Opinion-Time: To Bird, Or Not To Bird.........
John A. Quayle
blueoval at SGI.NET
Mon Feb 24 06:57:37 MST 2003
Is the Middle Finger Losing Its Badness?
By MARTHA IRVINE
AP National Writer
February 23, 2003, 1:15 PM EST
Even more than a decade later, Laura Kremp is still a little shocked at the
gesture her mom made when a man driving a big, ol' Cadillac cut them off in
a mall parking lot. "She flipped the guy the bird!" Kremp says, laughing at
the childhood memory.
Flashing the middle finger was the ultimate insult when Kremp was growing
up, or at least -- with its vulgar, sexual connotation -- a very naughty
thing to do.
These days, "the bird" is flying everywhere -- and, in many instances,
losing its taboo status, especially among the younger set.
Celebrities use it. Star athletes all but flaunt it. Even small children
occasionally raise a grumpy middle finger in a world where Ozzie and
Harriet have been replaced by Ozzy and Sharon, the foul-mouthed,
bird-flipping parents from the MTV reality show, "The Osbournes."
Some say the finger's prevalence is a sign of just how desensitized we've
all become to our own crassness.
"It's just another example of the drift further and further into the
culture of disrespect," says David Walsh, president of the National
Institute on Media and the Family, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that
monitors popular media. "It's part of the shift from 'Have a nice day' to
'Make my day.'"
Others, however, wish we'd all just loosen up. The middle finger doesn't
always carry the same meaning to everyone, they say.
Kremp -- now 24 and a creative director at a communications training firm
in suburban Philadelphia -- still could never imagine her mother becoming a
regular bird-flipper, for example.
But she sees plenty of other people using it, to express displeasure at
anything from a frozen computer screen to a referee's questionable call or
that driver who's riding your tail on the highway.
And, she says, its meaning isn't always negative: "It can be done out of
excitement, joy -- or if you finally found the perfect pair of shoes to go
with a new outfit."
Often, the middle finger is used among friends, either to tease or express
mild annoyance, says Matt Meyers, a 23-year-old New Yorker who works as an
administrative assistant at a bank.
To him, it's "more general symbol of, 'Shut up' or 'You're an idiot.'"
Matt Patterson, a Los Angeles writer who co-authored the tongue-in-cheek
book "The Finger: A Comprehensive Guide to Flipping Off," agrees that
today's middle finger has many nuances.
But context still matters, he says, noting that "a finger given in anger is
another story" -- particularly for celebrities.
That means actress Cameron Diaz might get away with posing, middle finger
extended, for an Esquire magazine photo, as she did last year. She might
even seem "edgy" or "cool" to some.
But singer Britney Spears found herself apologizing to Mexican fans last
summer after they thought she flipped them off. (Spears says the gesture
was intended only for aggressive paparazzi who were hounding her for
New York Giants tight end Jeremy Shockey was fined $10,000 after he threw
ice and gave the finger to fans in San Francisco during a recent playoff game.
And late last month, Indiana Pacers forward Ron Artest gave the Miami crowd
both barrels as he backed away from the foul line after hitting a free
throw. He was suspended for four games.
The lesson here: Don't flip off the fans.
"It's the idea that 'I'm paying to watch you, how dare you do that to me!'"
says Bill Savage, a lecturer in Northwestern University's English
department whose expertise includes popular culture.
Since fans are the ones paying the bills, "there will always be some
crackdown from the power structure," he says.
Outside of sports, however, Savage says TV networks' habit of beeping out
foul language and blurring middle fingers -- including on "The Osbournes"
-- is mostly for show.
"There's an aspect of American culture that's about appearances, rather
than reality," he says. "If you beep something, you appear as though you're
being a moral guardian."
Meanwhile, MTV sells Osbourne T-shirts and posters with several family
members openly extending their middle fingers -- "There goes the
(expletive) neighborhood," one T-shirt reads.
Still, even some parents wonder if critics are taking the gesture -- one
that historians say has been around since ancient Greek times -- a bit too
Simon Bloomberg, a newspaper columnist in Nelson, New Zealand, recently
wrote about his 6-year-old son giving the finger to another boy who'd stuck
his tongue out in a supermarket parking lot.
When asked about it, Bloomberg said he wasn't worried.
"The kid who poked out his tongue at my son was just delivering the kiddies
version of the finger anyway," Bloomberg said in an e-mail interview. "So
he probably deserved to get the real McCoy fired back at him."
In the end, even some people who use the bird a lot hope it stays rude and
That includes The Amazing Johnathan, a comedian who regularly flips off his
audiences. Earlier this month, he hosted a media event at a Las Vegas hotel
-- complete with a giant middle-finger ice sculpture. He seemed pleased
that its presence made hotel officials squirm a little.
"Whenever people get used to it," he says, "then it won't be fun to do
Martha Irvine can be reached at mirvine(at)ap.org
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