American parents who grew up in the countercultural bazaar of the late 1960s and the 1970s will recall the rich irony of a mainstream TV media that once refused to embrace the (relative) excesses of the music industry. The Doors made Ed Sullivan furious by singing "girl we couldn't get much higher" on national television. In today's popular culture, millions of children have to watch bared breasts on the Super Bowl before the networks wonder -- just wonder -- if they've gone too far.
The author of the Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction" was MTV, but it remains utterly unshaken by the cultural earthquake it started. It's still the Temptation Channel, a 24-hour hangout selling easy sex, swagger and swearing -- all aimed, directly and deliberately, at children. MTV touts to advertisers that it's watched by 73 percent of boys and 78 percent of girls ages 12 to 19 and is profoundly influential in the lives and lifestyles of its young fans. MTV tells advertisers: "Young adults 15 to 17 are excited consumers and extremely impressionable. Now is the time to influence their choices."
How raunchy is MTV? Analysts at the Parents Television Council selected one week in March, when MTV goes wild with spring break festivities, including shows titled "Spring Break Survival Guide, "Spring Break Fantasies" and "How to Be a Spring Break Playa." In 171 hours of MTV programming, PTC analysts found 1,548 sexual scenes containing 3,056 depictions of sexual dancing, gesturing or various forms of nudity, and another 2,881 verbal sexual references. That averages out to about 18 physical and 17 verbal references to sex per hour. Imagine your pre-teen watching a "human sundae" competition, where men lick whipped cream placed on women's bodies -- with a cherry for each breast.
Analysts also recorded 1,518 uses of unedited foul language and an additional 3,127 bleeped profanities on MTV programming. That means the young children watching MTV are subjected to about nine un-bleeped and 18 bleeped cuss words per hour. So your kids are not only able to see the "human sundae" competition; they also hear it described as "She's eating whipped cream off some dude's (bleeped-out ?f---ing') chest right now."
Predictably, MTV defends itself by saying it's only a mirror that reflects the culture. Baloney. MTV is manufacturing the culture, not reflecting it. But this time, MTV took its defense further, stating the PTC is "underestimating young people's intellect and level of sophistication." That is potentially the most pathetic response I have ever heard. Just how refined is the intellect and sophistication of a 12-year-old child -- period?
But what MTV is really trying to use here is a circular argument. After marinating the young in salacious and profane material, the channel then turns around and says the parents are naive and that these children can handle the onslaught. As it makes its megamillions, MTV wants and needs an audience of sexually precocious children, too young for pornography but eager for the next best thing.
This urge to sexualize children as young as possible was also made painfully plain by a recent report from the Sundance Film Festival, where Variety's Todd McCarthy found that depictions of sexually voracious and manipulative teenagers are taking over the art-film world: "Sexual precocity among minors jumped out as the most frequent element found in independent films this year," more than other popular "indie" film subjects such as family dysfunction, political rebellion and ethnic conflicts.
One of the films McCarthy actually liked is called "The Squid and the Whale," which includes in its plot a divorced father considering an affair with a student, while his older son ponders whether to bed a "nice" girl or the same student sexpot his father's chasing and the barely pubescent "11-ish" son reacts to his parents' divorce by masturbating in the library stacks and smearing the result around school.
In another classic titled "Me and You and Everyone We Know," a young boy who can barely read types out some "simultaneously innocent and outrageous Internet proposals about the possibilities of excrement exchange," while his high school-age brother is the recipient of oral sex from two mid-teen girls who are eager to know if he can tell the difference between their techniques.
At least for now, these films will be seen mostly by the self-impressed "avant garde." But parents have to fear that the ministries of "cool" inside pop-culture factories like MTV will make sure whatever perversity gathers jollies on the freakish fringes will eventually slither its way into your living room.