Terror cleansing

Since Sept. 11, pop culture has been purging itself of anything potentially insensitive. But who decides what "sensitive" is?

Published October 19, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

We'll never know what would have happened if Universal Studios hadn't deleted the throwaway line containing the word "terrorism" from the 20th anniversary edition of "ET: The Extra-Terrestrial," to be released in 2002.

The post-Sept. 11 sanitizing of American pop culture seemed tasteful, even impressive, at first. A horrific tragedy had occurred, and the gatekeepers of mass media took it upon themselves to spare us the usual onslaught of crudeness. Who among us, softened by crying and late-night CNN, didn't wonder that first week if mainstream culture had finally, miraculously, grown up? On TV and the radio, the normal din vanished and instead we saw and heard maturity. We felt incredible grief, of course, but also sublime pride -- the firefighters, the blood donations, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani -- and the country's formerly coarse, mindless, vapid commercial noises were right there raising the bar for civilization.

Then that first week ended. News services got their footing and started looking for the big picture. The big picture, at least until the bombing, was ourselves: How were we coping? How would we change? The media chose to answer by taking its own temperature. Hollywood, we were told, was tearing up its violent scripts. Video game manufacturers were deleting representations of the World Trade Center. Radio conglomerates were suggesting playlists more appropriate to the times. Mass media had sent itself back to the drawing board.

For the rest of us, our critical faculties slowly eased back into place and we started to have doubts about culture's new maturity. Gamers complained about game modifications. "I'd like to remember the New York skyline with the towers there," the St. Paul Pioneer Press quoted one as saying about Microsoft's PC Flight Simulator. "A much better memorial would be the towers left in place with Old Glory at the top flying at half-staff." Movie nuts felt the same: The New York Post noted that only 22 percent of Hollywood.com users voted in favor of deleting images of the World Trade Center from movies. In the sport of kings, the people behind the Belmont Breeders' Cup had to rethink their hasty revision of the official logo -- according to the New York Daily News, fans missed seeing the World Trade Center image in the skyline. Finally, we wanted to know, did Clear Channel really ban John Lennon's "Imagine" from the airwaves? In truth, despite dozens of articles to the contrary, the company only issued a recommendation to that effect; but this was beside the point.

The point, it seems, lay somewhere in the shifting space between civilized restraint and hypersensitivity. Where, in that continuum, lay the deletion of anything remotely terror-related from popular culture? We didn't entirely miss the Jerry Bruckheimer previews, but we didn't look forward to 10 years of insipid, peaceful pablum, either. Over a month later, we still haven't responded clearly to the current dilution of America's entertainment stimuli.

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It may be dumb but it's fast: Pop culture had already begun cleansing itself by the afternoon of Sept. 11. "As soon as [the attacks] happened," Arnold Schwarzenegger told Jay Leno about a violent film that had been in the works, "the first thing I did was I went to the phone and I called Warner Brothers."

Other calls got made, too. It was widely reported that hip-hop group the Coup scrambled to change their album artwork, a representation of the World Trade Center exploding. According to the Houston Chronicle, Russell Athletics draped a "God Bless America" banner over a New York billboard that had previously promoted sweatshirts with the suddenly grim line, "Yes, New York. It Comes in Black." And the Los Angeles Times reported that among the movie releases being delayed was "Sidewalks of New York" -- a comedy, no less -- apparently for fear that the city wasn't ready to laugh at itself.

According to the New York Times, DC Comics has "indefinitely postponed publication of one violent comic and rewritten forthcoming stories to eliminate references to terrorism." The Detroit News reported that "24," a Fox TV show, cut a scene showing an airplane exploding in flames. Even the fashion world had to adjust, frantically revising anything resembling terrorist chic. The International Herald Tribune reported that Diesel had renamed its striped denim line from "Scars and Stripes" to "Stars and Stripes."

Advertisers scrambled as much as anyone. The Houston Chronicle reported that the American Association of Advertising Agencies sent out a memo urging members to "exercise sensitivity."

"We have taken a look at everything we do to see if it can be misinterpreted somehow," Stan Richards, of Dallas ad agency the Richards Group, told the Chronicle. "The last thing advertising wants to do is offend people."

Journalists, too, heeded the call. Stebbins Jefferson wrote in the Palm Beach Post: "What the country needs now is not legal censorship but the self-discipline of producers and customers to avoid the Ground Zero where the entertainment industry ignores the negative consequences of products that could encourage troubled minds to commit violence."

Pop culture stumbled in those first few days after the attacks, but it soon steadied itself and returned to the business of reconfiguring reality. This particular reconfiguration is a new one -- we haven't seen this kind of caution since World War II or the McCarthy hearings -- but the impulse is familiar. What's remarkable, then, is not that we're again subject to protection from genuine experience; what's remarkable are those few accidental moments of authenticity when we weren't. In light of that, mass media's return to normalcy is worth observing.

In the first days after the attacks, the American flag was up for grabs. Military buffs hoisted it, but so did New York buffs and missing-people buffs and regular buffs, too. Also available, and newly commodified, was sensitivity. The entertainment and advertising industries snatched it up with lightning reflexes, and all of their post-Sept. 11 decisions soon fell under the heading of "sensitivity." When TV scripts were rewritten, magazine ads were toned down and movie releases got pushed back, representatives told us again and again that they were being sensitive. But were they?

