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Little Girls and Mad Men

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Two little girls I know, age 6, showed up the other day at a public pool in Washington for a swim. They were excited by the prospect of escaping, if only for a little while, the heat pushing the thermometer close to 100.

Alas, they were wearing the only bathing suits they had: bikini bottoms, no tops. No go, they were told by the pool manager. There was a dress code, and no one was allowed to dress "inappropriately in a way that may offend others." Did I say these were 6-year-olds?

"Don't worry," their grandfather said. "They're boys."

The enforcer at the gate was not amused. Rule-enforcers, as a rule, rarely are.

The enforcer told the disappointed little girls they could wear their dresses in the pool, or she would find inflatable tops that children who can't swim wear so they're covered up "up there." The little girls knew how to swim, and they didn't want to ruin their dresses. They left in tears.

I've heard similar stories about rigid dress codes for small children at pools, and I've been surprised that many adults are so terrified of perverts and molesters that they applaud such harsh rules. I understand the fear, but have we gone nuts?

Our "liberated" culture, drenched in anything-goes sex (or "gender," for those who regard the very word as something as scary as a topless 6-year-old) now demands that we cast a dark shadow over genuine innocence in the name of protecting children. We must send innocence underground, robbing children of their incorruption.

I thought about all this the other night watching an episode of "Mad Men," the television drama enthralling millions, set in the long ago, the early 1960s. The ad men and their clients argue about how to sell Jantzen bathing suits. The ad men prescribe a "sexy" campaign for a "two piece" -- not a bikini. The Jentzen folk want to maintain modesty; the ad men want to sell bathing suits.

We've changed a lot in six decades, and not always for the better. At its best, television drama holds up a mirror to a reality we can measure ourselves against, for better or worse. The appeal of "Mad Men" is its drama-in-costume, entertaining us with retro-fashion trends. But it's also a reminder of how sexual mores operated in a more repressed time, before we made everything illicit explicit.

Few of us want to go back to the '50s, though the decade was better than its reputation, but "Mad Men" warns us not to be so smug about our hyperactive "progressive" world. Rebellions then were about the individual, not so much about society. We've come to think of the two decades following World War II as an "Age of Conformism," but passion in a sea of conformity required more self-reliance, more "gumption" than the oppressive political correctness that smothers us in the name of protecting us.

When one of the "girls" in the office of "Mad Men" submits to a brief sexual fling -- a "quickie" -- with her boss, they both regret it. They show their regret in different ways. He gives her money, in the form of a bonus, and she wrecks his office to punish him for giving her money, not respect. She has the last word, screaming an anachronism: "You're not a nice person." Her hurt feelings resonate today, when "hook-ups" reflect no discernment of what's even meant by "nice."

Critics speculate why "Mad Men" drew an estimated 3 million viewers to its opening episode this season. Some suggest that we like to feel superior (sexually liberated) and healthier (less booze and fewer cigarettes, more organic celery and fewer sweets, more exercise and the war against flab and blubber). Others applaud the way women are no longer the "second sex," having burst at last through the glass ceiling.

The writers are canny (as well as occasionally campy) when they intrude between the actors and the audience in life-parodies of the way we were. When the boyfriend of one of the "girls" in the office tells her that they should do "it" the moment they feel attracted to each other, "like they do in Sweden," she knows better. She understands that the problem in Utopia is that the "good life" quickly becomes the tyranny of a new norm.

And before you know it, 6-year old girl children must wear a bikini top or get out of the pool.

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