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.
To check a culture’s pulse, first look at the kids, as good a crystal ball as we have. Yes, there’s reason to worry: guns in the schools, drugs, binge drinking, cheating, Ritalin, gangs, bullies, depression, oral sex, Internet porn, you name it. Kids dress like streetwalkers and thugs, they’re too fat, they don’t read, they watch too much television, they never play outside, they can’t pay attention, they curse like South Park’s Eric Cartman. The 1950s, this ain’t.
Yet marketers who plumb people’s attitudes to predict trends are noticing something interesting about “Millennials,” the term that generation researchers Neil Howe and William Strauss invented for the cohort of kids born between 1981 and 1999: they’re looking more like Jimmy Stewart than James Dean. They adore their parents, they want to succeed, they’re optimistic, trusting, cooperative, dutiful, and civic-minded. “They’re going to ‘rebel’ by being, not worse, but better,” write Howe and Strauss.
However counterintuitive, there’s plenty of hard evidence to support this view. Consider the most basic indicator of social health: crime. The juvenile murder rate plummeted 70 percent between 1993 and 2001. By 2001, the arrest rate for all violent crime among juveniles was down 44 percent from its 1994 peak, reaching its lowest level since 1983. Juvenile arrests for burglary were also down 66 percent in that time period. Vandalism is at its lowest level in two decades. Despite all the headlines to the contrary, schools are a lot safer: school-based crimes dropped by close to half in the late 1990s. According to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, the percentage of ninth- through 12th-graders who reported being in a fight anywhere in the previous 12 months dropped from 42 percent in 1991 to 33 percent in 2001, while those who had been in a fight on school property fell from 16 percent to 13 percent.
Something similar looks like it may be happening with adolescent drinking and drug use, on the rise throughout much of the nineties. But suddenly, around the turn of the millennium, the nation’s teens started to climb back on the wagon. Monitoring the Future, an annual University of Michigan survey of the attitudes and behavior of high school students, reports that by 2002 the percentage of kids who reported binge drinking in the last 30 days was close to its lowest level in the 12 years that the survey has been following eighth- and tenth-graders and in the 30 years that it has been following high school seniors. Though during the 1990s marijuana use rose sharply among eighth-graders and less dramatically among tenth- and 12th-graders, by late in the decade the numbers began to fall. More broadly, the Department of Health and Human Services reports that all illicit teen drug use dropped 11 percent between 2001 and 2003. Ecstasy use, which soared between 1998 and 2001, fell by more than half among high schoolers. A 2003 National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse study found that 56 percent of teenagers have no friends who drink regularly, up from 52 percent in 2002, and 68 percent say they have no friends using marijuana, up from 62 percent—even though 40 percent of them say they would have no trouble finding the stuff if they wanted it. They’re just not interested.
And what about teen sex? Only yesterday, you’d have thought there was no way to wrangle that horse back into the barn. No more. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, out-of-wedlock teen pregnancy rates have come down 28 percent from their high in 1990, from a peak of 117 per thousand girls ages 15 to 19 to 83.6 per thousand in 2000. The teen abortion rate also fell—by a third—during the same period. True, American kids still get pregnant at higher rates than those in other major Western nations, but the U.S. is the only country that saw a dramatic drop in teen pregnancy during the last decade.
While American kids are more often saying yes to birth control, even more of them, remarkably, are just saying no to sex, just as they are passing up marijuana and beer. According to the 1991 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 54 percent of teens reported having had sex; a decade later, the number was 46 percent. The number of high schoolers who reported four or more partners also fell from 18.7 percent to 14.2 percent.
Making the decline in sexual activity more striking is that it began just around the same time that Depo-Provera, a four-shots-a-year birth control technology specifically aimed at teens, came on the market. It’s often been said that the birth control pill, which became available to the public in the early 1960s, propelled the sexual revolution. The lesson of Depo-Provera, which was accompanied by a decrease in sexual activity, is that it isn’t technology that changes sexual behavior. It’s the culture.
