Americans apparently have no qualms with watching violent news events unfold live on their televisions. But nipples? Forget it.
I came to this conclusion after two events this week captured the contradictions of a country that has a strong stomach for violence, whether real or fictional, but which suffers collective apoplexy at the unclothed or partially clothed human form.
Consider the strict “wardrobe advisory notice” sent by CBS to performers who appeared at Sunday’s Grammy music awards in Los Angeles. Mindful of a repeat of Janet Jackson’s appearance at the 2004 Super Bowl – when her breast was exposed at the end of a duet with Justin Timberlake, (the so-called wardrobe malfunction resulted in 540,000 complaints to the US Federal Communications Commission) – the network did not want to leave anything to chance.
Buttocks and female breasts were to be “adequately covered” at the Grammys, CBS said in the statement. “Thong-type costumes are problematic,” it went on, warning against the wearing of costumes that exposed “bare flesh under curves of the buttocks and buttock crack”.
There were other warnings against outfits that showed “bare sides or under curvature of the breasts” while “sheer see-through clothing that could possibly expose female breast nipples” were to be avoided.
Two days after the Grammys broadcast, which passed nipple-free and without incident, Americans were glued to their screens for a different reason when police in southern California closed in on a heavily armed former officer accused of having killed several people.
The search for Christopher Dorner, who had left the Los Angeles Police Department, received blanket coverage on national TV networks and cable news channels. Dorner, previously a navy reservist and marksman, had published a rambling manifesto on his Facebook page in which he vowed to wage war on his erstwhile colleagues.
Authorities in southern California posted a $1m reward for his capture after he allegedly killed three people, including a police officer, in Riverside, a town outside Los Angeles. Then, as police closed in on him in the San Bernardino mountains, another officer was shot and killed and another injured before Dorner barricaded himself in a remote cabin.
A live report from a CBS correspondent at the scene broadcast a terrifying audio recording of the gunfight between Dorner and the police, which aired at lunchtime on the west coast – just as my children returned home from pre-school – and was replayed throughout the day.
As it emerged that the police had Dorner cornered, fire broke out in the cabin, the blaze possibly ignited by a teargas canister. With TV helicopters circling and afternoon schedules cleared, viewers could watch his demise live on all of the main networks and news channels.
The networks almost missed the start of Barack Obama’s annual State of the Union address, hastily cutting away from southern California to Capitol Hill. When the US president finished his speech, there was no time for analysis of his call for free pre-school education for all or his impassioned plea for tighter gun control. Instead, the networks went straight back to live coverage of the blaze at the cabin, from which Dorner did not emerge.
It was not the first time that such an event had impinged upon a presidential address. In 1997, the networks broadcast Bill Clinton’s State of the Union simultaneously with coverage of O.J. Simpson’s civil trial on split-screen. Simpson’s flight from police, before he was arrested and charged with murder, set a template for live coverage of police chases that has endured. A few days before the Dorner manhunt came to its conclusion, evening programming in Los Angeles was interrupted by live coverage of a police chase on a nearby freeway. The chase came to an end when the fugitive’s car struck a barrier and burst into flames – all captured live and in high definition.
When so much death and violence can be easily viewed from one’s TV, strict regulations about how much flesh can be displayed at a music awards show seem a mite arcane. But then we should not forget that America was colonised by religious puritans, its republic born out of war and its constitution enshrining the right to bear arms. Violence and guns have always been part of the American story; nipples less so. I can’t help but feel they are much less dangerous.