 percentage points last fall–by being more like idiot Republicans when it comes to attacks on pop culture:

"Democrats will not do better with married parents until they recognize one simple truth: Parents have a beef with popular culture. As they see it, the culture is getting ever more violent, materialistic, and misogynistic, and they are losing their ability to protect their kids from morally corrosive images and messages."

So says Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, lead author of study put out by the Progressive Policy Institute, as quoted by the Washington Times. Go here for the PPI study and here for the Times story.

Dafoe Whitehead is most famous for announcing "Dan Quayle was right" in the pages of the Atlantic some years back. That is, that two-parent, well-functioning households generally provide a better context for kids than single-parent, dysfunctional ones. (I reviewed the book that grew out of that article for Reason here.)

It's TV-Turnoff Week, so I'm going to give a pass on most of this stuff. But the study–which heavily (and erroneously) suggests that "exposing" kids to media violence incites them to commit it in the real world–is light on everything other than attitude. And, surprisingly, '70s nostalgia.

The 1970s now seem like an age of Edenic innocence for kids. Back then, the big primetime television shows were All In the Family, Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, and the Mary Tyler Moore Show. The Brady Bunch was going strong. Grease, Star Trek, and The Muppet Movie were hits at the box office. Debbie Boone's You Light Up My Life was at the top of the Billboard chart. A transgressive television moment meant showing Mike and Carol Brady in a double bed.

This is a rich rereading of '70s, culture, to be sure. Funny but I remember All in the Family as being the place on broadcast TV where you could go to hear real live curse-words and racial and ethnic epithets–or pretty close to them. I knew kids who weren't allowed to watch it for precisely that reason. I seem to remember the show being both controversial and popular. Sort of like The Sopranos is today, except that Archie Bunker and crew had a vastly larger audience (in absolute and relative terms) and that you have to buy HBO to be exposed to The Sopranos (and every TV, VCR, cable box, and Web browser comes full of tools to screen out offensive shit).

And where does The Bad News Bears, certainly one the most important movies of the '70s (in so much as it undercut traditional gender roles even as it sanctioned adolescent swearing like a motherfucker), fit into Dafoe Whitehead's reverie of a period now mostly remembered as the time when all that was good and decent in American society went down faster than Linda Lovelace in Deep Throat? (That's precisely the argument that David Frum made in How We Got Here.)

And for that matter, how in the world could anyone claim that American pop culture is more misogynistic than it was in the '70s (rest in peace, Andrea Dworkin)? Sure, it might be more graphic, both in terms of sex and violence (though let's not forget that the late '60s and early '70s was an unparalleled period of full-frontal nudity). But more misogynistic? I think not.

What was the message of Grease, a science-fiction musical set in an alternative universe where, judging by the looks of most of the cast, kids go to high school in their 30s or 40s? Out with Sandra Dee and in with slutty, anachronistic spandex outfits, if I'm recalling rightly. And let's not even talk about woman-hating films like Animal House, pretty much everything by Clint Eastwood, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, John Travolta's other massive hit of the decade, Saturday Night Fever, etc., etc., most of which display a casual contempt for the fairer sex that is by and large lacking in today's pop culture.

Which isn't to say that Dems aren't taking the idea of attacking pop culture seriously (who knows, it might even work). As the Times' story documents, Howard Dean is working the angle, as is Hillary Clinton.

NEXT: No Nuclear Option for This Filibusterer

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  1. I don’t get it. All parents were children, and most were consumers of pop culture before they had children of their own.

    I don’t have any kids, but I’m at the age where most of my friends are starting to. There is a change that takes place for many people once they have children. They suddenly forget what they were like, what they did, what they enjoyed, and focus on preventing their kids from being allowed to do anything. None of my friends have exhibited the change just yet. When does it happen? Is it when the kids start asking questions?

    For the Democrats to become more like the Republicans to win the next election is folly. Whatever happened to be an alternative? I look forward to my fantasy world where I vote for individuals.

  2. I’ve had that experience too. They have a kid and suddenly they forget the deep drinks from TV’s bottomless chum bucket they enjoyed themselves, to no obvious bad effect.

