Is Hollywood "Hypersensitive" Now?

Breast-exposing Janet Jackson tried to rehabilitate her sinking music career the other night by going on NBC's "Saturday Night Live" and satirically smearing her infamous Super Bowl nipple-cover stunt onto undeserving National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. This Jackson woman is fast becoming as pathetic a figure as her brother.

NBC's writers cleverly figured out how to make Jackson's perversity fit into the news of the week, and the vast chasm between Jackson's exhibitionist public conduct in Houston and Rice's grace under televised fire in Washington could spur some laughs. But it could also be seen as Jackson piling desperation atop desperation. Jackson was trying to rehabilitate her sinking music career by exposing the breast in the first place, and now is reduced to making fun of herself.

The re-rehabilitation effort isn't working very well. Radio is not enamored by Jackson's new album. MTV is punishing her for her CBS stunt by refusing to air her video, a fascinating development since it was MTV that produced, manipulated, and initially lauded on the Internet. It's just as well, since the fading pop tart wears some kind of push-up bra displayed by a low-buttoned shirt. Neither she nor her smutty-minded business advisers seem to have acquired a clue yet about what they've done wrong, nor an ounce of regret for doing so.

In the post-Super Bowl environment, where the issue of broadcast indecency is finally earning a respectful hearing and real public concern about collapsing broadcast morality is being recognized, the national media's reaction isn't always satire and humor. It often carries fright-filled warnings of impending oppression.

The wire service Reuters recently published a story on the new public mood by noting that Victoria's Secret has decided to fold its failed experiment of an annual prime-time ABC - then CBS - underwear fashion show, a program-length commercial complete with a supermodel "butt cam." That's definitely a small victory for decency, but it's also a result based on business reality: the show stunk it up in the ratings.

But Reuters reporter Michelle Gershberg began: "Whether you believe it is a new sexual McCarthyism or you see it as a long-awaited campaign against programming that's crossed the line into indecency, U.S. television is about to get toned down."

Stop right there. "Sexual McCarthyism"? Bill Clinton's minions started that term in 1998 to describe supposedly false accusations of adultery. Just as there were no false accusations of adultery then regarding Clinton, there was no false accusation of Janet Jackson. There was no false accusation of Victoria's Secret. There was no false accusation of Howard Stern, the man currently spreading the term "sexual McCarthyism." One wishes they were false, and that TV and radio programs had a sterling reputation for dignity and decency. They do not.

To bolster the impending-oppression thesis, Reuters brought in Robert Thompson, the Syracuse guru of anything-goes pop culture, who generally approves of whatever TV trend is unfolding to stay hip with the media elite. Thompson claimed: "This new hypersensitivity of the past year or so is changing the content of broadcasting. Right now everybody is looking to take the heat off, turn the public attention down a few notches for a season or two."

"Hypersensitivity"? Is objecting to a massively witnessed TV nudity stunt like Janet Jackson's "hypersensitive"? On the contrary, what the potentates of popular culture have increasingly offered us is a new and hyper-insensitivity, dragging us down a road where we're goaded into accepting each new devolution of public taste. The public has been pushed around by sleaze merchants enough, and now the public has pushed back. How hypersensitive of them.

But Professor Thompson is wrong on the facts. The public mood may be more disapproving of sleaze, but it's not true that "everybody" in broadcasting is avoiding it now, as if every parent of small children can relax. Just last week, we witnessed the forced-fellatio plot line of FX's "The Shield." That doesn't match the Thompson thesis.

Fox's "That '70s Show" recently had an entire half-hour plot centered on masturbation, and how the two engaged lead characters are struggling to put some abstinence before their marriage. From the moment the lead character Eric is caught in the act in the bathroom, with a shot of his fiancée and her friend reacting by making faces and innuendoes, there is barely a moment free of graphic sexual discussion of an already exceedingly graphic subject.

Hollywood is hardly demonstrating "hypersensitivity" to public complaints. Corporate bureaucrats in L.A. and New York with an eye on public opinion may be growing more sensitive to how people feel. But envelope-pushing TV producers are still driving full speed ahead into the wall of social chaos.