The Boob Tube #29: Television Taboos

I found this silly little article from an old magazine from 1949.  (I'll sprinkle clips from it throughout this post.) It seems to relish the opportunity to be naughty in the name of journalism.  It's similar to how news shows today will condemn the sex and violence on TV..... whilst showing those exact scenes in the background! I swear to God I saw a side bush on Fox News the other day during a piece on how bad television has become. Go figure.

Anyway, it got me thinking about the ebb and flow of TV taboos. Considering the Supreme Court has actually weighed in on the issue lately, it would seem a particularly timely conversation.

I could bore you with a mile long treatise on the subject, but the facts are pretty clear and don't need much elaboration.  Television was extremely tame and heavily censored until the early 1970s.  This decade brought you very realistic depictions of rape, drug addiction, sex and any before untouchable taboo you could think of.  On one hand you had Archie Bunker's wife getting sexually assaulted and on the other you had Paul Michael Glaser on Starsky & Hutch strung out on heroine.

You had very sexually oriented programming via Three's Company and weekly conversations on losing ones virginity on One Day at a Time. And the trend continued into the 1980s with similar hard topics being broached via Diff'rent Strokes, Family Ties, and Facts of Life.  I get more uncomfortable watching an old Family Ties episode (i.e. Malory getting molested) than I do with any of the garbage on today.

Today's television IMHO is much more tame in terms of tackling issues and subjecting viewers to anything even approaching "jiggle TV" in its prime. However, in a strange twist of fate, it's also much more in the sewer than it ever was.  Say what you like about Starsky & Hutch, Bosom Buddies and One Day at a Time, they may have pushed the envelope, but they never wallowed in the sewer.

These ridiculous CSI shows have an absurd amount of violence, and the "reality" shows have a similarly absurd level of smut.  But they are both empty calories. They have no substance.  Your average After School Special broke more taboos and crossed more lines in the sand than any episode of CSI: Tupelo could ever dream of crossing.  And while Jersey Shore may have more smut than anything on the small screen in the 70s, The Gong Show could be just as sexually oriented, but it was all for fun - with none of that sad voyeuristic nihilism.

I will qualify my statement somewhat and say that this does not apply to many cable and premium channels. Rome, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Dexter, The Sopranos, American Nightmare, etc. have pushed boundaries without being mindless empty-calorie fluff. And that, perhaps, is a reason to feel positive about the direction we're headed.

But then again, is pushing the envelope and crossing boundaries of 'good taste' really a good thing? Wasn't TV just fine during the days of Gilligan's Island and Dragnet? This is where things get complicated, and I can foresee this post stretching onward to eternity as the argument gets more and more muddy. So, I'll stop there and give you a chance to chime in on the matter. What say you?


  1. And fer fuck's sake, don't drink too gay!

  2. "Grrrr! Must...resist....enjoying...drinking!"

    Actually, it was Hutch (David Soul) who became a heroin junkie in one episode. By the next, Starsky & Hutch went undercover as hairdressers.

    Good point about wallowing in sewers. How many episodes of CSI begin at some party or nightclub which bears no relation to anywhere outside of Michael Bay's head and some weirdigan trend that ends in a death? "The vic was found face down in a bowl of dishwasher detergent mixed with cocaine and with a live frog stuffed in his mouth...apparently it's what the in-crowd do these days and it's called 'Froggy Went A' Courtin'" I don't know if they're trying for a sexy and flashy look to the show but it's just grim. Give me a groovy 60s nightclub scene anyday.

  3. Okay...WHAT 1949 tv show had chicks strollin' around in skimpy lingerie, anyway? They weren't even doing this in the movies, back then. Is there a kinescope of that anywhere?

  4. You raise a good point about 70's shows being sexy and full of innuendo, but all of it treated very slyly, lightly and with a large dose of innoncence. Watching them today, I catch a lot of adult humor that I didn't even catch as a child. You weren't hit over the head with it as your are today. I'll take Fannie Flagg and her suggestive shirts on Match Game over Snooki any day.

  5. I think this article may be from one of those magazines of the 40s & 50s that were kind of the equivalent of Fox News back then. They featured sordid exploitative crime stories, anti-communist propaganda and pictures of women in swimsuits and their underwear.

