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Boys Will Be … Oafs

This commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.



It's not my fault that I've been watching a lot of television lately. The Bears made me do it.

Since the Chicago Bears were so good this year, I had to watch an unusual amount of football. Since they made the playoffs, I had to watch football through January. And when football stopped, the Winter Olympics started and I needed to tune in.

Here's what I learned: Madison Avenue thinks American young men are moronic oafs.

The jury is out on whether the Satan's pitchmen are right, but one thing is for sure: pop culture is in the oaf-creation business. Big time, Dude.

Sensitive and knowing people have been indoctrinated about the evils perpetuated onto young women by craven mass media for decades. The sociological victims of female-stalking marketing are famous -- fashion victims, anorexics, shopaholics, botox addicts, Lolitas and, of course, low self-esteem sufferers.

The core curriculum at my kids' school teaches how to recognize and criticize unworthy stereotypes, imagery and messages in marketing and pop culture, which I applaud. Interestingly, this is an issue where supposed liberals agree with supposed conservatives: fundamentalist Christians hate exploitive pop culture as much as do politically correct seculars.

But what about the boys?

In the middle of my sports-watching marathon, I read a terrific op-ed piece in The Washington Post by Deborah Roffman, a Baltimore educator who wrote "Sex and Sensibility: The Thinking Parent's Guide to Talking Sense and About Sex."

Roffman argues that the picture of boys and young men as slacker/swiller/sloth/slimeball/slobberer that popular culture peddles is every bit as toxic as its female counterpart.

"Consider, though, what 'boys will be boys' thinking implies about the true nature of boys. I often ask groups of adults or students what inherent traits or characteristics the expression implies. The answers typically are astonishingly negative: Boys are messy, immature and selfish; hormone-driven and insensitive; irresponsible and trouble-making; rebellious, rude, aggressive and disrespectful -- even violent, predatory and animal-like.

Is this a window into what we truly think, at least unconsciously, of the male of the species? Is it possible that deep inside we really think they simply can't be expected to do any better than this? How else to explain the very low bar we continue to set for their behavior, particularly when it comes to girls, women and sex?"

A fine example of the genre is the Bud Light ad campaign starring "Ted Ferguson-Bud Light Daredevil." Ted straps on a crash helmet and attempts drunk-defying stunts, like seeing how long he can last without a Bud Light after work on a Friday. He makes it about 15 minutes before collapsing. In another witty adventure, he dares himself to go shopping with his girlfriend when there's football on TV. He soon faints and his buddies revive him with Bud Light, a La-Z-Boy and a television set.

The striking thing is that Ted is a pudgy, baby-faced kid who doesn't look to be even close to the legal drinking age.

Volkswagen's "My Fast" series is another, equally imbecilic campaign. In it, meatball guys in GTIs are ruled by their "Fast" -- a video game icon-like toy that talks inside their heads. In one of them, the boy won't roll up his window when his girlfriend asks him to. "Sometimes my Fast doesn't get along with my girlfriend," the ad concludes. This is supposed to be something that sells cars.

I have some sympathy for ad makers. They're trying to be funny and I'll excuse most things if they're really funny. But as an author and ad executive named Marian Salzman recently told The Washington Post, "The only people they (advertisers) are still allowed to offend these days are straight white men with a full head of hair." Comedy is hard.

Whatever happened to the old school, Hai Karate-style of advertising that at least tried to flatter guys by making them look suave and debonair?

In the modern guy ad, the guy must be portrayed as misogynistic, addicted, stupid, slobbish and mean -- an oaf who should be repulsive to girls and all humans. You can find the exact same stereotype all over television comedy, movies and pop music, especially some strains of rap.

In fact, most recent serious discussion of boys and popular culture has been prompted by explicitly violent, woman-hating and racist rap. It got most heated several years ago when Eminem performed at the Grammys - it was easier for critics to talk about Eminem because he's white, which allowed them to avoid the inevitable racism thickets.

Around that time, Charles Murray, one of the country's most controversial but interesting intellectuals, published an editorial in The Wall Street Journal called "Prole Models." He provocatively argued that in societies adrift, like ours, "elites" lose confidence in their strong "codes" -- their values and 'internal yardsticks,' the code of gentleman, the code of a lady, for example. That creates a vacuum.

Some in the elite have filled the vacuum with a weak code that he calls "ecumenical niceness" -- sort of a namby-pamby political correctness. But outside of the elite there is a vacuum too and it has been filled by what Murray called the "thug code."

"Take what you want, respond violently to anyone who antagonizes you, gloat when you win, despise courtesy as weakness, treat women as receptacles, take pride in cheating, deceiving, or exploiting successfully. The world of hip-hop is where the code is openly embraced. But hip-hop is only an expression of the code, not its source. It amounts to the hitherto inarticulate values of underclass males from time immemorial, now made articulate with the collaboration of some of America's best creative and merchandising talent.

…And there can be no counterweight from an elite that has lost the confidence to say, "We will not stand for this." If you doubt the impotence of ecumenical niceness, consider the recent reaction to the white rapper Eminem. His misogyny and homophobia are a direct, in-your-face challenge to the most central elements of ecumenical niceness, thrown down within an industry that passionately condemns any whiff of discrimination against women or gays when it is done by a peer. If the dominant minority still possessed a cultural code with spine and elan, Eminem would have no more chance of recording his lyrics than a four-letter word had of getting into Sports Illustrated in 1960."

Thug code is imitated outside its core community, by elites, by marketers and by the entertainment industry. It is embraced by professional athletes and movie stars and characters in beer ads. It is imitated by seventh graders who wear super-baggy pants, greet each other with 'Sup, call each other Dawg and refers to girls as Ho's.

Thus, many schools, probably most, like my own children's school, will embrace ecumenical niceness and teach about social tolerance, gender stereotypes and exploitive marketing in their classrooms, and then tolerate thug behavior and dress in the halls and playgrounds and tolerate kids using words like "ho," "suck" and "bitch" at school.

To use the language of the helping professions, boys are especially at risk to the thug code. Through the peddling of video games, cartoons, sitcoms, beer, cars, hair gel and trash radio, there is great financial incentive to peddle the thug code.

As a society, we will likely get what we pay for. And maybe I ought to give up on the Bears.



Dick Meyer, is the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com.

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