Cultural transformations

This book looks at how sexuality has been represented on television over recent years. The past decade has witnessed a marked transformation in the diversity of these representations as a result of changes in the economic and cultural context within which programmes are produced and distributed. Given these changes, which I will be examining in relation to examples drawn primarily from television in the UK and USA, what kinds of sexual practices and identities are now visible? The ‘implied viewer’ to whom television is addressed is central to my analysis. This is the ‘you’ to whom producers imagine they are speaking in policy statements, continuity announcements, programme trailers, channel branding, scheduling practices and targeted advertising, as well as in the programmes themselves. Producers may be informed by audience research, but they also act on embedded assumptions about who is watching, what kind of programmes they like and what forms of address are appropriate. In the past, television has been criticized for its conservative address to a ‘family’ audience, while excluding marginal identities that fall outside this traditionalist norm. This address is also tied to changing assumptions about what television is for. How is this changing as we move into the multichannel digital era? Television emerges, then, as a complex set of localized and historically specific practices that are produced out of changing definitions of its audiences and purposes. My central concern is with how these institutionalized definitions and practices have influenced the forms of sexual representation during this period.

Television is a mass medium whose institutional routines were formed in the 1940s and 1950s within a set of practices and regulations that assumed a middle-class family audience with traditional patterns of gendered behaviour. These households were imagined as nuclear families, with one television in the sitting room that the family
watched together, except during the day when the husband and older children would be out at work. Explicit representations of heterosexual activity, or even the mention of other more ‘deviant’ sexual behaviours, were unthinkable for a medium that trans­mitted the core values of the society from the public domain into the private sphere of the family home. By the end of the century, however, the degree of transformation in this mode of address can be exemplified by the global broadcasting of meticulous and detailed descriptions of US President Bill Clinton’s illicit sexual activities. These descriptions of oral sex with a young intern in the White House would have been regarded as far beyond the boundary of taste and decency even in the recent past. News reports in 1998 presented us with an interrogation of the legitimacy of certain forms of sexual behaviour, questions concerning the use and abuse of power in sexual relations, the questioning of the boundary between private as opposed to public morality and a full exposure of the legal hearings, on television and the Internet, to establish the truth of Clinton’s sexual exploits. This culminated in what came to be the impeachable issue, a disputation over what counts as ‘sexual rela­tions’. People’s responses to these revelations polarized between the fundamentalist Christians’ condemnation and the liberal tolerance of the majority. This left many feminist commentators unsure and ambivalent, marking perhaps a retreat from the certainties of ‘politically correct’ discourses of sexual behaviour. It also led to many parents complaining about the invasion of family television by detailed sexual information.

One year earlier, in 1997, television was similarly saturated with one big news story, the death of Princess Diana, which in turn led to numerous evaluations of her life. Similar questions arose about the gap between the public rhetoric about ‘family values’ and the ‘truth’ exposed in the media about the private behaviour of Prince Charles and his mistress, Camilla Parker-Bowles. A television interview given by the Princess on Panorama in 1995 was a key moment in this history of scandalous revelation. After this interview she had been portrayed not just as a wronged indi­vidual, but as the victim of an outdated patriarchal institution in which wives are only important in order to produce the male heir. She was championed as an inspiration to those in positions of relative powerlessness who through a new political awareness find the strength to remake themselves as independent women. Other commentators, however, labelled her as either manipulative or mad and therefore an unreliable witness to the truth.

These two examples, which I explore further in Chapter 4, serve to underline the more general case that television discourses about sexuality are increasing not only in quantity but also in the range of moral and ideological positions from which events and issues are debated and evaluated. This is a sign of the profound changes that have transformed the way in which people inhabit their gender in advanced capitalist societies (Giddens 1992; Bell and Binnie 2000; Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 2002). The old standards no longer seem to apply, but new ones are still in the process of formation. Some people want to hang on to the past; others are impatient with the slow pace of change to a new set of relations in which the certainties of the patriarchal social order no longer hold sway. Television is a primary public forum for the conduct of this debate across both fictional and factual genres, in news, docu­mentaries, current affairs programmes, talk shows, sitcoms and drama. They address issues such as:

♦ sexual morality in the public and private spheres – adultery, child sexual abuse, sado-masochism, homosexual rights, sexual harassment, prostitution;

♦ changing patterns of family life – the rise in the number of single-parent families, cohabitation, working mothers, gay and lesbian parenting;

♦ the limits of sexual representation in a deregulated media market – people’s right to privacy, the effects of pornographic images.

These cultural transformations are linked to the legal status of sexual behaviours and the recognition of identity rights arising from successive waves of political campaign­ing by the ‘new social movements’ – bohemian, feminist, gay and lesbian, queer – and the growing concern for children’s right to sexual safety and education. In other words, they are concerned with questions of ‘sexual citizenship’. There has been a flurry of legislation in the UK around sexual matters that hasn’t been seen since the ‘permissive’ legislation of the 1960s. Then it was the recognition of homosexual rights, legal abortions and liberalized divorce laws, alongside the contraceptive pill, that was credited with creating the conditions for the sexual liberation movements of the time. Following the ‘family values’ backlash that dominated the conservative politics of the 1980s and first half of the 1990s, a new political agenda on sexuality has emerged from 1997 with New Labour in power. The recognition of homosexual citizenship rights, in, for example, the equalization of the age of consent, has been accompanied by attention to children’s sexual rights, with new laws to protect them from adult abuse in response to the paedophile scandals of the 1990s (The Sexual Offences Act 2003).