EDITOR’S NOTE: First came the Ignos. Then came the Duhs. And now we have “yet another group of American folk heroes: the ‘Ughs.’” You’ve seen them nightly, from between your fingers, on countless commercials–sweating, slobbering, wiping, dripping, inserting, phleming, staining, flushing. It’s enough to make a sane person wretch, and a Misanthrope scream. And our does, in this May 20, 2002, classic NR back-page oeuvre by the mighty Miss Florence King, who once again stands athwart familiarity yelling Stop!
Of course, this column, and all of Miss King’s delightful back-page oeuvre for National Review, can be found, and enjoyed, in STET, Damnit, The Misanthrope’s Corner, 1991 to 2002, which is available only from NR. Order it securely here.
Last year I examined the trend toward nationwide stupidity in two columns about the people I called “Ignos” and “Duhs.” Now I ask you to turn your attention to yet another group of American folk heroes: the “Ughs.”
We live in stomach-turning times. Dial soap’s “You’re not as clean as you think you are” commercial shows a dog drinking from a toilet and then licking its owner’s face.
Folger’s coffee has taken Maxwell House’s “good to the last drop” pitch and rendered it literally: The Folger’s drinker accidentally spills a drop of his coffee on the diner counter, then bends over and licks it up with a loud slurp.
DiGiorno pizza’s sloppy bachelor roommates smack their lips and talk with full mouths as they argue over whether it’s delivery or DiGiorno.
Nyquil’s man-with-a-cold gets out of bed and goes to the kitchen for a glass of warm milk. On his way back upstairs he snorts, drips, gags, hacks, and has a loud, phlegmy sneezing fit that spills the milk all over his bathrobe.
Tropicana orange juice, striving for a calcium statement, shows us a child patting the belly of his extremely pregnant mother, who is clad in a wet swimsuit.
PermaTreat exterminators announces, “That’s a real cockroach problem,” and then shows us an actual swarm.
Kodak (I believe it is) features a young man trying to win back his girlfriend by taking a picture of his tattooed pelvis.
A magazine ad for a toilet-bowl cleaner (I can’t find the clipping and don’t remember the brand) showed a smiling woman in her bathroom. The caption read: “It really works! If you don’t believe it, smell my toilet!”
A grocery coupon that turned up in a Sunday paper last December offered $1.00 off on two boxes of the product, which, thanks be to God, I no longer need, because it would be impossible to boycott. The accompanying ad read:
“Guess who’s joining you under the mistletoe? Go ahead–kiss your crush. KOTEX has you covered. Stock up for seasonal surprises. (Like your period.) Happy Holidays from Kotex. Kotex fits. Period. Check out Kotex.com.”
They used to be called “sanitary napkins” and sold already wrapped in plain brown paper so that women would not be embarrassed to buy them from a male drug clerk, or to be seen buying them by strange men. That was back when toilets could not be photographed; in old movies, bathroom scenes of a man shaving or a woman in a bubbly tub never showed the toilet. The first to be filmed was the one in Psycho, and it caused audible gasps and nervous laughter.
Sweatiness was limited to characters who worked hard or engaged in physical struggle. Hairiness was considered feral; armpits could not be shown in deodorant ads and actors like William Holden had to have their chests shaved. As for sloppy table manners, they were second only to black hats as signposts of the bad guys.
These standards were abandoned as relics of hypocrisy and repression, but they are starting to look a lot like civilization as the Ughs tighten their grip on the culture. “Gross-out” movies are now an actual genre, like sci-fi and Westerns, and we can’t avoid watching them. Rubrics like “Just switch channels” are useless. Between promos aired repeatedly during station breaks and film clips featured on entertainment news, we get a Best Of sampling of green snot and half- eaten worms without leaving the privacy of our homes.
Of course we miss some scenes, like the pharting contest, but not really. Anyone who has ever had any contact with pubescent males hasn’t missed a thing; if you have an eighth-grade diploma you have what amounts to a lifetime movie pass. Pubescent males are charter members of Ugh, and the eighth grade is the high noon of their compulsion to exercise the only power they have: the power to disgust. Being disgusting, especially in the eyes of those scary creatures called girls, is their greatest delight.
Since arrested development is as American as apple pie, it is easy to identify the subconscious motivation of the adult male Ughs who produce all these revolting movies and commercials. They are our tassel-loafered Taliban, engaged in a last, desperate striving for male domination under the tacit battle cry, “If you can’t beat ‘em, disgust ‘em.”
Unfortunately, it’s getting harder and harder to disgust women these days, so the Ugh content of American life must keep expanding to fill the vacuum left by female modesty and delicacy. Consequently, our entire population now has a median age of 14, and a sense of proportion that never gets past the eighth grade.
To see what the Ughs are doing to us, consider the sensation caused by the English leading lady, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, who became the first actress to blow her nose onstage during a crying scene in the 1893 play, The Second Mrs. Tanqueray. The realistic touch won the hearts of the audience because they were too far away to see and hear the physical effects of tears, but the blubbery, smeary weeping on daily display in news close-ups has a very different effect on us.
Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt, it is contempt. We are drowning in the bodily fluids of total strangers. If we add up all the sights and sounds that are forced on us–all the ear wax, armpits, gags, belches, pharts, mouth-slapping, tooth-sucking, nose-picking, and the butt cleavage exposed by wearers of low-slung jeans–it becomes instantly clear what has happened: Everybody is married to everybody else. The Ughs have given us E Pluribus Unum in spades; America is one big couple, suffering from the kind of frayed nerves and quotidian strains for which marriage has ever been famous.
Our various “rages”–road, air, subway, whatever–are directed at strangers, yet there is something oddly intimate about them. They seem more like the continuation of an old fight, possessing that sudden bubbling-up quality that invariably precedes domesticity’s timeless signature line:
“If you do that one more time I’ll scream!”