Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Language of Sex, Part 1

So let us rise, then, from our speakeasy, this secluded room in our brains, where innuendo and double meanings flow from synapse to synapse like a well crafted sit-com, and we shall talk about sex.  Specifically, the time that we live in, where sex has become at once more prohibitive a subject than alcohol in the 1920's, and yet more widely talked about and displayed than ever before.  I want to combine the thoughts of Neil Postman and Michael Foucault and see why things are the way they are.  Specifically, why innuendos and double meanings find their way into our daily communications, from children's shows to normal conversations, even amongst people for which talking about sex is permissible.  Secondly, why Disney at once seems to prohibit even the most innocent of acts (such as wearing a bathing suit), and yet will allow jokes about sex and body functions to be shown in even its animated shows.  Also, and on a related note, I want to look at the peculiar public image of Miley Cyrus, who has demonstrated the argument of the dual nature of the Language of Sex in today's society. 

Postman is most known for his, "The Medium is the Message," statement.  How we communicate is just as important, if not more so, than what we communicate.  Gutenberg changed the medium from an oral retelling of stories and news (or hand-printed scrolls and books stashed away in monasteries and mansions for the literate and the pious to interpret) to a written medium.  Books became cheaper and more available. Thus, more people could afford, and need to, read.  It increased their knowledge, gave them more information on which to enhance their lives.  But with this was the writing of books with more fictional, more erotic content. you can find a listing of these on Wikipedia , under Erotic Literature.

You can't talk about sex without also talking about control.  To deny human beings of the most basic, the most biological of needs, and to have those human beings consent to the rules that are set, that must be control indeed.  Whether we are talking about rules coming from God, Church, or the State, there is a power that controls people's emotions, their need and appetite for sex.  For the moment, let's leave out the relationship between God and sex, as that is an entirely different post.   We can look at the Church, who, pre-Gutenberg, had the ability to reproduce books, to read them, and to interpret the rules of Catholicism to assert their power over the people of Europe.  It was St. Benedict, founder of the monastic group, who asserted that monks must sleep with the lanterns burning, and with their clothes on, as to prevent them from relieving sexual urges with fellow monks.

What's really interesting about what Foucault has to say on the subject (and btw, Foucault's books on the subject of sexuality should be taken only as a basis to further research, as his theory's lack specific examples and more concrete sources from Church and Industrial documents. The ideas are sound, but need more work, especially as it concerns modern day society.) is that much of the relationship between the church and sex in the post-Gutenberg world comes from 1700's Italian theologian Alfonso de Liguori, whose views concerning sex was very conservative.  His idea was that the "sins of the flesh" went far beyond the act of sex itself, but rather to the inner workings of the human mind.  He says that while reviewing the sins in your life for forgiveness by God (through confession to the RC priests), one must analyze every thought, even unto examining dreams, to find the roots of sin and flush them out.  What results from this is the publishing of diaries, memoirs, of lives of sexual hedonism, the most noted being the Marquis de Sade.  One that Foucault mentions is an anonymous writer, who published My Secret Life in the late 1800's.  In the memoir (which might have a Frey-like fictitious exaggeration to it), he says, "a secret life must not leave out anything; there is nothing to be ashamed can never know too much concerning human nature." In analyzing his own actions, his own subconscious thoughts, he is basically creating erotic literature while doing what Liguori suggested to wipe out sexual thoughts. He also is following Alexander Pope's "An Essay on Man," which says, "Know then thyself, presume not God to scan / The proper study of Mankind is Man."  In publishing this work, he turns a psychological exercise into an economical one.  He has produced literature that people must pay for.  This is much like modern day erotica sold at the bookstores, or, since we live in a visual society, communicating through visual images rather than words for the most part, it is very similar to easily obtained pornography today.

Because it's only since the invention of the camera (especially the Polaroid) and the television, that we have moved, resolutely, from communicating in print to a medium of visual images.  And while, in the past, only those who could read had access to erotic material, now anyone that can look and understand language has access to visual erotic imagery.  Thus, as Postman looks at in The Disappearance of Childhood, children now have as much access to sexual material as adults once did.  Thus the boundaries that were once set up by the church and by inaccessibility to information are now removed, and children can find out about sex at any age, as long as they can use the keyboard or operate the television remote.

