April 19, 2004


It’s Morning After in America (Kay S. Hymowitz, Spring 2004, City Journal)

SEX DOESN'T SELL: MISS PRIM IS IN. No, editors at the New York Times “Sunday Styles” section were not off their meds when they came up with that headline recently. Just think about some of the Oscar nominees this year: there was Seabiscuit, a classic inspirational story of steadfast outsiders beating huge odds to win the race; Return of the King: Lord of the Rings, a mythic battle of good defeating evil, featuring female characters as pure as driven snow; Master and Commander, a nineteenth-century naval epic celebrating courage, discipline, and patriarchal authority. And then there was Lost in Translation, in which a man in the throes of a midlife crisis spends hours in a hotel room with a luscious young woman, and . . . they talk a lot.

If you listen carefully, you can hear something shifting deep beneath the manic surface of American culture. Rap stars have taken to wearing designer suits. Miranda Hobbs, Sex and the City’s redhead, has abandoned hooking up and a Manhattan co-op for a husband and a Brooklyn fixer-upper, where she helps tend her baby and ailing mother-in-law; even nympho Samantha has found a “meaningful relationship.” Madonna is writing children’s books. Gloria Steinem is an old married lady.

Yessiree, family values are hot! Capitalism is cool! Seven-grain bread is so yesterday, and red meat is back!

Wave away the colored smoke of the Jackson family circus, Paris Hilton, and the antics of San Francisco, and you can see how Americans have been self-correcting from a decades-long experiment with “alternative values.” Slowly, almost imperceptibly during the 1990s, the culture began a lumbering, Titanic turn away from the iceberg, a movement reinforced by the 1990s economic boom and the shock of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. During the last ten years, most of the miserable trends in crime, divorce, illegitimacy, drug use, and the like that we saw in the decades after 1965 either turned around or stalled. Today Americans are consciously, deliberately embracing ideas about sex, marriage, children, and the American dream that are coalescing into a viable—though admittedly much altered—sort of bourgeois normality. What is emerging is a vital, optimistic, family-centered, entrepreneurial, and yes, morally thoughtful, citizenry. [...]

And that surprise takes us back to the most vexing issue of our day: gay marriage, which encapsulates the tension between the sexual revolution and the new conventionality. On the one hand, it asserts the value of unrestrained sexual desire; on the other, it celebrates our new seriousness about constructing traditional meaning, solidity, and connection out of those desires in a vulgar and rootless post-liberation landscape. Regardless of how Americans resolve this tension, the change in the cultural zeitgeist means that, for all their wealth and fame, the Quentin Tarantinos and Ice Ts of this culture do not own it. The public has its own mind, influenced by forces more powerful than the television or movie screen. The purveyors of fashion and entertainment try to decipher the cultural mood.

So, the latest ads for Gucci leave sexual decadence behind for mystery and romance. Why? Because these trendsetters sense something new. “What we did was sort of instinctual. We just felt there was something in the air,” Doug Lloyd, one of Gucci’s admen, told the New York Times. “Believe it or not, I am a little sick of blatant sexual poses in advertising,” Gucci designer Tom Ford, a man who once had a G shaved into a model’s crotch and hired a photographer to snap the results, told Harper’s Bazaar. So Abercrombie and Fitch canceled their Christmas catalog after the outcry over its orgy tips for teens. So Viacom president Mel Karmazin chided his radio stations: “This company won’t be a poster child for indecency.” More surprising than Janet Jackson’s breast reveal was the vigorous public spanking that she and Justin Timberlake received after it was over. For what it’s worth, my 16-year-old daughter tells me that the girls she knows with pierced navels now see them as “skanky” and wish they could undo them. Now they care about SEXY TOPS THAT DON'T LOOK TRASHY, as a recent Seventeen headline promised to explain to its teen readers.

With their genius for problem solving and compromise, pragmatic Americans have seen the damage that their decades-long fling with the sexual revolution and the transvaluation of traditional values wrought. And now, without giving up the real gains, they are earnestly knitting up their unraveled culture. It is a moment of tremendous promise.

No matter how much it horrifies John Kerry and company, these trends mean that we're going to keep drifting further apart from secular Europe. Eventually our cultures will diverge so much that we'll no longer consider them part of Western Civilization. They've already departed Christendom.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 19, 2004 7:37 AM

"And now, without giving up the real gains,"


"they are earnestly knitting up their unraveled culture. It is a moment of tremendous promise."

and SEXY too!

Posted by: Robert Duquette at April 19, 2004 4:54 PM

Ah, you too find the tweed-clad Iron Lady alluring?

Posted by: oj at April 19, 2004 5:06 PM

With me, it's Forties to pre-Nam Sixties retro-glam, from Marilyn Monroe to Audrey Hepburn.

At that period, we'd developed an elaborate language of indirect sexual symbology that is all but lost now. An elaborate courtship/mating ritual consisting of far more than today's two words (i.e. "Wanna screw?"). A sense of elaborate fashion and style that wasn't "dress like you were living homeless on the street for the past year".

I got blindsided by the Sexual Revolution; my attitudes were set by my upbringing in the Late Fifties/Early Sixties, just in time for the world to pass me by completely. The final result of being exposed to Total Sexual Freedom (TM) for close to 40 years is that even the idea of sex has become so disgusting I want nothing to do with it. Ever.

Every time I look at surviving Sixties "Space Age" Googie architecture or read the SF of my youth, the only thing that comes to mind is "We threw away the stars so we could screw in the mud at Woodstock."

Posted by: Ken at April 20, 2004 4:50 PM