Questions about expression, sex, parenting – all wrapped in a photo

Whether Sydney Spies’ senior photo was appropriate for the Durango High School yearbook certainly was something worthy of lengthy, in-depth and well-considered discussion – at the Spies’ family dinner table and at the DHS yearbook editors’ meeting.

The issue received its day in these respective courts, but in the offing grew legs and sprinted onto the national stage, generating input from hundreds of thousands of Americans eager to invest their two cents on the discrepancy between the yearbook’s position and Spies’.

Just why this conflagration took place says quite a bit about ourselves, our culture and our collective concern for what one another is up to.

But it seems the buttinsky-ism that the photo issue prompted from so many across the country who felt compelled to weigh in on morning shows, news feeds and comment boards by the hundreds of thousands is something we are practiced at – and must do in order to reassure ourselves of the boundaries of our collective morality. If ever there was a case that provided an opportunity to examine those boundaries, this was it.

As much as the media reflects the culture it depicts, it also creates it. In doing so, media coverage of any topic provides audiences with an opportunity for understanding, responding to and pushing back against the values depicted in that coverage.

With so many values issues at stake, the Spies photo was a veritable cultural smorgasbord at which all sides were eager to feast. Appropriate attire, freedom of expression, sexualized images, educational values, parenting style, age of consent, goal-setting: Each of these was as relevant as the last in the far-reaching discussion about Spies’ photo, and the breadth of the conversation invited opinions from across the spectrum.

They have not all been shared with kindness, let alone maturity. But taken together, they could reflect a collective desire to remind ourselves of our shared values and articulate them through our “vox pop” methodology: the American Idol model of civic participation that we increasingly choose over the voting booth as a means of discussing and seeking consensus around issues that we care about.

When that consensus is elusive, when the issue is morally complex or when we feel that our cultural values are at risk of significant erosion, we have these “moral panics.”

Jo Tavener, a professor of media and cultural studies at the University of Pittsburgh, explains the term and its function well: “Moral panics displace complex social issues of political importance onto the cultural terrain and attempt to resolve them through a discourse that attributes a moral dimension to culture,” Tavener wrote in an article for Critical Studies in Media Communication.

Boiled down, the notion is that rather than be bothered with the big, complex political and policy questions that affect our culture, morals and values – let alone engage in endless processes to address them – we are far more apt to engage in the participatory processes that the media offer, particularly when the issue has a hook for virtually any mildly attentive passer-by who is worried about social decline.

Whether it is being wrought by Spies’ photo or those who would rather not see it in print is the crux of the matter; either way, the topic evokes concern far beyond its immediate implications for Spies, her family, the DHS yearbook staff and the school’s administration. It triggers, as such issues do, sensitivities about some fairly big relationships, as Daniel Biltereyst, a professor of film and media studies at Ghent University has discussed – namely, how we define our own identities, how we relate to one another and how we interact with society in the broader sense. The DHS yearbook controversy certainly had enough of each of these interplays to get the conversation started locally. Given our national nosiness – and nervousness – it did not stop with the Herald’s coverage.

As far as moral panics go, though, this is of relatively low caliber, and that is reflected by the brief grip the issue had on the national attention span. The issue raised many questions, but ultimately, none is sufficient to unhinge anyone on any side of it enough to sustain the debate much longer. And try as the media elite – whoever they are – will to convince audiences that they should care about politics and policy and economics and other high-brow issues, we probably will continue to keep minding other people’s business. It is too much like our own.