When we talk about innuendo, double meanings, we immediately think of movies like Airplane!, whose jokes I am still getting even today.  Everytime I watch the movies, I find another joke that has, until now, gone beyond my understanding.  Also, there are no better masters of double meanings than the writers of modern day sit-com television shows.  Night Court, in the late 80's, was amazingly bawdy, humorous, and serious, all at the same time.  In both these examples, the writers worded the jokes so that children and teenagers would get one set of jokes, and the adults another, and so the whole family could watch a show that was sexual in nature, but the underlying meanings could only be received by those who could understand them. What is amazing about this idea is that the writers for some of the Disney Channels sit-coms are very much aware of the adult audience and incorporate sexual innuendo into the shows.   For example, on Phineas and Ferb, in the Spa episode, there is a scene of Buford sitting in the hot tub, and says "It's not plugged in!" as bubbles come up around him.  It's obvious that we are talking about farting in the hot tub, which is more a joke of bodily functions, but I don't think that most children would have caught on to it, as fast as the line was delivered. An even better example is on The Suite LIfe on Deck, season 3, ep. 1, "The Silent Treatment," where Cody, Zack, and Woody are in a secular monastery with Andy Richter guest starring.  Aside from the elongated "Little Dinghy" joke, there is a part where they speak during the silent hour, and are taken to the back room. When they come out, Cody says, "My Butt... talk about cruel and unusual punishment." Woody: "And for an hour!" Zack, who resolves the innuendo: "Forced to sit in those uncomfortable chairs and think about what we've done." To any adult, it is not sitting in chairs that has made their butts sore.  But children would not have gotten that line, as unstated as it was.

Disney is very controlling about any semblance of sexual tones in their shows.  Even to the point of avoiding swimwear in situations where it would be normal.  In the episodes that I have seen (which is near all of them), no major actor/tress on Hannah Montana or Suite LIfe has worn a bathing suit.  Hannah Montana takes place on a Malibu Beach, and yet Miley Cyrus has never worn a bikini or even a one-piece on the show.  Neither has Emily Osment.  Nor, to think of it, has Michell Musso, Moises Arias, or Jason Earles.  On The Suite Life on Deck, which takes place on a cruise ship, neither Debbie Ryan nor Brenda Song have worn bathing suits (outside of the Neptune Follies episode, where they were masked and in disguise), and the Sprouses also have remained covered up (even the Mermaid episode, where Dylan is in the hot tub, you can only see his shoulders.). It makes no sense that teenagers on a cruise ship would not wear bathing suits (or go shirtless). They even made special reference, on the Beauty Pageant episode, that they didn't have a swimsuit competition.

This control, I feel, is what makes the actresses (mainly) react so strongly when graduating from their company.  This is why Miley Cyrus has tried to flaunt her sexuality, following in the footsteps of Mouseketeer Britney Spears.  It is such a rebellion to run away from the control that Disney has on their employees.  Because in this case, sexuality and flaunting flesh is an expression of freedom, much as a child would rebel against a parent by dyeing their hair red or the like. Miley is simply a product of the rules that has forbid expression of one's own self for the creation of a family friendly, perfect role model that can be put on a television show to make money.  And because we live in a visual society, where we communicate through images, Miley can express her freedom through that medium, and everyone, including the children that have looked up to her, can see it.  It is the nature of the media that we use.   It is a paradox. On the one hand, we want to keep children as innocent and as unaware as possible until we are able to educate them using the values that we have coveted.  But also, we want to make money by influencing children into buying into a brand, be it Hannah Montana herself or the items that she sells when commercials come on.  So, in effect, we create the breakdown in childhood solely by the medium that we use to communicate.

I will want to continue this line of thought as I read Foucault work and expand the ideas to the modern day, just as I did Postman's ideas.  I think by deconstructing the reasons behind many of the beliefs that we have, we can see where they come from, who is controlling them, and who will benefit.  The discourse on sex is an important one, as it touches some of the most basic aspects of our lives, how we live, what we believe, and how we act in today's world.

(an addendum... when I tried to put Tags on this blog on my blogspot account, it won't let me use "Sex" as a tag. Seems there is some censorship in the world of the internet after all.)

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