Censorship: The big chill

Paul Reubens: arrested for collecting vintage nude photos. Howard Stern: silenced for on-air speech. How a nationwide crackdown on “obscenity” could freeze out gay and lesbian expression for years to come

BY Advocate.com Editors

April 26 2004 11:00 PM ET

In November 2001,
Los Angeles police officers raided actor Paul
Reubens’s Hollywood hills home, seizing what they
alleged to be stacks and stacks of obscene material
and what Reubens called his “vintage art
collection.” They confiscated his computers, his
PalmPilot, his address book. Suddenly, the man who as
Pee-wee Herman was the most popular children’s
television star of the late ’80s was in the
spotlight, accused by the city of Los Angeles of possessing
child porn.
Reubens fought back for more than two years, but
on March 19—facing prosecutors determined to
make an example of him in what they called their stand
against the “sexual exploitation of
children”—he agreed to plead guilty to a
misdemeanor obscenity charge, pay a $100 fine, and
register with the police for three years. There would
be no show trial for Pee-wee Herman, but the damage
was done.
The big chill had come to Hollywood.
Reubens declined to speak to The
Advocate,
citing his busy schedule, but in
interviews with Dateline NBC and Entertainment
Weekly
he stressed that he possessed no child
pornography, and he revealed the kind of images that
had offended the Los Angeles Police Department: old
physique photographs such as those on the cover of this
magazine and featured in writer-director Thom
Fitzgerald’s 1999 film Beefcake.
“There were nude pictures,” the actor
told EW. “It’s a collection of vintage
photography, and a lot of it is erotic or sexual. But
I don’t view my collection as dirty in any way.
I view it as art.… They seized magazines that
were 40, 50, 60 years old—stuff that was legally
produced and legal to possess at the time.”
Back then, models were often photographed nude,
but artists painted clothing on the images before the
magazines were sold on newsstands, Fitzgerald says.
The original photographs, classically posed, were seen
as an important addition to art collections. “The
images [of that time] were nude but rarely
pornographic,” he says. “I think
it’s important that there are law enforcers pursuing
child abusers; however, I can think of several
examples where that pursuit has gone terribly awry.”
Physique poses. Old art photos. Vintage nudist
magazines. Images that any curious gay man might pick
up at a flea market without thinking twice.
“People should ask themselves, ‘What do I have
in my house?’ ” Reubens warned
EW readers. “ ‘What would I
do if the police came with no
warning?’ ” If Reubens is a sex offender,
does that mean every gay man in America should fear
the government combing through his hard drive or
searching under his mattress?
In 2004 in the United States of America the
definition of “obscene” is suddenly
broadening to encompass all kinds of adult
self-expression, including Reubens’s art collection,
Janet Jackson’s PG-13 Super Bowl stunt, and
Howard Stern’s familiar radio antics. Cross the
line with the LAPD or the FCC and the hammer of
censorship may come down on you. You could lose your
reputation, your voice, your broadcast license, and
hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“There is so much weird stuff going on
today—the idea that everyone should
conform,” Reubens told EW. “One of the
points of my TV show [Pee-wee’s Playhouse] was
that it was OK to be weird. Fourteen years after the
show went off [the air] conformity is even more encouraged.”
Indeed, conformity to the new, narrow definition
of what is acceptable is being harshly enforced. On
April 8, Stern’s talk show was dropped by Clear
Channel Communications, the nation’s largest chain of
radio stations, after the Federal Communications Commission
proposed a $495,000 fine for broadcasting
Stern’s “indecent” material.
Think what you like of Stern, but to much of the
country—and to regulators—his sexually
explicit vulgarity is a little different from, say,
portrayals of same-sex affection on ER or
It’s All Relative. With so much
money at stake, Hollywood insiders say, the current
atmosphere in television and film production can best be
described as “chilled.” With censorship
looming large, writers, producers, and studio
executives are all more cautious about the gay and
lesbian subject matter in their projects.
While queer programming on broadcast TV and
basic cable seems to be enjoying an all-time high in
popularity—with hits such as NBC’s
Will & Grace and Bravo’s Queer Eye
for the Straight Guy
—many are concerned
that the green light for new projects may change to