    As I pointed out on my website, many older people here in the Ozarks talk about how they long for the "wholesomeness" of the TV Western, yet when you watch some of these "adult" Westerns they are filled with the stuff people complain about now or worse. I have a Cheyenne episode on DVD, where Cheyenne Bodie helps out an ailing rancher. He spends most of the show walking around shirtless (He did this a lot), while the mother and daughter make slight passes at him. Toward the end, mother and daughter get into a heated exchange over who should get big, shirtless Cheyenne. It is hinted at that possibly the daughter is being molested by the father. Note this is from the late 50s.

    Speak of incest, I pointed out that I think Audra Barkley wanted to "do it" with Heath. Maybe she didn't believe he was really her brother.

    The pilot episode of Gunsmoke features these great lines. Miss Kitty: Some days I wish men would just disappear from the face of the earth. Matt Dillion: If there weren't any more men, how would you make any money.

    Also many storylines of the TV Westerns are the same kind of stories today that Ozarkers like to brand as "liberal propaganda." Of course, they probably like the fact that the going rule on the TV adult Western was "when all else fails, shoot somebody."

    1. I've been surprised at how often older Westerns (in fact, most TV and movie dramas from the 1950s and 60s) use rape, attempted rape, the threat of rape as a major factor in showing how bad the bad guy really is and justifying the shooting of the bad guy. Clint Eastwood used this way into the 80s.

  6. TV back in the 50s could be very provocative and daring. I've seen interviews with Sidney Lumet and John Frankenheimer where they talk about directing Playhouse 90 and the quality of the scripts they had. These shows covered taboo subjects but it was done in a way that was intelligent and implied things rather than just hit you over the head with a loud flashy image.

  7. It's interesting to me that through the sixties and seventies, some of the guys who were villainized, like Hugh Hefner (not a villain) and Larry Flynt (yes a villain, in my view) became the guys who bankrolled the protection of Constitutional rights of free speech (along with those Damned Commies of the ACLU, who similarly invested). As for empty calories, even worse is the new breed of morning radio show, with two guys who spend the whole morning laughing at their own insipid jokes and talking about sex as if they've ever had it. Isn't it bad enough you're on your way to work, and you have to listen to that tripe?

    And can you (Gilligan) put it in your will that if you croak, Nick takes over Retrospace? Froggy went a courtin'? That's paydirt!

  8. clark kent and the show "me the goods" girl... and do i need a lavender or pink drink too-gay-drink?

  9. This is an offshoot from the Hollywood Hayes Codes (before the ratings system) and the Catholic Legion of Decency ("... which condemns vile and unwholesome [motion] pictures ... as a grave menace to youth, to home life, to country and to religion ... with other degrading agencies, are corrupting public morals and promoting a sex mania in our land.") Politically incorrect: solid families make for a solid society. The theory was TV (and movies and novels) should be uplifting and edifying, teaching moral lessons so that you come away learning something or becoming a better person. - Ever finish watching a movie/TV show feeling icky? Exactly.

    The difference is What You Say and How You Say It. Movies and TV shows have always addressed crime, guns, rape, war, racism, women's roles, etc. You couldn't say "pregnant" or "prostitute" on TV, but people could figure things out for themselves without being hit over the head.

    Also, I submit the Old Days had less overt sex but lots more violence. About half of America still went hunting and fishing for food, and knew how to kill and dress an animal. Medical care was nothing like today; everybody had seen the remains of a relative who died at home. There was no need to *show* things like that in a movie or TV.

  10. This was known as the Television Code, and almost every show up until 1970 displayed its TV-shaped logo along with the IATSE and AMPTP logos during the closing credits. By 1980 the Television Code was gone.

  11. The Match Game was easily the raunchiest TV show I've ever seen.

  12. What on earth is a "side bush"; I have no idea.

  13. These ridiculous CSI shows have an absurd amount of violence, and the "reality" shows have a similarly absurd level of smut.

    I don't know what shows you are watching, but the only smut I see on TV, is on Barry from Storage Wars when a dusty box falls on him.

  14. ...the "reality" shows have a similarly absurd level of smut.

    I don't know what shows you are watching, but the only smut I see on my TV is on Barry when a dusty box falls on his head, on the show Storage Wars.