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Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Indecent Over-Exposure

Yesterday the Houston Chronicle ran a story on the front page of its lifestyles section -- the section with the Dear Abby and the movie ads and the comics -- about the play Orange Flower Water. The on-line headline says "Orange Flower Water is pungent, darker" (than the author's other plays), but the one in the dead-trees edition just said it was "bolder".

Both, however, carried the same photo, of a woman [un]dressing. She has her shirt open, and you can see she's wearing one of those bras designed for a low-cut blouse (which the blouse she has on isn't).

I would think this photo is just a little spicier than you'd get on prime-time TV, but since I haven't watched prime-time TV in ages, I really don't know.

Now, when I saw this in the paper, I raised my eyebrows and said, "Huh!" But I didn't have fainting fit, nor did I feel the need to burn the paper before little Bobby and Betty saw it and were driven to a life of SIN! (mostly because I don't own a little Bobby or Betty).

On the other hand, I did think: What the hell? Was there no other photo they could have run? Was the rest of the play performed completely nude? The article mentions the protagonists house-hunting together, an activity that I trust was carried out fully clothed.

Assuming there were parts of the play without nudity, I can only conclude that the editors ran this particular photo for the purpose of either 1) titillating (tee hee) the loutish parts of their audience ("Looka here Vern! This broad's flashin' her tits!" "Damn! I'm gonna run down and git my own copy!"), or 2) angering the sort of people who would be offended by boobies in the morning paper ("Hah! What do you think of this, Rainbeaux? I talked the editor into running this photo. It's sure to disgust the slope-browed, knuckle-dragging, rednecks who make up the vast bulk of our readership." "Hmmm, well, one could see it as exploitative and degrading to women." "Well, I, er, never thought of--" "On the other hand, it'll make my stupid Aunt Eunice blow a gasket. Hurray!")

Or, I suppose, they're just so steeped in the "bold" world of the arts -- excuse me: Arts -- that a little minor flashing doesn't even register.

The other day Jeff Jarvis announced he'd found a handy-dandy indecency smasher. It's a remote control, you see! You don't like something, change the channel! Har har, what wit! Guess you showed those Neanderthals!

Not so damned fast. I, too, used to be one of these. But there comes a time when you can't change the channel.

In the early '90s, I used to drive to work everyday past these three giant billboards, and one day I noticed that one of the billboards sported a huge, naked, wriggling cartoon baby, under the legend "Soft as my butt!" (It was an ad for a soft-rock radio station.)

If I recall correctly, at about that time "butt" was being used pretty freely, any time, on radio and TV; before that, it was used only occasionally.

I realize that sounds a little odd now. It seems harmless enough, and there was certainly nothing obscene about the cute baby. But it's just one of those instances of a line being crossed. (If you want a real laugh, tune into an old TV show -- Star Trek is a good example -- and watch the characters squirm as they try to talk about sex, excretion, or butts without actually using any relevant words.)

This bothered me in ways I couldn't really explain. I didn't mind the word "butt" -- I used it myself, all the time: butt butt butt butt butt. I didn't think it would bring about the collapse of civilization. But I wasn't sure that I really wanted it hanging above my head as I drove down the interstate.

This, to me, is the problem: these things won't necessarily stay confined to the "adult" regions of society. Certain things will seep from "X" rated areas to the more daring "R"s, then to the more mainstream "R"s, etc, until it's hanging above the interstate (which, by the way, does not come with a remote).

It's difficult to know when to kick up a fuss at these things. Obviously, you don't want to feel like a puckered, humorless prude (unless, of course, you do) who scans TV shows frame-by-frame, hoping you'll catch some woman's skirt flying up, or Mighty Mouse sniffing cocaine. (This was actually done in the 1980s by the Puckered-American Association of Humorless Prudes.) I mean, that's not the tolerant spirit of live-and-let-live that one would like to see practiced.

On the other hand, you don't really want to be relaxed to the point of being tolerant of live rapes, followed by cannibalism, on the "Sunday Sermon" (unless, of course, you do).

As Lileks wrote last December: Today's crusading moderate is tomorrow's prude.

So what's a right-wing bleeding-heart centrist liberal to do?