In a short essay over at Counterpunch, David Rosen wonders if America’s time-honored tradition of “mean-spirited moral absolutism” is on its way out, at least at the national level. As part of his evidence, Rosen cites a recent Supreme Court decision prohibiting the Federal Communications Commission from imposing fines for a network’s broadcast of “fleeting expletives” (the term for unanticipated swearing on live TV). While the result didn’t mandate any sweeping changes in how the FCC regulates broadcast indecency, a number of media law scholars saw the decision’s stance as a signal that the Supreme Court will further relax or invalidate existing FCC indecency regulations when it comes to basic cable, and possibly beyond.
Until that does happen, though, networks are still in the business of complying with existing restrictions on the broadcast of explicit material between the hours of 6am and 10pm, and and still continuing to use an abundance of caution when preparing pre-recorded programming for broadcast. At the gym here at Kenyon, at least one of the televisions mounted above the stable of treadmills is often playing a rerun of Sex and the City, now in syndication on the E network. The editing formula for producing a broadcast-friendly version of Sex and the City seems to be predominantly one of rote replacement (“freaking” for “fucking,” etc.), but one odd thing has stood out to me as I’ve watched the glitzy travails of Carrie Bradshaw over the past few weeks.
While the syndicated version of the show offers plenty of substitutions for the types of swear words you might yell at a crashed computer, references to parts of the human body are typically replaced not by synonyms, but by silence. In a recently aired episode, contextual clues made it pretty clear that a character was saying the words “tits.” Rather than swapping in a less charged word for breasts (perhaps, for example, just the actual word “breasts”?), the episode offered instead a second or two of silence in lieu of the dialogue. All the televisions at the gym display closed captioning, which, accordingly, replaced the written word “tits” with “No Audio.” (By the way, No Audio is now officially my favorite body part euphemism.) The rationale behind this formula is opaque to me, but it ends up sending a strange message to the viewer that, when it comes to indecent material, anatomical words are somehow the worst of the worst; we shouldn’t even hear a softer version or suggestion of whatever was said.
As we sit in this holding pattern, waiting to see what the future has in store for “tits” on TV, it might be instructive to look back on the history of censorship in the United States. Much of the anti-indecency regulation we have today owes a debt to the work of the nineteenth-century lobbyist Anthony Comstock, who was so dogged in his moralizing that he actually ends up seeming kind of charming. (I suppose I admire anyone who so passionately agitates for what he believes in, even if what he believes in is the eradication of passion.) Comstock fought for laws empowering the Postal Service to refuse mailing of any material deemed obscene, and ended up with a job as a kind of post office screener, doing just that. He opposed news reports on sex scandals, low-cut dresses, and the use of the word “virginity” in print.
He also used some fairly striking imagery in making his public case for obscenity regulation. Comstock argued that indecent material in the mail was a “hydraheaded monster” that would multiply and multiply unless killed at the root. It seems fitting that the contemporary practice of excising body words from sitcoms can be traced back to this invocation of a hydra, the ultimate in bodily menace.
The irony here, of course, is that a hydra is probably a more apt metaphor for the emergent massive framework of anti-indecency regulation, and how Comstock’s legacy has led to, say, a fundamental change in the meaning of the best pop song of the last five years, or—perhaps most offensive to my poet’s sensibility—unabashed rhyme scheme sabotage. It’s still unclear what the future holds for broadcast indecency restrictions, but if going for the head of this particular hydra doesn’t bring about a change, we might at least consider kicking it in the No Audio.