Academic journal article Journalism & Mass Communication Educator

Wallowing in Sex: The New Sexual Culture of 1970s American Television/Censoring Sex: A Historical Journey through American Media

Academic journal article Journalism & Mass Communication Educator

Wallowing in Sex: The New Sexual Culture of 1970s American Television/Censoring Sex: A Historical Journey through American Media

Article excerpt

* Levine, Elana (2007). Wallowing in Sex: The New Sexual Culture of 1970s American Television. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, pp. 320.

* Semonche, John E. (2007). Censoring Sex: A Historical Journey Through American Media. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield. pp. 301.

Conducting research about sexually oriented mass media has always raised eyebrows in parts of academic circles. After all, it involves popular culture and, well, sex.

Yet this research proves to be challenging and important, providing intellectual pleasure for many reasons. One is a pleasure of the text in the sense of Roland Barthes. It's the pleasure of watching reruns of a 1970s game show such as "Match Game," packing enough sexual innuendo to make me smile and also to think about changing the channel. My 12-year-old daughter found "Match Game" earlier this year on the Game Show Network, and I found myself watching it for a short round, purely for the nostalgic joy of hearing dead comedians cracking wise. For her part, my daughter was taking in some of the sexualized discourse and puzzling over the rest, just as I did at the same age in the real 1970s.

Do the veiled jokes mean that it's OK for me and for her, just as it might have been OK for my parents and for me in the 1970s? Does sexualized content really work only in tandem with inhibitions and barriers? Do censorship, sexist portrayals, or taboos help complete the cultural work achieved by sexually tinged media products, whether they be advertising, movies, sitcoms, or musical performances?

Elana Levine keys her own exploration of these topics to 1970s television, when even the lowly game show became a sophisticated sexual feast of words. And she tackles "Match Game," a show about contestants filling in the blanks, just as television itself was attempting to do with programming in the midst of the sexual revolution.

Levine's research analyzes verbal and visual sexual depictions and behind-the-scenes network and censor wrangling in Wallowing in Sex: The New Sexual Culture of 1970s American Television. Her narrative follows the increasing sexual content in all kinds of programming, opening with a history of the three-way competition among networks and their use of sex to attract audiences and win ratings. But ABC, CBS, and NBC deployed sexually oriented programming in different ways, i.e., NBC allowing characters to engage in sex, but dispensing consequences to those characters and prohibiting them from using birth control. Birth control, after all, meant characters had planned sexual encounters, rather than just being swept up in passionate moments.

Levine, a mass communication scholar at the University of WisconsinMilwaukee, also examines what kinds of sexual content are seen as taboo, such as paid advertising for condoms, a prohibition still in place at some networks even today. Yet in chapters 3 through 6, it is her incisive and detailed analysis of sexual content within programming that makes this book a valuable resource for scholars and students alike.

Many made-for-TV movies exploited anxiety about sex, especially teenage sexuality. Levine's analysis of "Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway" showcases this anxiety. Like much work in this book, it also provides context for the promotion of this movie (one of the Brady Bunch girls, Eve Plumb, hits the mean streets!) and the reactions of viewers.

A chapter on female sex symbols and jiggle TV-"Charlie's Angels," "Wonder Woman," and "Three's Company" among others-concludes that these shows provided familiar and unambiguous guidelines for feminine and masculine appearance and behavior, despite women serving in new roles. Through her investigation of how and why TV depicted sexuality, Levine asserts the medium neutralized feminist overtones in these programs, making the new seem old and the radical seem safe.

An important national debate about sexuality and rape, which led to a paradigm shift in the latter half of twentieth-century American jurisprudence, is captured in Levine's discussion of soap operas in their didactic mode. …

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