What is obscene?

May 29, 2009 | By | 19 Replies More

I was watching TV recently. At the climax of one of my favorite shows a man was murdered. He was stabbed twice in the chest. I watched as the blade entered his chest two times, piercing his lungs and heart. The man fell to the ground and was kicked into a nearby fire where he burst into flames as he was dying.

This was shown on television, during prime time, with no outcry from the public or the censors. And why would there be an outcry? One can witness murders of this kind and worse on TV many times a week.

Now imagine this scenario…

Prime time TV. A loving husband and wife wish to have children. They take off their clothes and get into bed, as married couples do. We then clearly watch his erect penis enter her vagina two times as he tells her he loves her.

Cut to nine months later and she gives birth to a healthy baby boy. The couple rejoices. The husband kisses his wife on the forehead and we…Fade to Black.

Can you imagine the outrage? Can you imagine the FCC fines and the righteous letters of condemnation?

In the first case we see the brutal, senseless ending of a life, and we get to see it in great detail. In the second scenario we are witnessing the loving, natural creation of life between two married adults.

Which one is obscene?


Tags: , , , ,

Category: American Culture, Censorship, Community, Entertainment, hypocrisy, Media, Sex

About the Author ()

Mike Pulcinella is a documentary filmmaker.

Comments (19)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Mike: Good point. I agree with you entirely. I am also aghast whenever I surf commercial TV for even a few minutes during prime time. These constant images of violence cannot possibly be good for any of us.

    Tell me, though. Are there ratings for violence re TV shows? Is there an easy way for parents to avoid having their children (or themselves) exposed to these images?

    I don't know, perhaps because I so rarely watch commercial TV any more.

  2. There are warnings for the more "realistic" shows. Still, how many parents are monitoring their children's activities 24 hours a day?

    Lest anyone think I am advocating hardcore sex on prime time TV, I am not. That is not appropriate for viewers under a certain age either. I'm just pointing out a strange hypocrisy that I've noticed.

  3. Mindy Carney says:

    Did you say "erect penis??" OMG. I may pass out right here.

    Whew. Give me a bloody massacre any day of the week.

    Makes no sense. You are right. I admit to allowing one of my daughters to watch the violence, because she is fascinated by the thriller/mystery genre. We watch the CSI-type shows together. We "gross out" at the violence, etc., and we talk about what is realistic and what is not. She is fascinated by the science of it, as well as the mystery, and I do remind her that most crime labs don't have all the fancy equipment, and to find that one little clue they probably spent days looking at tiny things under a microscope, etc. We talk about evil and what would make people be so cruel to each other, we talk about how permanent death is, and what do you think that person felt when he realized that his anger ended a human life?

    I do wonder sometimes if I am doing her a disservice, but I think I'd rather her watch it this way than be forbidden by me, then see it otherwise, be interested and sneak it, whereby we couldn't discuss it. She also knows that some kids aren't allowed to watch it, that she can't show it to friends without permission, and many kids (including her sister) are scared or completely horrified by such shows. And, much worse, some kids see the violent parts as "cool." She, interestingly, is horrified by that.

    Funny, when we watch these shows and people start kissing, this same 11-yr.-old will shriek, "EWWWW!" and cover her eyes. Go figure.

    I don't disagree with you at all, Mike. I think our culture in general is screwed up in its views of sex and violence that we don't know which means what.

  4. Tony Coyle says:

    There are ratings for TV (similar to movies). To support their enforcement, every TV (since the 90's) has been produced with a so-called 'v-chip' that can block display of specific categories of show – regardless of source.

    If you use a cable box, you'll have similar (and perhaps enhanced) capabilities built into the box (blocking entire channels without a pin, for instance).

    But nothing beats education and involvement.

    Watch TV with your kids. Let them watch TV with you. discuss what you watch. Ask them about the scenarios they've witnessed with you.

    Informed kids make smarter choices. You may not agree with their choices (!), but you can at least ensure those choices are the result of some thought (or curiosity).

    But isn't that what parenting is all about?

    My son noticed that here in Spain, and in the UK, swearing (after a certain time of day) is not bleeped, naked bodies are visible on TV (and on the beaches), and society is not overrun with amoral sexual perverts!

