If children read anything in the newspapers any more, it's still the Sunday comics section, that inviting spread of colored cartoon art, that staple of Silly Putty advertising. One of the industry's best-known cartoonists is Garry Trudeau, the envelope-pushing baby boomer creator of "Doonesbury." He's now delivered controversy again with his signature. He sent to his syndicate a Sunday strip with a new topic: masturbation.
"There's a new study that suggests regular masturbation prevents prostate cancer," says one of the strip's characters, the oh-so-relevant Reverend Scot Sloan. A few panels later, slacker Zonker arrives to announce "self-dating prevents cancer." Trudeau has explained that the strip isn't really about "self-dating" or cancer. No, it's about "the shifting nature of taboos and the inability of two adults to have a certain kind of serious conversation."
Thankfully, a notable number of newspaper editors have stood up for community standards and found the strip to be inappropriate for a family newspaper. Of the 34 newspapers that responded to an e-mail by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, 19 papers said they would not run the strip, opting instead for a substitute strip provided by Trudeau's distributor, the Universal Press Syndicate. Twelve said they planned to run the masturbation strip, and three were unsure.
"I decided not to run it," said Lou Ziegler, editor of the Fargo Forum in North Dakota. "You know what they say about pornography. You know it when you see it. There is a line between what's acceptable and what's offensive dialogue in a community like ours. For me, this crossed the line. I knew it when I saw it...This is the first time during my more than 15 years as a newspaper editor that I've pulled a strip." Frank Fellone, deputy editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, said he also opted out: "It was beyond the reasonable boundaries of good taste to us. Other newspapers may feel differently, and that's what makes this such a great country."
This great country may still have a debate about decency in the newspapers, where community-based publishers have the power to refuse syndicated material they deem inappropriate. It's sad that there's nothing close to this kind of debate at the nation's TV stations, where station managers are either working for stations owned by networks or bullied by network brass not to "censor" sexually explicit programming, even in the family hour. On TV, the M-word is not yet common, but references to masturbation are constant, and growing.
Take NBC's "Friends," first up during the family hour every Thursday night. In one plot, Monica is disturbed that she found her husband Chandler "molesting himself" to a shark attack show. "Yes, Chandler watches shark porn." Later, Chandler reassures her he was switching channels from "some good old-fashioned American girl-on-girl action," and Monica replies, "Can I tell you how happy that makes me?"
An hour later on Thursday nights, "Will and Grace" is routinely pumped with sexual metaphors, including masturbation. In one show, flighty Karen explained why she was late: "You have to talk to that shower head. He got a little fresh. I had to put him in his place. Well, my place." NBC's "Third Watch" has a character named Bosco who regularly greets thuggish people as "jag-off" or a "sad piece of jag-off."
It's not just NBC. On ABC's "Drew Carey Show," scary Mimi is hunting for a corporate spy in the office. "First I thought it was Doug here. He's always looking guilty, sneaking off to the stairwell. But it turns out he's just a compulsive masturbator." A "C.S.I." plot on CBS featured a peeping-Tom murder suspect. One detective claimed the suspect's low sperm count suggests "excessive masturbation," and another says "Yeah, you'd know it, Spanky." The WB network has a sitcom, "Grounded for Life," with a running gag about their teenage son always heading to the bathroom with a Cosmopolitan magazine. Always-classy Fox's show on "Funniest Animal Outtakes" featured a dog pleasuring himself on a child's toy rocking horse. And if this flood of references isn't enough for you, try watching cable TV.
It's impossible not to be pessimistic and predict that the filth on TV will continue to trickle down like acid on the rest of the popular culture until there are few unsexualized corners where children might hide. In the "Doonesbury" dispute, Trudeau said he understood that certain words are still unacceptable in a family newspaper, but he hinted this outbreak of community standards may be the last: "It's a 'South Park' world now, and younger readers are unlikely to be shocked or confused by anything they find in 'Doonesbury.'"
Thanks, Hollywood. Even the funnies aren't going to be safe for children any more.