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The new normal

Television takes the next step down

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The sitcoms of the 1990s-such as Friends and That '70s Show-were full of sexual innuendos, double entendres, and suggestive plot lines. Today's TV comedies-such as The Office and My Name Is Earl-do not depend so much on that kind of adolescent, off-color humor. Does that mean that TV is cleaning up its act? Not at all. TV has actually taken the next step downward.

The 1990s comedies approached the line of sexual propriety and then crossed it. This resulted in a titillating humor that made adolescents snicker and shocked their parents. Today there is no line to cross.

In The Office, arguably the funniest show on TV, it is simply taken for granted that unmarried people are having sex. There is no need for innuendo. The characters talk about their sex lives openly, and extramarital sex is normal.

Projecting and defining what is normal is how television shapes moral perception. According to sociologists, cultures establish "norms"; that is, standards of behavior accepted as normal. Some people confuse norms with morality, but a culture can embrace norms that violate moral principle. Slavery, cruelty, even child sacrifice can seem quite acceptable in a culture that presents them as normal.

Previously, our cultural norm was that sex was reserved for marriage. Many people violated that norm, but sex was still mostly associated with marriage and having children. Sex was a "family value." But those norms have shifted.

Defenders of the entertainment industry maintain that TV, movies, and music simply mirror the culture. Certainly, the media reflect the norms and morals of their creators. But the media also play a rhetorical role in shaping the way the rest of the country thinks and behaves.

In the TV culture, teen sex, single adult sex, and-in the most dramatic shift in sexual mores in history-homosexuality are all perfectly acceptable, unproblematic, and normal. Conversely, traditional sexual morality is presented as weird, strange, and out of the mainstream.

Now we have Swingtown, a new series from CBS-not pay TV or cable but a mainline broadcast network. Swingtown is about wife-swapping.

Set in suburbia during the 1970s, the series depicts a couple who move into a new neighborhood, make some new friends, and experiment with "open marriage." In the world according to Swingtown, wife-swapping actually makes for stronger marriages! The friends from the old neighborhood who do not approve of all of this "swinging" are depicted as uptight and neurotic. One suspects that the story arc of the series will have this conservative couple eventually losing their inhibitions and adapting to this new way of being normal.

It is not just children who are subject to cultural influences. Swingtown is aimed at altering the norms of adults. To counter the culture, both children and adults need the true authority and positive peers found in families and the church. They also need to base their lives not on norms, which are changeable and socially determined, but on the transcendent truths of the Word of God.

Comments? Email Ed Veith at gveith@worldmag.com.

Gene Edward Veith Gene is a former WORLD culture editor.


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