If you need more proof, check the surveys not just on kids’ sexual behavior but on their attitudes toward sex. Millennials are notably more straitlaced than many of their let’s-spend-the-night-together parents. American Freshman, an annual survey of over a quarter of a million first-year kids at 413 four-year colleges, has found that young people have become less accepting of casual sex in the last 15 years. Between 1987 and 2001, those who agree with the statement “If two people really like each other, it’s all right for them to have sex if they’ve known each other for a very short time” fell from 52 percent to 42 percent. Similarly, a recent National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy survey found that 92 percent of teenagers believe it is important for them “to get strong messages from society that they should not have sex until they are at least out of high school.” Twenty-eight percent say they have become more opposed to teens having sex over the past several years, compared to 11 percent who say they are less opposed. It seems that it is adults who are skittish about abstinence, not kids: almost half of the parents interviewed believe it is embarrassing for teens to admit they are virgins, yet only a quarter of teenagers think so.
Keep in mind that these beliefs do not exist in an isolated room of the teen brain marked “sex” or “pregnancy.” They are part of a welter of attitudes and values that reinforce each other—a point lost on two recent front-page New York Times stories on the decline in teen pregnancy.
Determined to show that policies of which the Times does not approve—especially welfare reform and abstinence education—did not affect the decline of adolescent childbearing, the paper misses the larger issue: these policies are both a result and a cause of a change in cultural beliefs percolating throughout American society, from the elites to the underclass. Fed up with the fallout from the reign of “if it feels good, do it”—not only as it played out in the inner city but in troubled middle-class families across the land—Americans are looking more favorably on old-fashioned virtues like caution, self-restraint, commitment, and personal responsibility. They are in the midst of a fundamental shift in the cultural zeitgeist that is driving so many seemingly independent trends in crime, sex, drugs, and alcohol in the same positive direction.
Look, for instance, at what’s happening to teen alienation. If Millennials have a problem with authority, it’s that they wish they had more of it. Poll after poll depicts a generation that thinks their parents are just grand. A 2003 American Demographics survey shows 67 percent of teens “give Mom an A.” They tell interviewers for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy that they want more advice about sex from their parents. Summarizing opinion polls, researcher Neil Howe says that this generation is at least as attached to their parents and their values as any generation before. “When it comes to ‘Do you get along with your family?’ it’s never been as high. Same thing for ‘Do you believe in the values of your parents?’ When they’re asked ‘Do you trust your parents to help you with important life decisions?’ they don’t see parents as meddling or interfering,” Howe concludes. “They’re grateful.”
In fact, when it comes to families, this generation is as mushy as a Hallmark card. A Harris Interactive survey of college seniors found that 81 percent planned to marry (12 percent already had) at a mean age of 28. Ninety-one percent hope to have children—and get this: on average, they’d like to have three. The 2001 Monitoring the Future survey found 88 percent of male high school seniors and 93 percent of females believing that it is extremely or quite important to have a good marriage and family life. In a survey of college women conducted by the Institute for American Values, 83 percent said, “Being married is a very important goal for me.” Over half of the women surveyed said they would like to meet their husbands in college.
What makes this marriage schmaltziness so striking, of course, is that it’s coming from people who grew up when that institution was in tatters. For a lot of culture watchers, nothing brings out the inner Cassandra more than the state of marriage—and for good reason, especially when you shift your focus from the young to the entire population. The divorce rate hovers near 50 percent. A third of all babies are born to unmarried mothers, a number considerably higher for black babies. The proportion of never-married women between the ages of 30 and 39 has almost tripled in the last 30 years. Laura Kipnis, author of the recent plaint Against Love: A Polemic, only seemed to be saying the obvious in her January New York Times op ed: “More and more people—heterosexuals that is—don’t want to get or stay married these days, no matter their income level.” After all, Kipnis continued, quoting numbers that are a favorite of contemporary marriage “realists,” “[o]nly 56 percent of all adults are married, compared with 75 percent 30 years ago. The proportion of traditional married-couple-with-children American households has dropped to 26 percent of all households, from 45 percent in the early 1970’s.”
Except the obvious is wrong. Americans—particularly younger Americans at or approaching marriageable age—are marriage nuts. They meditate endlessly on the subject. Having put aside sitcoms about latte-drinking hook-up athletes—Seinfeld has died and gone to rerun heaven—they watch reality shows like The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, The Littlest Groom, Average Joe, and Trista and Ryan’s Wedding, and movies like My Big Fat Greek Wedding. On Friends, the space cadet Phoebe just had a white-dress wedding, while Monica and Chandler are married, adopting a baby, and moving to the burbs. In real life, the number of married-couple families, after declining in the seventies and eighties, rose 5.7 percent in the nineties, according to demographer William H. Frey.
