Handcuffs and Pornography: 'Cops'

I don’t watch TV very often but, like everybody else, I am occasionally guilty of zapping. During my zapping sessions, I happen to stumble upon an inordinate number of shows based on the pursuit, arrest, trial and conviction of people guilty of this or that crime. I am not talking about the classic detective story, which (if it is a good one) has a well designed plot and in which, all in all, crime and punishment are secondary concepts. Think about a classic Agatha Christie detective story in which, once the murderer has been discovered, his destiny is never revealed. The murderer is interesting only as an intelligent adversary to be defeated using the rules set forth by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: An investigation is essentially a chess game without moral undertones.

No: I am talking about shows with titles like “”Cops,”” “”Arrest and Trial,”” and so on, in which the arrest and punishment of the perpetrator is the only (or, at least, the main) topic of interest. You must have seen them, since they are almost everywhere.

The networks are creating a new one every other Tuesday, cable channels love them, and even a supposedly sober station like the Discovery Channel managed, somehow, to put a show evocatively called “”The Prosecutors”” on the air — with the only justification, as far as I can see, that the crime has indeed to be “”discovered”” before the perpetrators can be captured.

When I first noticed these shows, I went through a lot of my considerable supply of amazement. I found it rather hard to understand why any sane person would take the trouble of sitting through programs that, I feel quite confident to claim, are impressively dull. Most of these shows are based on real life, which makes them unavoidably boring, since life imitates art only very imperfectly. A few of them are fictional but equally unpalatable since, in their case, art imitates very imperfectly that part of life that imitates art very imperfectly.

I finally came to a conclusion that explains quite satisfactorily the exorbitant number of such shows: They are part of a strong and burgeoning wave of conservative pornography.

Some people might find this statement surprising and, possibly, think that, finally, senility got the best of me, since they are used to considering pornography as something related to the explicit and graphic depiction of sexual intercourse. In reality, pornography has very little to do with sex: What you know as pornography is simply the sad spectacle of frustrated male fantasies vicariously satisfied.

From this point of view, “”trial flicks”” fit the pornographic profile quite splendidly. They provide a fictional satisfaction to the frustrated conservative fantasies of a world in which the police are always infallible, gentle with the kids (except black kids, of course) and tough with the crooks, which are invariably nasty, ugly, stupid and will be inevitably hit by swift, hard and — above all — vengeful justice.

Cop and trial shows satisfy these fantasies much in the same way that sexually explicit shows provide a fictional satisfaction to the male fantasy of having all women in the world available and constantly ready for immediate, casual sex.

In this, as in other cases, one should make a distinction between pornography and erotism. Erotism is a subtle play whose subject is sex, but which requires a careful pacing and a delicate balance between explicitness and ambiguity, between seeing and guessing. While erotism requires a certain degree of frustration or, at least, postponement of sexual fantasies, pornography is always absolutely explicit, and the interludes between sexual actions are mere fillers (two hours of uninterrupted sexual action would be intolerably boring). In pornography, the sex is always independent of a context, while in erotism the context is an important component of sexual excitement.

This distinction is important to understand why trial shows are conservative pornography rather than conservative erotism: They share with pornography the trivial explicitness and disregard for context.

It is not essential to know why a person committed a certain crime, what is the background on which the crime took place, or other details like these; all that matters is that a guy committed some kind of crime and now he is being chased, stopped, detained, tried and convicted (there are no innocents unjustly accused on TV’s trial shows: Much like a chaste virgin in a sex film, they would only spoil the fun). Just like in sexual pornography, all the phases must be explicit and depicted in every detail.

Conservative pornography and sexual fantasies do not have, however, the same moral status. As tasteless as it may be, sexual pornography is based on sex, which is a thoroughly enjoyable and healthy activity. It is true that pornography is very demeaning to women but, within the male fantasy that generated pornography, women are supposed to enjoy casual sex as much as men do. I would say that, while the execution of the fantasy is demeaning, the fantasy itself is just a misdirected desire of mutual satisfaction that is, of egalitarianism, albeit egalitarianism seen from one side only.

Conservative pornography, on the other hand, is based on the desire (no — the lust) of putting people behind bars. This is very different from the rational realization (which we all share) that some people, under certain circumstances, should be put in jail. Lust for incarceration is a thinly disguised lust for power and therefore much more immoral than the sexual fantasies on which sexual pornography is based.

I will leave the reader with a question. Parents have the technical and legal tools at their disposal to prevent their minor children from watching pornography (quite rightly so), or even good erotic films (a little less rightly so). Why, then, don’t they have the same tools to prevent their children from watching conservative pornography?

Send your answer to the editor; the best one will receive a copy of “”John Ashcroft does Dallas.””