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Why We Watch; News as Adult Entertainment

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Why We Watch; News as Adult Entertainment

I watch the news at the gym. It's the only way I can tolerate the practice-that is, I watch while doing something equally painful but good for me. Plus, the array of televisions at the front of the Fitness Center forces me to consider the events of the day from points of view unlike my own; they are tuned to Fox, MSNBC, and CNN. Just last week I watched conservatives debate the relative authenticity of Michael J. Fox's Parkinson's symptoms, heard Hannity defend Foley (as the next Bill Clinton?), and listened to Ann Coulter explain the dangers of potential Democratic mid-term victories. During her interview, Coulter kept touching her hair, leaning in toward her interviewer and touching her hair. It all seemed, well, unseemly, and, yet, I was strangely fascinated. I couldn't take my eyes off the televisions, but found no real pleasure in looking. Is this why folks watch television news? Does ambivalent fascination account for the wild success of conservative media outlets?

Then it hit me: porn.

All skinny arms, long legs, floating hair and loathsome ideology, Coulter exposes how the tenets of pornography have infiltrated conservative media culture and cling to women most of all, like Maureen Dowd, Peggy Noonan, et al. Now, obviously, these women don't actually engage in sex acts with Hannity & Colmes or physically gratify Rush Limbaugh in primetime. However, if we consider the appetites of their audience and the manner in which they tend to satisfy them, we find ourselves squarely in the realm of porn. Consider: pornography is visual entertainment which appeals to the visceral needs or drives of its audience; it offers a pleasure in looking, in watching the domination or degradation of one category of individual by another. (see: FoxNews)

Take Ann Coulter, for example, a consummate exhibitionist who requires an audience of accomplished voyeurs. The jolt to one's senses provided by shocking images in porn are similarly provided by Coulter's outrageous rhetoric-Clinton was a "rapist," 09/11 widows would rather be famous than have their husbands back, we should carpet bomb Iraq and to hell with civilian deaths. The desire to watch is thus satisfied as she bulldozes her opponent, and performs the submissive body language of the objectified woman.

Some have suggested folks watch Coulter for the same reasons they slow down when passing a car accident. I think it's something else. Hair flips, crossed legs, inviting gestures toward her usually sympathetic-and often male-interviewers, Ann Coulter's performances are pornographic feasts; she simultaneously plays the Dominant (toward, say, Iraqi civilians or 09/11 widows), and the Submissive (caressing her own hair, etc.). The tactic is sheer genius; there is no end of a market for what she peddles. As with pornographic images, the visceral high of one encounter with Coulter will naturally fade, and soon the audience must seek another, combing the media for their next fix. (see: Ratings.)

Not even habitual users of porn argue that the stuff appeals on the level of artistic or intellectual merit. Likewise Ann Coulter. Her own fans tend to congratulate her transgressive pose, her willingness to say just about anything ugly; few argue that she's whip smart. Similarly, fans of mainstream pornography admit that the stuff tends toward the banal. The same must be said of Coulter's political arguments; they are no more real than women's orgasms in adult films. In appearing to bare all, she reveals very little, beyond a willingness to strut for the camera and follow her now-predictable script; a mere simulation of genuine political engagement.

She is herself a case study in the sexism of conservative media, for whom she pimps her wares. While the boys of conservative media might offer up smug shock tactics, you won't catch Sean Hannity or Bill O'Reilly playing the Submissive. The trade-off is unmistakable: to indulge in the bravado that made Coulter famous, she must serve up a good deal of female submission. As in mainstream porn, the gender roles are clear; men on top. Maureen Dowd has her fishnets and red lips, Peggy Noonan her swooning adoration of all men Reaganesque; sex-soaked trade-offs for their wit, their humor and (whether we like it or not) true intellectual gifts.

For what she lacks in such gifts, Coulter must make up for in another kind of trade. Hers is the pornography of commentary, since (as in porn) there is no there there, only market-driven hate-mongering posing as political conviction. A blonde chick who can't keep her own hands out of her own hair while calling Iraqis "Islamic savages," taunting 09/11 widows, "I've never seen people enjoying their husbands' deaths so much," and calling a mourning mother too fat, "The only sort of authority Cindy Sheehan has is the uncanny ability to demonstrate [...] what body types should avoid wearing shorts in public." A simulation of a simulation, a product to sell, like dandruff shampoo or adult films.

Still, audience likes to watch; like a pornographic image, Coulter's act succeeds through sheer visceral authority, dragging the smitten and aroused round by the nose.

I just hope she doesn't drag them to the polls next week where, in light of her protestations about Christian love, they may be tempted to ask, "What would Ann Coulter do?"

I don't think they will; for even habitual users of her product know that would be truly pornographic.
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Kellie Bean has been a Professor of English at Marshall University, an Associate Dean of Liberal Arts, and most recently, Provost of a small New England College. Author of "Post-Backlash Feminism: Women and the Media Since Reagan/Bush" (McFarland (more...)

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