    If the dems try to become wannabee republicans they’ll lose what marginal power they have left. Why vote for wannabees when you can have the real thing?

  3. I’m trying to figure out where “America’s Next Top Model” fits into the argument. Am I bad that I watch it while my one-year old plays in the same room? He prefers American Idol and sleeps through 24.

  4. I’m more concerned with my kid getting a gun pulled on him in school by a low IQ cop due to a “drug sweep” than the kid actually using drugs.

    Call me crazy!

  5. Ahhh, the “golden days of television.”

    When the only sanctioned tv was programs like Little House on the Prairie.

    Oops. Wrong post.

    I thought you were reminiscing about the introduction of English language tv in Saudi Arabia back in the early ’80’s.

    My bad.

  6. “…most of which display a casual contempt for the fairer sex that is by and large lacking in today’s pop culture.”

    Two words: Hip Hop.

  7. I don’t disagree with Nick at all (love the re-invention of ’70’s TV) but there are very real changes that aren’t on TV that make parents worried.

    Say what you want about the culture of drugs and loose dress codes that permeated the late ’60’s and ’70’s high schools but the fact is that there were no Columbines and the swat team didn’t get called out to any High School that was then locked down like a prison because the vatos locos were shooting the black gang bangers.

    I’m not even close to being a Mighty Righty but every week brings a news story about something that could not have and did not happen twenty, thirty, or forty years ago.

    Put it all together with parents who are busy, who were educated by public schools, who aren’t particularly well informed, and it buys you a vague sense of uneasiness about your kids. Couple that with the shit that’s on MTV and it’s downright worrisome.

    Best way to handle that is to skip the day care, keep your kids busy, know what they’re doing, and lock your daughters in the basement until they’re thirty or so.

    And the fact that half my friends were raging druggies in school isn’t very re-assuring either. OK, so most of them grew up to successes well beyond anyone’s expectations, there are those other two that are dead.

  8. Dear Congress Critters,

    It’s called the “off” button. Every TV, VCR, DVD player, Computer, Cable Box and Radio comes standard with one. Easy to operate, easy to use, and already available to aid in your desire to protect children from fun.

    Love,
    Tim

    Dear Everyone Else Who Wants To Regulate My TV,

    See above, and go bugger yourself.

    Love,
    Tim.

  9. I blame the near-instantaneous information transfer that lets us see every terrible thing the moment it happens with hilarious side-effects added in real time to lessen the tragedy.

  10. Not all the parents do the 180 — my kids watch whatever they want, and I don’t monitor it. I’m either a bad parent, or just laissez-faire, I’m not sure which.

    They’re good kids, though. One is an achiever, one is not. But both are polite and respectful to those who are polite and respectful.

    I think kids adapt to their environment, and most of them are going to be ok.

  11. Furthermore, I watched bad ’70s tv –come on, you know that shit was stoopid– and smoked joints in geometry class, lit with a magnifying glass. Is somebody going to claim a connection there?

  12. TWC- correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t recall any black rampage killers in the schools like Columbine.

    Yes, an occasional rival gang member, but no wanton slaughter.

    Maybe some other factors at work besides tv?

  13. Parents, being the class of human with more experience and sometimes wisdom than their kids, inevitibly face control (as in the ego variety) problems with their kids … that and guilt can be a muthafucka.

    But fuck all of you that want to make my world fisher-price so you don’t have to think about raising your kid.

    And P.S.: The structure of American schools are far more suck-ass and pointless than TV. This is yet another diversionary tactic to keep our eyes off what we should care about; THE FRIGGEN PLACE WE SEND OUR KIDS FOR 6 GODDAMN HOURS A DAY OUTSIDE OUR SUPERVISION.

  14. Happy, no no, I didn’t mean to imply anything about TV just to sort of offer my own observation as to why parents are a little edgy.

    A little off topic I agree and I tried to allude to that with

    “there are very real changes that aren’t on TV that make parents worried.”

    I know, it was less than clear, but I’m not blaming TV for anything. TV’s like smoking pot, it saps your motivation (if you allow it to) and wastes your time, but it also entertains and informs. I make ‘opiate of the people’ jokes but I don’t find TV inherently evil.

