Should We Care if Cher Swears? The FCC, Indecency, and Marketing to Children

by: 

Susan Linn, Ed.D.

The news that a federal appeals court struck down a Federal Communications Commission indecency policy reminded me of the whole Justin-Timberlake-ripping-Janet-Jackson’s-blouse-off-during-the-Super-Bowl debacle a few years ago. Tens of thousands of people called the FCC to complain, which is what spurred the agency to crack down on indecency.

A few months after the Super Bowl, in a presentation to the Network of Spiritual Progressives, I expressed concern that a lion’s share of the outrage was voiced by people identified with the country’s Religious Right. Progressives, who tend to support sex education in schools, often stay away from voicing outrage about how sex is marketed to children in the media. I don’t really understand why. After all, it’s possible to be simultaneously for thoughtfully educating kids about sex, and opposed to child-targeted, commercialized sexualization in which sex is represented not in the context of caring relationships, but in the context of power, commodification, and violence.

Here’s the thing. Around 6.6 million 2 to 11 year olds watched a white man rip a blouse off of a black woman—an act that was certainly indecent both for its racist and its sexist connotations. We all should have been complaining about that. And we should have expanded our complaints to include all of those Super Bowl beer ads featuring talking animals. It’s indecent to market alcohol to children.

I absolutely believe that companies have the right to make any kind of media using any kind of language or imagery they choose. But I’m not alone in believing that corporations should not have the right to bypass parents and target children with marketing for whatever it is they produce. That’s why thousands of concerned adults are participating in CCFC’s campaign to convince Nickelodeon to stop marketing its website AddictingGames.com—which features a selection of violent and sexualized games—to children.

The FCC was trying to address what’s called “fleeting expletives,” which include unacceptable utterances by celebrities like Cher and Bono during prime time television. The court ruled that the FCC’s policy was too vague and would have a “chilling effect” on the First Amendment. Julius Genachowski, the FCC Chairman, was quoted in the New York Times as saying that “the Commission was reviewing the court’s decision in light of our commitment to protect children, empower parents, and uphold the First Amendment.”

The government could do that by not worrying so much about an occasional celebrity uttering an occasional obscenity during a televised award ceremony. If, for instance, the marketing of violent or sexualized PG-13 movies to preschoolers were prohibited, that would certainly protect children and empower parents, and it wouldn’t interfere in the rights of companies to make those movies—or the rights of adults to see them. What would really protect children from large amounts of inappropriate content, and the First Amendment, is if marketing to children were regulated. Commercializing childhood is much more indecent than a *.* fleeting expletive.

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