Tom Shales: The Media Making a Mess of Sex on the Airwaves





[Tom Shales is the style columnist of the WaPo.]

...Complaining about sex and nudity on TV is almost as old as the medium itself. A primeval diva named Dagmar was famous and infamous for the cleavage she brandished on an early precursor of NBC's "Tonight Show" -- she was early TV's response to Mae West of early talkies. Even prim Faye Emerson, who traveled from panel show to panel show, was chided for occasionally showing too much skin via one of her "gowns."

At virtually any point along the way, it seemed valid to chastise television for cheapening and exploiting sex, even if what seemed like a prime example in 1958 would look ludicrous if cited for offensiveness now. Television dealt with sexual issues, if at all, in primarily nervous, diffident, euphemistic ways.

But somehow even dark ages of denial may sometimes seem preferable to the letting of it all hang out, which has been standard operating procedure for a few crazy mixed-up decades now. No wonder some of us may feel like starting, or joining, a group called Prude Pride, and wondering if maybe there aren't worse things to be called than "old-fashioned" when it comes to such troubling phenomena as the swapping of nude pictures by teenagers via cellphone and "sexting."

We all know what happened once the '50s ended (in the early '60s, really); hypocritical repression gave way to wanton liberation. Girls in bikinis danced with jokes grease-painted to their epidermis on "Rowan & Martin's 'Laugh-In,' " while virtually every one of producer Norman Lear's "relevant" and "controversial" sitcoms was sure to include a Very Special Episode dealing with homosexuality....

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