    We all are soothed by the reading books mantra but we also forget that there was a time when reading books was seen in many places as every bit the useless extravagance that TV is accused of being.

  15. Free,

    Our kids are younger and we do pay some attention to what they watch.

    However, I let my kids watch Pearl Harbor and Private Ryan at age 7 & 5. We let them watch some adult fare but not the Sopranos or certain episodes of CSI (which my 8 year old son loves–CSI that is).

    But the worst shows are the Disney shows with the constant enviro-whacko subliminal messages. I have paused the TV many times to counter some of those messages.

    I think that kids learn a lot of what they need to know from casual conversation with their parents about the shows they watch. And there’s a lot of conversation at our house.

  16. TWC- sorry, must have misread.

    I understand your uneasiness, but my knee jerks violently when I hear politicos or nannies prescribe solutions. 🙂

    Like you, I think conversation with the kids alleviates problems, but if Johnny the neighbor is building bombs in his bedroom, there’s little society can do.*

    *Well, most of these kids show previous deviant behavior, so locking them up might be a good idea.

  17. There were a number of “Columbines” in the 1970s — the Brenda (I Don’t Like Mondays) Spencer shooting being the first to come to mind. The difference is that back then, school shootings didn’t get instant live nationwide TV news coverage with spiffy logos, ominous theme music and two solid weeks of followup in the form of nonstop talking-head theorizing. By all accounts, kids today are much less likely to be involved in school violence than they were 20-30 years ago.

    My favorite example of over-the-top ’70s TV misogyny is the old Battlestar Galactica episode in which all the manly pilot men got sick and Cmdr. Adama was forced — forced! — to let a bunch of icky ol’ cootie-laden girl shuttle pilots fly their precious Colonial Vipers. Watching it today is like examining something from another solar system.

  18. What was the message of Grease, a science-fiction musical set in an alternative universe where, judging by the looks of most of the cast, kids go to high school in their 30s or 40s)? Out with Sandra Dee and in with slutty, anachronistic spandex outfits, if I’m recalling rightly.

    Not to mention the long-running stage musical it was based on. In the Broadway version of Grease from the now-saintly 1970s, the opening number was about catching VD from the school restroom toilets, and the character of Sandy transferred not from Australia, but a parochial school, leading to many anti-Catholic jokes in the libretto. Paging William Donohue…

  19. Say what you want about the culture of drugs and loose dress codes that permeated the late ’60’s and ’70’s high schools but the fact is that there were no Columbines and the swat team didn’t get called out to any High School that was then locked down like a prison because the vatos locos were shooting the black gang bangers.

    Ahem . . .

    Self-flattering generationalist drivel. Numerous school shootings occurred in the 1980s and 1970s. Two gradeschoolers were murdered and nine wounded by a 16 year-old girl in 1979, seven Fullerton, California, university students slain by a student gunman in 1976, and a 1974 barrage by a rural New York honor student left three dead, nine wounded.”

    And let’s not forget Charles Whitman. Too, I’m thinking about Stephen King’s Rage, written as Richard Bachman in the early 1970s, which concerned a student holding his high school class hostage at gunpoint. This stuff didn’t pop out of a vacuum. My father went to public high school in Brooklyn in the late 50s/early 60s, and he’s got some horror stories about rapes, stabbings, gangbangs, shootings, and all that good stuff.

    I’m not even close to being a Mighty Righty but every week brings a news story about something that could not have and did not happen twenty, thirty, or forty years ago.

    Sure they could. You just didn’t hear about them when they happened in East Bumfuck.

  20. Say what you want about the culture of drugs and loose dress codes that permeated the late ’60’s and ’70’s high schools but the fact is that there were no Columbines

    Schools are safer today than they were in the late 1970s.

  21. To Timothy:

    George W. Bush himself made exactly your “off button” comment himself in his interview last December on cspan.

    They did put it there for a reason ….

