Monday, March 7, 2005

The way we say we live now

In 1999 Jack Nicholson mooned the crowd at the Golden Globes Awards, receiving applause and gales of riotous laughter from the assembled guests, and no punishment. In 2005 Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Randy Moss pretended to moon the crowd at a pro football game; the National Football League fined him $10,000.

Those two very different reactions to two not dissimilar events underscores the depth of the nation's cultural divide — one recently characterized with color-coding — and an unease in the national mood. There's a disconnect somewhere.

The election in November revealed some of the country's ambivalence; the colors red and blue came to be a kind of code for differing values and passions.

But that divide's also reflected in a seeming disconnect between outrage and actions — the things Americans say they’re angered by and the ways Americans indicate that anger, or fail to for very long. The reactions also show how popular culture, sports and other outlets of the national economy thrive on that outrage, even depend on it for their survival.

Football officials, talk-radio commentators and a range of other Americans, were incensed at an ABC promotional spot aired during the Nov. 15 broadcast of ABC's “Monday Night Football.” The promo featured Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens in a steamy faux locker-room encounter with actress Nicollette Sheridan, a star of ABC's “Desperate Housewives.”

Despite the outrage after the incident, or maybe because of it, “Desperate Housewives” continues to enjoy ratings success; the show is regularly one of the top three shows on network TV. Lately it's been the second-most popular show behind “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” a bonanza for CBS. Since the Monday Night debacle, “Housewives” went on to win two Golden Globe awards, including one for best comedy.

God knows it's not just TV. The popularity of fast foods like Hardee's Monster Thickburger (1,420 calories, 107 grams of fat), has florished despite prevailing concerns about health and diet, and the outrage of doctors and nutritionists.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based nutrition and health advocacy organization, called the Monster “the fast-food equivalent of a snuff film.”

That hasn't financially hurt the company; the Monster is part of a high-calorie line of burgers Hardee's introduced in April 2003. Since then, chairman Andy Puzder told the Associated Press, sales for the restaurant chain have risen steadily.

Poker's rising popularity on cable television programs — shows that feature celebrities playing the game for highly lucrative stakes — is at odds with the parents, educators and state officials largely opposed to poker playing among high school students.

The clamor for change in professional sports — in the wake of a widening steroid scandal in baseball and the fallout from the Nov. 19 brawl between basketball fans and players for two NBA teams — hasn't yet had a material bottom-line effect on the national obsession with athletes and athletics.

Despite a history of fighting that goes back years, for example, the NBA started the 2004-05 season with strong fan attendance: Seventeen sold-out home-opening games — a record — brought fan attendance to 95 percent capacity for the first week of the season, the AP reported in November.

The record eclipsed the previous sold-out home opener mark of 15, set during the 1997-98 season, The AP reported. The league is on a pace to meet or exceed last season's attendance level of 20.28 million fans, despite the Nov. 19 incident.

These dovetailing contradictions point to attitudes at war: America's storied permissive, live-and-let-live ethos doing battle with the equally powerful forces of rectitiude and social conventions.

For some of those who run afoul of those conventions, the way back to mainstream respectability is all too clear. Reliably, consistently, the path to good graces runs through television. Just ask Pee-wee Herman (Paul Reubens). Or Hugh Grant.

Or Janet Jackson. Maybe nothing illustrates the split between outrage and action like the controversy around her “wardrobe malfunction” at the 2004 Super Bowl.

Jackson bared her right breast for all of five seconds in a dance number with singer Justin Timberlake.

There was a brief but intense backlash in the ensuing weeks and months: Jackson was dropped from some high-visibility projects, endured the scorn of pundits and op-ed writers; and became a favorite target of opportunity for late-night TV. Bad Janet.

Then came the rebound: Jackson took the obligatory All Apologies Tour of some of the same TV talk shows that skewered her. She made an appearance on CBS's "Late Show With David Letterman" and had a guest-host spot on NBC's “Saturday Night Live” — two of the more reliable stops for a star on the road to rehabilitation.

“Damita Jo,” the Jackson album released months after the Super Bowl flap, sold more than 3 million copies — disappointing only when compared to her previous record sales — and the singer got two Grammy nominations in December. Janet reborn.

Or consider Martha Stewart, the domestic diva now serving a five-month jail sentence in West Virginia for lying about a stock sale, is set to resume her high-profile life with a one-hour, daily syndicated TV show to be broadcast on NBC starting in the fall. Stewart's resurrection in the public eye started before she even got out of jail!

Gil Reavill, author of “Smut,” a forthcoming book on the hypersexualization of popular culture, finds the nation's hot-then-cold reactions to the objects of its ridicule is a matter of an ever-shorter attention span.

“We’re so inured to the constant drumbeat of ‘new story, new story, new story’ that there’s not many stories that hold our attention for that long,” said Reavill, whose book will be published by Sentinel/Penguin in April.

“It’s the nature of the human beast,” Reavill said. “You lose interest; the novelty of something wears off. It’s a tireless search for novelty.”

For Robert J. Thompson, founding director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, the seemingly-modern split between what Americans do and what Americans profess takes place against a broader backdrop of history:

“At Plymouth plantation, you had the pilgrims who came here to pursue a religiously-based life with strict parameters,” Thompson said. “But if you look at court cases, a lot of those people didn’t always adhere to those standards.”

“We enjoy the feel of moral outrage at the same time we're guilty of the things we claim to be outraged about. TV is something you consume in the privacy of your home. A lot of people who are outraged are also consuming a lot of the programming they’re outraged about,” he said.

“In some cases, what's happening is the moral-outrage books have been cooked in a number of ways,” he said. “Of course, moral values are important. But Americans have their sanctimonious attitudes on an a la carte basis.

“This is both the country that's most obsessed by sex and the country that's most embarrassed by sex. Put those together and you’ve got a recipe for exactly the situation we have now.”

For Thompson, television is symbolic of a wider division. “In some things it’s fairly easy to draw the battle lines; the usual suspects line up in the usual places,” he said.

“TV is obvious because it's everywhere. But in other ways — with high school football in Texas, for example, where the very people arguing against the blasphemy of American media, with its violent images, argue that the sanctity of American football should be preserved in all its glory — it's clear no one set of philosophical prinicples are applied across the board.

“America’s history is one big makeover show,” Thompson said. “We've always been a nation that seems perfectly comfortable with contradictions. The ability to navigate those contradictions with a straight face is characteristic of the American identity.”

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