#60: You can't say that on TV.

Why did 90s TV feel so different?

An abridged version of this same piece was published in The American Mind yesterday. Read it here.

The late ‘80s through the ‘90s were a battleground for some of the fiercest media censorship debates of the 20th century. Why then does it feel like television in this era made more space for alternative voices from the purview of 2021? 

If you reach back in American history, you would be hard-pressed to find a time where free speech wasn’t a salient issue, particularly as it relates to the media. 

There are almost too many examples to name: Patterson v. Colorado, the Espionage Act, the Sedition Act, Schenk v. U.S., 1938’s banning of Life magazine, the Hays Commission, the House Code on Un-American activities. And this it to say nothing of the virulent battles fought in the late ‘80s into the ‘90s on everything from rap music to pornography to what can and can’t be said during live music events to violence in video games, TV, magazines, and comic books. Suddenly you realize that the specter of “you can’t say that” has haunted mass media since Gutenberg’s printing press. 

Yet, something about the texture of today’s media landscape feels different—more oppressive; less flexible. 

So-called wrongthink and thought police have gone from an ironic Reddit-isms cribbed from your high school reading list to a palpable force, a persistent threat in everyone’s lives. A friend who’s a well-known author confides in me that she obsessively combs through old Facebook messages, asking herself, “Did I accidentally say something racist 10 years ago that might be used against me?” 

Her published work, fiction marketed to young women, undergoes the same personal scrutiny and self-censorship. Then it goes through another round of interrogation from agents, editors, and publishing houses. This isn’t a manifestation of neuroses; this is justified self-preservation on the part of everyone involved. It is part of the work in the same sense debugging your code is part of being a software engineer. Word choice gone awry can mean cancelled book deals, ended careers. It’s a very tough time to create media for distribution.  

But then I place this behavior in its wider historical context. We’d be remiss to forget eighties, nineties, and early aughts obscenity laws, the myriad cases that went as far as the Supreme Court. Whyis this different? Whydid it feel like nineties television, a medium with so much corporate and in some cases even political gatekeeping, had more bandwidth for people to shock than media does today? Is this a trick that nostalgia’s playing on us?

Predictably, this has not been an easy question to answer. 

One theory might be that the ‘90s felt more free precisely because we had less freedom. If not less freedom, then at a minimum, clearer and more distinct boundaries. There was a clear us, and a clear them, on more than just one front.

At the foundation, we have seen clearer boundaries between media and more powerful corporations, or even the government. Networks like MTV, Comedy Central, Cartoon Network, and Fox felt like underdogs, and perhaps they were. So while not every young animator with a dream could find his or her way onto Cartoon Network, there was still something about Cartoon Network that made it feel like it belonged “to the people.” Media channels—whatever they may be—are simply too big. 

They are less aligned with the public, and when independent players emerge, they’re either quashed or driven underground. It makes one wonder: What did independent media look like during the height of McCarthyism? Where do the blacklisted go when there is nowhere to go? Perhaps we are seeing an analogue of this today. 

Another very fundamental difference was that you also had clearer boundaries between people and media itself, television in particular. The lines weren’t so blurred. The M.O. of TV was to make people feel comfortable in their own homes, with a clear separation of the tube and the audience. This same logic applied to all media. 

The media is both omnipresent and hyperreal. When censorship happens to the media, it feels like it’s happening to us, and that’s because it is. The journalist is a media personality that you can easily reach via Twitter or email. Social media stars gain all sorts of real capital, both social and material, and it’s hard to distinguish who they are versus who they are online. There is no “I’m a doctor, I just play one on TV.” We are simultaneously playing a role and living our real lives, with no distinction which role belongs where. 

We also don’t know exactly where social media falls on this spectrum. Are TikTok and YouTube the 21st century answers to public access? Are indie podcasts AM radio? Are either of these professional vehicles? Who is a creator and who is simply a user? Is everyone a creator, some are just more successful than others? If the answers to any of these questions are no (and not because another analogy might be more apt), then that leaves us in a disorienting position. What’s going on now is unprecedented and therefore difficult to place in a recognizable context. 

You see people rebelling against this a little bit with Netflix properties. Netflix tries to recreate that boundary with certain color palettes, camera angles, and modes of storytelling. Manufactured nostalgia has also become a hallmark of Netflix originals, perhaps also as a way to re-instill that distance between product and consumer.

A curious feature though is that when we binge-watch these shows, something feels off. Type “Why does Netflix feel soulless?” into Google and you find that hundreds, if not thousands, of people are asking the same question. It seems as though it’s not the fact that it’s professionally produced that’s throwing people off either, as one easy explanation here is that people are inured to TikTok or YouTube. Shows like Friends and Seinfeld, which both feature a laugh track, enjoy continued popularity on streaming services. It’s something about the shows themselves that feel disturbingly untethered in a way that Friends did not.

But what accounts for this disembodied feeling?

It might not be the shows so much as the social context they’re arising in. We are living in an era of unprecedented choice, and that in itself might contribute to this sense that there is less room for deviation. Because we had a more unified social experience in the 90s, alternative culture stood out more strongly. Subcultures flourished, and the channels that could empower them, from public access to Fox and MTV, because there was a more unified experience at large. 

Shows like King of the Hill, The Simpsons, and South Park all aired against a mainstream understanding that some things were off-limits. Right now, it’s unclear what is and isn’t taboo; anyone can be an equal opportunity offender. It’s not simply that you can’t make certain comments, it’s that we’re living in a 24-7 purity spiral where anything is a ticking time bomb. 

In 2021, there’s too much content and outside of corporate, homogenized wokeness that paints a veneer over everything institutional today, there is no common ground. No common culture to rebel against, only faceless and ever-evolving restrictions. 

A common trap that more liberal advocates of limiting free speech are liable to fall into is that because they’re used to ‘90s era social conservatism, they think that they aren’t repressive. The truth is, they’re both more repressive and more confusing. There was  a line to cross in 1998. The situation today is like telling people there’s a curfew, but then also not letting them have access to a clock. Where’s the line? Who knows, but you better not cross it.  

But then there’s a second, more optimistic explanation.

Maybe it’s that we are perpetually moving back and forth across a spectrum of repression, and we’re spiritually re-experiencing something approximating McCarthyism, both with media and personal speech. It could be that we’ll get burnt out, and eventually, dissident thought will break through the filters with a larger audience of willing ears. 

The 21st century will have its own version of The Simpsons or South Park. People will still be offended, but there will be a more readily accessible, i.e. corporate-backed, platform. Corporations will see there’s a market, capitalize on it, and thus we slide back and forth ad infinitum.

We just have to make sure that monopolies don’t crush them under their boot, first.