MTV’s boundary-breaking sleaze


Britney Spears’ limp-wristed jiggle of an opener at this month’s widely panned MTV Video Music Awards, suggested to some that the music station might be on its last legs of cultural relevance. Some say it sold out a decade ago; others argue that as soon as it became older than its target demographic (turning 25 last year), the station was officially too crusty to be cool.

MTV’s latest effort -- a serialized bisexual dating show starring Tila Tequila, mistress of MySpace -- could be considered another sign of the station’s shift from music network to sleaze peddler. But even if that’s true, at least MTV is doing what it has always done best: making controversy while quietly breaking, or at least exposing, some pop-culture barriers.

Those of you who aren’t Maxim subscribers or MySpace obsessives may not have heard of Tequila, the Singapore-born, Internet-bred girl who is ripe to become a bona fide B-lister. Her solicitation of well over 2 million “friends” on the social networking site and her off-kilter sexpot persona landed her on magazine covers, and even led Time magazine to dub her the “Madonna of MySpace.”


And so, in two decades, MTV has gone from helping to create Madonna to counting on Tequila’s half-proven celebrity appeal. On “A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila,” following the road-tested formula of VH1’s “Flavor of Love,” Tequila will welcome 16 straight men and 16 lesbian women into a mansion, where they’ll all live for a scandalous season while vying for her affection. MTV’s first serialized dating program represents a big commitment from a network devoted to the short-attention-span crowd, meaning we can expect as much squabbling, back-stabbing and pansexual make-out sessions as 10 episodes can hold.

But the main selling point for MTV and Tequila seems to be the bisexual angle, as both try to prove they’re busting a taboo. Tequila, for her part, claims she’s never come out as a bisexual before (though her MySpace profile suggests otherwise). MTV, meanwhile, gets to brag that “A Shot at Love” is the first bisexual dating show on a network not specifically targeted to the LGBT community.

But Tequila’s description makes it clear that the show is not so groundbreaking as all that. As she writes in her slangy, all-caps way:

the show will be about me finding love as a BISEXUAL!!!!! THAT IS CRAZY RIGHT? ..... the only twist is that these guys and these girls have NO IDEA that I am bisexual and that they are competing against each others sexes!!! GUYS AGAINST GIRLS......WHO WILL I END UP HOOKING UP WITH????? WILL I BE STRAIGHT OR LESBIAN IN THE END?????

In other words, the old sexual categories remain, embedded in the structure of the show: guys against girls in the mansion, straight against lesbian in Tequila’s heart, with little in the way of “bisexuality” in sight. And contestants will probably confirm many a sexual stereotype (straight guys making girl-on-girl jokes, lesbian women happily cavorting for them as if that were the point of being lesbian, and so on).

Still, at least the concept of bisexuality, and dating-while-bisexual, will be out there in MTV-land. MTV has always pushed sexual boundaries, whether it’s airing those first Madonna videos (even if they were later pulled) or featuring anHIV-positive cast member on “The Real World” in the early 1990s.


These days, the envelope-pushing is more likely to amount to simple sleaze (try watching more than five minutes of “Spring Break” programming without feeling the need to shower). But even that sleaze can serve a higher purpose of sorts, particularly when much of pop culture remains homophobic. Young, impressionable viewers, while watching gay men or lesbian women compete for dates on MTV’s “Next,” are able to learn that gay and lesbian kids can be just as self-important and sex-starved as straight kids. And isn’t that what has always united the MTV generation(s)?

The generation that actually grew up with MTV might insist it was the music that once united its audience. But that point has long since passed -- MTV simply hasn’t kept pace with the many new ways would-be video viewers can consume music. Why watch in hopes that your favorite video will air when you can just go to YouTube?

Even if it helped invent the music video, MTV has long known it can’t live on music alone -- it even made a show about two characters who sit around criticizing the videos. The station may once have been about songs, but it has always been about spectacle, whether of the political, socially conscious, crassly consumerist or just plain sleazy variety. “A Shot at Love” may manage all of the above.

Swati Pandey is a researcher for The Times’ editorial page; click here to read her archive. Send us your thoughts at