Tuesday, August 6, 2013
I really don't like this guy.
Just in case you've been away from your television for, oh, about a decade, this is Seth McFarlane. He's become something of a pop culture juggernaut, creating animated sitcoms and movies, and with enough credit as an entertainer that he was tapped to host the 2013 Oscars. Kids love him, particularly if they're in junior high. His humor is scatological, racist, misogynist, and hyper-sexualized. Parents who have the misfortune to walk in on their children watching a Seth McFarlane cartoon are fully justified in the knee-jerk response of "Turn that off!"
Notice I didn't say "Change the channel!" Chances are good that whatever those same juvenile consumers switch to will be equally offensive: Daniel Tosh, pro "wrestling," "reality" shows, teen sex comedies, Judd Apatow-style gross-out movies. "Go on the internet instead!" is likely to plunge them even deeper into content that has pushed the envelope to the breaking point. YouTube teen humor channels have evolved past the beep-every-other-word (and it doesn't take much of a lip reader to know that word is "f-beep-in'") to unbeeped jokes about anal rape and calling everyone in the room a bitch. When even those words are too highbrow, these self-produced stars simply resort to primal screams at the camera, eliciting floods of laughter from their junior high audiences.
Surely music is safer, right? Wrong. The most popular songs these days feature themes of sadomasochism and date rape, while the videos used to popularize them are filled with images of provocatively dressed young adults engaging in simulated sex.
Am I just getting old? No, that's not it; I've always been uncomfortable with humor that was all about making adults squirm. The fascination with such humor has always captured a sizable fraction of teenagers. When you're fourteen and chafing at the bonds of parental authority, you take great delight in hearing your mother or father scream "Turn down that garbage!" I never had that impulse, but I know plenty of my classmates did. Each decade had its anti-parental icons: the Rolling Stones, Alice Cooper, Kiss, Def Leppard, and so on. So this is not just about me getting old--unless I was already an old man at fourteen.
What's different now is the way in which crassness has gone mainstream. There was a time when kids had to go to great extremes to experience a George Carlin album, a skin magazine, or an X-rated film. Now they can stream it on their phones. And the content is getting more sexualized, more insulting, more fingernails-on-the-chalkboard offensive with each passing day.
Three years ago, I read Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story, a satirical novel that depicts a near-future American obsessed with fuckability ratings and clothing lines with names like SukDik and Juicy Pussy, in which children's media heroes are porn stars rather than boy bands, and books have become extinct--and not just the paper and ink variety. Nobody reads anymore. At the time, I had a sense that this novel's setting was more descriptive than predictive, that the America I knew was already beginning to become these things. The reason those YouTube stars scream at the camera? There's nowhere else to go. George Carlin's "Seven Words You Can't Say on Radio" have become ubiquitous. Programming aimed at minors no longer avoids these words, opting to beep them instead, and increasingly they're readily available on basic cable. When people just take such language in stride, it loses its shock value; the only way left to horrify adults is to scream like a howler monkey.
I could go on, but by now, you get it: I'm fed up. My inner curmudgeon has had it. I'm longing for a more innocent time, knowing full well that the only difference between the era of my childhood and the present era is access.
And yet, I'm hopeful. Even as I see popular culture descending into a quagmire of sodomy jokes and hypersexual fashion, I know these things are cyclical. When cultural trends hit their peak, they ultimately collapse under their own weight. Part of me knows that it's a good thing for sexuality to emerge from its Victorian naughtiness and finally be accepted as a normal part of being human, that it's time it was stripped of prurience so that it can be openly discussed and expressed without having the R or NC-17 stamp that renders it "cool" to an adolescent. Another part of me remembers that the excesses of the Rococo gave way to the cool simplicity of Classicism, and that late Romantic music with its gargantuan orchestras collapsed into Neo-classicism and Atonality. The sensibilities of culture have similar limits to human senses: overload them for too long, and consumers will turn away, hungry for something simpler, cleaner, more refined.
I hope the tide is turning. The fact that Seth McFarlane has not been asked back to host the 2014 Oscars is promising. I can't speak to when today's junior high audience will outgrow its fascination with poop, pee, vomit, and bestiality jokes, but they can't stay there forever. At some point they're going to want to hear music and see movies that are about relationships, and the industry will have to move with them, providing them what they want.
The 13-year-old in my house has been told that The Family Guy is not to be on anytime I'm in the room, and the same goes for YouTube channels that are saturated with language and references I find offensive. I take comfort in the knowledge that she's reading Stardust by Neil Gaiman. Books, it seems, are still relevant. Here's hoping they stay that way.