What made our grandmothers clutch their collective pearls barely registers as a blip in today's nip-slipping, bear-twerking media landscape. But it's not all just a continuous downward slope toward filth and depravity. The history of TV censorship is more like a weird rollercoaster, racing through bafflement, contradiction, and hypocrisy.
If you're a fan of breasts, you'll be pleased to know that they've actually had a place on TV since 1973. That was the first time a channel intentionally aired a nude human female breast. Prior to that, even cartoon cow boobs had to be covered by a skirt. But that all changed when raunchy, envelope-pushing PBS aired a TV adaptation of a play called Steambath, which portrayed the afterlife as -- you guessed it -- a steam bath.
And it's even sexier than you imagined.
Contrary to what you might expect from the channel that once banned a Katy Perry Sesame Street appearance for being too risque, Steambath went over just fine on PBS back in 1973. But that was, in part, because nobody in Steambath ever mentioned the hemispheres of interest. In fact, from 1973 to 1990 there was a 17-year-long span where you could occasionally see tits on TV, but naming them was strictly verboten.
So almost two decades went by with no one talking about something that everyone was watching, like a sexy elephant in the room. Then, in 1990, a show called The Trials Of Rosie O'Neill opened with the main character musing "I'm thinking about maybe having my tits done," and the world lost its damn mind.
On a higher-definition TV, you can see that book just says "tits" over and over again.
The Los Angeles Times ran a reader poll, wondering if TV had finally gone too far by talking about the thing everyone had, up to this point, only been creepily staring at. Should we be allowed to say "tits" on television? Can civilization endure when our TVs utter such vulgarities as "you suck"? The answer, of course, was "Jesus, just you wait a few more years -- you're going to have a heart attack."
The year 2000 was when TV showed its first gay kiss, on Dawson's Creek. In the show, Jack is struggling with his identity, before finally coming out to his friend Tobey, with whom he locks lips. It was an important moment for gay rights, and for television history, paving the way for American Gods' explicit sex scene between a genie and a struggling salesman. Just a total win, all around. Especially for genie/salesman shippers.
We know you're out there and we applaud your win.
But long before that kiss, censors had been fine with gay men sharing the same bed together, just so long as you could pretend they were actually depressingly repressed, sexless bachelors. In 1989, a full 11 years before that first gay kiss, two gay men woke up together in Season 3 of Thirtysomething. But they didn't touch lips, so censors were okay with that, and all that it implied, even if it caused dismay to more conservative audiences. In the warped mind of the censor, two men kissing and actually showing affection was reserved for sticky back rooms in video rental stores. But two men waking up in post-coital bliss was fun for the whole family.
But especially for these guys.
There is a famous episode of I Love Lucy from 1952 called "Lucy Is Enceinte," and one of those words is very important.
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The one not in English.
The episode featured an actually-pregnant-in-real-life Lucille Ball, but it couldn't do the one thing that we've done already: use the word "pregnant." Enceinte is French for "pregnant," and was used because it is a well-established fact that no censor speaks a language as sexy as French.
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"It means 'gains weight.' Which I'll be doing this season ... for no reason ..."
Lucy was pregnant for an entire season of I Love Lucy, but they weren't allowed to actually use that word once. They were allowed to tell audiences what was going on: the show got used phrases like "with child," "having a baby," and "expecting." That's actually kind of surprising: Given the time period, and the repressed nature of professional censors, we'd assume it was easier to just pretend Lucy got fat for a year.
How can toilets be controversial? There's one in literally every household. But if you were raised on 1960s television, you might not even know that toilets existed, unless you watched Leave It To Beaver (and also had never used a toilet, yourself. This is a very specific hypothetical world.)
"What is this? Some kind of weird sink?"
Leave It To Beaver was the very first to show a toilet, but the network was so squeamish about anything to do with nether regions that they couldn't even show the whole thing. After much back and forth with the network, the show was finally allowed to show toilets -- but only the water tank, which the kids were using as a hiding place. The fear was that showing America a toilet bowl would remind citizens that they had genitals and anuses, and they would immediately riot/orgy in protest.
But even after appearing onscreen with the Beav, toilets remained blacklisted for the next two decades -- you couldn't even say the word "toilet" on TV, as though all denizens of Hollywood ran on cold fusion.
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"Where are we supposed to, you know?"
"I've been going in trash bags and leaving them in the hall for Alice."
The prohibition was so strict that, unlike the word "pregnant," you couldn't even make references to one using French euphemisms. In 1960, the censors cut a Jack Paar joke from The Tonight Show because he said "W.C." (short for "water closet"), even though Paar felt so strongly he quit over it. It may seem silly now, but at least history was spared the "we just remembered we all have butts" sex-war of 1960.
Buffy The Vampire Slayer was, objectively, an important show in American broadcast TV history. Not only did it accomplish the impossible by making us like a character named "Xander," it was the first broadcast TV show to explicitly portray physical lesbian love.
Which is a necessity when your other options are dudes named "Xander."
We aren't talking about the famous musical episode, "Once More With Feeling," wherein Willow "goes down" out of frame, and we see her girlfriend Tara start to levitate while singing about magic, and "spreading" underneath "willow trees." That was merely suggested lesbian sex. True, it had all the subtlety of a flying drop kick, but it was technically only "suggested." And the American public had seen "suggested" lesbian love before then.
Definition of "subtle" right here.
The American public had also seen explicit lesbian sex before then. Almost 30 years before Buffy, a graphic lesbian rape scene on Born Innocent depicted a woman being violently raped by a (female) gang using a mop handle. Indeed, there were quite a few instances of lesbian characters suffering plenty of violence, which sensors didn't seem to have any problem with.
But it wasn't until the 2003 Buffy episode "Touched" that a broadcast show depicted lesbians actually enjoying sex. In it, Willow and her girlfriend, get into bed, kiss one another passionately, and altogether seem to enjoy an act that both of them consent to. Shocking! It seemed the real problem censors had with lesbian sex up to that point was that the lesbians might actually enjoy it.
"Kids, let me tell you how I met your mother."
As a British man, Chris has spent most of this article spitting out his tea after every rude word he's had to type. You can follow him on Twitter at @NotQuiteCool but only if you promise not to talk about rude things around him.
For more facts to round out your television history knowledge, check out 6 Classic Shows (That Went Insane For One Episode) and 6 TV Shows That Put Insane Work Into Details Nobody Noticed.
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