    As a counterpoint to 'fantasy' violence, real violence is not sugarcoated: on Spanish news programs, the cameras get really close to victims of violence, and images of blood and pain are regularly shown. (in one memorable scene, intestines spilling from a gored matador's abdomen was part of prime time news)

  5. Alison says:

    I'd kind of prefer to see neither, but given the choice. . .

    We Americans certainly do have it backward. In our family, most of the TV watching is done together. Rather than censor, we've always let the kids watch what we watch and then talk about it later. They've seen movies and TV shows with all kinds of "inappropriate" content, and rather than be grossed out or titillated or whatever the correct visceral reaction should be, they think about whether it contributed to the story or not. Was the violence gratuitous, or did it reveal something about a character that we needed to know? What was the purpose of the nudity or sex? Would less or more have worked better, do we wonder why it was there in the first place when the credits have started rolling?

    It's just one more way to teach critical thinking. Most people just watch for entertainment and don't question whether they should or should not be seeing certain things. Either they watch without protest, or they protest without watching. I hate the idea that we should somehow legally or electronically protect ourselves from this stuff. In an ideal world, we just wouldn't watch stupid, poorly written, or exploitative stuff, and with that, the inappropriate content would go away – because nobody would be buying it.

  6. Stacy says:

    Mike, my answer to your question is, "Neither".

    I agree that both graphic violence and graphic sex are upsetting to young children. That said, I don't agree that violence on TV is bad for children or the rest of us. I'm inclined to agree with Harold Schechter, who argues in his book Savage Pastimes: A Cultural History of Violent Entertainment that there is no good evidence that fictional violence promotes real violence (if anything, there's actually a little bit of circumstantial evidence to the contrary.) Schechter shows that humans have always been drawn to violence in our entertainment, and argues that, since violence is an integral part of our nature, better we should exercise it in the realm of make-believe than in real life. (And, yes, it's clear that even small children understand the difference between make-believe and real life.)

    Think of the Westerns that were popular TV entertainment for kids in the 50s (I'm following Schechter, here)–the body count was pretty darn high. Think of the outcry in that same decade (led by a good and well-meaning progressive psychologist, Fredric Werthram,) over the violent and ghoulish EC comics, which were supposedly going to turn that whole generation into sociopaths. (Didn't happen. In fact, those kids grew up and opposed their country's undeclared war, in astounding numbers.)

    And remember, you're unlikely to see any violence on prime time that'll equal Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus!

  7. One difference is that sex is private, violence is public. We draw our cues on how to feel about both from those around us, however, "those around us" are often, while the same people, members of different groups.

    Violence is a constituent of survival and we long ago made violent actions on behalf of the community heroic.

    Sex may also be considered a constituent of survival, but we have made it an aspect of private property, and what one does with one's property is private (usually). Nothing heroic about it, as it is not done for the benefit of the community but for the pleasure of the individual.

    I am both simplifying and exaggerating to some extent, but if take these bases and extend them to the psychology of sex and violence, you begin to see why we have such confused attitudes toward them.

    Lastly, then, consider: sane people abjure violence and enjoy sex. Drama, at its best, is intended to challenge assumptions. Given that, consider what audience is being catered to by television—which often does nothing to challenge assumptions.

  8. Shelly says:


    I agree with you, in England sex isn't a taboo and violence isn't either. I kind of disagree with you when you mentioned that the Spanish "society is not overrun with amoral sexual perverts!"

    Firstly, many sexual perverts from all over Europe perhaps keep it to themselves while at home. However, while on vacation in other countries like South America, and in particular in Brazil, I have seen quite a lot of Europeans in its jails accused of having sex with a minor. Americans too, go there to take advantage of the poor in Brazil. German citizens top the rank of incarceration!

    I believe there is no need to show violence to kids, they will experience enough during their lifetime. I don't like to have my kids see a violent program. In fact, we hardly watch TV. We do watch the History, Animal Planet, and Discovery Channel. I am an environmentalist, a Marine biologist, so I spend my free time with the kids outside, sharing the love of nature with them. I can assure you that they can think critically, they are in-tune with life probably more so than a child who sits and watches a lot of junk television.

