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Michael Healy

On the Unbearable Lightness of Sex on TV

Feb. 22 at 2:19pm

I have always liked detective stories.  I started with The Bobbsey Twins, graduated to the Hardy Boys and the Ken Holt Mysteries, then began to pick up more adult fare.  I read almost all of Earle Stanley Gardner (lawyer Perry Mason), Dashiell Hammett (hard-boiled detective Sam Spade), Raymond Chandler (harder-boiled detective Philip Marlowe), and even Mickey Spillane (hardest-boiled detective Mike Hammer)—I must confess with a mea culpa—who went further than the others in hardboiled sex and violence. 

I’ve also always enjoyed TV detective stories, like the old Perry Mason series.  Alternatively, on TV, I’ve always enjoyed a good comedy.  I can go back to classics like the Dick van Dyke Show with Mary Tyler Moore.

However, it has now become almost impossible to watch TV detective stories or situation comedies due to the incredibly tawdry and superficial treatment of sexuality running rampant throughout, turning every show into a superficial soap opera thoroughly out of connection with any genuine human reality. 

This is not to even talk about the categories of sin: fornication, adultery, active homosexual relations, etc.  I’m talking about the way sex is just casually added in—as I say—with an unbearable lightness, as if it is nothing, as if it is on the level of having a cup of coffee together.  Then, in this superficial depiction, such scenes and relationships are forced on the viewer time and again without any grounding in the story or the characters that would make it believable.  At least when Mike Hammer took down a blonde, whether as a lover or as a murderer, it was believable and something special.  Now, it is just disconnected soap opera level trash, completely demeaning of the whole unique sphere of sexuality.  A few examples.

First, recall the JAG series, which did have many decent story lines and values focusing on honor, duty, country, self-sacrifice, etc.  In fact, it is often named to the Top 10 of conservative values TV shows and was endorsed by both the Navy and the Marine Corps.  Yet, none of this honor, chivalry, duty, and self-sacrifice seems to inform the sexual relationships of the characters.  This always highly annoyed me.  Honor and chivalry used to mean something primarily in relation to the opposite sex.  Yet Harm and Mac carry on one affair after another during the series.  It’s supposed to be understandably funny when one female officer shows up unannounced to be bedded by Harm, but then embarrassment ensues because he has a hot latin babe in the shower at the time.  Now it is true that in one story line Mac offers herself to Harm—their implicit love had never been consummated—but Harm resists, saying that it (their relationship, she) just means too much to him for it to happen that way.  This seems more “noble,” except that it is presented as a mere psychological fact about Harm at the time, not as an insight into wisdom, maturity, responsibility, happiness, or goodness.  To the credit of the series, they do get married in the grand finale and, as far as I know, seem to have waited until this commitment was made before uniting in the marital act.

Another such show, NCIS, most popular on TV, is similar in terms of the duties, sacrifices, responsibility, faithfulness, and long-term commitment that are expected when working for the Navy—yet none of these values translate over into the personal lives of the characters, making the show ludicrously inconsistent.  Gibbs is married 4 times and has affairs, Tony is notorious for womanizing, and all the other male and female characters are similar.  The one with seemingly the least experience in bed (and in sin), Special Agent McGee, is generally made fun of for that fact.  Yet, NCIS also is listed as a Top 10 conservative values TV show.  So, JAG and NCIS are two of the better ones.

Thus I haven’t mentioned CSI, where everyone again is having affairs like it is the most natural thing in the world and where liberal TV critics praised the “mature” shenanigans of the two lead characters Grissom and Sarah as if they were exemplary.  Intra-office affairs are forbidden in the Las Vegas crime lab of course, so they have to break the rules and be deceptive, yet this is a show that emphasizes professional honesty, responsibility, dedication, and commitment—and the following of all the rules.  So again, not only on the level of assault on the moral sense, but also just in terms of character development and internal consistency, the whole story line is annoyingly unjustified and thus distracting from the mystery story itself, the kind of superficial baloney prominent in the cheapest soap operas.  Also, this is one of many shows now where, if ever a rendezvous is necessary at a restaurant or bar, it has to be a strip joint.  Why? Why? Why?  It is so annoying and often scuttles what might have been an interesting detective story.  You just have to turn the lousy thing off, even if other aspects of the story might be interesting and creative.

