The Consumer Republic

Rated X
All those naive fools who thought it took creativity to get noticed on the Super Bowl learned differently this year, when the shimmering pulchritude of Victoria’s Secret’s pitch won the “1984” award for most memorable ad of the game. Not even Anheuser-Busch’s millions could eclipse the impact of 30 seconds of lace-trimmed jiggle. Lizards, schmizards. If it’s male eyeballs you’re after, a cavalcade of bouncing boobs beats reptiles any day.
As if to prove this truism, the same week the Victoria’s Secret Webcast fashion show gridlocked the Internet, Condƒ Nast’s James Truman snatched Mark Golin, editor of babes-and-brewskies upstart Maxim, to bring some va-va-voom to Details. Meanwhile, Dennis Publishing, Maxim’s parent, is preparing the April launch of Stuff, which will give an upscale spin to babe-iliciousness. Cleavage, as Esquire delicately put it, is on the comeback.
To understand the T&A renaissance in male-targeted media, one need only look at the sales figures. Who comprises the most sought-after demo? Young males, 18 to 34. Clearly, like young men of every era, Gen X guys have a keen appreciation of, uh, cleavage. The difference? Unlike their boomer predecessors, they don’t have any guilt about admitting it. In the original version of the wildly successful Xer hit Austin Powers, the shag-happy “spy who loved me” was an anachronism fit for spoofing. In the sequel, he may turn out to be a role model.
The real mystery about T&A power is not that it’s back, but that it ever went away. To understand how that happened, we must begin at the beginning: In its heyday, Playboy turned the girlie magazine into a cultural statement. The youth culture of the ’60s borrowed heavily from Playboy’s identification of sexual pleasure with iconoclasm, hedonism with freedom.
Moreover, ’60s revolutionaries pretty much accepted Playboy’s assumption that liberation was a man’s prerogative, which is why guys got to change the world, while girls were relegated to the commune kitchen, where they made coffee and steamed brown rice. But it was only a matter of time before boomer women began to apply the slogan “power to the people” to themselves.
Bras were burned, male chauvinist pigs denounced and equal opportunity demanded.
What is remarkable is the extent to which boomer men capitulated. I mean this as a compliment. Despite what the boomer bashers say, men of that generation really believed their rhetoric–and still do. Yes, there has been plenty of resistance, confusion and conflict. Yet to an extraordinary degree, boomer guys internalized the objections of their female cohorts. They struggled to be more “sensitive.” They felt obligated to participate in the raising of their children. They learned, grudgingly and painfully, to swim with the economic currents that brought women flooding into the workplace.
Whether these baby-loving, equal-opportunity-supporting New Men lost their taste for the soft-porn thrill of a gorgeous, scantily clad woman is doubtful. Indeed, I’m not sure there ever was a New Man. But they learned better than to admit it in public. To be known as a sexist was to invite contempt. The Swedish Bikini Team was driven off the air. Beer barons pledged not to build their brands on the backs of bimbos. The Playboy Clubs, which Gloria Steinem so famously turned into a symbolic feminist battleground, withered away, deserted by a generation who felt like jerks ogling high-heeled women in bunny suits.
The extent to which boomer men buckled under accusations of sexism is a measure of how much they knew those charges to be true. Their generational successors don’t suffer from that burden. Women are men’s equals in the workplace? Well, duh. It’s the only reality most Xers have ever known. Chances are pretty good that the 26-year-old cybernaut who logs on to the Victoria’s Secret Web site at night reports to a female boss the next morning.
Meanwhile, if boomer women shoved their male counterparts up against the wall, Gen X gals have let their cohorts off the hook. A few years back, the notorious “Hello, boys” ad for the re-engineered falsies of Wonder Bra featured a delighted woman ogling her own cleavage. Here were boobs recast as weapons of empowerment. Madonna morphed from Material Girl to a cultural heroine who’d “taken control” of her sexuality. And where Madonna dances, the Spice Girls are not far behind.
“Girl Power” can have no more memorable expression than the erstwhile Ginger Spice, who dared not bow to the Prince of Wales, lest her abundance spill from the horn of plenty of her strapless dress. Who would have thought it? Breasts as a symbol of feminism’s victories. Jiggle, the new ethos tells us, is about sex, not sexism. I’m not sure this is feminist progress. But I’m not convinced it’s retrenchment, either.