CITY-TV re Beavis and Butt-head

ONTARIO REGIONAL COUNCIL
(CBSC Decision 93/94-0074)
M. Barrie (Chair), S. Fish, P. Fockler, D. Luzzi, R. Stanbury

THE FACTS

The complainant association wrote to the Chairman of the CRTC on November 11, 1993 about the November 10, 1993 episode of Beavis & Butt-head on CITY-TV. The letter complained of the use of the word “slut” (which was used in reference to female characters from the television series Beverly Hills 90210) in an early scene of that episode. The spokesperson cited the following dialogue:

Butt-head: That's not Donna. Donna's the slut. This is Kelly.
Beavis: No way, dude. Donna's not a slut. She's a virgin. Kelly'sthe slut.
Butt-head: Does she look like a slut to you, Beavis?
Beavis: Yeah. That's why it's Donna.
Butt-head: Yeah, but you just said Donna's not a slut.
Beavis: Oh, yeah. That must be Kelly.

The complainant association argued, in its letter to the Chairman of the CRTC, that
CITY-TV had decided “that it was okay to leave in degrading and insulting language
directed at women.” The association's correspondent continued:

And just in case kids missed the message that Donna is a slut, theword is repeated not twice, not three times, not four times, but fivetimes – – just like in Sesame Street. Apparently, CITY-TV wants tomake absolutely sure that kids know how to say slut.

Her conclusion regarding the use of the term “slut” was as follows:

Referring to women as sluts constitutes more than just bad mannersMr. Spicer. It constitutes using the public airwaves to promote hatredagainst an identified group – – women. We are therefore demandingthat the CRTC direct CITY-TV to cease and desist.

In the ordinary course, this complaint was forwarded to the CBSC by the CRTC on
November 23, 1993. The CBSC in turn forwarded the letter to the broadcaster.
CITY-TV's Program Manager responded to the complainant on December 21.

As I am sure you are aware, Beavis and Butt-head is a cartoon -nothing more, nothing less. Cartoons have been a staple of NorthAmerican life for decades. Most of them succeed because they arefunny, over-the-top depictions of behaviour and actions that would notbe regarded as acceptable in real life. So it is with Beavis and Butt-head.

We know that the show is controversial, and we know that some adultsdon't think it's especially funny. But it's important to remember thatmany cartoon and comedy shows over the years have depicted a brandof humour which does not have cross-generational appeal. Forexample, in the 60's we had “The Three Stooges” who did things toeach other that was [sic] not to be copied. Recently, we've had BartSimpson, who brought new meaning to the word brat. Beavis and Butt-head come out of this tradition. They are an exaggerated parody of twoteenage misfits whose antics take place in a cartoon world – antics theyknow are obviously unacceptable and not to be emulated in real life. The show is not meant to appeal to everyone and like all generations,the current younger generation who enjoy this show has its own distinctmusic, language and humour shaped by the world in which they live.We believe that Beavis and Butt-head is in sync with this youngergeneration and poses no greater threat to them than did “The ThreeStooges”.

We believe that people do not take Beavis and Butt-head seriously,They are viewed as complete misfits and losers with no productivefuture. Therefore, what they say and what you have objected to is notconsidered appropriate language by anybody. It is also important toremember that the women that they were talking about are two fictionalcharacters from a highly criticized show (“Beverly Hills 90210”) amongyoung adults and teenagers who view it as being totallyunrepresentative of their experiences and environments and wouldnever be caught watching it themselves. It is an “uncool” program and,therefore, perfect fodder for this show and their audience.

The response was not acceptable to the complainant association, whose
representative requested that the complaint be taken to the Regional Council for
adjudication. In her letter of February 14, she responded specifically to the
explanation provided by CITY-TV's Program Manager.

The Program Manager believes CITY-TV can broadcast insults directedat identified groups of society – in this case women – as long as theinsults come out of the mouths of cartoon characters. It thereforefollows that CITY-TV would also broadcast insults directed at otheridentified groups. For example:

Kike, raghead, nigger, wagon burner, gearbox, squaw, spic, wop,paki…

[The Program Manager] also believes that “slut” is acceptable languageto use in describing female television characters if the program hasattracted criticism. Certain black sit-coms have attracted criticismbecause of the negative stereotypes the characters play. Following Ms.Baine's logic, it would be okay for these television characters to becalled “niggers'.

Obviously, insulting language – whether directed at a racial minority orat women – is not acceptable. It isn't acceptable coming out of themouth of a human character, and it isn't acceptable coming out of themouth of a cartoon nitwit, a talking frog, a plush pig puppet, a largepurple dinosaur, or any of the other non-human figures who turn up ontelevision.

I trust the CBSC will take into account Canadian Human Rightslegislation when considering whether the public airwaves can be usedto broadcast abusive language directed at any identified group.

CAB Code of Ethics, Article 2

Recognizing that every person has a right to full and equal recognitionand to enjoy certain fundamental rights and freedoms, broadcastersshall endeavour to ensure, to the best of their ability, that theirprogramming contains no abusive or discriminatory material orcomment which is based on matters of race, national or ethnic origin,religion, age, sex, marital status or physical or mental handicap.

CAB Sex-Role Portrayal Code, Article 4 (in pertinent part)

Television and radio programming shall refrain from the exploitation ofwomen, men and children. Negative or degrading comments on therole and nature of women, men or children in society shall be avoided.

The Regional Council reviewed all the correspondence and watched the tape of the
program in question. The Regional Council did not consider that the broadcast had
breached either code. Furthermore, the Council considers it appropriate to note that
the terms employed in Article 2 of the CAB Code of Ethics and those used in Article
15(1) of the Charter are substantially similar and that Canadians watching or
listening to Canadian private broadcasters are appropriately protected by the
language used in Article 2 against the “broadcast [of] abusive language directed at
any identified group.”

