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Portraying some women as 'babes underneath.' (television and sex) (Column)

"Let's talk about sex, baby..." goes the refrain of a popular song. And on TV these days it seems that's what everyone's doing -- either talking about it or doing it. And it's not Madonna's fault.

As always, throughout her career, Madonna Ciccone (of the famous aluminum Sex book) is only a hypersensitive weather vane accommodating the prevailing cultural trends. Slowly but surely, for at least the past five years, voyeurism has been replacing auteurism as the guiding force in America's popular arts. And finally, with the certainty of death, taxes and market research, the hypersexuality of the century's end has reached the mainstream, prime-time TV airwaves.

Of course, there have been fundamentalist complaints about sex on TV for so long (at least since the late 1970s) that we are tempted to view current discussion about tube sex as simply more of the same. But, in fact, some genuinely new things have happened.

Everyone knows the daytime soaps have been getting steadily steamier. And at the other end of the broadcasting day, the ads for those 900-number phone-sex lines have become much raunchier and more omnipresent in the past year.

Meanwhile, "Studs," a mutant offspring of the old "Dating Game," has plumbed new depths in coarse and downright dehumanizing sexual innuendo and invasion of a contestant's privacy. And we've all noticed that, with each passing season, the networks seem to leave in a little more when they air an R-rated Hollywood movie.

But the most notable tube-sex landmarks came in the opening month of the fall 1992 television season, when two prime-time hourlong network dramas, "Going to Extremes" and "Civil Wars," featured female nudity of the sort that would have earned an R rating at the movies 15 years ago.

"Going to Extremes" is a new series from the makers of "Northern Exposure." You could call it "Southern Exposure" because it features a group of young Americans who couldn't get into U.S. medical schools and so are doctors-in-training somewhere in the English-speaking Caribbean.

Remember the great Grenada "rescue mission" of 1983? Well, these are those kids. Except the show is filmed in Jamaica, which has better air service to Los Angeles.

Just to set the properly clinical "anatomy and physiology" sort of tone, the first episode of "Going to Extremes" featured series regular June Chadwick in a full, unobstructed rearview nude shot.

"Civil Wars" was discussed (and dismissed) in this space when it premiered last year. It features a bickering male-female legal team specializing in divorce cases. "Think |Moonlighting' meets |L.A. Law,'" said the producer to the network executive.

Mariel Hemingway plays the female half of the legal team. And last month her duties were somehow stretched to include posing in the buff for a fictitious photographer. The result was network television's first full-frontal exposure, save for a hand and a cute camera angle.

There was a time when complaints about TV programming focused on "sex-and-violence," a phrase pronounced so often that it became a single word. You may have always suspected that the "violence" part of the catchphrase was tacked on simply as the right-wing puritans' sop to queasy liberals, who might be more or less in favor of sex but ideologically allergic to force. And you were probably right.

But a check of the network prime-time schedules today reveals considerably less violent entertainment programming than at anytime in my three TV-watching decades. That owes mostly to the neardemise of two generic standbys, the Western and the cop show.

"Young Guns" and Clint Eastwood to the contrary, the Western is finally played out as popular genre in American entertainment. It will resurface occasionally as a curiosity, just as the Civil War surely will.

And the cowboy myth will live on in our various space explorers and private eyes. But mainstream America is so far from its rural origins that it has lost interest in a world of people on horseback.

The TV cop show lingers, barely, with "In the Heat of the Night" and "Law and Order" (which really is a cops-and-lawyers half-breed). Fox has plenty of post-gun-play on "Star Trek: The Next Generation." And there is plenty of pre-gun, sword-and-arrow play on "Covington Cross," a Robin Hood clone show. But that's about it on the prime-time action-entertainment front.

The most likely theory on the death of prime-time TV action shows is that they simply couldn't compete, on a body-count basis, with the availability of the Die Hards and Terminators on videocassettes.

The passing of the TV shoot-em-ups will no doubt come as good news to many. But we should note that this development is closely related to another one, the devolution of one-hour dramas, of any sort, to the endangered species list. "Civil Wars" and "Going to Extremes" are among the struggling survivors of this genre, and their new frontiers in female exposure reflect their producers' desperation.

God only knows what sort of prurient stunts the "L.A. Law" guys will pull this year to try to keep that drowning warhorse afloat. They tried sex on the ceiling last year. Competition from others small-screen formats partly explains the new wave of TV libertinism. Most homes now have cable and, the rationalization goes, "You can see anything on cable, so what's the difference?"

Of course, there is a difference. Even with cable you get nudity only during prime time -- and even then rarely on the premium pay channels, like HBO, which consumers must choose separately. Basic cable channels like USA, A&E, Lifetime and TNT stay pretty much within broadcast standards until late at night.

But the fact that for 15 years naked bodies have been appearing on cable TV means that a taboo was broken and viewers' expectations were subtly altered. Also, a 1988 court ruling finally decided that the Federal Communications Commission could not regulate the content of programs that air after 8 p.m., except for policing the famous seven dirty words. That opened the way for the recent changes. And, in our culture, what can be legally done sooner or later will be.

But the new sexualization of television, and of the popular culture at large, reflects something deeper than regulatory policy. At some level of the collective psyche the new voyeurism has something to do with AIDS and its transference (watching, when you can't do).

It also has something to do with the backlash and counterbacklash from the cultural changes of the 1960s and 1970s and with both of those factors' mixing with our ambiguous American legacy of equal parts repressive puritanism and libertarian individualism.

There is also the antifeminist backlash to consider. There seems to be a need at work here to "soften" strong female professional characters by pointing out that, oh yeah, they're really "babes" underneath it all.

The question for the 1990s is not whether there will be sexual presentations on TV and in other mass media. That has been settled. The question now is, what kind of presentations about sex will we have? So far, the flashing of female body parts as prime-time ratings bait does not augur well for the new era.
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Author:Collum, Danny Duncan
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Dec 11, 1992
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