Where is our popular culture located in this age of expanded sexual consciousness, and its by-product, shrunken periods of innocent childhood? Does mass culture have a gatekeeper anymore? Hollywood used to have a voluntary code of conduct for movies and TV, but those are now forgotten relics. TV networks used to have broadcast standards and practices departments, but nobody seems to be practicing hard at upholding standards.
Now, citizens are looking to the Federal Communications Commission to do its part to uphold long-standing laws against broadcast indecency. But under FCC boss Michael Powell, who seems to be as culturally accommodating as his father Colin, the FCC has expressed no interest in being the nation's cultural cop. Only commissioner Michael Copps, a lonely Democrat who once worked for Sen. Ernest Hollings, is speaking out against network television's "race to the bottom." Even if the FCC handed out fines, would the networks even blink when there are mega-millions to be made in lowering the bar?
Take the CBS airing of the "Victoria's Secret Fashion Show," an underwear-and-lingerie catwalk parade on national television, with the only warning being a rating of TV-14. In other words, CBS thinks every boy and girl in eighth grade and above is perfectly welcome to come and sample the sex being sold in plain view.
Let's take that example off the television and put it in a less synthetic world. If your local high school announced that it would be holding an underwear-and-lingerie fashion show on the high-school stage, would that meet with parental approval? If a local mall decided to pass out handbills to high-school kids inviting them to see an underwear-and-lingerie fashion show after school, would the mall face any controversy for roping in teenagers for a seductive show for an audience largely under the age of sexual consent?
Let's hope that these ideas still sound a little ridiculous. In most communities in America, these scenarios sound highly implausible. Filling these older children's eyeballs with sexual images, with highly attractive supermodels in erotic displays, ought to strike parents as a troublesome activity with potentially serious consequences, since sexual attraction can lead to sex, which can lead to parental headaches like teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. Parents are the only cultural gatekeepers, and the movement of their money is the only measure that counts with the entertainment moguls.
Victoria's Secret has no shame about parading its wares among teenagers. In its business aspirations for global domination - 1,000 stores and counting and a catalog that they claim is drooled over by 375 million people - Victoria's Secret has as its corporate agenda the mass production and consumption of naughty under things. Left in the mall, it's a destination that adults can explore with discretion, and something a family can stroll past. But when you display those wares on nearly-nude supermodels on a high-profile broadcast network, you have made a quantum cultural leap. You are saturating the public with sex for profit - what the rappers proudly call "pimping."
In the CBS show, produced and funded by Victoria's Secret, the company touts itself in a series of fake "interviews" where people tout their catalogs and products. Not only was there the older couple who needs a little lingerie help in the golden years, or the fired business professional who felt better after his fingers did the walking through the catalog. There was a young red-headed boy named J.J. Spencer, who must be hovering right around the parental-advisory age of 14, drooling over the catalog filled with "all those bras...all those girls" and then joking it "helps me with my homework."
CBS had hoped to air its decadent display at 8 PM Eastern, smack-dab in the family hour, but public protests pressured them to postpone it to 9, when they would be forced to compete with the finale of ABC's "The Bachelor," which is teaching girls it's fun to join a harem to get on television. The Nielsens are in: ABC's fake romance crushed CBS's fake fashion show.
What can a protester who wants to resist this mass sexualization of teens accomplish? It's quite a task when the power of the purse is controlled by CBS and Victoria's Secret. But there is a role for a politics of shame, for an activism in the defense of innocence and reticence, speaking out with individual voices and dollars. These large corporations won't feel any pain with the decline of social indicators like teen abortions or diseases. Only economic indicators, declining viewership and declining sales figures, will stimulate anything lamely resembling a conscience among these exploiters of the erotic.