And in fact, the incredible shrinking married-couple-with-children statistic cited by Kipnis is a statistical mirage, an artifact of two demographic trends, unconnected with American attitudes toward knot tying. First, young people are marrying later; the average age is 25 for women, 27 for men, up from 20 and 23 three decades ago. That means there are a lot more young singles out there than there were in 1970. Further swelling the ranks of these un–Ozzies and Harriets is the vastly increased number of empty nesters, retirees, and widows, beneficiaries of major health-care improvements over the past decades. There are 34 million Americans over 65, and it’s a safe bet that only those few living with their adult kids would be counted as part of a married-couple household with children. What it comes down to is that a smaller proportion of married couples with children is no more evidence of the decline of the family than more cars on the road is evidence of a decline in trucks.
Even on the fraught issue of out-of-wedlock births and divorce, there are grounds for hope. In the population at large, the decades-long trend toward family fragmentation has finally halted and, according to some numbers, is even reversing itself. Overall, the proportion of children in married-parent families rose from 68 percent in 1998 to 69 percent in 2002—a tiny boost, to be sure, but the first upward tick in decades. More encouragingly, after plummeting between 1965 and 1992, the number of black children living with married parents rose from 34 percent in 1995 to 39 percent in 2000. Moreover, the longitudinal Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study has found that half of the poor, largely black, new mothers it surveys are living with the father at the time of their baby’s birth. Two-thirds of them agree “it is better for children if their parents are married,” and 77 percent say that chances of marrying their child’s father are 50 percent or higher. If history is any guide, most won’t; but the fact that so many want to marry and understand that it is better to do so is an unexpected bit of social capital to build on.
Americans are even beginning to look at divorce with a more jaded eye. The divorce rate—statistically hard to pin down—is certainly stabilizing, and possibly even declining from its record high of 50 percent. Not so long ago, orthodox opinion would natter on about marital breakup as an opportunity for adults’ “personal growth” or about “resilient children” who were “better off when their parents were happy.” For the children of divorce who are now in their childbearing years, such sunny talk grates. They saw their mothers forced to move to one-bedroom apartments while their fathers went off with new girlfriends; they found out what it was like when your father moved from being the love object who read to you every night, to a guy who lives across the country whom you see once a year. When it comes to marriage and children, a lot of these damaged young adults are determined to do better. Nic Carothers, the 18-year-old son of divorced parents interviewed by the Indianapolis Star, explained his determination to avoid sex until he marries for life: “My father wasn’t a very responsible man. I want to be a better father when the time is right.” “I can’t tell you how many 30-somethings are still in therapy because of their parents’ divorce,” Catherine Stellin, of Youth Intelligence, told me. “Now we’re hearing that maybe it’s a good thing to stay together for the sake of the kids.”
This change of view is not limited to the heartland. Writing in the mainstream Atlantic Monthly, Caitlin Flanagan recently offered mild praise for The Proper Care & Feeding of Husbands, by much reviled talk-show host Dr. Laura: “There are many of us who understand that once you have children, certain doors ought to be closed to you forever. That to do right by a child means more than buying the latest bicycle helmet and getting him on the best soccer team. . . . It means investing oneself completely in the marriage that wrought him.” Flanagan went on to chastise feminist male-bashing. “Our culture is quick to point out the responsibilities husbands have to wives—they should help out with the housework, be better listeners, understand that a woman wants to be more than somebody’s mother and somebody’s wife—but very reluctant to suggest that a wife has a responsibility to a husband.” Such views didn’t sink Flanagan’s career; she will now be publishing her marriage-happy essays in the bien-pensant New Yorker.
In fact, applause for the nuclear family is now coming even from the American academy and from left-leaning advocacy groups. For decades, elites jeered at the assumption that changes in family structure would harm children; remember the guffaws that greeted Vice President Dan Quayle’s pro-marriage Murphy Brown speech in 1992? But by the 1990s, study after study began showing, as Barbara Dafoe Whitehead put it in a landmark 1993 Atlantic Monthly article, that “Dan Quayle Was Right”—that, on average, children in married, two-parent families do better than other kids by every measure of success. Once-skeptical experts began acknowledging that the traditionalists had it right all along, and advocates announced, in the words of ChildTrends, that “[m]arriage is one of the most beneficial resources for adults and children.” Just a decade ago it seemed impossible to imagine a leftish organization like the Center for Law and Social Policy going on record that “society should try to help more children grow up with their two biological, married parents in a reasonably healthy, stable relationship,” but that’s what has happened.