The recent show Unforgettable has an interesting character at the center, a female cop with perfect total memory recall—comes in handy for a detective.  Well and good, but last night the show opened up for no reason with our heroine semi-nude in bed with some guy indulging in pillow talk.  I switched over to the local news and checked back in a few  minutes to see if the silly scene was over and the detective story had started.  It seemed to go on forever.  Then finally when the cops are all walking into the station to work on the new case, so the viewer thinks the superficial titillation is over, our perfect memory girl begins to have perfect flashbacks to her love-making.  Once a show starts into something like that, you know there’s no getting away from it.  It will not be a self-contained few moments that you can skip away from and come back when it’s over; rather, you know you can be assaulted by an unwanted flashback at any moment for the next hour.  So, again, you just have to turn the lousy thing off.

And, of course, situation comedies have become completely unbearable!  I don’t even attempt to watch them anymore.  NBC has been frantically promoting its new comedy Whitney for the past couple of months.  I watched about 5 minutes of it once.  The basic plot, not bad fodder for a comedy about a couple, was that Whitney wanted her live-in boyfriend (of 3 years, that’s about as close to marriage and commitment as these shows get) to take her out on a date (as if making believe they weren’t living together), because the way they met and got together didn’t include dating.  So how did they get together?  Well, it seems they both jumped in the same cab while blind drunk and when Whitney got out she vomited all over the place and he helped her and they both thought that all this was so cute that they jumped in bed together and stayed together for 3 years.  Naturally, I turned the lousy thing off.  Do the writers, producers, actors, and advertisers think this is funny?  Does nobody in the whole chain of command stop and say, “No, I will not do this disgusting tripe!”  This show is on at 8pm/7pm, so it is considered part of the family hour.  Unbelievable!   But at least all this lowers the amount of time I spend with TV at all.  That’s the only silver lining I can find.

It is a very sad and deadly serious commentary on the moral state of our society that this is what TV has come to, compared to Perry Mason and Dick van Dyke.  

I think that only prayer and fasting can drive out this kind.  A serious consideration as we begin the penitential season of Lent.


 

Scott Johnston

Agreed. The shows you describe, Dr. Healy, are merely showing forth the very same amoral, context-less, meaningless, animal-like approach toward sexuality that has been a bedrock of "sex education" in the school systems (and promoted in professional education training environments) now for a long time.

This is the same causal attitude toward sex heavily promoted (including in schools) by Planned Parenthood and the like for decades, under parent's noses, and with little or no comment from teachers. Go to PP's web site today and look at their (near-pornographic) pages designed for teens. Where is the outcry (except from a tiny few) against this?

What is extremely alarming to me, is that this sort of devaluing of the true nature and beauty and meaning of sexuality is not recent in America. It's decades old. The shows you describe are written and produced and acted by a generation that has been carefully taught these dehumanizing stances since they were in diapers, with little resistance offered from Christians who either should have known better, or did know better but didn't want to (or, likely, didn't know how to) take up the cross of this struggle for the character of our future generations.

#1 - Feb. 22 at 10:43pm | quote

 

Katie van Schaijik

Michael, if you haven't seen it yet, you will absolutely love Foyle's War.  Intelligent detective stories, beautiful scenery, fabulous acting, stunning moral clarity.  

#2 - Feb. 22 at 10:53pm | quote

 

Scott Johnston

So, I guess what I mean here is to challange myself (and everyone), to be more aware of the massive harm over time done to any culture by teaching children (as well as modeling for them through the media) inhuman, morally empty attitudes towards the great gift of our sexuality.

