It’s been fifteen years since the cultural elite ridiculed Dan Quayle mercilessly for criticizing the glamorization of unwed motherhood in sitcoms like Murphy Brown. Through innumerable press accounts and Hollywood asides, the message was clear: Only someone irremediably stupid would actually confuse a television program with reality!
A decade and a half later, however, the press is finally admitting that television role models may indeed have an impact on real-life behavior. Not surprisingly, however, the concern is highly selective. For most of the cultural elite, television’s influence seems relevant only when it comes to violence — and never when it comes to sex.
In recent days, the press has taken aim at 24 — the one massively popular television program known to be written and produced by people who hold conservative views. According to accounts in the New Yorker, the Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere, Human Rights First — a left-wing “human rights” group — is seeking to prove that the torture scenes depicted in 24 are affecting the behavior of American soldiers.
The audacity of the claim is remarkable. To charge that soldiers will ignore their training, risk criminal prosecution and jettison basic notions of morality based only on the influence of a single television show far exceeds any claim that Dan Quayle ever made about the power of television. What’s more, it plays into a stereotype — beloved by too many on the left — of soldiers as stupid, easily manipulated, and/or barbaric. Nevertheless, the coverage of the allegations has been widespread.
Now contrast that with the rampant glamorization of teenage sexuality — not in one program — but routinely. While the press focuses on the depiction of torture in a single prime-time television program, it’s worth noting that a 2005 Kaiser Family Foundation study found that 77% of the programs aired in prime time on the major broadcast networks contain sexual content; those that do include such content feature more of it than ever before. What’s more, the programs most popular with teenagers have an even higher number of scenes with sexual content than television programs generally. Fully 45% of the programs most frequently watched by teens include some portrayal of sexual behavior, according to the Kaiser study.
Even so, the press and the cultural elite remain conspicuously silent about this phenomenon. That’s a shame, given the damage to young lives (both of parents and unwanted children) that giving too much, too soon can cause — not to mention the daunting social costs associated with unwed and youthful motherhood.
If the media believes that a single program can incite disciplined, adult soldiers to acts of savagery, surely the onslaught of sex on television can influence the behavior of teens — who lack much of the training and life experience that can serve as a bulwark against bad decision-making. So why the media reticence? After all, the creators of 24 make every effort to demonstrate the toll that Jack Bauer’s behavior takes on him. Shouldn’t the creators of television’s sex-laden fare be held to the same standard?