Still not convinced that there’s anything to cheer about? Think about how much more child-centered Americans have become compared with 15 or 20 years ago—the era of the latchkey kid, when the Nickelodeon children’s network touted itself as a “parent-free zone,” and Home Alone was the signature kids’ movie. But by the nineties, soccer moms had the keys to the house and the minivan, which was mounting up thousands of miles on trips to soccer matches, violin lessons, and swim meets. Studies showed a big drop in children’s unstructured time. Even older kids came under their parents’ hothouse scrutiny: “helicopter parents,” in Neil Howe and William Strauss’s term, hover over their children even after they leave for college, talking on the phone every day, visiting frequently, and helping them with their papers via e-mail.
The 30-somethings who are today’s young parents show every sign of keeping the hearth fires burning bright. According to American Demographics, Gen-X parents are “nostalgic for the childhood that boomers supposedly had. It’s informed their model of the perfect, traditional marriage.” Gen-X women are abandoning Ms. for Mrs.: according to a recent Harvard study, the past decade has seen a “substantial decrease” in the percentage of college-educated brides keeping their maiden names. If they can afford to, these Missuses are also choosing the nursery over the cubicle; by 2000, the number of women in the workforce with infants under one dropped from 59 percent to 55 percent, the first decline in decades. The New York Times Magazine has run high-profile stories of six-figure MBAs and lawyers leaving their jobs to be at home with their babies, Time published a recent cover story on the trend toward professional-class stay-at-homes, and Cosmopolitan, of all places, has found a new group of “housewife wannabes” who would like nothing more than to do a Donna Reed. And these young mothers want big families: USA Today reports that “the rate of women having more than two children rose steadily in the late 1990s.”
Their traditionalism also embraces old-fashioned discipline. A 1999 Yankelovich survey found that 89 percent of Gen Xers think modern parents let kids get away with too much; 65 percent want to return to a more traditional sense of parental duty. “Character education” is hot in school districts across the country—as are the Girl Scouts, because, as official Courtney Shore told the Washington Times, “parents and communities are returning to values-based activities.” Today’s parenting magazines do a brisk trade in articles with titles like ARE YOU A PARENT OR A PUSHOVER? GET A DISCIPLINE MAKEOVER AND TEACHING YOUR CHILD RIGHT FROM WRONG.
In the workplace as at home, these Gen Xers are powerhouses—hardworking and creative in the best American tradition. Forbes called them “the most entrepreneurial generation in American history.” According to a study by Babson College professor Paul Reynolds, 80 percent of the 7 million strivers who started their own businesses in 1995 were between 19 and 31. Millennials look likely to continue the trend, with 56 percent of college seniors telling the Generation 2001 survey that they will likely work for themselves or start their own businesses. To meet the demand, reports USA Today, colleges offering entrepreneurship majors have soared from 175 to 500 since 1990.
All these more cautious, child-centered, and entrepreneurial values seem likely to translate into more conservative politics. According to the American Freshman survey, the number of first-year college students holding conservative political views grew from 14 percent to 21 percent between 1973 and 2003, while the percentage of liberals slumped from 1971’s high of 38 percent to 24 percent. (The vast majority of college kids, like Americans in general, describe themselves as moderates.) Harvard’s Institute of Politics shows 31 percent of young voters saying they are Republican, 27 percent Democrat, and 38 percent independent.
Young voters are also more supportive of President Bush than the public at large, with 18- to 29-year-olds giving him a 62 percent approval rating. Perhaps they like his style—a mature grown-up in contrast to his predecessor—but they also like his substance: 60 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds said that going to war in Iraq was the right thing to do. “It seems impossible that a generation reared on free-love television and rap music, a generation far more tolerant of ethnic diversity and homosexuality than its elders, could support the GOP whose base is anchored in the religious right,” Mort Kondracke wrote recently in Roll Call. “But at the moment the numbers support the view of GOP leaders that young people are trending Republican because they like Bush.”
