What Justice Antonin Scalia Gets Right And Wrong About The State Of Pop Culture


My colleagues over at ThinkProgress’s Justice section are parsing the implications of Justice Antonin Scalia’s fascinating interview in New York Magazine. But as the cultural critic on duty, it’s my duty to think a little bit about what the Justice has to say about American popular culture and its larger impact on us. Scalia says that:

One of the things that upsets me about modern society is the coarseness of manners. You can’t go to a movie—or watch a television show for that matter—without hearing the constant use of the F-word—including, you know, ladies using it. People that I know don’t talk like that! But if you portray it a lot, the society’s going to become that way. It’s very sad. And you can’t have a movie or a television show without a nude sex scene, very often having no relation to the plot. I don’t mind it when it is essential to the plot, as it sometimes is. But, my goodness! The society that watches that becomes a coarse society.

I actually have a fair amount of sympathy for people who wish there was more quality entertainment available to them that didn’t involve explicit sex or violence. One of the biggest holes in the entertainment market right now is, I think, for books, movies, and television that all members of a multi-generational family can enjoy together, that are appropriate and genuinely engaging to everyone in the room, and that don’t treat anyone participating like they’re stupid. One of the reason Pixar movies have done so well is that, even given the drop-off in quality in recent entries like Brave and Monsters University, is that they treat everyone in the room like they’re intelligent enough to be worth engaging with.

But looking at a genre like blockbusters, it’s amazing to reflect how they’ve homogenized. In the late 1970s, for example, blockbusters could include everything from the Star Wars franchise–which has both sexual relationships and violence, but portrayed in a way that children could watch them and discuss them with their parents–and the very scary Alien franchise. But sex scenes and explicit violence, gun or otherwise, do seem rather compulsory these days, in a way that represents both narrowing artistic vision and a limiting of options for families, and for people who want to consider blockbuster questions without sex and violence being the only available end-games. Which is a perfectly legitimate, non-prudish thing to want. It’s frustrating that the most important questions in action movies these days often feels like whether or not Tony Stark gets laid, or is psychologically healthy enough to get laid.

What is prudish, though, is assuming that human existence consists solely of your own experiences. Assuming that ladies don’t use the “F-word,” or that you might have homosexual friends is as narrow as assuming that no reasonable person believes the Devil exists, polling data and prevalence of people professing religious belief to the contrary. Sometimes human life and human experiences are coarse, and that can be both a beautiful and incredibly sad thing. The spectrum of art should be able to encompass those experiences even if not everyone finds it attractive or appealing to watch them on screen.

I’d suspect where Scalia and his critics really disagree on culture is the question of what constitutes “essential to the plot.” I’m not sure, for example, how Scalia would find the sex scenes in the upcoming French film Blue Is The Warmest Color, and until I’ve seen the movie, I won’t really know either. But I’m not inclined to shake my head in sorrow over the fact that those scenes exist, or to suggest that they’re making our society a sadder place to be. Sometimes, encountering something that makes you uncomfortable and pushing through it can make you a more open person, more fully alive to experiences that aren’t your own. Scalia, who discusses the fact that he’s tailored his news reading to things that don’t make him uncomfortable, is apparently less interested in having those encounters with art and with life.