  22. I’m amused at how yesterday’s PG-rated movies are today’s R-rated movies. Consider all the cussing in “Close Encounters” or the mom and dad smoking dope (!) in “Poltergeist”. I know that’s why they came up with “PG-13” but I swear you will not see much cursing or drugging in a PG-13 movie.

  23. has anybody noticed that the Democratic candidate in 2000, the year that the “marrieds gap” opened up in the first place, was Al Gore? Whose positions on these issues were right off of the PPI song sheet? whose wife’s name is as synonymous with bashing the anti-family entertainment media as Dan Qualye’s? if the electoral argument here carries any weight at all, then Ms. Whitehead owes us an explanation of those 2000 election returns.

    that said, i think there are a lot of pro-family policies that liberals & progressives can & should espouse vigorously. some of them even speak to the issue of helping parents control what their kids watch, read & listen to – e.g. requiring a la carte pricing for cable TV, curtailing ads during the saturday morning cartoon block, bringing back the “family hour” on broadcast TV, barring schools from selling themselves as exclusive marketing tools to soft drink & junk food merchants, etc. all of them better – fairer, more relevant, and more effective – than, for example, handing out fines based on the volume of mail the Family Research Council is able to generate on a given day. all of them aimed at a reasonable middle ground where free expression is free, but parents can count on having at least a few times & places where they don’t have to worry about what their kids might be exposed to. all of them focused on the right problem: a sales & marketing culture that is so rapacious and all-encompassing that our kids, despite most paretns’ best efforts, often spend more time training to be consumers than learning how to read and write.

    politically these stances can serve an important purpose in a take-back-the-married-families strategy for the Dems. they highlight that, for the Republicans, your right to protect your kid from inappropriate media content ends at the cash register. this speaks directly to one of the things that really troubles a lot of social conservatives about their abject surrender to the GOP; and even if the arguemnt fails to win them over, just having the conversation can serve to water down their enthusiasm, make them ask more questions, and maybe break the spell a lot of them seem to be under in which voting republican is just part of the lifestyle.

  24. At least in the 1970’s you did not see President Nixon holding hands with the king of Saudi Arabia.

    I guess he was too busy drinking Mai Tais with Mao to be bothered.

  25. “…e.g. requiring a la carte pricing for cable TV, curtailing ads during the saturday morning cartoon block, bringing back the “family hour” on broadcast TV…”

    Does the term “v-chip” mean anything to you?

    “…all of them aimed at a reasonable middle ground where free expression is free, but parents can count on having at least a few times & places where they don’t have to worry about what their kids might be exposed to…”

    They’ve already got a place they can do that–it’s called “home”, and they can control it however they please. It sounds like you might think that’s the problem though–it sounds like you’re worried about what people are letting their kids watch at home. Is that the case?

  26. Thus, the choice with which we are presented: the party that imposes morality based on religion, or the party that imposes morality based on political correctness?

    If you want to get more specific, the party that is offended by anything sexual or anything that can be perceived as religiously iconoclastic vs. the party that is offended by anything violent vs. anything that can be perceived as anti-PC.

    Thus, Ronald Reagan loved RAMBO while Bill Clinton loved AMERICAN BEAUTY. Republicans denounced THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST on the floor of the senate while Hillary wrote an article in the New York Times blasting Julia Roberts for smoking in MY BEST FRIEND’S WEDDING. Or just look at THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST: the GOP loved it for its “morality” despite the graphic (and most likely improbable) flaying and shredding, while Dems denounced the largely exagerrated anti-Semitism.

    It’s always a cultural trade-off.

  27. Once I became a parent I did find myself questioning what I was comfortable having my children exposed to, even though I have always been a die-hard libertarian in this area. As such, I certainly would not mind having a “family hour” on the TV, but just as certainly, I would expect there to be an “adult hour” sometime later at night. What I think screws things up the most is this effort to force everything to fit one set of rules. You can always Tivo the OC’s and watch them at 8PM the next day!

    My approach has been to let my kids decide what to watch, but to monitor it as I can, but they are still young and not interested in adult fare. Still, my daughter likes to watch “The Simpsons” with me and there have been a few episodes that could have led to some uncomfortable conversations if she had picked up on the context. Still, it doesn’t stop me from watching them with her (I do draw the line with South Park, though).

