How Low Will Advertisers Go?

The next time you bite into a juicy Wendy's hamburger, just remember this: the corporate folks at Wendy's apparently are content to advertise their burgers on TV shows that treat spousal rape as just another entertaining plot twist.

The show airs on Fox's cable channel FX, a show called "Rescue Me," about a set of dysfunctional New York city firefighters in the wake of 9/11. Comedian and actor Denis Leary - last seen displaying his "comedy" on Comedy Central's putrid special "Merry F-ing Christmas" - writes and stars in the show. On the June 20 show, Leary's main character raped his estranged wife. Worse yet, in mid-rape, she began to enjoy the assault.

One is tempted to say here that this show is completely unacceptable for young children sitting in front of the television, with its violence, profanity, and graphic sex scenes. But a program that suggests that rape might just be an acceptable beginning for eventually consensual sex should be offensive to everyone this side of the Night Stalker. Where are the feminists of Hollywood when this sort of scene hits the cable systems of America?

The rape scene disgusted even many TV critics who are usually passionate promoters of "edgy" television and regularly award the thumbs-up for storylines trashing conventional morality. "Stunningly mishandled," said the San Francisco Chronicle. "A horrible rape fantasy," found the Newark Star-Ledger. The Chicago Tribune said it best: "Showing a woman appearing to enjoy a rape, and the rapist exiting with a smile? That's not depicting a behavior, that's condoning it."

But somehow, Wendy's and other advertisers cannot be budged from their financial support of this disgusting program. Several weeks ago the Parents Television Council sent a letter to Wendy's, urging them to reconsider whether it wanted its brand name associated with such graphic sex and violence. This family restaurant chain responded with a dismissive letter defending its advertising policies as an acknowledgment of "the wide spectrum of interests of our potential customers."

This is a complete reversal for Wendy's, which just a few years ago declared that family-friendly TV was an issue of "paramount importance" for the company, and more recently stated their goal is to "select programs that appeal to the entire family." That family now includes husbands who rape their wives, and wives who enjoy the assault.

But the writers of "Rescue Me" seem clueless to the outrage they've created. Writer Peter Tolan, told fans on one Internet site that although the rape scene caused them great concern, it's somehow par for the course: "these are seriously damaged people who are unable to express their emotions - and so expression through brutality has become expected." Ah-ha. Sadly, in the land of cable TV it's become "expected" that every line will be crossed eventually, every fraction of good taste trashed, every shred of decency shredded.

Leary appeared on one entertainment news program and excused the ruckus, saying that regular viewers of the series understand the "dichotomy of the [marital] relationship," and "that's the difference between the audience that should be watching the show and the audience that should be watching something else." In other words, because supposedly there exists a market demand for the depiction of women enjoying sexual violation, that demand should be satisfied - and everyone else can just pound sand.

And so long as companies like Wendy's endorse this kind of programming through their advertising dollars, it will remain on the air.

What the advertisers were supporting in just this one episode was stunning. It wasn't just the rape scene. Viewers were also treated to watching the lead character having (consensual) sex with another woman, and for good measure, masturbating at a fertility clinic. There's another scene of others having extramarital sex. There's yet another scene with two male characters engaged in gay oral sex. There's profanity all over, with 16 S-words just for starters.

For cable viewers who want to express their outrage at this scene, there's not just the option of pestering the advertisers (including Visa, Toyota, and Staples). There is the ongoing invitation to demand Congress give us the option of cable choice, of giving viewers more control over what channels they wish to support financially, and being able to choose not to support channels that are coarsening our culture.

After all, parents should dread sounding as hypocritical as Wendy's - pledging their support for family-friendly TV, but pumping their hard-earned money into a cable channel that's so foul it resembles a septic tank with a window.