Guilty Pleasures

We admit we listened to Imus. Despite his raunchy trash talk and mean-spirited attacks, we listened. Our rationalization was that his access to commentators like Tim Russert, David Brooks, Frank Rich, and politicos such as Senators McCain and Kerry kept us in the know. We were getting inside, firsthand news.

Admittedly, we were enjoying a guilty pleasure. We chuckled at his scatter-gun remarks aimed at just about everybody, even when we disagreed with him. Imus called the current administration liars and cheats. He regularly savaged the Clintons. Few escaped without the label “phony.” However, we did grimace and cringe when Imus sidekick, Bernard McGuirk, did his way-off-base imitation of Cardinal Egan of New York. The cardinal, dripping with homophobia, was rendered with a silly brogue. The trashy slammer winds up with ‘‘God Bless.’’  This was a carry-over hit job since the original target was the late Cardinal John O’Connor. The real irony was that while he was the satiric target, Cardinal O’Connor weekly spent eight hours at a New York AIDS hospice visiting dying patients and emptying bedpans. Some homophobe.

Imus and his crew clearly contributed to an uncouth culture, which engulfs us. However, he hit the wrong target in the Rutgers Women’s Basketball team. The tipping point occurred. Imus is least for now.

The latest fashion can also be a guilty pleasure. Boys and girls and their parents are major targets of a sexualized, hyper-commercialized form of merchandising. A recent article on Benetton's advertising reveals the way most clothing companies approach sales. In the past, Benetton, a hugely successful Italian retailer, created fashion for moms and daughters. Then Benetton decided to spice up their advertising. In 1991, Benetton splashed on trams and billboards huge ads showing a priest kissing a nun. This should have been a wake-up call. The ladies in our family abandoned Benetton on their shopping excursions.

Next Calvin Klein entered the fray with ads aimed directly at the erogenous zones of teenagers. The clothier’s teenage-targeted fashions exploded: bare midriffs, low-rise jeans, and diaphanous shirts. The “hooker look” was in. The ads for male clothing featured pensive young boys and men. We see unisex pre- and teenagers strutting about making an appeal to same-sex attractions. The Gap has recently entered the fashion fray with its jazzy and provocative pants ad featuring an unmarried couple. She starts out in her underpants and he is fully clothed in shirt and khakis. After they dance to ‘‘Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better,” she runs up and rips off his pants--then she wears the pants. “Introducing the boyfriend trousers,” ends the ad. More fashion lines and stores to ignore!

Our shopping may have slowed down, but teens will continue to be the latest target for increasing the bottom line. They have their parents' money to spend. And pity the poor parent who, battered by this advertising world of sexy images and anemic models, tries to block these fashion trends.      

 But perhaps we are approaching the tipping point here, too. Parents we know have a variety of responses to a tawdry fashion culture, which is trying to embrace their children. Some boycott certain houses of fashion which lack demure and modest apparel choices. Some parents, aware that their local public school is allowing a manner of dress too revealing and titillating and, thus, setting slutty fashion trends for their children, are turning to home schooling. There are many reasons to choose to home school, but one important factor is clothing and current fashion for teens at one’s local school. Home school parents make the choice to protect the innocence of their young from premature sex education in the schools and too hot a school scene. However, there is little point in prattle about chastity if the basic wardrobe leads with an alternate message.

We want our children to have a childhood as innocent and unfettered by adult realities as much as possible. Their innocence is precious. Nevertheless, we have allowed them to be surrounded by a culture of sex and mad violence. Some parents eliminate cable television entirely. Why fight the individual battles on what is appropriate viewing?

Other parents try to keep tabs on Internet use. Their advice here is to never allow a computer in a private room, but rather to place it in an open area of the house. A friend of ours with five school-age children discovered that the three oldest had become addicted to Internet pornography. Since they need computers for school, he bought each of them laptops, which he and his wife dole out before study time and then collect once the homework is done. Our friend ruefully discovered, however, that while he was successfully monitoring what is seen at home, his teenagers were going to a friend’s house for their Internet guilty pleasures. His advice is for parents to form a union to screen Internet activity and television shows which are borderline porn. This takes cooperation among many parents and determination to see an agreed standard enforced.

 If enough people pressure the networks-- as occurred with Imus-- Internet ad buyers and the clothing industry, a change may come about. We have allowed various moneymakers and their advertisers to create and endanger our children with a vicious culture. This is one of the great battles of our time. It will not be an easy or short battle. But to be truly counter-cultural is what we Catholics are called to be.  

Kevin and Marilyn Ryan edited “Why I am Still a Catholic” [Riverhead Books, 1998] and live in Chestnut Hill, Mass.