Until this summer, few people outside the R&B music scene knew who Robin Thicke was. Then came his new song “Blurred Lines” and an unrated online video to promote it.
“You the hottest b---- in this place!” Thicke sings, as topless models playfully dance around him.
The video has stirred a debate, with detractors complaining that it’s too racy and degrading to women.
Thicke insisted he meant no offense. The song, meanwhile, has become the No. 1 hit of the summer.
Certainly in pop culture, pushing the limits of what’s considered appropriate is hardly new. Back in the roaring 1920s, young women of the “flapper” generation raised eyebrows. In the ’50s, Elvis gyrated and caused a ruckus.
In the ’70s, comedian George Carlin joked about “The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” quickly listing them in a social commentary about the pitfalls of censorship.
Singling out those few words seems almost quaint in an era when just about any kind of uncensored content easily is accessed from a mobile phone, a tablet or on less-regulated cable and Internet television or satellite radio. Broadcast television and mainstream radio, in turn, have tried to keep up by airing saucier content to try to retain dwindling audiences, media experts said. Many see this free flow of content as progress – a victory for freedom of expression in an uptight society.
But for many parents, it also can be difficult to try to keep their kids from pop culture offerings the adults don’t consider age appropriate.
Do they filter it as best they can? Laugh it off? Use it as a teachable moment? Demand more limits?
If they do the last, who gets to decide what those limits are, anyway, since what’s appropriate to one person might not be to another?
“It’s a conundrum,” said Kirsten Bischoff, the mother in Springfield, N.J., who co-founded hatchedit.com, an online social network for families
Bischoff recalled wincing during a car ride in 2012 as her then 13-year-old daughter and a young friend belted out the song “Whistle” by rapper Flo Rida. The girls had no idea the song was about a sexual activity.
Mom decided to say nothing so they wouldn’t ask questions. But she later fretted about her decision on her online blog, where other parents told her they’d faced similar dilemmas.
While religious or political figures often have weighed in with moral arguments, a decision today to limit content is as likely to be a business decision.
Credit card companies and the banks that oversee their transactions use web-crawling and other investigative techniques to search for questionable content. They do not, for instance, allow payments for goods or services that are related to any illegal sexual acts – or that might even depict rape or exploitation of a minor. But beyond clearly illegal acts, they also reserve the right to steer clear of any content they feel reflects poorly on their brands.
Ultimately, however, it is the courts that determine what is obscene, a term reserved in the legal system for sexually explicit content that meets certain criteria.
The U.S. Supreme Court has based its definition of obscenity on “community standards” and these three factors:
- Does the work appeal to “prurient,” or excessively sexual, interests?
- Does it “depict or describe, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law?”
- Does the work lack “serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value?”
“It’s clearly very tough to prove. What’s obscene to some may be artful dancing to others,” said Robert Pondillo, a professor of mass media history and U.S. culture at Middle Tennessee State University who wrote the book “America’s First Network TV Censor.”
Courts also have not tended to limit language, which generally falls under free speech protection, he said. Media that is broadcast on the airwaves – network television and radio, for instance – remains somewhat limited, though not as much as some parents would like.
Determining what’s acceptable is further complicated by the fact that online life has changed the notion of the “community standard.”
“We’re an increasingly connected society, so we’re no longer divided by our (physical) communities,” said David Gudelunas, a communication professor at Fairfield University in Connecticut.
Now, those communities often are online, stretching across continents and age brackets to bring together people with common interests.
Take Ben Tao, 33. He was an engineering student in Los Angeles when he discovered a “niche” in the adult film industry. Crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter, he learned, didn’t allow the creators of sexually oriented projects to post those projects to seek funding. So he started Offbeatr, a fundraising site for creators of adult films and content.
His site is aimed at people 18 and older. Those who propose projects for funding must prove their age, though he concedes it’s impossible to monitor the age of everyone who visits the site.
Of course, parents can use filters to keep their children from the content, he said.
Even Pat Cooper, a comedian who knew George Carlin, sees a difference between the late comic’s “Seven Words” skit and much of the material he hears today.
Carlin “was saying, ‘Let’s express ourselves. Be a human being,’” said Cooper, 85, of New York. Too often now, Cooper said, vulgarity on stage and elsewhere is used for shock value alone.
“We don’t want to think anymore. So instead of thinking we just curse out what we want to say,” Cooper said.