Hollywood loves to preach. A new study suggests that Tinseltown's famous cameras should be turned on Hollywood itself to find the sinners. Prime-time TV programmers are finding a new standard of exploitation, pimping teenage girls.
A hardy group of researchers at the Parents Television Council subjected themselves to 238 broadcast sitcoms and dramas airing during four ratings "sweeps" weeks in 2011 and 2012. They found that a third of what they saw "rose to the level of sexual exploitation" of females, according to the report released Tuesday.
The likelihood that a scene would include exploitation increased dramatically whenever a teenage girl walked near the camera, and so did the chances that she would be the butt of the joke: Girls were more likely to be the target of sexual jokes than women, 43 percent compared with 33 percent. The artificial laughter on the sound track "directs the audience when to laugh and provide cues for what should be viewed as funny."
The study gives a pass to crime dramas, such as NBC's "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," in which the exploitation is typically portrayed - as the word "Victims" in the title suggests - as bad behavior. Things usually end badly for the perp.
Sitcoms, on the other hand, are made for exploitation. Among the examples cited are an episode of Fox's "Glee," in which a pair of adolescents play a game of strip poker, and in another episode of the Fox cartoon series "Family Guy," adolescent character Meg appears onstage at a sex-slave auction. "This girl is perfect if you want to buy a sex slave," the auctioneer declares, "but don't want to spend sex-slave money." Sitcom jokes are usually about sexual violence or harassment, prostitution, pornography and strippers.
"At what point in time is it OK to laugh at sexual trafficking or rape?" asks Parents Television Council President Tim Winter. Another question might well be: Why are the National Organization for Women and other feminists uncharacteristically silent about this? Where's the outrage?
Television executives and producers scoff at the link between television and real-life behavior, denying any connection to the "hypersexualization" of teenagers and teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. If the executives really believe this, their advertisers can expect a refund because its salesmen insist that the billions of dollars of commercials the networks sell profoundly influence viewers' buying habits.
The networks declined to take questions about the Parents Television Council report, and the Federal Communications Commission, once regarded as the gatekeeper to prevent the networks descent into the mean and the sordid, is considering proposals to further loosen enforcement of broadcast indecency laws. Public comment is invited through July 18.
The pressure on Tinseltown to clean up its act shouldn't come from the government. Viewers themselves must let the networks know that the exploitation of children is unacceptable by turning off the trash, dialing a decent channel when they can find one, and reading a newspaper, magazine or book during prime time when ratings are made. That's the only effective way to persuade Hollywood executives to climb out of the garbage can where so many of them live.
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