I recently spent a couple of weeks binge-watching the first two seasons of NBC’s super-stylish reboot Hannibal. I admit, I’m mostly desensitized to the kind of gore the show displays like haute cuisine, but I was surprised that network gatekeepers approved such grisly fare. But then, the U.S. cultural mainstream has come to blithely accept, or greedily consume, aestheticized violence. Sex is another matter entirely. As Hannibal showrunner Bryan Fuller reported in an interview, NBC executives gave the show a pass with the proviso, “you can’t do nudity and you can’t say fuck—but, you can do everything else that you want to do.” A full ten years past the moronic “wardrobe malfunction” debacle and America is as puritanically squeamish as ever about basic human biology, which is why these photos from an unidentified, most likely tabloid, 1949 magazine spread still strike me as slightly transgressive for all their goofy kitschiness. Though the standards described in the captions—and violated in the pics—now seem quaint, they betray the same kind of sexual anxiety as the current-day NBC execs, exclusively, in this case, over women’s bodies. From the days when television was “in its infancy,” the photo spread, called “Television Taboos,” purports to examine the “morals” TV censors sought to guard. The explicit (and explicitly prurient) focus, however, is rather pointedly on the “things lush young actresses mustn’t do.”
Appearing before Lucy Ricardo’s bewilderingly controversial 1952 TV pregnancy, before the perdition of Elvis’s 1956 TV hip shake, the feature recalls the pin-up photos that made Bettie Page famous, as well as the underground camera club pics that made her infamous. But the presence here of the “TV officials” and ironic captions—both enforcing Hays Code dictates—add the twist, as these newly-appointed pop-cultural authorities indulge their own fantasies even as they repress those of the general populace. Anticipating the Mad Men of the following decade, the suited producers leer and grope, and the “lush young actresses” pose as though they couldn’t be happier to be half-clad and gaped at. It’s interesting to look at this satirical series as a kind of advertising. For all the sex-sells logic of mass media, what primarily sold in the fifties was sexual dominance. Next to some of the more grotesque variations on the theme in advertisements, Bettie Page’s bondage spreads seem positively chaste, or (to use a modern coinage) sex-positive. What strikes me about mid-century pictorial celebrations of male hegemony, even in this early, risqué spoof of TV censorship, is the level of implied violence lurking beneath the sex, or lack thereof.
But the scenes here are tame, the wording intentionally ridiculous—even more so as the language has dated. We’re warned against “too-hot kissing,” “too-tight sweaters,” “too-gay drinking,” and, in my favorite (above), told that an actress “mustn’t swoon.” Are these slightly dangerous, mostly playful scenes release valves of cultural anxiety or banal displays of female objectification and restatements of male authority, or do they inhabit some borderland between the two, as so much of Bettie Page’s work seems to do? It’s interesting to consider how this spread reinforces certain boundaries as it gleefully crosses others, especially given the intense amount of genuine fear producers of television content had over anything mildly titillating (or simply reproductive). Consider these rules in light of our current level of discomfort with televised sexual nudity, and our obsessive consumption of sexualized violence, almost entirely against women. Then, as now, sexual pleasure threatened the country’s self-appointed moral arbiters much more so than power, control, and predation.
See more “Television Taboos” photos at Retronaut.