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January 2, 2008

The Un-Sexiest Generation Ever!

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man walking past storefront with sign that says sexy

Photo Credit: Jessica Antola

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I'm part of what used to be called — in the early 1990s, when we were at the apogee of our tastemaking powers — Generation X. Our cultural markers are grunge, the early Lollapalooza tours, lattes, Ben Stiller, Janeane Garofalo, and the rise of political correctness. Pretty sexy, eh? But before we were foisting such manifestos as Reality Bites and Nevermind upon the world, we were impressionable teens whose sexual and political awakenings took place in the late 1970s and '80s. In retrospect, I recognize that an unusual set of circumstances and social phenomena conspired to make us cautious, modest, respectful, and disinclined to make sex tapes — all traits that just don't fly in today's "U R so hot" world.

We were not in the feminist vanguard, but we grew up when the movement still had some ballast, before a backlash turned the word "feminist" into a harpy label from which young women recoiled. Some of us had mothers who campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment; Ms. magazine actually had a readership. In a peculiar way, the denim-y righteousness of the '70s segued smoothly into the social conservatism of the '80s — in both cases, women kept their clothes on and their sexual activity under wraps. The postfeminist concept of "girlyness" had yet to be invented; there was no Sex and the City from which to appropriate, wholesale, one's adult identity. Campus fashion was shapeless, unisex, and Michael Stipean; between 1981 and 1989, every butt, female and male, was obscured by an enormous sweater or oversize blazer. Even Madonna, as provocative as she was thought to be when she burst onto the scene, was demure by today's standards: She wore leggings under her minis, and that swath of tummy she bared in the "Lucky Star" video was mere midriff, a far cry from the low-riding, pelvic-bone display of your typical Pussycat Doll.

On top of all this, we were systematically guilted and cowed. In one very special episode of Diff'rent Strokes, a rutting Willis (Todd Bridges) was gently talked down from the precipice of virginity-loss by his levelheaded girlfriend, played by the teenaged Janet Jackson, who would score her first hit ballad a few years later with a song called "Let's Wait Awhile." (Indeed, Jackson sensibly waited until 2004 to bare a nipple to an international television audience.) In another very special episode of Diff'rent Strokes, Nancy Reagan tottered onto the soundstage to commend Arnold (Gary Coleman) for being a good little soldier in her "Just Say No" campaign against drugs.


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