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Love, American-style

Crank Call


Published February 7, 2001 at 6:57 p.m.

Surprise! It’s Valentine’s Day, almost. More precisely, it’s Valentine’s shopping season, and “the slower economy isn’t stopping shoppers from buying Valentine’s Day gifts,” according to the International Mass Retail Association, which keeps track of these things.

Last month IMRA asked 1000 shoppers if they considered themselves “romantic.” Most — 65 percent — said that they did. About a third said no, they didn’t, and the rest weren’t sure — not many, by the sound of it. “Romantic self-perception is highest,” of course, in the demographic everyone wants on the team: consumers aged 18 to 44.

“Men plan to spend a lot more than women this year, and almost 28 percent more than they spent last year,” IMRA reports eagerly. “They will buy nearly $122 worth of gifts to show they care, while women plan to spend about $50. Men’s top gift choices are cards and flowers, and women favor giving cards and candy.”

What, no roses for the guys? In February, greeting-card companies normally shift their marketing tactics to men, who otherwise don’t buy a lot of their products. “Guilt is useful in our promotions,” the industry states, but I think this is the last year they can count on that being the case. I’m 47, though, so I could be wrong.

A recent Playboy poll of 750 American males reveals that 8 percent of them have already “cut back on their bedroom romping” in order to play with their “consumer electronics devices.” Thirty-six percent are “forsaking the outdoors,” Playboy reports, and 33 percent have been exercising less. “Alarmingly,” 79 percent brought “at least one of their devices with them on vacation,” while the average number of “devices” owned was seven per pop. But fear not: This being Playboy, 75 percent also said “that if they were stranded on a desert island, they’d ditch the gizmos in favor of a pretty lady.”

Desert islands are big right now, as everyone knows (if you’ve been “outdoors” lately, you’d forsake it, too). First, there’s “Temptation Island” on television, where young couples get to test each other’s “commitment” by leaving their partners alone in the Caribbean with “fantasy singles” — models, if you prefer, or “prostitutes,” as Margery Eagan calls them in the Boston Herald.

“The problem with ‘Reality TV’ is that there’s nothing real about it,” Eagan grumbles. “I don’t know anyone who’s wrestled crocodiles in the Australian outback.”

I don’t know anyone called “Kimmi,” either, but according to CBS’s “Survivor” Web site, Amber, Jerri and Kimmi, in that order, lead the list of “hits” among the female castaways of “Survivor 2.” Somehow Elisabeth took fourth place — she must be for the PBS crowd — and Alicia is fifth, “appealing” to 18.8 percent of the audience.

“Absolutely 100 percent of all the emotion [the contestants] are experiencing is bona fide,” says “Temptation Island” executive producer, Chris Cowan. True, “the most salacious moments” on “TI” have come from Mandy, a lounge singer, and Billy, who wants to be an actor, but, hey, this is “dramality,” as the “Survivor” producer calls it. Not for nothing is little Tom Cast Away Hanks the cultural apotheosis of Consumer Man.

Now along comes Susan Faludi in Newsweek, moaning about a “gender gap,” a “growing disconnect between women’s material well-being and their sense of satisfaction.” The Center for Policy Alternatives claims that 10 years ago American women were “optimistic” even though “the economy was rotten.” The Center reached this conclusion by means of another poll, naturally, co-sponsored by Lifetime Television. Asked about “the way America was going,” women said it was going “awful,” and that they’re “angry,” “sick” and “fed up” about it.

These aren’t the words you want to hear in a civil society. In proposing his mammoth tax cut for the rich, President Select has invited all Americans to “join the party” — I kid you not. “It is time to fling those doors and windows open and invite everybody in,” Select declares, but here are all these broody women, still wondering, “Is this as good as it gets?”

Faludi writes: “Underlying the question [is] a female j’accuse — against a consumer culture where values like caring [have] been severely discounted. The more you have, the better it gets, has been the decades-long mantra of commercialized femininity.”

No kidding. Where has this best-selling nitwit been? A nation that’s concluded in just two short weeks that President Select is “charming” and “dazzling,” indeed, according to news reports, has bigger problems than learning French. One of my objections to Vermont’s civil-union law is that it further strengthens the fantasy of the Consuming Couple, the completely artificial entity that makes the American economic wheel go round.

I’d hoped that gay men and women might escape this kind of thing, but no, now we’ve got our own series on Showtime, “Queer as Folk.” Like all programs on television, it spends the bulk of its time titillating its audience, only to tell them that fidelity is best. Showtime spends more than $1 million on each episode of this ghastly libel, whose scripts, we’re told, are both “funnier” and “softer” than the real thing.

Thus does “centrism” conspire with the Right. Look for Faludi’s “gender gap” to be expropriated any minute by the Bushmen. Prizes will soon be given for motherhood, I have no doubt, while “Queer as Folk,” if it stays on the air, will come out for flag and country. “This is an odd and wonderful mixture of raw and charm,” says Showtime’s Dan Lipman, another producer who ought to be strung up on a gibbet. “Something that is dark and threatening isn’t something you’d want to return to.”

Goodness, no. Just eat the candy and roll over, already.

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