When I was a kid in the ’70s and ’80s, you really had to work to see stuff on TV that you weren't supposed to see. You had to plan and scheme and connive and possibly hold a ball of aluminum foil in your hand to get a clear signal. It was a quest, a noble and important quest, and that's what made it so fun.
Timing was key. My friend Rafael developed a knack for muting the TV during the parental warning that preceded his favorite Saturday movie program, “or I'd time it so that I turned on the TV just after the warning card, which was at exactly 11:02 a.m.,” he boasts. “I got to be pretty good at it.” And another friend, David, had an intricate scheme to sample the forbidden fruit of “Dark Shadows” that played like a third-grader’s version of “Mission: Impossible.”
The author relates his quest to watch the forbidden "Three's Company," and I experienced flashbacks--my parents, too, forbade the watching of that show, although they never acknowledged the gay element. No, theirs was the more basic "A man rooming with two single women is immoral" objection. My family was of the socially conservative Democratic background that now holds all Bill O'Reilly says as gospel, you see, and bouts of utter ignorance regarding what us kids were watching on TV were sandwiched between phases of draconian censorship. Anything with shootouts or bloody violence was fine, of course, but my mother forbade me to watch broadcast-edited James Bond movies because they were "Rated X." I was once denied when trying to watch the "Battlestar Galactica" pilot/movie on Showtime because it came with a "PG" disclaimer that mentioned "brief nudity" as a possible reason for the rating. Sheesh.
Two friends of mine, both named Jack, were cable porn pioneers, and I'm inspired by their courage and commitment. “Back in early days of cable, we used to get this soft-core channel at 3 in the morning,” recalls Jack M. “It was all static and blurry but if I held a massive ball of aluminum foil in one hand and the antenna in the other, I could occasionally make out a boob or a butt. I'd watch ’til the sun came up.”
Jack P.’s newfangled cable system was static-free, but not bug-free. “You could watch one minute of the dirty movie channel before it would show up on your bill,” he explains. “So everyday my siblings and I would watch one minute. The problem was sometimes you’d watch a minute not knowing that another kid had already watched a minute and then we'd get totally busted.”
The guiding child-rearing principal of my parents in my home growing up was "Ignorance is a virtue." Their thinking was that if they didn't tell me about something (ie sex) then I wouldn't know it existed. And you can't tell kids about sex, otherwise "they'll run right out and try it" (and that's a direct quote). My sheltered upbringing left me extremely vulnerable to malicious manipulation by my peers in school, however, and I soon twigged to the fact that my folks were useless as a reliable source of knowledge. Caddyshack was the first rated R movie I ever saw, and I didn't even have to sneak in--my best friend's mother took us, and my folks never bothered to check and see what was playing. Apart from the language and nudity, it was probably the perfect kid's movie. And the nudity impressed me, simply because it was something my folks worked so hard to shield me from. So I did what every other pre-teen does to learn about sex--I turned to cable.
In the days before parental controls, cable television relegated soft core fare to the late night broadcast hours (after 10 or 11 p.m., if I recall rightly). There was a big push-button converter box on the television, with a long coiled coaxial cable bringing all the forbidden offerings Showtime had to offer to our TV set. I had a small black and white TV in my room, but no Showtime converter box. To get around this problem, I'd wait until everyone else was asleep on the weekends (usually by 11 p.m.) and disconnect the long coaxial cable from the living room TV and run it to my TV in my room. The box in the living room would descramble the signal, and I'd watch it with the volume turned down and my door closed. I'd be more nervous than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs, cutting off the TV and diving for bed half a dozen times as random sounds both real and imagined. It was in this manner I watched such dubious fare as Two Top Bananas (cornball burlesque from Don Adams and Don Rickles with a few token fan dancers), The Sex Machine (soft core Italian T&A masquerading as social commentary) and Young Lady Chatterly (Holy moley!). Did it distort my concepts of sexuality? Of course it did. But at least I wasn't an easy target for all the older kids anymore, and that knowledge was a much stronger defense than my folks' flaccid directives to "just ignore them."
When it came to monitoring her impressionable youngster's media habits, my friend Holly was in way over her head.
“My 9-year old son, Rylan, had a bunch of friends over, and they wanted to watch the movie ‘The Terminator,’” she told me. “I said, ‘You are not watching that movie! It's rated R and it's too violent.’ And they all looked at me and said, ‘We've already seen it.’”
What pisses me off, however, is the fact that these viewing restrictions apparently only applied to me. I learned quickly to be guarded in what I had on TV during prime time or weekend viewing, lest I get busted big time. Grounded. Maybe even worse. My younger brothers, however, showed no such concerns. Coming home from college one weekend, I was shocked to find them watching "Total Recall" in the living room, unconcerned with our parents (who were oblivious) or my 8-year-old younger sister. She came to me later, quite disturbed by the scene with the three-breasted mutant prostitute, because that obvious something she couldn't ask the folks about (she, being a girl, had to be kept even more ignorant. For her own good, of course). It was quite awkward for me, but I tried my best to reassure her that things like that didn't happen in real life, and the actress was only wearing some convincing makeup. I probably botched the whole thing, but afterwards I ripped my brothers a new one for their cavalier attitude toward what they watched when their sister was around. Not that it made much of a difference in the long run.
Am I being hypocritical here? Maybe, but in my book an 8 year old is much better equipped to deal with the juvenile humor of "Caddyshack" than the über-violence of "Total Recall."
I wonder when--if it hasn't started already--my own children will start trying to watch verboten programming behind our back. The parental controls on the TV and internet seem sufficient thus far to limit their exposure, but I'm not foolish enough to think they're not hearing things at school or seeing questionable fare at friends' houses. Hopefully, we've got strong enough channels of communication open so that we never have a repeat of what happened with my sister.
Strange how society has evolved. What was dangerous, forbidden and tawdry when I was a kid is kind of quaint and amusing now, and that which is now viewed as dangerous, forbidden and tawdry can now earn you a visit from Dateline NBC and a cadre of arresting officers. Innocence isn't so innocent anymore, and ignorance has never been more dangerous.
Damn. I have a sudden, overwhelming need to Netflix "Caddyshack." Gotta love that gopher...