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It Seems Good Taste Has Gone Down the Toilet

September 14, 2002|PATRICIA BELL PALMER | Patricia Bell Palmer lives in the Carthay Circle section of Los Angeles.

With school in session again, I'm back to driving my daughters, ages 5 and 3, past the corner of San Vicente and Wilshire boulevards five mornings a week, past a billboard put up several months ago to advertise a recent release by Tha Row Records.

My girls remember the billboard, which isn't surprising. Summer wasn't long enough to obliterate the image from my memory either. Too bad. I grip the wheel tighter as they call from the back seat, "Mommy, look! There's the man making poo-poo!" Neither can read yet, but if they could, they'd know Tha Row's marketing geniuses weren't as cute or subtle in their wording.

"I'm the ... ," the sign reads, beneath a cartoon image of a scowling man on a toilet, his pants around his ankles. I'm curious whether The Times will even print the expletive in its raw form, as the billboard does, or whether it opts for a tamer omission of letters. The decision in and of itself makes a statement about the newspaper's belief that some words are or are not meant for mainstream consumption.

Scattered at his feet are a wad of cash, a cell phone and a roll of toilet tissue that appears to be out of arm's reach. Is that why he's scowling? Or could it be that, like me, he believes the ad plunges to a new depth in public displays of tastelessness that we and our kids must endure as American city dwellers?

I don't blame my daughters for finding the billboard funny. Like lots of kids their age, they delight in toilet humor. I must admit, I've also been known to laugh aloud over material others might find offensive. I advocate noncensorship of the arts, but I also believe I should get to choose what my children and I see and hear as we make our way to school, the market or the playground.

Does anyone police the buyers of billboard space for content? Should they? Am I correct in fearing that Tha Row's campaign is another inching toward the destruction of the moral code in the United States? Or am I a relic, no different from my grandparents, who feared for the purity of our country's youth upon first glimpsing Elvis Presley's swiveling hips?

The man on the toilet raises these questions, but he's not the only one. Is the work of an artist like Britney Spears harmless or not in the sex-soaked messages it sends to girls and boys as young as 4 and 5? Do Eminem's lyrics promote misogyny? Anarchy? Is it time for me to lighten up?

Maybe. But at least I can, for the time being, control what my kids see and hear on the radio, television and computer. With Tha Row's billboard, I don't have that option unless I want to detour around the most direct route to my kids' school. I won't do that because I refuse to treat my own neighborhood as a cultural minefield. Like it or not, I must let my children experience the deluge of images, tasteless and otherwise, this great city shows to them. And, like all responsible parents, I must find ways to help them understand and interpret what they see and hear.

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