Public sphere debates
Suspicion of sexual pleasure has often characterized ‘left-wing’ public sphere debates as well. They frequently assume that a proliferation of sexual discourse is an unquestionably bad consequence of the effects of neo-liberalism, convergence, globalization and deregulation on the ‘quality’ of television provision. Understood as ‘dumbing down’ or ‘tabloidization’, these changes are seen to accompany the increasingly commercial priorities that regulate output. The citizen’s democratic right to information and education has been squeezed out of the schedules, to be replaced by pleasurable entertainment for the consumer. Politics is marginalized in new infotainment formats by the growing emphasis on personal, emotional and sexual concerns of confessional culture (McChesney 1998; Dovey 2000; Sparks and Tulloch 2000; Winston 2000). The most important limitations to the ‘dumbing down’ perspective are as follows. First, it depends on a narrow conceptualization of citizenship that derives from a puritan form of left-wing critique suspicious of sexuality and entertainment as a distraction from ‘real’ politics. This is no longer convincing, in my view, in the wake of the new social movements and their politicization of the private sphere. Feminist writers, for example, have drawn attention to the radical uses of scandalous publicity and the gender hierarchy that gives men more power than women to draw the line between the public and the private (Fraser 1995). Second, the category of ‘quality TV’ depends on a hierarchy of taste that masks the preferences of a male elite in the guise of a universal value. This view has come under sustained attack, again from feminist critics, who point to the way that generic innovation has enabled subordinated ‘others’ to come in from the margins of representation on television. These debates are discussed further in relation to concepts of sexual citizenship in Chapter 2, news reporting of sex scandals in Chapter 3, science documentaries in Chapter 4 and current affairs documentaries in Chapter 5.
Arguing against this emphasis on cultural decline, other writers welcome the diminishing power of governments over content regulation, arguing that demands for recognition and equity linked to citizenship and identity politics have been delivered by a ‘consumer democracy’ delivered by the market (Hartley 1999; McNair 2002). Television’s integration into global capitalism has meant a relative decline in the regulatory power of the patriarchal nation state. Moreover, the concept of ‘lifestyle’, it is argued, has replaced a fixed sense of identity as people reflexively fashion their sense of self through their consumption practices. In a context where traditional forms of authority, such as the church, have declined as an influence on sexual morality and sexual behaviour (although not absent from the discursive ‘mix’), people have to find a set of moral and practical solutions to ‘the good life’ for themselves. The social conditions of ‘intimate relations’ have changed. A growing individualization is a feature of the ‘risk society’ in which the certainties of tradition no longer hold sway, and this has had a particularly destabilizing effect on gender relations and identities (Giddens 1992; Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 2002). In this context, it is argued that the media function as a source of materials from which to fashion a sexual ethics for oneself out of the diversity available. New channels and genres have developed to cater for emergent tastes and values, acting, therefore, as a ‘progressive’ force for change from an authoritarian sexual culture towards a ‘democracy of desire’ (Hartley 1999; McNair 2002).
In some ways this is a convincing case, and this book contributes to a map of these emergent taste cultures and their ‘progressive’ sexual ideologies. Yet there are also several problems with a perspective that simply celebrates the pluralism of the commercial media. First, it relies on a selective account in which only those programmes that support the thesis are included. The continuing presence of ‘traditionalist’ sexual politics and moralities at the centre of the schedules is overlooked, in news and current affairs or science documentaries, for instance. Second, television as a commodity form has its own regulatory effects that limit the kinds of meanings and audience pleasures it produces. The sexual ‘freedoms’ encouraged by a consumer society cannot replace the need to engage in debate about sexual ethics and the politics of representation. Indeed, it makes it more urgent as sexual representations proliferate not only in the programmes we watch but also in the ubiquitous advertising by which the majority of television is financed. Foucault’s concept of ‘technologies of the self’, on which these theories draw, emphasizes that these techniques work to produce ever finer distinctions in the formation of an ethical self. It is those contexts in which there is apparently the most sexual freedom (the example Foucault cites is the relationship between adult male citizens and young boys in Ancient Greece) that generate the most detailed instructions on sexual conduct (Foucault 1988). As we move further away from traditional moralities, attention needs to be paid to the multiple disciplinary discourses that replace them.
My argument, therefore, is that there is a legitimate ‘public interest’ in the forms of sexual representation made available; it isn’t something that can be left to market relations but neither is it simply ‘trash’ to be got rid of. Television has a significant role to play in the development of sexual citizenship and should be a forum and stimulus for political debate and education, as well as a source of personal meaning with fragmented audiences pursuing their individual desires. What kind of role should we be asking of television in this respect that goes beyond the puritan restrictions of the past? In addressing these concerns my intention is to combine questions of policy with identity studies and widen the scope of both areas of debate.