On Sept. 3, Alaska governor Sarah Palin supposedly ignited a whole new culture war with a speech at the Republican National Convention that praised small-town values and attacked the media ”elite.” The moment she left the podium, politicos from both sides of the aisle took up the battle cry, while headlines announced the resumption of hostilities (”Firing Up the Faithful With Echoes of Culture War Rhetoric,” reported The New York Times). But let’s face it, Sarah Palin is no Dan Quayle. There may indeed be a new culture war this campaign season — but it’s over real-life issues such as abortion and sex education. The old crusade was against unwed mothers on prime-time sitcoms and other moral lapses in entertainment. And that battle was lost long ago.
The night before Palin’s speech, The CW network bowed its 90210 update. Within five minutes, two teenagers were engaging in onscreen oral sex in a high school parking lot. It wasn’t graphic enough to start an FCC file — these days, the agency is mostly paying attention to accidental obscenities like Janet Jackson’s runaway breast or Diane Keaton’s F-bomb — but it was groundbreakingly racy all the same. Still, The CW claims to have received a grand total of two complaining phone calls. The Parents Television Council, a watchdog decency group, encouraged advertisers to drop the network, but not one has so far backed away. And the last time the PTC complained about a CW show — ”Mind-blowingly inappropriate,” it blasted Gossip Girl — the network plastered the quote on billboards for the steamy teen drama. PTC president Tim Winter tries to keep the faith despite public apathy. ”There’s a famous Civil War battle, the Second Battle of Bull Run,” he says. ”The Confederate army ran out of bullets, so they started throwing stones at the Union army. It does sometimes feel…like we’ve run out of bullets.”
The war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, jitters about the economy — people obviously have more to worry about than promiscuity on TV. Even if you wanted to clean up entertainment, where would you begin? The spread of the Internet and cable, the rise of reality TV, the pageant of pregnant unwed pop stars and now even their pregnant little sisters…”family values” don’t stand a chance. ”The culture has changed so dramatically,” concedes Dr. Bill Maier of Focus on the Family, another watchdog group. ”Our whole thing now is to help parents understand the culture their kids are growing up in. That’s the best we can do.”
Consider this: In 1992, when VP candidates still thought out-of-wedlock pregnancy was a bad thing, a movie like Juno might have sent Quayle screaming out of the theater; in 2007, conservative groups praised it for affirming pro-life values. Nobody’s up in arms about The Secret Life of the American Teenager, either, and that cable drama — also about a pregnant youth — runs on ABC Family! Gossip Girl may not be the PTC’s favorite show, but a geographic breakdown of its Nielsens shows that half the 3.4 million viewers who watched its season 2 premiere live in big cities. The other half reside in the same rural and suburban communities Palin extolled in her speech.
Of course, the national mood could change. The forces of decency could rise again. But for now, entertainment seems to be the only thing the country can agree on.