red as media companies attempt to curry favor with
regulators and politicians. “There are two very
strong opinions about how images should be seen and
heard in this country right now,” says Stephen
Macias, entertainment media director for the Gay and
Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. “In one
direction you have a bright stream of GLBT images in
many, many shows, and in the other you have a very
conservative administration in Washington.”
In fact, the U.S. Justice Department has
launched a vigorous new crackdown on what it calls
“adult obscenity”—a federal focus
on prosecutions akin to what Reubens endured. Atty. Gen.
John Ashcroft has hired antiporn crusader Bruce Taylor
as senior counsel for the criminal division on
obscenity issues. President George W. Bush’s
2005 budget includes $4 million to hire more prosecutors and
FBI agents devoted to targeting adult obscenity. The
American Civil Liberties Union and other free-speech
groups have said that the new measures amount to pure
censorship and appear to be political maneuvers in the
conservative culture war.
Meanwhile, the FCC, headed by George W. Bush
appointee Michael Powell, son of Secretary of State
Colin Powell, is clamping down on radio and TV
networks. Shock jocks like Stern and fellow New Yorkers Opie
and Anthony as well as Tampa, Fla.’s Bubba the
Love Sponge have either been slapped with fines or
threatened with retroactive penalties for sexually
explicit broadcasts.
Todd Clem, a.k.a. Bubba the Love Sponge, was
fired for sexually explicit radio segments in
February, with his Tampa-based station subject to
$755,000 in fines. The “obscene” segment? A
bit that featured cartoon characters such as Alvin the
Chipmunk discussing sex in a manner “designed
to pander to, titillate, and shock listeners,” the
FCC said. The commission fined the station’s owner,
Clear Channel, the maximum of $27,500 for each time
the segment aired.
Soon after, Stern’s morning show was
temporarily pulled from six Clear Channel stations
sexual content. The final ax came down a month later.
(Stern was on vacation and could not be reached by The
Advocate.
) That same week—the last week in
February—executives from ABC, Fox, NBC, Pax, and
Clear Channel testified before a congressional
committee on broadcasting standards that has suggested
raising the FCC’s maximum fine from $27,500 to
$275,000. At the rate proposed, Clear Channel could have
been subject to more than $7 million in fines for
Bubba the Love Sponge’s inane goofing.
Media historians caution that what is happening
now is likely little more than a temporary
“reining in” of U.S. entertainers after
years of pushing the envelope with bold and provocative
projects. It’s a pattern that has emerged over
decades as artists push two steps against the
establishment only to be pushed back one step.
Eventually, experts say, the artists push two more steps
forward before the establishment pushes back again,
but the society as a whole remains ahead of where it was.
“It’s a momentary overreaction to
the Super Bowl, not a real change in the
culture,” says Al Franken, host of radio’s
The O’Franken Factor on the recently
launched liberal radio network Air America.
“Basically, we’re just dealing with a
group of people right now who think some things are good and
some things are evil. Sex outside marriage is evil.
Sloth is evil. Homosexuality is evil. Violence gets a
pass because of gun issues, because if an evil person
were to come into the house of a good person, they want to
be able to shoot them.”
Franken saw his share of infighting among
network censors as an actor and writer on NBC’s
Saturday Night Live and admits that people
are much more sensitive to slips of the tongue or costume
than in the past. However, Franken tells The
Advocate
that even the most ardent opponents of
sexual content on television are unlikely to support a
concrete ban anytime soon.
“In hotels something like two thirds of
all the movie rentals are pornographic films, and the
people buying them are businessmen, mostly Republican
conservatives,” he says. “If they really
wanted to go through with this thinking, then imagine
a congressman standing up and saying, ‘As a
cultural conservative, I’d like to submit a
bill banning pornography in hotels,’ and meanwhile,
435 other guys are sitting there saying, ‘Um,
uh, Chuck—no. No, no, no.’ ”
But even if the impact on free expression for
gay and lesbian content is temporary, it could be
devastating, particularly at this moment in history.
Given President Bush’s vocal, politically
motivated support of a constitutional amendment
denying marriage rights to same-sex couples, some
producers and writers imagine networks may be under pressure
