Part One: The Sanitized Era and the Beginnings of Reality
Television was once the conveyor of virginal imagery, the bringer of the Norman Rockwell version of America as beamed to homes from coast-to-coast by the Gods of Television on a daily basis. During these days long past there was a security in television that’s all but extinct today. Censors and sponsors combined to make TV a sterile landscape devoid of most forms of offensive behavior, sexual innuendos, and expressions of thought contrary to the perceived norms of American society. The nation and its representation on TV were both far different than they are today, and what led both to change is a tale of a country enduring tragic moments and embracing cultural change.
TV’s distant past reflects the bygone days when “men were men and women were women,” when homosexuality was ignored, and when heterosexuality was limited to platonic hugs and closed-mouth kisses. War was a bloodless display of valor and manliness according to shows such as The Rat Patrol and Combat, while the American West was a place of brave, noble men who tamed fierce savages and felled outlaws with equally bloodless gunshots as evidenced by shows such as Bonanza and Gunsmoke. Women were seen as aspirants to domestic perfection, embodied by such fictional pre-Martha Stewart domestic divas as June Cleaver in Leave it to Beaver and Margaret Anderson in Father Knows Best. As to displays or the mere mentioning of the sex act, it was avoided at all costs even if it meant depicting a boudoir as surreal as the one containing the separate beds of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo on I Love Lucy, or as unseen as Ralph and Alice Kramden’s bedroom on The Honeymooners. Such is how it was prior to January 29th, 1968–the date of the Viet Cong’s bloody Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War–as television was, to that date, used as the great sanitizer of American life. Afterwards, it was a whole new ballgame.
Those older than I might argue that the tide turned earlier, that images of Civil Rights marchers being beaten, maimed and killed, or the assassination of President Kennedy, or earlier footage of the Vietnam War ended the age of television innocence. Others could well identify the political assassinations that occurred later in the miserable year of 1968–wherein Martin Luther King, Jr. was felled on April 4th while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee and Bobby Kennedy was gunned down on June 5th following a Democratic victory celebration at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, California–as the turning point. Those who believe so are certainly entitled to their opinions, especially given that their age, the above dates, and their own perception could very well offer them different opinions borne of direct experience or timely observation.
Regardless of the above, of a certainty is the fact that Mr. and Mrs. America once felt safe in putting their precious tykes before a television and walking away secure in the knowledge that the electronic Cyclops would watch over them like a nanny, only one with vacuum tubes. Some of my earliest memories come from sitting before the almost magical, black-and-white images presented by the oval-shaped giver of delight, positively enraptured by cartoons and puppet shows, lost in the throes of youthful wonder and amazement. But all that changed when we acquired a massive, wooden, American-made entertainment console that featured two huge speakers, a turntable, a radio receiver, and a color television, and it was on that particular tube I saw more blood and carnage than I could have imagined.
Following the afternoon children’s shows came the six o’clock evening newscasts, and the screen image quickly turned into a blood fest. Pictures of horror came unbidden–images of torn flesh, rivulets of blood, and the cries of anguished soldiers didn’t just appear on television so much as they were blasted forth from it as though fired by a cannon. Expanded coverage of the Vietnam War came unannounced into the American living room, and suddenly the sterility of televised violence became exposed as the hollow, unreal thing that it truly was. It was as though Mr. and Mrs. America sat up, took notice, and said, “Well looky there, bullets really do hurt!”
Of the above, I believe America easily forgot or came to deny the realities of war and gun-play in wholly unconscious fashion. At the time of the Vietnam War’s bloodiest campaigns, the nation was only about 25 years removed from the heroics of the Greatest Generation in World War II, and only about 15 years removed from the courageous actions of the American troops who fought the Communists to a standstill in Korea. Yet both during those wars and the intervening years, images of war and violence were mostly displayed on black-and-white televisions and films.
Regarding Hollywood’s celluloid offerings, color productions didn’t truly come to the forefront until the 1950s, yet many war movies were filmed without color well into the 1960s.1 While color film had previously existed for decades, the sterility of black-and-white imagery lessened or completely removed the visual impact of blood and gore, making the brutal spectacles of death and dying so palatable to the masses, the pristine imagery became America’s false reality.
To their credit, my parents had not forgotten, and they would usher me away from the console unit come time for the evening newscasts. However, I was a kid and a defiant one at that. I peeked around corners to see the forbidden fruit on TV, thinking that they didn’t want me to see the “good stuff,” whatever that was. Too bad I didn’t know any better because I had many a nightmare after watching newscasts full of butchered Americans.
