In “Divorce Song,” Liz Phair sings, “They put it in my hand a loaded gun, and then told me not to fire it.” This seems to be the philosophy of MTV these days: give its viewers a “loaded gun” in the form of myriad misogynist and homophobic videos, but then tell them not to hate women or queers. Plug Aerosmith videos that turn women into cardboard cut-outs (quite literally, in “Love In an Elevator” video), but then proclaim, with all kinds of self-righteousness, that women are not to be raped, abused, or disrespected. Play Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady,” in which the video-god du jour vomits at the sight of two “fags” exchanging wedding vows, but then air Judy Shepard’s public service announcement urging young people to refrain from using hateful speech against queers. How touching. And how utterly and grossly hypocritical.
Some of this makes sense. After all, MTV long ago stopped being the place where innovative ideas came to fruition and where struggling and/or unique artists had a chance at real exposure. It has long been a victim of its own need to grow bigger, faster, and with a greater kiss-ass aesthetic than can be witnessed perhaps anywhere else on cable television. MTV is a whore, and has been for at least the last 10 years, if not longer. Hiding behind “viewer demand,” MTV avoids taking responsibility for the commercial success for artists like Eminem, perhaps the most openly violent, homophobic, misogynist to ever be both a critics’ favorite and a TRL hottie. MTV claims that it has a duty to respond to the wishes of its viewers. And it is right on that point.
Eminem isn’t a radio star so much as he is a video star: there’s no denying that videos like “Stan” and “The Real Slim Shady” have made Eminem the near-iconic figure he is. MTV is what made Eminem a star: he was even granted his own airtime block over a weekend back in 2000, called EmTV. For the network to now pull back from all that celebratory exploitation and act as though Eminem is something that happened to them, instead of something that happened because of them, is as transparently calculating as it patronizing.
All of this is why MTV’s “Fight For Your Rights: Stop Hate Crimes” campaign is so repulsive. Certainly one could make the argument that any exposure is better than no exposure, but MTV’s self-congratulatory histrionics have turned a serious, deadly issue into a circus. And there is no better example of this than its airing of the MTV original film Anatomy of a Hate Crime, a horribly pedantic and artistically void interpretation of Matthew Shepard’s violent murder, followed by 17 hours of pseudo-blackout. In an attempt to “honor” and “remember” the victims of past and present hate crimes, the network has halted its regular programming in favor of listing victims of hate crimes and the circumstances surrounding their victimization. This seems fine, perhaps even benevolent. Except that all MTV is really giving up is some cheap commercial time: the “blackout” starts at the tail end of prime time, and stops, oh-so-conveniently, just in time for the daily showing of TRL, MTV’s latest cash cow and kiddie-draw. My, what a coincidence!
Perhaps MTV’s opaque attempt at political correctness and sensitivity training would be a bit more convincing if it really put its money where its mouth is. If MTV actually stood up against hostile representations of queers that negatively influence its young viewers, if it stopped glorifying violent behavior, and if its own programs actually treated women as something other than sexual objects, MTV might actually earn some respect. But it doesn’t have the balls for that. Instead, MTV has given us sensitivity-lite, empathy chic. It has turned nonviolence and anti-homophobia into a fashion accessory, a hula hoop for generation Y, something to be used while it’s hot and then discarded like so many flare-pants or belly chains.
But no doubt MTV feels good about itself right now, pleased with the kick-off to its year of anti-hate programming. No doubt it is counting on the collective ignorance of its viewership, presuming that we put two and two together and get something other than four. Unfortunately, it’s probably right. Let the self-back-patting begin.