Dead Beauty Queens and Wheelchair Falsetto
Bill Clinton’s penis saved television. Or Lewinsky’s lips. Whether phallus’s fault or Monica’s mistake, the immediate impact of The Most Famous Blowjob of All Time was one of phew and sigh for comedians and writers, a sense of renewed liberty was palpable in the corridors of media power. In the words of talk show host David Letterman, it was “so easy” – Lewinsky left jokes on your lap, so to speak. After all, when the President of the United States admits to lewd behaviour live on television it’s not big government, but cosy entertainment, that’s over.
Let’s make this sexy. A new era of television was on the horizon.
What it meant, aside from sarcastic jokes aplenty, was a generation of television executives feeling as though they could take more risks and reach deeper into the alcoves of morality, and particularly that strange shape of adolescent morality: to tug harder at heartstrings and hold tighter to the bedframe, in a way that they hadn’t done before. That is to say that Clinton’s presidency and it’s smatterings of cool smut bled into a new wave of creative talent who used teenagers and their concerns as the focal point of their stories, much like Clinton had used them in his election campaign. Clinton’s first election slogan in 1992 read “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” and in 1996 he offered to begin “Building A Bridge to the 21st Century” – this white haired dude of languid jazz was as intent on moving forward as TV was.
Never before had fellatio been this well timed.
Television was already changing, and in particular the way it positioned teenagers was changing. David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (1990) begins with the discovery of a dead beauty queen, a teenage torture victim wrapped in plastic and mystery. The series goes on to suggest that the American teenager of television past was unrepresentative of the contemporary landscape with Lynch’s set of postmodern darlings primarily concerned with sex and booze and surreal picnics. To what extent Lynch’s masterpiece can be considered as giving teenagers ‘freedom’ is debatable. One is dead and the others are enclosed in a claustrophobic town where cherry pie is their only sweet relief. Compared to the Cosby kids and Prairie daughters of yester-television-year though, there was a definite sense of progression and of greater emotional or at least erotic development, with their enclosed environment ultimately a necessary by-product of Lynch’s groovy macabre.
Referring to another landmark show offering teenagers new freedom, Beverly Hills, 90210 (1990) Mary Ann Watson wrote that “the show essentially glamourized what it professed to caution kids against.” whilst New York Times columnist John J. O’Connor shrewdly observed that moving into the 90’s “Virginity is decidedly unfashionable” – television then, bought into a second sexual revolution, just like it had done in the 60’s when innuendo ran ragged and blonde starlet’s eyes popped open in every other scene. Moving into the Clinton administration, teenagers on television were already hopping beds, sexually at least, freer than ever before, his scandal would heighten this racy temperament – the challenge would be to allow these teenagers space to contemplate as well as copulate.
This progression was something which would grow exponentially throughout the 90s and 00s and eventually create a thriving artistic industry in which the relevant concerns of an active teenage population would be transferred to the television screen: their various representations over the years chiming problematically in near perfect parallel with the political establishment of the day; their philosophies framed; and freedom to think for themselves curtailed or encouraged.
Indeed, the fight for freedom, for autonomy, had provided a reliable trope in American fiction long before the small screen and in fact since Huck bobbed down the river. ‘Huck’s voyage, like his creator’s was to carry him down the river into a world complex enough in its social strata to delight a modern sociologist’ (Stone Jr).
Since television became a barometer of cultural and social significance, and particularly since the 90’s, when Huckleberry Bill engaged a new generation, it has sought to mirror Twain’s vision and create, in the teenager, a microcosm of the turbulent strife of a country that has always felt burdened by its own indefinite identity.
This is why the tone of American teenage television lacks coherence. It is ultimately always an act of political posturing. Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1997) sees teenage concerns transformed into monsters and ghouls and a sexy ragbag of kissing cool kids responding to these crises in typically hip ways. It’s a product of a looser time in American history in which Bill Clinton’s mantra for entertainment to “reshape the culture” had been considered and then subverted from his original expectations into something sleeker and sexier than ever before. In 1998, when the Lewinsky Scandal emerged, Buffy could have hardly been a more appropriate hit. A scandalous expression of new freedom in a sordid era of tainted political discourse. These wild teenagers were wild America.
But that couldn’t last forever.
And so, under the administration of George W.Bush, of compassionate conservatism and silent violence, a spring of sunshine soaked shows about super rich kids with white teeth and sad parents emerged. The O.C and One Tree Hill both stand as series of quiet Republican propaganda in which the handsome prevail and the odd are squashed. If Buffy suggested that the pursuit of pleasure, the slaying of emotional demons and the freedom to be a strong female as good things, then these kind of shows said the exact opposite. Teenagers in the 00’s might have been even prettier than they were in the 90’s but they weren’t any more stupid – this new slew of serialised middle class masturbation positioned Americas youth as a collection of orange statues with “issues” – issues usually solved by money. These dullard teenagers were dullard America.
Five years into Barack Obama’s premiership and the most striking set of teenagers on television are the ones that were ostracised in the Bush years; the kids of Glee. Ostensibly a show about the outsider, Glee is an optimistic musical romp of wheelchair falsetto and heartbroken cheerleaders. But it is also cool. It shouldn’t have ever been successful. It’s modern. It jars with a political elite. It’s Obama, baby. Just like Clinton’s era was Buffy and Bush’s a gruesome Californian landscape about to burn, Obama’s era will be remembered, is able to stand like Glee does, as triumphant and optimistic but crucially stunted by the shadows of the past. Just like The O.C retained Buffy’s sexiness, Glee is ultimately a programme about a specific set of students situated in the calm suburbia of American stagnation.
You can smell the burning Bush.
And so, just as each President becomes a slightly altered version of the next or the last, teenage-centred programmes rush to perform a similar regeneration, to neatly align. They rush to represent the right or the left, rush to offer ultimate freedom and supernatural sex or a limited landscape of life on the coast or something slapped in the middle (dependent on what the electorate seems to expect its future adults to desire).
It took a second sexual revolution, this one televised in Technicolor across living rooms and partially informed by a presidential blowjob for this cycle to properly begin, bringing with it a plethora of era defining shows – all of which have enriched America’s television history. Clinton’s penis did save television, then. But my god, it also haunts it. American television was previously a silly and chaotic minefield unable to recognise the myriad of political possibilities available by making teenagers stand as representatives of a national mood. The 90’s was the decade that these possibilities were realised. The medium reacted like a political party would and latched quickly onto a generation fascinated by its own newness, twisting it to suit a governmental or anti-governmental narrative.
It might take a third sexual revolution or something even more scandalous for teenagers to be cut properly free from the rope that television tightens or loosens dependent on political rule. Indeed, for teenagers to finally find freedom on American television, freedom to be more than holograms of a nation’s ruling force, free to just be themselves and not spotty metaphors: well, they’ll just have to grow up.
(This article was first published in Retrospect Journal)