Archive for Thursday, February 15, 2001

Blurring the lines of propriety

February 15, 2001


"What is hip? Tell me, tell me if you think you know."

Tower of Power

I guess it was only a matter of time before Sue Richards said "ass." I mean, everybody else has. Why not her?

It's right there in black and white, Page 2, "Fantastic Four No. 38: the Invisible Woman" makes an offhand reference to "knocking Dr. Doom on his ass."

It was too much for a fellow named Marcus Lusk; he wrote Marvel Comics a letter, which the company published last week.

"What in the world were you thinking?" he demanded. "This is wrong. Just flat-out wrong."

Truth to tell, I can think of several ways to punch holes in Lusk's indignation. I could point out, for instance, that it's unlikely the majority of readers exposed to the offending word were young children. As Jim Welker of Tropic Comics in North Miami Beach points out, comics fans tend to range in age from 17 to 25 years. I could observe, too, that it's only "ass" hardly the big kahuna in the hierarchy of naughty terms. Finally, I could note that you can hardly watch a TV sitcom or drama these days without some character spouting the same word.

Yet for all of that, Lusk's complaint resonates with me, though my discomfort stems from a different place.

What bothers me is that I'm not bothered. Or, at least, I wasn't read right over the passage in question and it registered only as a lamentable sign of the times. Then I read Lusk's letter, I see that he is indignant, and I begin to wonder why I was not.

For what it's worth, I'm a fan of pop culture. I like all kinds of things, including that which explores the grittier, seamier side of life. But I've always been of the opinion that there is, if you'll pardon the cliche, a time and place for that sort of thing. When I'm in the mood for it, I know where to go to get it.

These days, though, you don't have to "go" anywhere. These days, it will come and find you.

Media used to set stuff with bad language or suggestive pictures aside, consigning it to hours and locations where young people were unlikely to encounter it. Now it's everywhere. To the point that a comic book heroine talks about knocking the bad guy on his ass.

Another barrier is breached, another small crudity seeps into a forbidden place.

I wouldn't even mind the intrusion if there was some point to it. Thirty years ago, for instance, this same company bucked the Comics Code Authority the industry's censoring group to publish a controversial tale about drug addiction. That was brave.

This is ... lazy.

You know why the word "ass" pops up everywhere? Because it serves as a shorthand for attitude, that sense of post-ironic detachment that has become the indispensable currency of popular culture.

And if you're thinking, "So what? Comic book character says a bad word. That isn't such a big thing," ... well, you're right. That's the point.

The world changes on the accumulated weight of SMALL things, turns on points of such minor consequence that raising a ruckus seems more trouble than it's worth. Then you look up one day and, suddenly, nothing is as it was.

I'm reminded of the influential "Broken Windows" theory of crime prevention. It says that if one window is shattered in a factory and allowed to go unrepaired, people will perceive that no one cares, that this is a lawless place. And it won't be long before all the windows are shattered and the street itself becomes one where prudent people do not walk.

I wonder if something similar isn't true of the tendency of crude material to seep into inappropriate places, if hesitancy to raise a ruckus over small breaches isn't analogous to leaving the window shattered.

"We are doing our best to balance the demands of a new generation with the expectations of our more traditional readers," went the company's response to Marcus Lusk.

In other words, the lines of propriety are shifting, blurring away to irrelevance.

And you wonder where or whether they'll ever take shape again.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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