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MTV Stands Accused


Sut Jhally did not want his MTV, nor did he obey the mighty, 24-hour rock video channel.

Instead, the college professor went to the media and screamed censorship. MTV, he claimed, was trying to silence him because he had stood before his students and said the emperor was wearing no clothes.

Or rather, that MTV had built its million-dollar empire on the backs of scantily clad women who were treated as objects. And, he lectured, such depictions contribute to incidents of rape.

In his video titled "Dreamworlds: Desire-Sex-Power in Rock Video," Jhally juxtaposes the rape scene from the feature film "The Accused" with cuts from Sam Kinison's "Wild Thing" video featuring Jessica Hahn, Billy Idol, Aerosmith and Bon Jovi.

"Removed from their normal context, the rock video images did not look too different from the horrendous images of the rape," Jhally narrates on the tape.

According to Jhally's interpretation of certain rock videos, women exist for a paramount purpose: male sexual gratification.

MTV has responded to Jhally's teachings--and specifically his video, which uses the MTV logo and snippets from more than 100 videos--by threatening to sue him and ordering him to stop using and distributing the tapes.

Jhally, an associate communications professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, reacted by faxing letters to the country's largest news organizations.

Before MTV could spell its own acronym, stories began appearing across the nation. Newsweek devoted an entire page to Jhally's claims. The New York Times did stories. So did the Boston Globe, The Associated Press, and dozens of television and radio stations.

Accusations of sexism and violence are not new to MTV. But Jhally's experience with MTV, and his well-publicized side of it, has reopened an old argument about rock videos and their depiction of women.

MTV says that what appears on its cable network is no worse than what appears on any broadcast channel, or on any billboard or in any magazine ad. Other than that, however, the network has refused to comment on the portrayal of women in music videos or on its dealings with Jhally.

The people who make rock videos say their work reflects what rock and roll is about--namely, sex.

But Jhally and some feminists say using sex and the bodies of women to sell records conveys a message other than just, "But this compact disc."

According to the professor and activists such as Tammy Bruce, president of the National Organization for Women's Los Angeles chapter, music videos tell a young and impressionable segment of society that women are things, not people.

Sexual things, to be specific. Things that are pretty to look at, easy to touch and void of any other attribute.

"They continually subjugate women," Bruce said. "Society is so accepting of it because they see it continually. But if this was an issue of someone singing about the joys of gassing Jews, that would not fall into the realm of what is acceptable. And yet the degradation of women is acceptable."

Not everyone is buying their argument.

The New York Times recently took Jhally to task for his comparison of the Sam Kinison video with "The Accused," in which a crowd of men cheer as a woman is raped in a bar.

"Suddenly, Billy Idol shaking his fists on stage in a cloud of smoke, looking silly, is equated with men cheering on a gang rape," wrote Jon Pareles.

Jhally's narration, Pareles wrote, made it sound "as if similarities in lighting techniques are the same as similarities in content."

Jhally, who spent two years compiling MTV clips and refining his video, defends its assertions. Rock videos, he said, contribute to the "objectification of women."

Or, as he narrates in the video, "Rape is not a serious crime because, after all, she deserved it and she was asking for it. Hell, she must probably have enjoyed it."

Jhally has sold his "Dreamworlds" tape to colleges across the country, including Vanderbilt, Tulane University, Texas A&M and Purdue. Since his fight with MTV became news, he said he has received about 100 new orders.

Proceeds from the tape, which he sells to individuals for $50 and to schools for $100, go to a department trust fund used for media education programs, he said.

Since he went public with MTV's threatening letter, copies of which he also sent to news agencies, Jhally said he has heard nothing from the 10-year-old music network. "I don't think they're going to do anything else," he said. "I don't expect to hear from them again."

MTV claimed Jhally illegally used its copyrighted logo in his video, but the professor contended he was protected under the "fair use" doctrine of copyright law that allows excerpting for educational, scientific, literary and other purposes.

He also contended that MTV's threat was little more than an attempt to shut him up because he was critical of the network.

In his tape, Jhally singles out videos made by David Lee Roth, Ric Ocasek, Rod Stewart, the Beach Boys, Robert Palmer and Tone Loc.

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