    The American society is polarized and suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and is a nation of hypochondriacs.

    Here in the U.S. everything has to be extreme. Extreme violence or not enough sex on TV. This country was founded on a lot of violence and it has not changed ever since. Just look at the Constitution, "right to bear arms" ! I am not judging those who want to have guns, but clearly violence perhaps is part of the American psyche more so than sex.

    To deal with sex or lack of, the drug companies spend billions on advertisement. My in-laws from the U.K. are just gobsmacked by the sheer number of medication advertisement on TV. America seems to have a "magic pill" for everything. Diarrhea ? Pepto-Bismol. Impotence? Cialis, Viagra. Depression? Wellbutrin. And the list goes on.

    You never see anything making the connection that we should be spending time outside with out kids and family or that nature can help in a lot of ailments. We don't see programs on linking healthy parks and health people. Let me assure you that the Australians already have made this connection. Psychiatry doctors in Victoria already prescribe a daily walk in a park along with medication.

    Violence and sex is only one part of the problem. To address this dysfunction, we'll have to take a look at this society from a holistic point of view.

    I got to this site by mistake and thought it would be good to respond to the blog.

    I am a British citizen and have lived in South America, France, England, and Spain.


  9. Danny says:

    Great comments, Mark. I was going to say something along the same lines as sex being private.

    I have always thought, and still think, that one of things that makes sex sex is the intimacy, the shared world between you and someone else. Whenever it becomes "public" or viewed, to me something is lost. That is why sex scenes in movies have never seemed like anything but voyeurism. Once you "open up" the experience, one if it's principle components is lost.

    Now, that's not an argument for violence on TV as much as an argument against sex on TV. We may go the way of Europe, but I don't see it as liberating as much as voyeuristic and titillating.

    For the record, gratuitous violence on TV or film has a very negative effect on me. It has to be tasteful or necessary to the story in order for it to be a redeeming expression. Otherwise I walk away with a low feeling of humankind.

  10. Gary,

    Don't construe my observations to suggest that I think sex should be taken off tv. I merely think we have our priorities bass-ackwards but based on the premises I described.

    There is a difference between (contemporary) erotica and pornography, and the selfishness issue is central. Pornography is made for the purpose of providing autoerotic stimulation for masturbatory pleasure, and as such is not required to be anything more than a surface depiction. Erotica is that which engages the full empathic interest of the audience, which makes it a shared work. Art, if you will. Pornography makes public that which is private and destroys the intimacy inherent in the context, while erotica invites private participation into what remains private and therefore increases intimacy.

    Granted, many, if not most, people can't tell the difference. I don't believe in basis artistic decisions on their perceptions.

    Violence you have the same sort of problem. What we call Gratuitous Violence is that which is merely a surface depiction—the Red Shirts in Star Trek, the myriad casualties in Rambo movies, etc. Violence that counts, artistically, is that which makes it personal, which means the victims must be fully developed characters with whom we have empathy. It makes the violence "matter" in dramatic terms so that a sense of loss is evoked—or even a sense of justice in the case of bad guys.

    It is the sloppy, lazy dramatic misuse (and, I think, misunderstanding) of these distinctions that lend critics of both ammunition in the effort to suppress it.

    Drama is based on conflict. This doesn't mean body counts. Good sex, by its nature, is an absence of conflict. Often, then, what you get from Hollyrood is the forced insertion of conflict by making sex punishable (anybody ever see the spoof "Student Bodies"?) Having sex at the wrong time, with the wrong person, in the wrong circumstances, etc etc leads to retribution, making the sex risky, and raising the drama. It's not invalid in all instances, but it becomes a kind of short hand and easily abused, in the same way that depicting the willingness to kill does, since it is the willingness and not the consequences that ends up in bad movies.

    Art should elevate. If television and film people would just think before they accept the easiest route to "Gosh wow! Cool!" evocations, we might not have to have this debate as often.

  11. Stacy says:

    All of this moral harrumphing leaves me cold.

