On January 10, last Wednesday as I write this, MTV premièred a 90-minute made-for-television movie titled Anatomy of a Hate Crime, based on the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a famous case you might remember. Shepard, a 21-year-old gay man who attended the University of Wyoming at Laramie, was beaten severely in the early morning hours of October 7 by two men he'd met in a bar. He was then tied to a fence in an open field, pistol-whipped, and left barely alive. His lungs compressed and his open wounds exposed to the elements, Shepard stayed lashed to that fence for 18 hours before a passing bicyclist saw him. Five days later, he died in intensive care. Following the broadcast of Anatomy of a Hate Crime, MTV gray eminence John Norris hosted a half-hour discussion from MTV's Times Square studio, along with invited guests and representatives from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). At the close of that program, in a move that was touted as unprecedented in its history, MTV effectively went off the air for more than 17 hours. In place of its standard programming, the channel scrolled a series of short paragraphs giving the details of hundreds of hate crimes, in black-and-white text against a gray background, with an array of celebrities providing uncredited voice-overs.
Considered outside of its immediate context, and apart from the blood-chilling performances of the two male leads who played Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, Shepard's killers, the movie itself was undistinguished. As frequently occurs in docudramas intended to establish a specific political point, the bad guys and good guys were painted in contrasting three-foot-wide brush strokes. (Particularly excruciating was the moment wherein one member of the defense team suggested, "Shepard was gay, and this is Wyoming; how do you think that'll play?" and the others, mugging for the camera, nodded and -- I swear -- snorted cynically, in unison.) Laramie itself was unfairly depicted as being populated almost exclusively by fag-haters, the very municipal manifestation of our nation's anti-homosexual bias. The 17-hour scroll that followed, by contrast, made for very unusual and very moving television.
Brian Garden, president of programming for MTV, estimated in an attendant and widely quoted press release that the channel would lose about $2 million in ad revenue as a result of the "blackout," which kicks off MTV's projected yearlong "Fight for Your Rights" information campaign. However, let us admit, and strictly between us, that these numbers are largely theoretical. As they're the only game in town, MTV's ocean-swallowing ad revenues will surely recoup whatever losses the channel might incur, in no small part because of the very publicity surrounding "Fight for Your Rights." But that's an academic observation, not a real criticism. More interesting than the possibility of MTV taking a fiscal hit, even in the service of a public good, is the consideration that the channel is engaging in this sort of prominent activism by taking a break from its usually breathless rhetoric.
Listen, as much as many of us rail against eMpTyV for its hyperthyroid promotion of inferior talent, its romanticizing of a thoroughly mythological youth culture, its petty dramatization of personal conflicts in the form of idiot "reality" shows, and its shameful pandering to ephemeral popular tastes, the flat truth is that the channel is in no way responsible for creating, Frankenstein-like, popular performers whose work tends toward the vicious, any more than it creates performers utterly devoid of talent. The corporation does, however, bear a large measure of responsibility for the popularizing of such acts, since no performer currently makes inroads into mass American musical culture without MTV's support. As you might have guessed already, it took no more than 15 minutes for Eminem's name to pop up (though significantly, it wasn't John Norris who spoke it, but one of the invited guests, a friend of Matthew Shepard, who did); part of MTV's stated reasoning behind mounting "Fight for Your Rights" in the first place is their particular promotion of Eminem's work, and the attendant watchdogging reaction from gay/lesbian groups nationwide.
What's really curious, though, is not how MTV seems to have performed a partial about-face on a performer it helped to popularize, but rather how completely the "Fight for Your Rights" campaign affords that bastion of pop-squitter the opportunity for enlightening self-scrutiny, and that opportunity is directly related to MTV's target audience, the 13- to 29-year-olds who watch it for diverse reasons.
Unlike similar rock-culture-based information campaigns (MTV's own "Rock the Vote" being a particularly God-awful example), "Fight for Your Rights" doesn't make its topical problem seem easy to solve, or fun to address. The stark reality of Matthew Shepard's broken body knotted to a wooden rail fence in a cold midnight prairie, bleeding into the rope fibers which hung him in place, cannot be met by trotting out Madonna in a star-spangled bikini top; nor, by logical extension, can any of the hundreds of similar instances to which MTV gave voice over that 17-hour broadcast period. As was the case with Kimberly Peirce's excellent 1999 film Boys Don't Cry, a production light years ahead of Anatomy of a Hate Crime in both complexity and artistry, MTV's extended narration of hate crimes in America was a monstrous thing to watch, upsetting and heart-wrenching precisely because it presented its thesis in direct and simple terminology, free of the bombast that previously has accompanied every "social awareness" salvo on that channel. (Remember the documentary series Sex in the '90s? No? Good.) For that quality alone, the opening salvo of "Fight for Your Rights" is worthy of our attention -- and the attention of MTV's younger viewers particularly, who are just beginning to formulate their own responses to notions of "difference" in race and sexuality, to name only two areas.
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In short, this comparatively brief 17-hour block in MTV's broadcast history was everything the overblown movie that preceded it wasn't: provocative, thoughtfully constructed and well-executed. The question remains: How long can MTV resist the opportunity for hype?
If we're going to educate the commonweal, and young kids in particular, about tolerance and acceptance of difference, then we can't treat racism as if it's something outside us, an intangible enemy we're all vaguely working against. Nor can we afford to pump up the flash and filigree to the point where the message is lost (witness the Arizona Department of Health's condemnatory and moralizing "Abstinence Before Marriage" television spots, whose sledgehammer subtext seems to be that young women who explore their own sexuality outside the boundaries of church-instituted matrimony are unrepentant sluts, unfit for romantic commitment). For once, MTV treated even its youngest viewers not like programmable boob-tube monkeys who can't even sit through a goddamn music video anymore without a ticker-tape chat-room commentary at the bottom of the screen to hold their attention, but like sentient humans who might actually respond empathetically to a reasonable statement of naked, angry fact. That, my friends -- not the 17-hour shutdown, not the media blitz, not MTV's response to the gay/lesbian activist uproar -- is the real unprecedented phenomenon here.
Four months after double life sentences were handed down to each of Matthew Shepard's killers, I found myself in Laramie, at the University of Wyoming, to deliver a paper at a conference. During a break from the action, I wandered the downtown area, which isn't very big at all. And in the windows of several businesses I saw a tiny "safe zone" sticker, the rainbow flag of the gay/lesbian community. It supported me then to believe that those stickers were placed there out of compassion, and not guilt. It supports me now to believe that the nation's single most ubiquitous media outlet for popular music might sustain a campaign like this for a full year -- for beyond, if we're lucky. I'm optimistic, if cautiously so.
Let's stay tuned.