Historian Gertrude Himmelfarb famously argued that America was one country but two cultures. One culture reflects older concepts of republican virtue. The other is more reflective of the counterculture of the late 1960s. Evidence of this great divide can be found in communities throughout the country.
I live in the suburbs of northern Virginia, a purplish area within commuting distance of Washington, D.C. Socially, it is a patchwork quilt of government employees, active and retired military, high-tech workers, lots of lawyers, and down-home, native Virginians here and there. Although, nominally, part of a red state, this very affluent area reflects the one-two dichotomy described by Himmelfarb.
On a recent visit to my local Borders bookstore, I was dawdling at the table containing new non-fiction. There was a copy of The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics on the opposite side of the table, just out of my view.
A little girl came up to the table and exclaimed to her father, “That’s a scary book!” Her father, probably in his late 30s or early 40s, sought to reassure her: “That’s not a scary book, honey. That’s the Grateful Dead.” The child seemed unconvinced, but chose not to argue with the voice of authority.
I waited until the father and daughter moved on, before circling around to take a look at the book. The volume sported a macabre graphic typical of albums, T-shirts, and other paraphernalia marketed by the Dead for decades. In this case it was a skeleton wearing half a jester’s outfit while sitting on a stone wall tuning a mandolin. A solitary crow was perched, attentively, on the ground nearby.
While hardly a Dead Head, I enjoy most of the music of the Grateful Dead. I even attended one of their concerts, oh, 100 years ago. Still, theirs was a lifestyle not my own. Now, as the father of a not-so-little platoon, I am more inclined to foist J. S. Bach, U2, or Johnny Cash on my brood rather than the Dead or Jefferson Airplane.
A Not-So-Secret Secret
That little girl’s spontaneous exclamation, based on a childlike intuition, was exactly right. The cover on the book, with its skeletal logo, represents a figurative and, possibly, literal death wish, given the lifestyles celebrated by these denizens of cultural liberation–rampant drug abuse being but one such manifestation. The father’s soothing response to his daughter’s dead-on insight was an attempt, albeit unconsciously, to socialize the child into a worldview which celebrates unabashed personal autonomy over most forms of self-restraint.
This epiphany occurred last week, the same week that Tysons Corner Center, northern Virginia’s contribution to wretched excess and one of the biggest malls in the nation, opened a new addition. Right there amidst the new restaurants, a 16-screen theater, Baby Gap, Talbot’s Kids, and other outlets targeting young families and teenagers, were new window and floor displays, compliments of Victoria’s Secret, entitled, “Backstage Sexy.” According to the local NBC affiliate, it featured “bare-bottomed mannequins in provocative poses and suggestions of bondage.” They were tarted out with rhinestone garters, fishnet stockings, and feathery thongs.
There were also two female mannequins lounging on a bed (one was removed after the first wave of protests). The Washington Post described a scene in which “one scantily clad female mannequin crawling toward another who reclined on a left hip and leaned back on both hands.” All this was in immediate proximity to hordes of teenagers who were mall-walking in the newly expanded shopping center.
Several well-traveled adults compared the display to the red-light district of Amsterdam. The Post quoted one woman describing it as the “Little Shop of Whores.” “Slut ware” was the term used by one father, who noted that the “feathery-thong-clad mannequin bent over as if she were adjusting her spike heels.”
Of course, not all shoppers were so offended. “I love it,” said one lady. Another woman, over from the District of Columbia, told the Post, “I like the dark side of Vicky’s. Every woman has a little bit of the dark side in here . . . I have a husband, and I know he would love this. This is what keeps you happily married.” Is that what he tells you?
We’ve Come a Long Way, Baby
As a father, I spend a fair amount of time intercepting commercials, mailings, and unsolicited shower gifts generated by and purchased from this purveyor of provocative undergarments. I don’t recall my own father ever having to do the same regarding any such unsolicited items from the cheesy Frederick’s of Hollywood. It was there for those who sought it out, but it did not thrust itself on the rest of us. Compared to Victoria’s Secret, it was the model of decorum and restraint. What has changed is consumer demand from mainstream America or, if Himmelfarb is correct, from one part of it. This is both a supply- and demand-side phenomenon.
Basically, a perverse, trivialized view of human sexuality, now part of the sinews of our society, has combined with high-powered marketing to give us “Vicky’s.” It is the “cultural contradiction of capitalism” on steroids. Limited Brands, Inc., the parent company, claims that the Tysons display is part of a national campaign in approximately 1,000 stores. Look for it at a store near you!
Reflecting on this degradation of the moral ecology, in former Confederate territory at that, it is worth reconsidering many of the old libertarian bromides. Victoria’s Secret’s outrages may not be crimes, but neither are they victimless. You have to be some kind of Cartesian, mind-body dualist to think that what people think, say, or otherwise communicate has no impact on how they behave, use, or abuse their own bodies. If ideas have consequences–for adults, children, and families–it is time to challenge those ideas, championed by Limited Brands and Victoria’s Secret, and enabled by landlords, mall owners, and feckless consumers.
Norms, values, and ethics are a precondition of ordered liberty, a free society, and a market economy. Their sources are family, community, and religious faith. Without them, disorder runs rampant within the human heart and within society.
The family is the paramount human society which is threatened by the licentiousness (there is no other word for it) promoted by businesses such as Victoria’s Secret, Hollywood film studios, breweries, and Super Bowl promoters. Rather than celebrating fidelity and self-sacrifice in the context of stable family life, they promote self-indulgence that pollutes the public square from which it is impossible to insulate one’s family or oneself.
A nascent protest movement seems to be growing in the Virginia suburbs, but it isn’t scaring any of the merchants for now. The Tysons mall management has made some slight alterations to the window and floor displays. However, the Washington Post reports that “the changes seemed more subtle than significant . . . ” One mannequin’s bare posterior has been turned around.
Maybe the good citizens of northern Virginia, joined by fellow travelers throughout the country, will vote with their pocketbooks and reclaim the public square, or at least the mall.
– G. Tracy Mehan III was assistant administrator for water at the Environmental Protection Agency during President Bush’s first term. He is presently a consultant in Arlington, Va.