    "Art should elevate". Um, no. Art (broadly including popular entertainment) can do all sorts of things. It may sometimes inspire or "elevate" us (whatever that means, exactly); it can also (and legitimately) horrify, arouse, provoke, amuse, baffle, and even disgust us. It is not required of art that it provide us with moral lessons.

  12. Stacy,

    Did I say anything about morality? When I say "elevate" I mean it should take us out of ourselves or put us in a different place. So all the things you listed that it can do, I say "Yeah. Of course." When art tries to be moral, it generally fails. But it ought to move us, preferably expand our perception. Sorry if the word I chose connotes only moral stuff.

  13. Stacy says:


    I don't think "elevate" implies morality; it's a vague word. But the statement, "art should elevate", coming as it did at the end of a post which is basically about the morality, or lack thereof, of sex and violence in entertainment (is it gratuitous? is it selfish?), suggested, to me, that you might have intended it at least partly in the sense of "moral elevation".

    I don't mean to sound utterly unsympathetic to the distinctions you're making about sex and violence in art and entertainment. My point, though, is that art is and does a lot of things, and it frequently overrides such distinctions. I'm glad to know we agree.

    (One of my all-time favorite movies is Kill Bill; the first volume of which is filled to the brim with gratuitous violence. Now, there's a film with no moral or sociological nutrients whatsoever–and it's brilliant. Thus, my answer to your original question: Neither.)

  14. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Back in the 1970s A Toronto based TV station broadcast soft-core porn movies late at night. The broadcasts were readily received in the Buffalo New York area.

    Of course many prepubescent New Yorkers heard of the movies, and would sneak out of their rooms to quietly watch, more out of curiosity about what their parents did not want them to see.

    After a few weeks, most decided that the films shown on the "Baby Blue Movie" program were not worth losing sleep over, and most quit watching.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Niklaus: I do wonder how much of the allure/anxiety about nudity is caused by those who try to protect the people by making it illegal. Does anyone know whether the kind of nudity that never shows on U.S. free TV is available in other countries? If so, does the audience we try to protect grow bored with it? I would suspect so.

  15. Tim Hogan says:

    Erich, cable TV has a "v-chip" function which allows you to bar viewing of anything above a certain rating. We do this and have to enter a code if we want to view certain shows. If the kids are up, we look to see what the show is about, the level of the rating, and the amount of tube they've already seen that day or week.

    Sometimes, it's go to bath and bed time and we read to the kids from whatever book they've chosen.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Tim: Will the v-chip allow in nudity while screening out violence? Does the v-chip definition of "violence" (if there is such a thing) satisfy you? Is there any v-chip equivalent for those who watch free TV off the airwaves?

  16. A great deal of our anxiety over this issue could be addressed by one simple expedient—READ. If we continue to receive all our entertainment predigested and never engage the critical faculties (which is what television does) then we respond in Pavlovian helplessness to everything untoward.

    We're so terrified that a ten-year-old will see a nipple (female) in a context where sexual excitation is being experienced because we're terrified of our own massively decontextualized responses. If you shut something away in a (metaphorical) closet, you have no control over what kind of growths will adhere to it and when it finally comes out, it may well be a monster.

  17. Erika Price says:

    Why is the portrayal of any human reality obscene at all? Can we not trust children (or sensitive adults) to know something fundamental about human reality? Stacy's comment about Kill Bill got me thinking. The violence in Kill Bill is not realistic- but it is very gory. Despite the blood spurts and flurry of swords, I don't find Kill Bill at all disturbing. Is that because it is so over-the-top as to not be taken seriously? Does that absolve it of anything?

    I watched the movie Thirteen last week. In the film, there is a scene where a teenage girl cuts herself on the wrists several times. I winced, I curled up, I felt faint. This was a very realistic depiction of violence, however slight. Despite the small scope of the violence portrayed, I was much more effected, disgusted and offended than I ever was watching Kill Bill. So it often goes with violence- the extreme is seen as cartoonish, and therefore less threatening.

    Why isn't there something analogous with portrayal of sex? Really sexy situations are just as "obscene" as more realistic sexual situations, maybe more so.

Leave a Reply