Charlie Sheen, Gordon Ramsay and Our Obsession with the Obscene

Our Obsession

Do you remember the day when you turned fifteen and you were all excited because--wait for it-- you could now watch MA15+ movies? Perhaps that wasn’t your experience (you started when you were 11) but it must be the epitome of how we are obsessed with the restricted. We obsessed with the obscene, the off-limits. Gordon Ramsay and Charlie Sheen are just more examples of how we living in the western world love to play around with the forbidden and taboo as viewers-consumers. We live in an Australia where ‘foul language’ is used for the everyday, as if we’re trying to keep people’s attention by shocking them. Problem is, the shock factor eventually wears off; the novelty of MA15+ videos for the fifteen-something fades. Have you noticed that often Ninemsn News, among others, tries to vie for our limited attention spans by slipping in racy pictures or double entendres in headlines? And who would have heard of Ramsay in Down Under if it wasn’t for his rude mouth? How many of us wouldn’t have given a second thought to Mr Sheen were it not for his drug abuse and crazy antics in March, 2011? It would appear that shock sells. I think Ramsay and Sheen are part of a much bigger cultural revolution where we revel in the shocking, the provocative and the off-limits. Many of us love peering into celebrities' lives and dissecting the details, despite the voyeuristic feeling it gives us. 

Introducing Gordon Ramsay

Gordon Ramsay, host of the American TV series Hell’s Kitchen as well as the British TV seriesThe F-Word (the F standing for Food in this case), is probably the most well known chef in the English-speaking world today. With multiple renown restaurants in London and the popularity of his various food related shows, he is one incredibly well-off cook. He’s straight-to-the-point, belligerent and especially known for being downright verbally abusive and penchant for using the word ‘fuck’. Ramsay makes you wonder whether he’s popular primarily because of his shock factor or more due to his clever organisational skills and brilliant cooking. 


Introducing Charlie Sheen

Charlie  Sheen is one of the highest paid actors of our time, until recently where he lost his job on the TV series Two and a Half Men. He’s a very different personality to Ramsay, with his confusingly random but often hilarious catch-phrases such as his claim to have ‘tiger blood’ and saying ‘winning’ to lots of interview questions. Sheen is particularly well known for his slap-stick and banal one-line banters in Two and a Half Men and has recently come into the global media spotlight due to his domestic violence and drug abuse; his legal problems with his show manager; as well as his foul mouth. 

Ramsay meets Sheen

You might be wondering, what do Ramsay and Sheen have in common? In terms of our obsession with them, it would seem that they both are followed largely due to their rudeness and shock factor. But why do men speaking rudely have such a hold of media (and our) attention? I think it’s partly because of a larger Aussie cultural trend of Tall-Poppy Syndrome; our desire to observe ‘rebel’ behaviour without personally receiving the consequences; a historic shift from ‘character’ to ‘coolness’ as being the criteria for our role models; and finally our obsession with the obscene. The Tall-Poppy Syndrome in us Aussies-- the desire for those in higher social, hierarchical or economic positions to have a fall--is particularly relevant in Ramsay’s case. He berates mercilessly restaurant owners or butlers in Hell’s Kitchen which appeals to our sense of equality-via-tall-poppies-getting-cut-down. Consequently, we feel bemused and superior with smirks on our faces, because the red-faced kitchenhand got the telling-off of her life (that she deserved anyway). From the 1983 BMX Bandits to the Terminatorsaga, we rather love the rebel attitude. Both Sheen and Ramsay are 'truth bombs' to a culture they think is stuffy with political correctness, while actually being acrimonious rebels. They say things to and about people which we wouldn't say, but what we'd apparently like to say. These two famous forty-somethings are also popular because western celebrity culture is not really about how kind and insightful as a person but more about your marketability, appearance or gift of the gab. But let’s focus now on what obscenity actually is, and then why we are obsessed with it.

But what exactly is obscene or an obscenity? 