It seems impossible, all right. How could kids be going down a straight path at a time that their movies, TV, and music have been going over the edge, with reports by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the National Television Violence Study showing the sex and violence content of American entertainment exploding toxically over the last 15 years? How could any culture flourish when the young spend their time watching Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, listening to Eminem, enacting the Vagina Monologues in a high school play (as they did recently at the Amherst, Massachusetts, Regional High School), and playing video games like “Suicide Bomber Game” or “Grand Theft Auto,” where the player assumes the role of a coke dealer who rapes a prostitute? Yet researchers Howe and Strauss say that Millennials “are the first generation in living memory to be actually less violent, vulgar, and sexually charged than the popular culture adults are producing for them.” How can that be?
Generational backlash counts for a lot: what we’re seeing now is a rewrite of the boomer years. The truth is, Gen Xers and Millennials have some real gripes about the world their boomer parents constructed. When a 1999 Peter D. Hart Research Associates poll asked Americans between the ages of 18 to 30 what experience had shaped their generation, the most common answer was “divorce and single-parent families.” Growing up in the aftermath of America’s great marriage meltdown, no wonder that young people put so much stock in marriage and family, their bedrock in the mobile twenty-first century.
In fact, in some respects young Gen-X adults resemble their Silent Generation grandparents more than their boomer parents, especially in their longing for suburban nesting as a dreamlike aspiration. On her blog “Church of the Masses,” Gen Xer Barbara Nicolosi recently noted the explosion in the number of home-makeover shows like Surprise by Design, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, and Trading Spaces. “For my generation, which has had to pay tens of thousands of dollars just to get educated—home ownership has become the American Dream again,” she writes. “(For our boomer parents, who got to go to college for cheap and who mostly inherited property from their Greatest Generation parents, the American Dream seems to have been something about doing whatever they felt like without ever getting stuck or pregnant.)”
Then there is 9/11. Most trend spotters believe that Americans were already beginning to embrace more traditional values before the terrorist attacks: “September 11 accelerated a trend we had already seen,” says Youth Intelligence veep Catherine Stellin. Soccer families went deeper into a cocooning mode; the heroic acts of police, firefighters, and soldiers doubtless encouraged the predisposition of Millennials to respect authority. In September 2001, the Washington Post reported, students at a Virginia progressive school—who choose their own courses, call teachers by their first names, and ignore a state law requiring them to say the Pledge of Allegiance—spontaneously began reciting the pledge at an assembly. The heartfelt patriotism and seriousness of the young has impressed even some cynical Bushwhacking lefties. Al Franken, author of the anti-Bush bestseller Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, was amazed to find that he “became irrationally attached” to U.S. soldiers—many of whom are young enough to be his children—during a Christmas USO trip to Iraq. “I got all teary-eyed at ‘God Bless America,’ ” Franken wrote in the left-wing magazine Mother Jones. “In the front row I saw a black male soldier, swaying back and forth and really meaning it.”
Also changing the zeitgeist is immigration. Marketers often characterize today’s young generation by its “diversity”; a better way to put it is to say that it teems with immigrants and the sons and daughters of immigrants. Only 64 percent of Gen Xers and 62 percent of Millennials are non-Hispanic whites, compared with three-quarters of baby boomers. Twenty percent of today’s teens have at least one immigrant parent. These kids often have a fervent work ethic—which can raise the bar for slacker American kids, as any high schooler with more than three Asian students in his algebra class will attest. Their parents tend toward traditionalism when it comes to marriage and family, with minuscule divorce and illegitimacy rates among Asians (though not among Hispanics, where families headed by a single mother have expanded rapidly). Immigrant kids are more likely to listen to their parents, and they tend not to be alienated ingrates who take their country’s prosperity and opportunities for granted. As a Vietnamese high schooler wrote on PopPolitics.com: “When your parents have traveled thousands of miles to live here, when they spend three hours a day driving you and your siblings to various activities, when they paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for a cramped house they could have bought half-price elsewhere, you feel a debt.”
And that drive and seriousness take us to reason number four: the information economy. According to the American Freshman survey, 73.8 percent of college kids say succeeding financially is an important life goal—a huge rise from the 40 percent who thought so in the late 1960s. These kids know they have to be hardworking, forward-looking, and pragmatic. But they know opportunity is out there, having just witnessed one of the most remarkable booms in American history, a time when black family poverty fell from 44 percent in 1992 to 23 percent in 1999, and when an astonishing 23 percent of households began earning over $75,000. Though plenty of Gen Xers lost their shirts when the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, there’s little sign that they are souring on the free market. J. Walker Smith, president of the Yankelovich consultancy group, told Adweek that Gen Xers “feel more comfortable than boomers in reinventing themselves—they’re more self-reliant and more self-directed. They’re at home in an uncertain market and are going to look for a way to reengineer opportunities for themselves right here.”