Surely their hearts were in the right place, and maybe the people making these decisions deserve praise for being proactive so soon. But to call the recent decontamination of our cultural landscape "sensitivity" is to indulge in a troublesome spinning of facts. Worse, it permits a faulty definition of the concept in a time when we need it to be right on the money.

Earlier this week, CBS announced that another episode of "The Agency" -- this one about anthrax -- would be shelved. As the thinking goes, the show would have unhinged our anxious selves. This doesn't sound implausible: We're wrecks right now, and TV's good at pushing buttons. But choosing not to push those buttons -- is that sensitivity? Nothing we see on a TV drama could make us any more paranoid about envelopes, ventilation systems and talcum powder. Conversely, we aren't going to feel any better by not seeing the show. If it's truly our mental health that CBS is concerned about, they're misinformed if they believe they can really come near it. At a time when TV news contains all the tension and suspense imaginable, TV dramas suddenly seem strangely impotent.

The tiptoeing around our sadness has also lost its way several times, as did CBS's caution with our anxiety. When Paramount's "Zoolander" had shots of the New York skyline altered to exclude the World Trade Center, surely audiences felt no lack of sorrow. Aside from further erasing the destroyed buildings, the decision is plain clumsy. Making a skyscraper disappear doesn't actually make us forget it -- it's just that we can't see it. This kind of hypercaution is like remaking "The Elephant Man" but lopping off his head to spare us the ugliness.

Stephen Farber recently made the point in the Los Angeles Times that anticipating audience sensitivities is hard enough to do, much less responding to them properly. Indeed, why stop at the twin towers? Maybe showing cities besides New York will have the unexpected effect of making us mourn in reverse. Perhaps a fictional anthrax plot wouldn't make us any more nervous than one about, say, mail carriers. Where does the line get drawn?

For being such compulsive market testers, the movie, TV and advertising people have seemed strangely off the mark lately. It's true that we were, and are, shocked by what happened on Sept. 11, and by what could happen again tomorrow or the next day. But what does that have to do with "Friends"? When NBC decided to cut scenes of Monica and Chandler waiting for a long time in an airport, what, exactly, did they hope to accomplish vis-à-vis our grief? Sensitivity these days often boils down to just avoiding empty accusations of poor taste.

Exposing the moral or intellectual limitations of the entertainment or advertising industries is usually a waste of time. And now, perhaps more than ever, there are more important things to work on. But in the overanalyzed relationship between mass media and the general public, meaningfulness can still be found. It appears meaningful what Pepsi spokesman Dave DeCecco told the Houston Chronicle recently:

"Our advertising is about joy ... That's not what the nation was feeling, so we pulled the ads."

But the "Joy of Pepsi" ads have since returned -- are we to infer, then, that we're feeling joy again? If we accept the conceit that voices like Pepsi's roughly reflect our own, do we have to heal at their pace, too? Surely, if pressed, Pepsi would concede that most of us are still coming up short on joy. If that's true, these companies have backed themselves into an interesting corner: Whereas they responded to Sept. 11 first as fellow human beings, they must now face their unambiguous identities as commercial enterprises: They want to have their cake and sell it, too.

The impulse to airbrush away anything that might hurt us is understandable. And as grief therapy tells us, do whatever works. But retrofitting all potentially offensive culture borders on pathological. If it's true that videotapes of "E.T." will be modified to exclude that line about terrorism, then we're up against an unfortunate, if well-intentioned, revisionism. The reality is that we did mention terrorism flippantly before Sept. 11. Likewise, the New York skyline did contain the World Trade Center, and popular entertainment did profit from fictional terror plots and digital explosions.

That was our world, in all its dumb innocence; to deny it is to deny our violent expulsion from that world, and consequently to belittle the tragedy itself. We should watch movies, see the twin towers in them and remember yet again the new planet we now live on. Isn't that why we go to art in the first place? Those who instead want to be transported elsewhere needn't be rushed -- they can just watch other movies.

But maybe this is precisely what mass media fears. Blandness sells, or so the purveyors of mainstream entertainment believe. (And don't let ad execs claim exception -- the trend in advertising may be edginess, but that's only blandness with a patina of affectation.) It's a complicated and impressive calculus that makes a successful romantic comedy, for example, at once saleable and forgettable. Messages that haunt the audience days after the film or the billboard or the TV show interfere with our entertainment, or so we've been told. So along comes Hollywood's latest offering, seeking both love and critical invisibility -- another seventh grader looking to blend in at Homecoming -- when suddenly a two-second shot of Manhattan weighs the movie down with unintentional meaning. Instead of slinking off quietly to video like all the rest, the film will be forever linked to one of the most remarkable things to happen in this century. In popular culture terms, this is a catastrophe.

The only way to proceed from a nearly ungraspable horror is to look at it, not away from it. The "sensitivity" we're now getting is well-meaning sophistry, and it's robbing us of genuine aesthetic experience. The emotional responses available to us, in turn, diminish with every pulled punch. There are real reasons for resisting the current inducement of amnesia: Reality -- at least the one under culture's limited purview -- needs witnesses to exist. As buildings fall, we must be sure we hear the sound.

By Chris Colin

Chris Colin is the author most recently of "Blindsight," published by the Atavist.

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