It's a tremendous blessing to have even a  glimpse of the authentically human, person-enriching plan for sexuality that God intends us to live. But I need to do more to share this beautiful, life-ennobling vision with others--especially younger generations. And, I need to do more to notice and stop (or at least put up obstacles and road blocks) the deadly march of this horrible, heartless, empty vision of sexuality that is becoming more and more pervasive.

So far, we are not doing especially well at this.

I note with alarm two diverging trends. First, abortion is gradually becoming less accepted among the young (a good thing!). Second, same-sex marriage and all manner of sexual acting out and perversion is becoming more accepted among the same youths. There is something very wrong in that the first good trend seems to have little positive influence on the very bad second.

#3 - Feb. 22 at 11:06pm | quote

Michael Healy

Katie,

I followed your link to Foyle's War.  Thanks!  Sounds interesting, though I've never heard of it.  It would be nice to look at a mystery story again without fearing what the next scene might bring!  Same with comedies, if anyone knows a good one.  I fear one must revert to cartoons--in point of fact, Phineas and Ferb often is hilarious, especially if you catch all the historical references to past decades.

Scott,

Yes, we all should be more ready to witness to the truth here.  Sometimes embarassingly for Christians, it is certain neo-feminists who step out here to criticize the superficial hook-up culture--even though they helped bring it about and they don't quite know what to do about it since they resist any return to nature or tradition. Here is such an article, with further links:

How Feminism Got Drunk and Hooked Up With a Loser | Hooking ...

Of course, one of the best antidotes to all this, from the Christian perspective (with good philosophy and theology behind it, plus answers, not just criticisms) is the Love and Fidelity Network, started at Princeton as The Anscombe Society with the help of Robbie George.

#4 - Feb. 23 at 12:19am | quote

 

Teresa Manidis

Twelve years ago, this summer, our television broke.  I had, at that time, a five and and three year old child.  I said, 'The TV broke.'  And they collectively said, 'Oh?' and toddled off to do something else.

I had expected rioting and bloodshed in the streets.  I mean, I had over 25 years invested in Gilligan's Island and Little House and the Waltons, not to mention Action News and the Million Dollar Movie.  Television had been like part of the family, the one 'member' you always made time for, even if it were only to watch a rerun of I Love Lucy before bed.  The fact that the television breaking was equivalent to, say, our toaster breaking was eye-opening.  So I never replaced it.  Four kids, and 1,877 books later, I can honestly say I'm glad that corner in our living room is still empty.  And I put this (completely radical) idea out there, for anyone (espcially a parent, but anyone) disenchanted with the foul-language, gratuitous sex, wanton violence and, above all (as a writer, Dr. Healy, I heartily agree here) inane story line which dumbs down society, and our expectations of life in general: turn the thing off.

#5 - Feb. 23 at 8:56am | quote

 

Katie van Schaijik

We don't have TV, but we'll occasionally buy a series and get into it.  It happened with 24.  There was a lot to overlook, and I often had pangs of conscience about watching at all.  But the show was so effective a distraction from daily stress that we stuck with it.

A year or so ago, we got Grey's Anatomy.  The sexual dynamics in that were worse by far, for exactly the reason you give, Michael.  They were unbearably superficial and completely at odds with the impression of professional and ethical seriousness that the show seemed intent on offering. 

The unrelenting message was: sex is totally unrelated to life. It's no more decisive with respect to character and career than is, say, your hairstyle.  Except that is.  Because being the least unhip when it comes to sex indicates backwardness.  A cause for concern.

The story lines were engaging enough that we watched the whole first year.  The second year was impossible.  

Thank God for Downton Abbey and Foyle's War.

