America Turns Prim and Proper

July 10, 2004 | By Lee Siew Hua

A new decency is at play in American popular culture—and it coincides with the rise of a new generation that is more conservative than their rebellious Sixties-era parents.

The outcry over Janet Jackson’s breast-baring stunt is one vivid aspect of a new American primness, ephemeral or not, and it has also defined decency as one wedge issue in the elections.

Post-Janet, the annual Victoria’s Secret lingerie show was cancelled on national television.

Then, certain “live” broadcasts such as the Oscars were aired only after safe five-minute video delays.

Amusingly, a recent New York Times headline declared: Sex Doesn’t Sell: Miss Prim Is In.

American fashion designers like Oscar de la Renta were subverting the runways with Peter Pan collars and prim coats, and to be uptight was “edgy,” the report said.

The Federal Communications Commission made the most of this Victorian moment in the national mood by punishing Clear Channel for radio shock-jock Howard Stern’s on-air comments on anal sex.

Clear Channel agreed last month to pay US$1.75 million (S$3 million) in fines.

All this while, radical Madonna, always ahead of trends, has been penning children’s books, dressing demurely in Laura Ashley florals, and exalting motherhood.

Indeed, the quarterly City Magazine, which is mined by policymakers and the media for ideas and trends, highlighted America’s cultural pendulum swing in its Spring 2004 edition: “Americans have been self-correcting from a decades-long experiment with ‘alternative values.”

“During the last 10 years, most of the miserable trends in crime, divorce, illegitimacy, drug use, and the like that we saw in the decades after 1965 either turned around or stalled.

“What is emerging is a vital, optimistic, family-centred, entrepreneurial, and yes, morally thoughtful, citizenry.”

Mr Phillip Longman, who researches demographics and public policy, linked the Janet Jackson backlash to a magnified parental protectiveness and moderate cultural currents.

“Culturally, the US is beginning to know a brand-new generation that is more modest sexually and more committed to family,” the New America Foundation senior fellow said.

“Their parents typically wanted them really badly. They invested unprecedented amounts of attention and money on their kids, who are highly protected. People objected to Janet Jackson because their children are so precious.”

These young people belong to the new Millennial Generation of 70 million young Americans, a populous cohort born after 1980.

Survey after survey shows that this is a more wholesome and purposeful generation that, more than their elders, supports school prayer, abstains more or less from teenage sex, volunteers in impressive numbers, believes in teamwork and consensus, accepts authority and values family and traditional marriage.

Mr Neil Howe and Mr William Strauss, historians and authors on generational issues, wrote an essay last year for Axess Magazine titled Generation 2000: America’s New Conformists.

“Since the early 1990s, the rate of violent crime among teens is down 70 per cent, the rate of teen pregnancy and abortion is down 30 per cent, and the rate of sexual activity in high school is down 20 per cent,” they wrote.

Unlike their baby boomer parents who pushed Sixties excesses and provoked authority, the Millennials or Generation Y trust the authorities and are unperturbed by high-security measures, notably since the 1999 Columbine school shootings, according to the two authors.

That was their Sept 11. Millennials first voted in 2000, and 10 million of them can cast ballots this year.

Though their politics is still forming, young people may show some pro-Bush tilt or at least share a religious affinity with him.

Young people aged 15 to 26 tend to support school prayer and approve of Christian fundamentalists more than older people do.

According to a 2002 Berkeley survey, 69 per cent of youths want school prayer, compared to 59 per cent of older adults.

Perhaps they will choose to weigh in on decency, which is one “wedge issue” in the November presidential election, as a recent USA Today commentary noted.

However, their political profile is still in flux because of strong disenchantment with politics.

And indecency standards will also flux as the American marketplace shifts.

What is clearer is that the Millennial Generation will in time produce a mightier imprint on American life and decency standards, and possibly globally, as long as the United States exports trends and peddles soft power.

As Mr Howe and Mr Strauss indicated, these decent American Millennials may well become “the leading edge of a global generation” after a little time lag and, ultimately, they will define the next stage in America’s hyper-power.