In its consideration of the complaint, the Regional Council felt that the context of the
segment was important. After a satirical look at Meredith Baxter Birney, the
characters Beavis and Butt-head change the channel on the set they are watching
to another, where they find a photo album format with an attractive young blond
woman in various brief video clips. (Note that, despite the dialogue, the woman
shown is not a character in Beverly Hills 90210 or any other identifiable television
show or known personality.) The dialogue begins:

Butt-head: Check this out.
Beavis: Olivia Newton-John sucks.
Butt-head: That's not Olivia Neuter-John [sic]. That's that rich chickfrom 9-0-6, mmm-2-6-1.
Beavis: Oh, yeah, Donna.

It then continues with the dialogue cited in the complainant's letter:

Butt-head: That's not Donna. Donna's the slut. This is Kelly.
Beavis: No way, dude. Donna's not a slut. She's a virgin. Kelly'sthe slut.
Butt-head: Does she look like a slut to you, Beavis?
Beavis: Yeah. That's why it's Donna.
Butt-head: Yeah, but you just said Donna's not a slut.
Beavis: Oh, yeah. That must be Kelly.

Tone and context can be extremely material in any appreciation of comments made
on air. A word or phrase which may be insulting or degrading when used in isolation
may, when heard or read in context, may be interpreted otherwise. The Regional
Council agreed with CITY-TV that Beavis and Butt-head are “an exaggerated parody
of two teen-age misfits whose antics take place in a cartoon world.” They are a
constant send-up of themselves as much as other programs and aspects of society
which they lampoon. They do not seek emulation. They may not, to the standards
of many in society, even be in good taste. The question here is only whether their
use of the term “slut” is negative or degrading regarding the role of women or an
abusive or discriminatory comment based on sex.

The Regional Council did not consider that this short (47 seconds) segment of the
Beavis and Butt-head show had anything to do with insulting women. It was a
comment about a specific person in a specific program. The word “slut” was not
generically applied to women or even to women in the particular program. It did not
incite hatred against any group or even against any individual person. It referred to
Kelly; it may have meant to describe Kelly; but it would be a gross exaggeration to
suggest that it constituted “abusive or discriminatory … comment … which is based
on … sex.” Indeed, anyone familiar with the program parodied (Beverly Hills 90210)
will know that there is a difference between the sexual standards of the two women
(Donna and Kelly) to whom reference is made by these crude characters.

Whether the use of the term is precise or not in assessing the character of Kelly is
not in issue. It is a term which has been in use for more than five centuries to refer,
according to the Oxford English Dictionary, to “a woman of a low or loose character;
a bold or impudent girl; a hussy, jade” and “in playful use, or without serious
imputation of bad qualities” since 1664. In the view of the Regional Council, this was
a specific usage and utterly without the character necessary to render it a violation
of either of the CAB codes.

The Council was also emphatic in its view that there was no equivalence between
the word “slut”, which is not by its nature a term of generic application, and the list
of epithets included in the association's February 14 letter, which are, as a rule, onlyapplied by their users as negative sweeping racial slurs. That “slut” and a list of
other contemporary slang terms may not be generally appropriate language does not
relegate it to the discriminatory scrap-heap of the complainant's ugly examples.

In addition to its review of the code provisions, the Regional Council
considered the adequacy of the broadcaster's response to the complainant.
The Council's reconciliation mandate, as established in the CBSC Manual,
has been considered and reaffirmed on numerous occasions by the British
Columbia and Ontario Regional Councils. See, for example, CFOX-FM re the
Larry and Willie Show
(CBSC Decision 92/93-0141, August 30, 1993), CHTZ-FM
re the Morning Show
(CBSC Decision 92/93-018, October 26, 1993), CFTO-TV re
Newscast (Pollution)
(CBSC Decision 92/93-0178, October 26, 1993) and
CIII-TV re Mighty Morphin Power Rangers (CBSC Decision 93/94-0270 and 0277,
October 24, 1994), among others. In the CFOX-FM case, the BC Regional Council stated:

The CBSC is equally conscious of the further responsibility which it hasbeyond the measurement of on-air programming against the standardsestablished in the three voluntary CAB codes to encourage dialoguebetween the broadcasters and the members of their audiences.

Thus, in the course of complaint resolution, the CBSC considers that itis firmly within its mandate to evaluate not only the complaint itselfagainst the standards established by the various Codes which itadministers but also the responsiveness of the broadcaster in dealingwith the viewer or listener.

The Council is conscious of the fact that viewers and listeners must make an effort
to register a complaint in the first place. It takes more effort to put pen to paper or
fingers to keyboard than merely dialling a broadcaster, the CRTC or the CBSC itself.
Broadcasters are aware of this, as is the CBSC. It is, therefore, encouraging that the
vast majority of complaints which the CBSC refers to the broadcasters for response
are satisfactorily resolved at that level between the broadcaster and the complainant.
Of those few which remain unresolved at the “grass roots” level, it is often clear in
the review of the correspondence that the territory staked out by some complainants
is unlikely to permit reconciliation despite the care taken in the broadcaster
response. In such cases, the Council is acutely conscious of the broadcaster's effort
or lack of effort to be responsive to the issues raised in the complaint.

In the present case, the Regional Council considers the response of CITY-TV's
Program Manager to the complainant to be a thoughtful and attentive answer to the
issues raised by the complainant association, despite the strong negative reaction
by the complainant to that response.

This decision is a public document upon its release by the Canadian Broadcast
Standards Council and may be reported, announced, or read by the station against
which the complaint had originally been made; however, in the case of a favourable
decision, the station is under no obligation to announce the result.