Virtue has nothing to do with the lessons preached from the pages of Seventeen magazine. This misleading title hides the fact that the target audience is as young as twelve which makes the message therein all the more appalling. Everything touted in this slick piece works against chastity and towards materialism, relativism, and seduction.
There are no examples of parental respect, no limits to outlandish behavior, no guidance, no meaningful challenges, and no virtue offered to the reader. Page after page, article after article, ad after ad pounds away at the souls of the girls, instilling in them the desire to have more, toy with more sexually, and reject more intellectually and culturally. A Nike ad — ostensibly for sneakers — sums up the philosophy: “We are all basically hedonists inside. We want what feels good. We need what gives us pleasure ... If it feels good then just do it.” Amen.
Within that creed is the open invitation to each girl to fulfill herself in every way. The pictures and words embody sloth, narcissism, imprudence, wasted talents, disobedience, and androgyny. The message in this pop culture relish in contrasts: for example baby doll dresses with combat boots, men's tuxedo pants with tight skimpy tops, long haired boys paired with bald girls, and both seductive children and childishly clad nymphos. Culture is something to be torn down and recreated on a person by person basis, with all truths and values equally variable.
The buttons are unbuttoned, the zippers stay unzipped, clothes are cleverly out of context and the hair is any which way but combed. Garments are oversized, undersized, half off, and mismatched — to the greater glory of...chaos? My gut reaction to these kids is that they are screaming at the top of their lungs for attention. If form follows function then the radically, rebelliously outlandish forms pouting and scowling in each spread must be desperately looking to be noticed and find the authentic affection that must be sorely lacking in homes across this poor country.
The eyes are vacant, defiant, teasing, distant, suspicious, seductive, anything but honest and direct.
Of all the threats to these readers, the most unrelenting, the most pervasive, and the most despicable is the assault on their chastity. Promiscuity is touted in both the ads and the text and the advice columns are rank with sleazy options. Items for sale ranged from, “lacy, racy, satiny” underwear, which “is nothing to hide!”, complete with push-up bras (at a mere $23 - $46 a set), “make-out proof make-up ... comes off when you wash up, not when you kiss,” and a new condom that plays music to indicate if it breaks. There is a weight loss program that took a heavy girl from the humiliation of being dumped by her boyfriend to being surrounded by handsome hunks with tremendous interest in her new body, and suggested hairdo's that can transform your look “from sporty to sexy in a flash.”
There is an article dedicated to “parking techniques” and the goal is not car to curb, but body to body. The writer reminisces about her prom date, recalling that “he was, well, a grabber. I had to keep backhanding him.” (This scenario is miles from the old picture — where a peck on the cheek to say goodnight would, for many of us, bring on a frantic signal from mother via the front porch light!) No, this date’s fresh advances were not welcome in her parking plan, but for the perfect date, she suggests “whoever has access to the better car, his or yours, should be the driver.” This woman means business in the necking department, “parking is not to be done just anywhere,” and won't be swayed by the snazzy, sporty types. “Ironically,” she notes, “what you don’t want is a sexy little sports car (too small, with barricade like consoles between you.)”
She thought of everything from car layout, to geographical details to the background audio enhancements. Well, she did forget some things — her prudence, her chastity, and her immortal soul.
Parking is but one example of the imprudent situations these girls throw themselves into with seemingly no parental guidance whatsoever. One wants to shout, “where are the parents?!” but a quick calculation shows that their parents were busy first in the radical and heady days of the sixties, then in their assimilation into the abhorred establishment, and only then, with trepidation and anxiety, the world of parenthood. There was no tradition, for them, worth passing on and no cultural norm above defying. Given the age of the readers, for the most part below sixteen and subsequently below the age to hold a paying job with the means to buy not only the magazine but the items advertised, it stands to reason that the parents are supplying the money for both. So in essence, the responsible adult is absent.
Lord of the Flies comes to mind. Most of us were justifiably horrified by the deterioration of the civility of the schoolboys stranded on the desert island. We cringed as they were transformed into a pack of unruly brutes as the days passed and their fallen nature came shining through. It is the nature of the beast — but instead of a vacuum to be filled by twisted inclinations, these girls are surrounded by stimuli goading them into promiscuity, laziness, dishonesty, and ignorance. They are told to primp and dress to get that gorgeous guy to notice (hide that intellect, dear!), to guard that boyfriend from duplicitous and conniving so-called friends, to demand “safe-sex” from that testosterone-charged male, and to stand their ground should parents decide to interfere or the boy act unreasonably (by whose standards?). Beepers are the ultimate weapon to circumspect snooping adults and school-based health clinics make all decisions concerning intimacy at this tender, immature age, privately and virtually consequence-free.