#6 - Feb. 23 at 12:41pm | quote

 

Gregory Borse

Michael--I wanted to comment to point out that your observations fit nicely with the other side of this misunderstanding of physical intimacy on television:  in every single instance (let's say, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit and Criminal Minds) that the violation of the person via sexual means is treated (even as it's made light of so long as it's consensual and outside of marriage) as the most important thing in the world.  Apart from the deliberate murder of an innocent child (so long as it is outside the womb), rape is the worst thing one person can do to another in the world of television.  Why this apparent contradiction?  It's not a contradiction--it's a denial of objective reality in favor of subjectivity:  it's only important if I say it's important and if I consent to sexual activity and decide it's not important; well, then, it's not.  It's a matter of a kind of subjective-mutually-agreed-upon denigration in the one case and the insistance of a crime because of lack of consent on the other.  Which takes the determination squarely within the realm of the subjective.

#7 - Feb. 23 at 9:37pm | quote

Michael Healy

Gregory--very Interesting observations!  I see what you mean.  Essentially, the message is that sex is only bad if it is a violation of my will, but if I will it and however I will it, it's fine.  Even when treated as a terrible crime, there is often no recognition of any intrinsic nature or values here.

#8 - Feb. 23 at 11:22pm | quote

 

Gregory Borse

Exactly, Michael--it's all of a piece.  There is no such thing as instrinsic value in this world.  That's why the Catholic philosophy must be attacked.  Because it insists upon intrinsic values of the human person divorced from existential circumstance--which takes the judgment out of man's hands. The TV view you critique also demands that questions of justice be transactional.  The post-Enlightenment answer to JPII's sentiment, expressed thus, "The opposite of love is not hate; it is use," is that questions of use are to be adjudicated by the parties involved, perhaps with some help from the community (where they find themselves in a court of law) but they do not admit to an objective or intrinsic definition of anything that admits to some foundation beyond man's opinion about himself.  And this is part of why such a view, philosophically, is so dangerous.

#9 - Feb. 23 at 11:31pm | quote

 

Gregory Borse

In fact, it's not just suicidal; it's lethal.

#10 - Feb. 23 at 11:34pm | quote

 

Katie van Schaijik

Preparing for my next courtship class, on the theme of sexuality and sexual morality, I am re-reading von Hildebrand's Man and Woman.  (I think I maybe haven't read it through, since you assigned it to us in class back in 1987.)  Practically every line confirms your basic point.  Here's a passage:

...as long as one sees in the sexual act nothing but a normal satisfaction of an instinct, one cannot understand why the bodily union should be the ultimate expression for something so deep as love, how it could ever be the specific fulfillment of the intentio unionis.

This should be clear to everyone who has ever loved deeply.  If one has grasped that in the bodily union lies a unique gift of one's secret to the beloved, one cannot but see the horror of abusing it as a mere satisfaction of an instinct, as a means for fun, as a vehement physical pleasure, as an amusing game with a person for whom we shall perhaps no longer care a few days later.

This is what the world misses.  By trivializing sex, they've deprived it of its power to make them truly happy in love.

#11 - Feb. 24 at 10:44am | quote

 

Hermitess21C

Dr. Healy, I've been following "Person Of Interest" since it began: absorbing; with a plot and references to complex (for Hollywood) moral questions...That said, I'm investing in episodes of "Ironside", "Quincy", "Longstreet" and, of course, "Cadfael".  The TV is, more than not, a monitor at my house.

#12 - Feb. 25 at 1:52pm | quote

 

Stephen Granderson

It may be a little late to comment on this thread, but I just wanted to second what Borse said above.  I saw an episode of Law and Order a few weeks ago about a case in which a young woman was raped.  In the course of the trial, it came out that she had hooked up with some guy a night or two before without even knowing his name.  I couldn't help thinking, "If all these people consider rape to be so terrible and psychologically devastating, shouldn't they consider having casual sex with a complete stranger to be almost as damaging?"  They kept saying that the woman was "scarred for life" by the rape, but I wondered if treating sex so trivially might scar her even worse.  But that never seems to be brought out in such shows.

#13 - Feb. 29 at 5:17pm | quote

 

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