    What I find particularly difficult for parents today is that there is so much more stress in kid’s lives today, compounded by the ever growing numbers of rules and lack of tolerance, especially by schools. Its amazing that there are not more kids “blowing off steam” by blowing off people’s heads.

  28. Consider all the cussing in “Close Encounters” or the mom and dad smoking dope (!) in “Poltergeist”. I know that’s why they came up with “PG-13” but I swear you will not see much cursing or drugging in a PG-13 movie.

    Rhywun,
    I’m not too sure of that. I can think of a couple movies off hand, Major League being one (cripes, this has to be the 10th thread I mentioned this movie, I swear I’ve seen more movies, but this is apropos for this point), where it was rated R for nothing except the language. I mean what else could it be for? The cutout of the owner with the stars on the nips? Charlie Sheen’s hair?

  29. Seriously, all you concerned parents out there, every hour can be family hour. Y’all need to learn about the v-chip.

    “Using the remote control, parents can program the V-chip to block certain shows based on their ratings.”

    http://www.fcc.gov/vchip/

    Now you can leave your kids alone with the television and control what they watch too! …All without the hassle of going to the Supreme Court and reinterpeting the Constitution, etc.

  30. How about if the Democrats came up with an altogether new concept(for politics). “The individual is the basic unit of society. Families, and churches are groups. “ I’d vote for a candidate who celebrated that view.

  31. …Here’s an idea!

    Every minister in America should preach on the same topic one Sunday. The subject of the sermon should be, “What is a V-Chip and How Does It Work?”

    …This could do more to keep smutty violent programming away from the children of concerned parents than anything that’s been done since the medium was invented.

  32. A couple of points to make about pop culture. First, I can sympathize with people trying to raise their children in this society. I don’t have children, but if I did, I wouldn’t want them to see 90% of what passes for prime-time entertainment these days. Yes, I can always turn the TV off or get rid of my TV to keep my kid from being subject to Howard Stern getting strippers to take their clothes off for him (BTW, how in the hell is Howard Stern getting porn stars to get naked exciting on the radio?) but that is a little extreme. I think people with children ought to be able to own a TV with cable and not have to put a paddle lock on it to keep their kids from seeing things they are not old enough to see and understand. That doesn’t mean that we should sensor everything, but it does mean that broadcasters ought to use some discretion and not always appeal to the lowest common denominator.

    Even from an artistic standpoint, the lack of standards and censorship has on the whole hurt the quality of television and film. You list off all of those TV shows from 1970s, notice how much smarter and better written they were then what we get now. Yes, there were standards then and something as tame as All in the Family were considered controversial. This meant that the writers actually had to write smart material and not just depend on the prurient to appeal to audiences. The same is true in film. Initially after the old system of censorship was lifted, there was an explosion of creatively in the late 1960s and 1970s (argueably the high point of American film making). It wasn’t long though, the 1980s, until the quality of films began to decline. Film makers no longer had to be smart and clever to appeal, they could just put in more violence and sex and be shocking to make a buck. Cartoon violence was a guaranteed way to have a hit. Its a lot easier to rely on the FX guys to give a great car chase or shoot out than it is to write a good script. Thus, movies degenerated into the Summer Blockbuster we know today. In the 1930s and 40s and 50s, Hollywood gave us Withering Heights, Olivier’s Hamlet, John Ford’s Westerns and Cary Grant’s comedies. Today we get XXX, Gigli, and Showgirls. The same is true in music. In the 1930s and 40s we had Cole Porter and Count Basie, today we get Marilyn Manson. But the specter of censorship will destroy art. I do think that there are good movies and music produced today, its just that the complete lack of standards of conduct or decency have made artists lazy and lowered the overall quality of art.
    No everyone who wants to enforce some standards of decency is a religious fanatic who wants to make the US into Plymouth Plantation.

  33. John, people stayed away from Gigli and Showgirls as if the theatres had been quarantimed. As for the smart, non-prurient TV of the 70s, you didn’t watch much Three’s Company or Charlie’s Angels, did you? There’s a reason they called it “jiggle.”

