September 23, 2000

Youngsters exposed early to adult fare  

by Lisa Ross

Just in case federal regulators think there is a future in controlling the entertainment industry’s assault on America’s children, I offer this reality check from the suburbs — there is no childhood here and there hasn’t been for quite some time.

For families living in Southern California’s suburban communities, where the line between childhood and adulthood has been eroding since the Yuppie Revolution, a widely reported Federal Trade Commission study released last week detailing the deliberate marketing of explicit violent and sexual adult entertainment to children was not much of a news flash.

Predictably, the report incited a flood of political discussion over responsibility, ethics and civil liberties. Tarnished fingers pointed in every direction after the FTC told entertainment marketers to stop selling R-rated thrills to kids under 17 or risk government-imposed controls.

Such flailing, as usual, missed the point.

Entertainment marketers never needed a premeditated plan to lure preteeners into the smarmy world of violence and adult sexuality. Since the 1980s the invasion of little people into adult places has been creeping across the generation line like the blob.

Youngsters are everywhere, from late-night restaurants to sports bars and racetracks, upscale beauty salons and the back seats of rented limousines. There’s hardly a place left where children fear to tread, or where adult marketing can’t reach them.

For many aging adults, whose biggest childhood movie trauma was the untimely death of Bambi’s mother, watching a live mom bludgeoned to death on the big screen while a row of kids whisper in voices that won’t change any time soon, is unconscionably surreal — especially when their real mom and dad are sitting right behind them.

No wonder NBC allowed Nike to air an ad during the Olympic women’s triathlon, telling the uplifting story of a woman chased by a chain saw- wielding serial killer through a creepy forest after he and we observe her undressing.

If audiences in local movie theaters are any indication, the PG-13 rating means appropriate for kids 13 and under, as if a film like the adult funny “The Crew,” in which dotty old guys get a new life sleeping with lap dancers, torching rats and gunning down drug lords, bears any resemblance to that sweet codger movie “Cocoon.”

As the Hollywood oligarchs like to say, don’t blame the movies — popular art simply reflects social custom.

Consider an afternoon at the most sophisticated beauty shop in my San Diego suburb, where children often wait on a cozy living-room couch for their mom or for their very own $100 hairdo. No “American Girls” magazine on this coffee table — but plenty of cultural works with catchy titles like “Cosmo’s Kama Sutra 3: Do It to Him Now,” “Pleasure Triggers: How to Find and Use Them,” “Undress Your Date: Perfect Your Stripping Skills on Virtual Boy-Toys,” and several others I won’t repeat in a family newspaper but are available to any kid standing in a checkout line at the supermarket.

But, the neighborhood kiddie hairdo shop doesn’t reek of childhood, either — no Barney’s or animal crackers to spoil the positively no-geek ambience here.

There are displays of designer hair products, services that include manicures and pedicures (perhaps to help discourage nail biting), and some serious rock ’n’ roll blaring over the sound system. On the QT, I hear the boys are scootering over to the adult shop for their dye jobs.

Standards for children under 13 have changed so dramatically that kids who used to dress up like mommy, and now dress just like mommy and daddy, regularly dine in the middle of breweries and bars where they can observe a level of conversation and social intercourse unlike anything experienced at Chuck E Cheese.

After that, perhaps such television homages to 21st-century character and human values — like “Sex In the City” and “Oz” — are all the more digestible.

And, as one of the biggest perpetrators of blending children with adult vices, it’s hard to imagine how officials of the state of California could set and enforce children’s entertainment standards.

The state-owned Del Mar Racetrack is regularly marketed as a family venue, with kiddie entertainment in the infield alongside the betting windows. They even offer a summer camp — great place to learn probability theory.

But, what can we expect from a state that regularly puts 14-year-olds in jail with adults?

With generational boundaries in suburban meltdown, how about considering a fresh entertainment marketing approach: Let the little tykes try their hands gaming at regulation-free Indian casinos. And why not — we’ve let the kids in everywhere else.

Lisa Ross is a writer living in San Diego. She can be reached at www.lisaross.com.