Every so often, the invaluable intellectual gadfly William Bennett issues what he calls the Index of Leading Cultural Indicators, a compilation of statistics on such topics as out-of-wedlock births, students' performance on standardized tests, church attendance, charitable giving, and much, much more. The latest edition, which came out in March, is well worth your time.
With a tip of the hat to Dr. Bennett, I present a far less formal, less quantified look at the state of the culture the world over, based on news stories from the past few weeks. First, the negative indicators:
- The latest American dance craze, according to USA Today, is "freak dancing." Perhaps a more accurate term would be "simulated sex." The story describes a club scene in which "boys thrust their pelvises into girls' behinds to the throbbing bass of the hip-hop anthem 'Big Pimpin'.' One halter-topped girl...looks like a center primed to snap a football - except she's also gyrating wildly against a boy's groin."
"Bumping, grinding, intertwining body parts - I've seen it all," remarks the principal of a Bethesda, Md. middle school. (I repeat: middle school.)
- The Washington Post reports that MTV is considering a series called "The Virgin Chronicles," wherein a rock star and the person with whom he/she first had sex talk separately about their memories of...well, you know. Then the rocker and the partner are brought together to, shall we say, reconcile their recollections.
At this rate, the increasingly sex-driven MTV and the Playboy Channel ought to be merging in about 2006.
- Remember when airplanes had, at the front of the cabin, one screen on which an edited version of a movie was shown? Now, the Sydney Morning Herald says it's probable that the Australian carrier Qantas will use those increasingly common seatback video screens to justify showing unedited films on its longer flights. Although parents supposedly can make certain movies unavailable to their children, who knows what might be just a youngster's glance away, given that the screens are, what, eighteen inches apart?
Happily, there are limits...sort of. A Qantas executive rules out showing any film "that dwells on or is explicit in terms of an airline crash." In other words, if it might cause someone not to buy a Qantas ticket in the future, it's not OK. Kids exposed to coitus or bloody gunplay? Oh, that's OK.
- James Bond movies have traditionally been a little racy but not raunchy. The current Bond, however, wants to change that. Pierce Brosnan, quoted in the British tabloid the Daily Star, claims that if producers were willing to go beyond the Bond films' usual PG-13 rating, "you could do great things. The sex could be done in a much more interesting, exciting way without being damaging to children...In 'The World Is Not Enough' Sophie Marceau and I had to do fifteen takes of our bedroom sequence just because we saw [her] beautiful nipple."
How silly. "World" didn't need more sex. It needed a better story and a lot fewer explosions.
Turning to our positive indicators:
- Those wishing to debunk Brosnan's advice to take 007 into R-rated territory can point to a recent study suggesting the stupidity of such a move. "R-rated films," writes the Post's Sharon Waxman, "are taking a significant hit at the box office because of tightened enforcement of the age restrictions on the rating, and Hollywood executives say that this is deterring them from making such movies."
Waxman reports that the study, from the company MarketCast, indicates that "the average R-rated movie made 12 percent less than it [w]ould have in its opening weekend" absent the stepped-up enforcement, but adds that "that average figure included R-rated films with little appeal to teens." The figure was more like 30 percent for the crass R-rated sex comedy "Tomcats," which, as the boss of the studio that made it admits, was "mostly innately appealing to 12-to-16-year-olds."
Of course, the stronger enforcement follows last year's FTC report flaying the entertainment business for marketing violent product to children.
- And the FCC has fined a Colorado radio station for playing an edited version of Eminem's "The Real Slim Shady" which still, the commission said, contained "unmistakable offensive sexual references...in conjunction with sexual expletives that appear intended to pander and shock."
Both these positive developments involved federal action, direct or indirect. That's not entirely bad - Washington certainly has a place in the culture war - but ultimately the war will be won or lost in the private sector, outside the reach of any governmental agency.