to keep gay-oriented programs off the air. And in a
business where decisions on projects can be based on
even the slightest hint of a problem, the risk of
gay-friendly programming being killed before it sees the
light of day is a threat many are living with.
“What if Will & Grace were
coming out now and NBC had it in development and
started doing interviews for it and suddenly started
getting complaints about the content?” posits Craig
Zadan, an executive producer of ABC’s
gay-inclusive It’s All Relative sitcom,
TV movies such as Serving in Silence: The
Margarethe Cammermeyer Story,
and theatrical films
including the steamy Chicago. “We might
be in a place now where the show wouldn’t get
on the air.”
Zadan felt the sting of censorship pressure well
before Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl appearance
when The Reagans, a miniseries he produced with
business partner Neil Meron, was yanked from
CBS’s TV lineup last November as a result of crushing
pressure from Republican members of Congress and
outrage from others on the right. The movie attracted
attention for its portrayal of Nancy and Ronald Reagan as
flawed characters, in the literary tradition, as opposed to
deified objects of praise. Zadan and Meron vehemently
argued that the portrayal was meant to help viewers
gain an appreciation and understanding of the Reagans
as people, but opponents argued that the movie was a slap at
an often-polarizing political figure. Eventually, the
movie was edited and shifted to CBS sister network
Showtime, a pay service not subject to the FCC or
advertisers’ fears and therefore less vulnerable to censorship.
“I don’t blame CBS at all, because
they did what anyone would do facing that much
pressure,” Zadan says now. “But it shows
that this pressure was out there before the Super Bowl and
that if it wasn’t the Super Bowl incident, it
would have been something else because [conservatives]
have been waiting for something like that to
happen.” (Zadan and Meron also lost a project as a
direct result of Jackson’s Super Bowl
appearance when Lena Horne announced in the aftermath
that she would not allow Jackson to portray her in a Horne
biopic Zadan and Meron were developing.)
For now, Zadan and Meron’s show
It’s All Relative, which features
two gay men as parents of a woman whose fiancé is a
man with Irish Catholic parents, remains in good standing at
ABC, the network owned by Disney. But the
show’s creation was a result of a direct
request from ABC Television Entertainment Group chairman
Lloyd Braun, who Daily Variety reported on April 6
would likely be replaced in May—about the time
Zadan and Meron will learn whether Relative
will be renewed for a second season.
The key question that remains in the minds of
many observers is, What will the entertainment world
look like in 12 to 18 months, when new television,
movie, and radio projects conceived in these awkward times
are finally reaching screens and airwaves? Will the big
chill of 2004 translate to lukewarm entertainment
options and increasing gay and lesbian invisibility
down the road?
Gary Edgerton, professor at Old Dominion
University in Virginia and coeditor of the Journal
of Popular Film and Television,
says he
believes the situation will improve as the combined effects
of the Super Bowl and the presidential election
disappear into the cultural soup and the nation moves
on to fresh issues to debate.
“Temporarily, it will have a chilling
effect, and that will affect [gay and lesbian]
programming because it’s so high-profile right
now,” Edgerton says. “But clearly things have
been easing up and becoming more tolerant, and that
trend will continue. Right now the custodians of
culture are focused on this, but with so many outlets and
so many channels, eventually their attention will be drawn
to other places.”
But from Zadan’s perspective, even a
temporary blip in the momentum for gay and lesbian
programming may be too much, because the identity of
the victims of the current spate of censorship in America
will never even be known.

“It’s the projects that are out there now
trying to get made, where changes are being sent back
to scripts that were approved before, and maybe entire
projects are getting scrapped. I know it’s
happening right now, and I’m surprised more artists
haven’t spoken out,” says Zadan, who
coincidentally is currently working on a movie version
of Fahrenheit 451, a story about government-
sanctioned book burning, due for release in 2005.
“The thing is, you won’t ever know about
it because the networks or studios can always say they
didn’t like it for creative reasons, and then
it’s gone.”

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