Jewish World Review Jan. 24, 2003 / 21 Shevat, 5763

Jerry Della Femina

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Consumer Reports

Fresh ink | The other night I was on Lou Dobbs's "Moneyline" on CNN. The subject was the decline in culture. Mr. Dobbs, a very smart man, asked me about the incredible amount of coarse language and explicit sex that now permeates our lives - was it advertising that has changed everything? My quick answer was "No."

Advertising can be blamed for a lot but not in this case. "Got Milk?" may not be English as we know it or "Winston Tastes Good Like A Cigarette Should" may have corrupted the language a couple of decades ago, but have you heard what is passing for music these days? Have you watched cable television lately? Are they using four-letter words on the Cartoon Channel yet? Sooner or later they will.

I tried to point out to Mr. Dobbs that although I didn't like or condone it, graphic sex scenes and course ugly language is now part of our kids' lives.

You cannot watch a movie - any movie - with your kid without there being a graphic sex scene to contend with. What I find shocking is how calmly kids can watch these scenes within a few feet of their parents. Before you say, "That's just you," spend a few hours at our beloved East Hampton Cinema and you'll see plenty of parents with their children watching stuff that I couldn't conjure up in my wildest fantasies as a horny 15-year-old. I would have died if my father or mother was in the same room when there was a kiss in a movie we were watching that was more than an innocent peck, which brings me to this column I wrote a few years ago.


My dad is 92 years old and he has yet to discuss "the facts of life" with me.

I have five children. Two of whom have children of their own, and I have yet to discuss the facts of life with them, either.

My dad and I still circle each other every time we meet, fearful that one of us is going to bring up the "birds and the bees" thing.

The closest my dad and I came to a real father-and-son conversation was when I was 16 years old and going out to Coney Island on the Macdonald Avenue trolley.

My dad spotted me wearing aviator sunglasses, powder-blue pants with "Pistol Patch" pockets, a duck-tailed haircut with a huge pompadour in front, and nervously asked me about my plans.

"Going to Coney Island." I replied. "With your friends?" he asked. "Well yes, but we're meeting some other people on Bay 7."

"Bay 7?" he said with alarm. "Be careful."

"Be careful of what? There are plenty of lifeguards on Bay 7," was my answer.

"Just be careful." he insisted. "Be careful of what?" I answered. "Just be careful!" he screamed. "But how can I be careful if you won't tell me what to be careful of?" I replied. "Jerry I want you to be careful of . . . of . . . of . . . never mind."

When I was in my late 30s I woke up in the middle of the night, remembered the conversation, and finally realized what he was talking about that hot summer day in 1956.

The fact is, Bay 7 was the "Jewish" bay in Coney Island that was connected to Ocean Parkway. Bay 10 was the Italian bay where all the subway trains came to the end of the trail.

The physical thing that separated the bays was body hair. The Italian bay was a sea of curly black hair while the on the Jewish bay the hair ranged from blond to red to platinum.

Short, dark, heavy Italian boys roamed Bay 7 and even Bay 4 in Brighton because the word was "Jewish girls were easy."

Tall, fair-haired Jewish boys cruised Bay 10 and Bay 14 because the word was "Italian girls were easy." The fact is, it was the '50s and no one was easy.

It is amazing how little sex there was in those days. Couples dated for years and the closest they would come to each other was through a mountain of crinoline that separated the sexes in more ways than one. There was so little sex in the culture in those days it's a wonder the world didn't go the way of the dinosaurs. One could hardly imagine Dwight Eisenhower and wife Mamie getting it on in those days. Movies showed nothing. Grace Kelly and Doris Day were the big stars of the day and Oscar Levant was quoted as saying he knew Doris Day before she was a virgin.

I thought of this last night while I hid in my bedroom while downstairs a gaggle of giggling teenage girls were watching "Sex and the City."

"Sex and the City" is to sex what "The Sopranos" are to mobster life in New Jersey. Nothing, I mean nothing is left to the imagination. It is one half-hour totally devoted to sex. It's well written and witty but the characters are as totally obsessed with sex as I guess people are these days. They talk about it incessantly and when they're not talking about it they're doing it. Two women in a lesbian embrace - sure, what else is new? Followed by a couple romping in bed, of course followed by . . . well, you know everything and I mean everything.

What shocks my system is how comfortable my kids and all their friends are with this incredible array of sex that is now available to them in movies, in music, and on the television set in their own living rooms.

The first thought you have as a parent is, "Wait a minute. Stop. You're too young to see this and know this." What happened to innocence? What happened to childhood? But then if you are a realist you realize that short of locking a child in their room 24 hours a day there is no way you can stop them from living in this, their generation.

It's a different time and to try to push 1950 or even 1980 standards on our children is impossible. My children will watch "Sex and the City" in my home and if it's not allowed in my home it will be seen in another home but it will be seen by 15-year-olds and 12-year-olds and there is no way to stop it

And so, when my children go out to see their friends I can only revert to being my father and saying, "Be careful." And when they ask, "Be careful of what?" I will look exasperated like he did and change the subject.

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JWR contributor Jerry Della Femina was recently named by Advertising Age as one of the 100 Most Influential Advertising People of the Century. He's perhaps the most sought-after advertising expert in the country, there is no network, no publication and no organization on which, in which, or before which Mr. Della Femina has not appeared. He is also the author of two books, From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor (a best-seller), and An Italian Grows in Brooklyn (a non-seller). Comment by clicking here.


01/10/03: Will his political career go up in smoke?
11/07/02: Here's a dirty little secret: Most Italians sort of like the Mafia
10/17/02: Bloomberg for Honorary Italian of the Year

© 2002, Jerry Della Femina