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Boobs? OMG! Why Sesame Street Erred in Banning Katy Perry's

How the dark side of America's breast mania deprived Elmo (Part I)

What is it with America's obsession with breasts? Or, as Terry Thomas put it so eloquently in the 1968 comedy, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, how come "this preposterous (American) preoccupation with bosoms?"

The question becomes, uh, pointed when one considers that hallowed "Sesame Street" just banned a segment with Elmo and Katy Perry because Katy was wearing a dress that actually showed cleavage. "My God," raged the feedback, "my babies (some of whom suckle at their mothers' nipples eight times a day) will actually be exposed to breasts on children's television!"

Frankly, I'm thrilled about the "Sesame Street" clip. See, I always suspected Elmo was gay. The segment at least gives him a shot at a nice-looking, sexily attired example of the other sex. And what in the name of Aphrodite is wrong with that? As Woody Allen put it (in an Annie Hall context), were Elmo to turn bi-sexual instead of drooling over Cookie, it would double his chances of a date on Saturday night.

But, as mentioned above, the Perry controversy brings up the pert and luscious question Terry Thomas posed--a question I have pondered frequently over the years.

Because Americans do, indeed, seem inordinately crazy about women's breasts. The beach party flicks of the '60s idolized the bouncing jugs of Gidget-style surfers. From Playboy to more hard-core stroke mags, giant bosoms dominate America's Technicolor spreads. This is a country where Chesty Morgan is seen as an object of desire rather than as the abdominal freak she is. (The former boyfriend of my former agent proudly once showed me a closet devoted to magazines specializing in, as he put it, "big tits." It provided my first, bemused view of Chesty's two major attributes.)

What other country, after all, could found, patronize, and overall accept a restaurant franchise named "Hooters"? The founder of a chain called "Nichons" (the nearest translation available) in France would be viewed as a pathetic juvenile, a joke. Cultures more comfortable with their sexuality view breasts as they should be viewed, as an attractive part of the more interesting overall context.

Here is a quote from Time magazine, in the '70s, when an Italian publisher booted up a marinara-flavored version of Playboy: "Reflecting European tastes, Playmen does not display the mammary obsession that Playboy profitably discerns in Americans. Says Publisher Tattilo: 'The U.S. is a matriarchy. I think this is the reason for the American male preference for women with exaggerated, voluminous bosoms, true wet nurses with a reassuring maternal aspect'."

Maybe. I think there's more to it than the fact that American women tend to wear the pants at home. The US, when it comes to being comfortable with sex, is closer to Iran than it is to, say, France or Germany. Iran is where that Islamic Einstein was from--the mullah who linked the increasing incidence of earthquakes to the heightened visibility of cleavage. Maybe California should be grateful to the PBS flacks who pulled Katy Perry. Maybe doing so staved off the Big One.

Don't count on it. A more plausible theory is this: The era when American mass media culture invaded most homes in the US was the same period during which breastfeeding (again in the US) was denigrated as primitive and unsanitary, compared to the "clean, safe, hygienic and modern" alternative of bottles and formula.

For several generations, American newborns were deprived of the comfort and nutrition of the milk-crammed, rosy, leaking mammaries of their moms. Instead, egged on by TV's various versions of Dr. Spock, their mothers served them a pasty, pale, sugar-stuffed liquid in a sterilized bottle topped with a cold and plastic nipple. Humans for millions of years had been conditioned to seek nurture and dinner at the living teat. No wonder those poor little guys of post-war America, when they grew up, found themselves fetishizing the warm and heaving bosom.

And so did their girlfriends, in a different way--even the girls became obsessed with having big, creamy breasts, to fondle and admire in the privacy of their bedrooms, to reveal to boyfriends who made it to "second base." When nature didn't cooperate, they bought push-up bras, or had silicon blisters surgically implanted to make their boobs big, if not necessarily creamy.

next post: how breast obsession turned into booby Puritanism