Janet Jackson is a heroine for our time. Her titillation is less a low for prime time television than a confirmation of what's wrong with our pop culture. What's surprising is the explosion of outrage that was her "gift" to all of us.
Only a few years ago, the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan described how our society was "defining deviancy down," how we legitimize behavior that not so long ago was universally deemed antisocial. The pop culture pushed perversity, raising the threshold of shameful.
All the critics said all the proper things after Janet Jackson exposed one breast decorated with costume jewelry, but her exhibitionism had passed without much censure before. No one expressed caution in having her entertain on prime time network television, at halftime of the Super Bowl, the one night of the year that parents and children watch television together.
"CBS deeply regrets the incident," we're told. Sure it does. Particularly if it costs the network money. CBS doesn't "deeply regret" the vulgar, obscene and violent ads for which advertisers paid a record $2.3 million for 30 seconds. Talk about time being money. Ever since Bob Dole made a commercial for a product to aid "erectile dysfunction," such ads are as commonplace as shills for Pepsi and Budweiser. Maybe that's what Justin Timberlake was trying to fix with his dirty dancing gyrations. "Wardrobe malfunction," indeed.
You don't have to be an entertainer to test limits. Time magazine reports that 40 percent of the girls in high school wear thong underwear, usually to expose a strap above the waistline of slacks or skirts. Girls begin flashing this way at age 7. Britney Spears has gone from fresh innocence to a writhing siren in her performances; the Beatles went from "I want to hold your hand" to "Why don't we do it in the road?" We've come a long way from when a glimpse of stocking was something shocking.
As entertainers push the envelope in search of "edgy," children lose the ability to discriminate between right and wrong, good and bad. The popular culture becomes the arbiter of taste and morality.
In one episode on the CBS sitcom "Judging Amy," the judge, a single mother, wears a shirt exposing her navel. When her young daughter, not yet a teenager, comes downstairs baring a wide midriff, mother and daughter have a discussion over the shape of her bellybutton. The mother sends her upstairs to change, but she's clueless as to why the little girl wants to dress that way. Later the judge hears a custody case where another mother allows her 14-year-old daughter to make sexy videotapes for a pornographer. It wasn't as if she was doing anything wrong.
The television sitcom is emblematic of our culture; parents, no matter what their degree of education, have abandoned the simplest standard of shame. Their children literally "do not know better." The drip, drip, drip of the popular culture dulls our senses. An open society with high technology exposes increasing numbers of adults and children to the lowest common denomination of sex and violence.
What to do? There is no magic banana, but there are ideas floating outside the Super Bowl stadium that could raise the impulse to humiliate those who resist a common sense appeal to morality. Look how the culture has changed by stigmatizing smokers in restaurants, anyone who uses politically incorrect language (men who call women "girls" and anyone who uses the n-word), women who wear furs, even meat eaters.
My children, for example, are shocked to see how everyone smoked in the movies in the '40s and '50s as a mark of glamour. Steak houses flourish (which pleases me), but there's a proliferation of vegetarian dishes in many restaurants. No self-respecting woman 20 years ago would wear an imitation fur, but one of the most popular design trends of the last decade is cloth that imitates a leopard's skin.
Boycotts of raunchy shows and public protests against specific vulgar and obscene entertainers could go a long way to change what we accept because we think we have no choice.
A friend of mine once was offended when he saw his hip adult son in a T-shirt adorned with the photograph of Ted Bundy, the mass murderer of dozens of young women. He told his son: "Your daughter is more important than life itself to both of us. Think how you would feel if, God forbid, she were murdered and you saw someone wearing a T-shirt glamorizing the man who killed her."
A light bulb flashed on over the young man's head. Without a word he went upstairs to change his shirt, and threw the offending shirt in the trash. What we need are more light bulbs - and more people willing to set them alight.