Some argue that we are witnessing the rise of a shallow, money-grubbing generation. After all, the number of kids who say “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” is an important goal has plummeted during the same period in which the number of those valuing financial success has soared. But remember: living in an age of “ecstatic capitalism,” middle-class young people, who often have had opportunities to hone their talents in everything from computer science to theater to debate, expect work to be gratifying as well as remunerative. They see work itself as a source of meaning—as well as an engine of self-discipline.
Comfort with the advanced market economy also helps explain how it is that a vulgar popular culture has not had the corrupting influence on behavior that we might have feared. Growing up steeped in entertainment media, the young learn early on to be skeptical toward its blandishments. They don’t believe they take their ideas about how to live a decent life from Dawson’s Creek or 50 Cent. In a recent survey from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, for instance, teens were asked who influences their values about sex: only 4 percent answered “the media,” while 45 percent answered “my parents.” Of course, kids don’t necessarily know where they’re getting their ideas. And of course popular culture has some influence on their behavior. Presumably, suburban middle-school boys who grab and fondle girls in the halls, while the girls hint at their availability for oral sex, did not learn any of this at the dinner table.
Even after all these changes, of course, we still live in a post–sexual revolution culture. Nobody pretends we’re going back to the 1950s. Americans may have abandoned the credo of “if it feels good, do it,” but they still embrace sexual pleasure as a great human good and take pride in advertising their own potential for success in that area. David Brooks coined the term “bobo” to refer to bourgeois bohemians, but the newest generation of bobos might be better described as bourgeois booty-shakers. Young mothers go to “strip aerobics” classes, where they do their workout by pole dancing, before they go off to pick up little Tiffany at kindergarten. Madonna does some provocative tongue wrestling with Britney Spears on national television, but everyone knows that in reality she glories in being a Hollywood soccer mom (and Mrs. Guy Ritchie, as she would have it). An edgy exterior no longer necessarily connotes a radical life-style: not long ago, I watched a heavily pierced couple, as the bride-to-be, with her stringy, dyed red hair, torn jeans, and bright green sneakers, squealed over the pear-shaped diamond engagement ring she was trying on. Go figure.
The popular media has been trying to make sense of these crosscurrents. Some writers seem to grasp that they can bombard their viewers with breast and fart jokes, but in the end people are still interested in how to live meaningful lives. Consider the WB network’s popular series Gilmore Girls. The main character, Lorelai Gilmore, is a single 30-something who had a baby when she was 16. A motor-mouthed girl-woman, she picks fights with her now-teenage daughter over the size of their “boobs,” makes pop-culture allusions as obsessively as any teenybopper, and mugs and pouts during her weekly adolescent-style tiffs with her own parents. The daughter, Rory, on the other hand, is the proto-Millennial: sober, hardworking, respectful, and chaste. Her hell-raiser mother’s jaw drops when she hears that her daughter hasn’t really thought about having sex with her boyfriend. Meanwhile, this season Rory is a freshman at Yale, where she writes for the school paper and reads, you know, literature. (The Sun Also Rises? On the network that gave us Dawson’s Creek?) Yes, this is a piece of pop-culture effluvium, but its point, made weekly, is that Rory has the promising future, while her mother reflects the childish past.
Look also at American Wedding, last year’s sequel to the movie American Pie, a foul teen cult film about a group of high school boys determined to have sex before they graduate. (On second thought, don’t—unless your idea of cinematic fun includes extended jokes about pubic hair and dog doo.) In one scene of the sequel, which depicts the nuptials of one of the couples that we met in the earlier movie, the bride-to-be, Michelle, asks her future father-in-law to help her write her vows. “How do you describe making love?” he asks her, to get her started on her composition. But Michelle can only think of vulgarisms: she stands for a generation that, like Shakespeare’s Caliban, has yet to be taught a civilized language. Still, her wedding, complete with white gown, bridesmaids, toasts, and a band that plays fox trots, clearly reflects her longing for the sort of refined feelings that she has no words for. “How did a perv like you become such a great guy?” Michelle asks her new husband, after she delivers her vows, marked by their sincerity if not their poetry, during “the wedding of her dreams.” “How did a nympho like you become such a great girl?” he asks her in turn. It is a wonder.
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.