    As a kid in the 60s and 70s, I can remember groups like The Legion of Decency which rated films from unobjectionable for all to condemned, and the boycott by our parochial school’s parents’ association of the local theatre that showed horror and monster movies on Saturdays. Oh, man, how I wanted to take in one of those twin bills!

    Rock n’ roll was going to ruin whatever kids hadn’t escaped the baneful effects of comic books in the 50s, the absence of fathers was going to destroy the young folks during WWII, poverty was going to warp the depression babies, jazz was going to lead the youth of the 20s into moral degredation, and dime novels and pool were going to spoil River City. Plato complained about the music kids listened to. People should take all this with a great big helping of “It was ever thus.”

    Kevin

  34. Kevrob,

    People did flock to the Mummy and any other numbers of bad movies mad in the last 20 years. Were there bad movies made in the 40s and 50s? Of course their were. There were a lot of good movies made too. A lot more good movies of higher quality than are made today. If censorship is so bad for art, why is art today, a world where censorship is virtually non-existence so bad and why was art so much better when we had mild censorship?

  35. John,

    You’re seeing Sturgeon’s law in effect. 90%of everything is crap. There are plenty of good movies and television shows that exist today. The stuff that you remember from the sixties and early seventies is what was worth remembering. In that context, it’s easy to think that it was all like that.

    A lot of today’s “junk entertainment” is the result of “focus group” and “market research” and other such nonsense where executives make decisions based on what they think people need to see.

  36. Lazlo,

    Thanks for the link. One mass school killing in 1927 followed by the next one in 1956 and then escalating from there tends to make my point about the unease some parents feel. I was obviously incorrect about the date sequence which apparently began earlier than I thought, but the escalation of school violence did occur.

    (Lazlo and Dan)

    “By all accounts, kids today are much less likely to be involved in school violence than they were
    20-30 years ago.”

    That is true unless the students attend high schools with large populations, where risk of violence is much greater. Source: Reason’s Director of Education studies.

    Phil:

    “Sure they could. You just didn’t hear about them when they happened in East Bumfuck.”

    I agree with you to a point, but at some point in time it was more than just a lack of reporting. Lizzie Borden was an anomaly, the guy in Long Beach who was sentenced the other day to 25 years for killing his mother and cutting her hands and head off was just another news story, didn’t even make the front page.

    A better example, I went to high school in the late 60’s with gang bangers. But if you got into a fight with them the worst that would happen is the guy might pull a switchblade or his buddies would catch you behind the band room and beat the shit out of you (5 on 1). But they were not going to drive by the school and shoot you as you walked up the front steps. That just was not going to happen.

    Rightly or wrongly that anecdotal PERCEPTION illustrates the mindset of many parents today who compare that sort of experience with what they see on the news and PERCEIVE as happening everywhere. That’s why I qualified my remarks the way I did by saying parents who aren’t well informed, busy, educated in public schools, etc.

    I may well be wrong on some of this stuff (Mrs TWC is with you guys on this one for the most part) and I don’t entirely disagree her or you, but I also understand why some parents feel the way they do about pop culture (which, incidentally I think is great).

    And those parents who fear pop culture will, as a rule, still take from it what they find appealing for their families and disgard the rest. And that’s as it should be.

  37. It’s not only revisionist to say there weren’t school shootings in the 70’s, but laying the blame on media is also hopelessly misguided.

    The Columbine shootings had nothing to do with popular culture, though of course that’s what the left will want you to believe since the teachers unions have them in their pocket. The real reason for the Columbine shootings is that PUBLIC SCHOOLS SUCK. From about 7th grade onward they are pretty miserable for most students (just about everyone who’s not on Varsity Football or Cheerleading); it’s sheer TORTURE for a smaller percentage who are endlessly subjected to physical, emotional, and sometimes sexual abuse by their fellow students, while teachers either ignore the problem or join in.

  38. dagny,

    While I agree with you completely about the wretched environment in our public schools, that probably wasn’t the cause of the Columbine massacre. See David Cullen’s article “The Depressive and the Psychopath”, published last year in Slate.

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