Previously, images of a horrific event such as the assassination of President Kennedy were presented in black-and-white, and much time would elapse before the definitive images of the event–the Abraham Zapruder film–were broadcast in 1970, though Life magazine quickly printed a few color stills that lacked the impact of watching the last moments of one of the most vibrant of all men as he was taken down without mercy. Therefore, though the bloody escalation of the Vietnam War followed the death of President Kennedy by many years, its images of blood and carnage were broadcast well before the public saw Zapruder’s filmed record of JFK’s demise. So shocking were the reports and footage of the Tet Offensive, the grassroots anti-war movement metamorphosed into a fairly cohesive mass effort that brought chaos to the Democratic National Convention in August 1968. According to historian Dr. Mark Barringer, “The Tet Offensive of late January led many Americans to question the administration’s veracity in reporting war progress and contributed to Johnson’s decision to retire. After Tet American public opinion shifted dramatically, with fully half of the population opposed to escalation.”2
As the Vietnam war raged on, the images of our brutalized troops, the horrors relayed by reporters, and the sheer impact news broadcasts had on the American psyche put the lie to most war movies and brought something into the American living room that was absolutely unexpected: reality－in full, awful color. Yet the reality brought home by television reporters wasn’t meant to scare the viewer, nor was it meant to provide some manner of demented entertainment. What was brought home to Mr. and Mrs. America was life presented in ways ranging from the horrific to the delightful, an oft-reflected dichotomy found not within Mr. Rockwell’s fine artwork, but within the tortured renderings of the troubled, self-destructive Jackson Pollock.
Television seemed to change swiftly after that, with now-legendary events brought into American homes with a freedom of censorship as had never before existed. Norman Lear’s All in the Family presented the American television audience with the first irrefutably bigoted main character in the form of Archie Bunker, as brilliantly portrayed by the late Carroll O’Connor; the televised Watergate hearings shook America’s confidence in government and led to the fall of President Richard M. Nixon; hundreds of dead bodies were shown lying in a makeshift encampment in Guyana, South America–all murdered victims of the Reverend Jim Jones’ monomania; and though three earthbound American astronauts were burned alive as they trained in an Apollo capsule in 1967, it took the death of seven astronauts in the televised explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 to undermine America’s faith in its technological advantage over the world.
One of the most shocking–and revelatory–moments on television came just five years after scenes of the Tet Offensive first hit American airwaves in the form of a TV movie innocuously titled Born Innocent in which Linda Blair (The Exorcist) played a teenage reform school inmate. Despite its title, what the film depicted was an act of personal violation that was far from innocent as viewers were shown a scene of humiliation and abuse made all the more shocking as the network failed to issue any viewer advisory of the awfulness to come. The horror came to Blair’s character, that of a vulnerable young girl whom the viewing audience was driven to care for as a complex being, in a paroxysm of shockingly repulsive film-making as she was subjected to a brutal rape by broom-handle at the hands of other female inmates. It was a scene so disturbing to America, it was removed from all further rebroadcasts of the film.
More changes occurred as cable television came into being, free of most restrictions that govern broadcast television. Cable promised an enhanced viewing experience, an enlightenment of the masses. While some of the promise of cable has been fulfilled, its most noticeable impact was felt across the country as it streamed the public taboo of pornography into American bedrooms where, behind closed doors, the once-diminished industry thrived as never before. Broadcast television tried to keep pace as shows such as NYPD Blue offered images of partial nudity and words such as “breast” and “ass” replaced softer terms such as “boobs” and “rear end”. Most noticeably, the actual terms for the male and female organs of reproduction were increasingly uttered on television as the ‘90s rolled on, leading to such public usage that a traveling British stage show called The Puppetry of the [Male Organ of Reproduction] played to large audiences here in America, and a Broadway play came into being as The [Female Organ of Reproduction] Monologues. Yes, television had moved past the separate beds or wholly unseen bedrooms of the 1950s to actually naming those body parts in the 1990s, and though it had journeyed far from its pristine origins, it had far to go to reach its current state.
Join me next time for the continued review of television. I’ll include game shows, cable TV, mean-spirited trash TV, and the current state of ye olde “Boob Tube”.
- Tom Dirks. Film History by Decade: 100 Years of Movies.
Accessed August 20, 2016 at 7:55 PM.
- Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History.
Ed. Spencer C. Tucker.
Oxford, UK: ABC-CLIO, 1998.
Accessed August 20, 2016 at 8:30 PM.
In closing, yes, I used euphemisms for those parts of the human body. I wasn’t about to end this first part by using questionable language after all the care I put into it! Please join me for the next installment of my Eccentric Entries in which I will conclude this topic.
To be Concluded in Time and Television, Part Two of Two.