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Lewd Awakening: Discussing decency in pop culture

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It isn’t the sight of a huge erect penis piercing a man’s head — in one ear, out the other — in Scary Movie. It isn’t the close-up dissection of Tom Green’s diseased testicle on MTV, or the ditty the comedian sings beforehand, the one that goes, ”Hey, kids, feel your balls, so you don’t get cancer!”

It’s not even the phenomenal sales figures for The Marshall Mathers LP, the recent album from the rapper known as Eminem, in which, vigorously exercising his constitutional right to free speech, he threatens, ”New Kids on the Block sucked a lot of d—-/Boy-girl groups make me sick/And I can’t wait ’til I catch all you faggots in public/I’ma love it.”

It’s all these things together, the unending, undifferentiated mass of it, that we’ve got to talk about.

Here’s a prime-time TV commercial for Nutty Professor II: The Klumps suggesting oral sex as Eddie Murphy’s Granny Klump removes her dentures. There’s a prime-time TV commercial for athletic shoes suggesting oral sex as a snakebitten hiker gets the venom (or something) sucked from his leg (or somewhere) by a bud. (For an easy joke, go for gay.) As the networks, worried about shrinking viewership, chase after the cable audience with edgier fare like CBS’ Big Brother (lately a nightly stew of bleeped dialogue and bubbling sexual tension), the cable channels push the limits even further: MTV’s sex series Undressed is practically prepping teens for late-night Skinemax. Meanwhile, on Howard Stern’s TV show, both on E! and CBS, the master of ceremonies regularly humiliates women who want to win breast implants, angling for the saline sacs like they’re carnival souvenirs. Which, in Stern’s eyes, they are.

This is where we are: We know the nickname of the penis of the President and that’s okay; we also know Eminem sings ”Bitch, I’ma kill you!” — about his mother — and that’s okay too.

If anything goes — a state of abandon and rebellion humans have pursued for years, long before Cole Porter wrote about a shocking glimpse of stocking — then these days we’re going particularly fast and far. The fence that separates the decent from the indecent has so many holes in it (what is Granny Klump doing to Buddy Love in that Jacuzzi during prime time?) that homophobes, racists, misogynists, and common potty mouths step right through, unchallenged. Smirking all the way to the bank, they’re indistinguishable from artists and innovators of real, if disturbing, substance.

”It’s great when creative people have latitude to deal with more adult themes,” says producer Darren Star, whose HBO series Sex and the City recently threw the spotlight on soiled underwear and peeing as sex play. ”At the same time, I think there is something called good taste and I think that … it’s like pornography: You know it when you see it.”

But no one’s eager to identify the difference. And this taboo against taboos amuses us in the short run but deadens us in the long. So eager are we not to be the kind of rubes unsettled by provocateurs like Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor, so indulgent are we, in this peaceful, prosperous new century, of anything that at least doesn’t bore us, that we’re unnecessarily tolerant of raunch. The notion of indecency has become obsolete.

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