The 'Word of the Day' is brought to you by wikipedia: obscenity, 
An obscenity is any statement or act which strongly offends the prevalent morality of the time, is a profanity, or is otherwise taboo, indecent, abhorrent, or disgusting

As you are probably quick to point out, ‘prevalent morality’ and ‘taboo’ are rather subjective, depending on the context, sub-culture and vary from different generations. So how do you come up with a one-size-fits-all approach when talking about something being ‘obscene’? There are plenty of letters to the editor of the West Australian who’d like to say the affirmative. It does make things difficult in our culture to generalise what is obscene, though, as we love to be free of taboos in favour of celebrating our hard fought freedom of speech. One person’s sensitivities directly oppose others’ senses of humour. Australian status quo is to respect other’s opinions and concerns while at the same time expecting others to do the same towards ourselves. Conflict quickly arises here as soon as one individual thinks their prerogative to say whatever they want to (freedom!) is more important than showing respect to others by not expressing their prerogative. If a letter to the editor calls something ‘obscene’ or a mate calls a movie ‘dirty’ or a game ratings board calling a XBOX game ‘unfit for general consumption’ as blanket terms, they must be referring to a system of values which is common to all. Is it that realistic to expect Australians to share a some common sense of ‘decency’ and ‘propriety’? This whole article hinges on the answer being to a large degree ‘yes’, though whether or not we live by this standard is another question altogether. So let’s ride with the above definition of obscenity given by Wikipedia, despite it being an oversimplification of the real Australia we live in. Regardless of how funny you might think Sheen and Ramsay are, I am assuming you think some of what they say or do is obscene. 

Swearing equals honesty, for some

Crudity. Let’s admit it:  uni students aren’t known for their clean mouths. So Ramsay and Sheen’s onscreen penchant for using the word ‘fuck’ in ordinary situations is probably pretty normal to the typical Aussie student. Many of us are not ‘shocked’ by the actual words their using, yet some of us are. I guess the average student who describes a test as ‘fucking horrible’ or his day as ‘shitty’ thinks he’s being more honest and upfront by using those expletives. I assume Ramsay and Sheen feel the same. And being honest and direct are values that Aussies hold up, even at the expense of someone else’s feelings. But the difference between someone swearing just to describe stuff or letting off steam and when they’re swearing at you is pretty obvious! And perhaps that is what differentiates Ramsay a bit from Sheen. Ramsay actually swears his head off at people. It seems as if he’s playing a game of how many creative ways can he fit taboo words into a sentence while ripping into someone about their hygiene standards. And for quite a few of us, this belligerent Scottish chef is quite hilarious in how he does this, at least for a while. But is laughing at this a great idea though? Where does the line between ‘appropriate’ and ‘inappropriate’ language begin? Is swearing at people at times justifiable? It really depends on your worldview. Ramsay seems to think what he’s doing is only for their good. 

Newsworthiness and our culpability as consumers

Of course, just because the TV and newspaper outlets think some random thing is newsworthy, doesn’t mean that we as consumers do. But guess what? The media is a subset of our culture; they only produce what we as a collective want to hear and see. If no one read a single article on Sheen or watched any of his shows, I guarantee you the media would know about it and would axe the idea. But they don’t. We’ve kept reading and watching, presumably. Having said that, our news and entertainment outlets are not necessarily democratic and don’t always respect the desires of the people. There’s a lot of boundary pushing--seeing how a particular demographic will respond to such-and-such a show. But formats aren't the only things that are test-driven; ideas are too. Is the obscene becoming somehow less and less obscene due to normalising it, such as through over-reporting it or gratuitously including it in films? Are we so objective as film and TV viewers that we aren’t ourselves affected by what we see? And to what extent are we condoning the behaviour of people like Ramsay when we are entertained by them doing it? 

We hate restrictions

I think humans tend not to like following a set of rules or principles which don’t seem to have any obvious personal benefit. Case in point: the restrictions on what language we hear and speak or what we can and cannot see on TV /internet are heavily contested in our current Australian culture. Very often it is argued that ‘it won’t hurt anyone’, thus validating the action. We want both respect from others plus our right to exercise our freedom of speech (including our own viewing discretion). If this is true, then it isn’t all that surprising that we have an obsession with the obscene. The media laps it up. The opinion columns discuss it. ABC’s Q & A covers it. Gruen Transfer gives its nod of weighty acknowledgement. Everyone loves talking about it. Remember Big Brother’s controversy? Underbelly? What about just the simple appeal that DVD covers make to us in exciting font ‘Director’s Cut--See What They Couldn’t Show in the Cinemas!’ That’s catering to our obsession with the obscene. Is it because we don’t want to miss out on what everyone else is talking about? Is it because we think it will be really funny or entertaining? Is it because we want to be shocked, in an exploratory or thrill-seeking journey? Perhaps we have an obsession with the bad and the ugly but give so little time to the good? What do you think? 

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