But consequences do occur and, in a bizarre way, these consequences are imbedded even in this “fun-loving, self-seeking” magazine. Sobriety High School is profiled in a chilling article about children saved from the brink of disaster due to chemical dependence. An average Friday night out, for high schoolers, included getting high, finding a party, then driving around looking for more money and more drugs. One girl tells of undergoing a gang-rape while drunk. (Hmm, could these fellows have read the Nike ad?) They note that the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependency statistics say “most kids have their first drink by age 13; in fact 49 per cent of sixth-graders say that peers pressure them to drink.” One third of high-schoolers, notes the Surgeon General, admit to heavy drinking. Two students at this Sobriety High suggest that “at least half of the students in their old schools were stoned or drunk on a given day.” One student said by age fifteen “she was drinking until she passed out most nights of the week.” Again we scream, what about the parents?! Schools like this will be a sad necessity when “feeling good” is raised to an ultimate goal for a generation of children.
Another consequence to the behavior promoted here, of course, is illegitimate births. Now, we know that motherhood is one of the most noble, fulfilling, and challenging vocations God created. In this particular issue of Seventeen, ostensibly for young girls on the threshold of maturity and searching for how to channel their vast energy, motherhood is mentioned twice. An excerpt from a novel states that to Phoebe, an eighteen year old girl, “one thing stood between her and what she thought she needed to feel alive again — her mother.” Mothers, it seems, have a penchant for that sort of thing, according to this magazine.
But if mothers oppress their young, the much stronger message to the readers is that children prove oppressive to their mothers. There is a piece on a program spreading across the country meant to teach children about how much responsibility children really are. Probably the thinking goes, if kids knew how disrupting babies are, they will not have babies. Unfortunately, the message is garbled at best. The students who partake in this program are given virtual babies, “a lifelike, seven-pound anatomically correct infant called Baby Think It Over.” It shrieks every few hours around the clock, must be “fed,” and has enough technology stashed within it to record how attentive the assigned student has been over a three day period. One point was made — children are a real pain. “It's not fun,” says one girl. Another vows she’s “not going to have a baby until she's 80.” After hauling baby equipment around their school rounds, they heave the baby back at their teachers and swear off parenthood as too demanding and draining.
Of course the virtual baby never smiles, coos, or achieves eye contact. But never mind, so far hundreds of schools across the country have invested over $250 apiece to drive the point home. Unfortunately, since irresponsible promiscuity is pushed with the inevitable contraceptive option, there will only be more sexually transmitted diseases, more contraceptive failures, and either abortions or children born to young immature girls without means, which is tragic.
Who is responsible for the contemptuous message passed along to these readers? It is reminiscent of The Body Snatchers, where one turns to a trusted ally for help only to discover that that person is now the enemy. Children inherently look to those who are older for truths, inspirations, and approval. It isn’t often openly the parent, although far more is absorbed in the family than many realize, but children do tune in passionately to the media for guidance. The media, for the most part, have been “snatched;” they are the enemy.
How widespread is Seventeen’s message? Its publicity office claims that “it is stronger than ever and remains the leading voice for young women, reaching 50% of all teenage girls in America and one out of five, ages 18-24.” This means that it is read by over eleven million girls. The magazine boast proudly that “Seventeen has been an important cultural force in this country.” With a staff of people in their mid-twenties, who decide who to promote in the entertainment industry, which fashions are to be emulated, in what forms the inevitable teenage rebellion should take place, and ultimately, “what’s cool, and what’s not,” there is a frightening amount of responsibility and there is a great deal of consequence to every decision.
Since its inception fifty years ago, there have been a great number of changes and the female teenage population reflects it. Anyone who has visited a mall in recent years has seen the evidence — the “mall-rats” in the latest fashions, chasing about after boys and avoiding polite contact with passers-by. They are in their own world of indulgence and instant gratification and concern for the world at large impacts their daily lives. Even the Internet reflects the lifestyle as children as young as nine and ten post messages, “Desperate: cute, fun loving gal needs boyfriend, write to me at...” Piles of such pleas clutter the modems as children search everywhere for affection and attention.
No doubt, many will say that adolescence has always been thus. The difference now is that this hedonism has been presented as life's goal, not a transitory stage before maturity and responsibility. And mistakes, rather than grounding, expulsion, and reform school, now have deadly consequences. Virgin Most Prudent, Pray for us!
This article was originally published in Our Sunday Visitor in the 1980's (pre-internet and pre-cell phones). The culture has only deteriorated in the intervening years.