A few weeks ago, a guy I know posted some pictures from his father-son road trip on a Facebook group we both belong to that includes over 400 dads. They were images of typical, warm-n-fuzzy father-son bonding: the 12-year old posing in front of tourist attractions, Dad with his arm around the boy's shoulder, the son posing with a fish he had just landed. And then there was the final photo. The youngster, back on land, grinning, surrounded by five voluptuous young women in tight tank tops and orange hotpants. The tank tops, as you probably guessed, had a classic double entendre pasted right across the owl logo on the women’s chests. The caption under the photo said, “My son’s first Hooters trip! In heaven at 12! This dude owned it!”
My first reaction: Really? Hooters? Gross.
As a disclaimer, I should stipulate that I have never been to a Hooters. It’s not so much that I am too pure of heart to set foot in this (alleged) bastion of female objectification. I’ve been to strip clubs, after all (maybe four times in the last 20 years); and although my feelings about them are complicated, I wouldn’t be the sole dissenter if a group of guys (and/or ladies) wanted to go to one as a lark or for a special occasion. But a strip club is unabashed about the fantasy it flogs, and it’s clearly not an appropriate place for parents and their adolescent kids to bond. Hooters, on the other hand (so I gather), is a place that serves mediocre bar food for the whole family and encourages its patrons to ogle the fully—if scantily—clothed female serving staff, which strikes me in some ways as more pernicious than the kind of objectification that (allegedly) takes place at strip clubs. Despite the Hooters employee handbook requiring “Hooter Girls” to sign off on a clause “acknowledging and affirming” that “The Hooters concept is based on female sex appeal,” the public face of the franchise is just coy enough to provide plausible deniability against charges of sexism and objectification. I mean, grandmas and kids go there, for crying out loud! It’s good clean fun! In any case, I prefer to patronize local businesses for my guilty culinary pleasures, and if ogling women is to be the guilty sensual pleasure, I’d rather not do it in the presence of grandmas and kids.
Since the picture of the 12-year-old “in heaven” was posted in a place where parenting pundits hang out, it wasn’t long before opinions emerged in the comments. I hadn’t wanted to be the first one to say, “Why? What good can possibly come of this?” But once the comments started, others in the group asked that question for me. Several of the dads on the thread expressed the same concerns I had; to wit, doesn’t it seem problematic to bring an adolescent boy into this environment, where—to put it in the least polemic terms possible—women’s bodies that conform to contemporary notions of what is “sexy” are a big part of the marketing strategy? Isn’t it essentially indoctrinating, or at least introducing, the boy to the culture where objectifying women is not only acceptable, but celebrated?
The comments in the thread that aligned with my sentiments added little to what critics of Hooters have been saying for decades. Dads who find the franchise offensive asked if those of us with daughters would want them to work at Hooters, or if we would want our daughters to date young men who were brought up thinking there is nothing wrong with a restaurant that slings sex with its burgers. Or whether we would want our wives or daughters (or sons) to go with their friends to a hypothetical restaurant called “Cocks,” where men wear Speedos with rooster logos on the crotch.
The more interesting comments on the thread, though, came from the men who defended the father’s decision to take his boy to Hooters. (The opinions were split almost down the middle, by the way; but it’s a pretty congenial group, so many disapprovers may have politely opted out of the conversation.)
One of the defenses of Hooters as a reasonable destination for a father-son excursion was that (hetero) objectification goes both ways. The father who had taken his boy to Hooters, upon having the decision questioned, pointed out that his daughter had literally swooned when she got the opportunity to meet her favorite “boy band,” and that she refused to wash the lingering aromatic hug-print of one of the fellows’ cologne off of her clothes. Several of us pointed out that idol-worship, however sexually charged, is quite different from gawking at random women as they serve you nachos, and that the objectification of men isn’t fraught with the oppressive and toxic history that the objectification of women is. And while some male celebrities surely get tired of women throwing themselves at them, complaints of sexual harassment, leering, and catcalls directed at average men by women are very rare indeed.
In response to the above, one of the dads on the forum, Dan (not his real name), said,
“Even though I recognize male privilege, that doesn't mean women are incapable of male objectification or that male objectification doesn't exist. Even though I've tried to repress it, I still have the memory of having to drive a bunch of women home after a bachelorette party which took place at a strip club and then they had a male stripper back to the house. I'm not knocking those women (my wife was one of them) and I'm glad they had fun, but believe me—objectification galore. I understand men haven't been historically oppressed like women have, but I'm just saying let's not pretend women don't/can't do it too.”
Dan went on to argue the positive aspects of organized objectification:
“And couldn't you argue some of these women (whether they be strippers or Hooters waitresses) are empowered? They're there of their own free will, collecting money off guys, hopefully using that money to improve themselves. Sounds like empowerment to me. I think we tend to sell women a little short in this regard sometimes.”
The other popular pro-Hooters-as-field-trip-destination argument was that it’s not the worst place in the world. Some of the dads likened Hooter Girls to cheerleaders at football games, and others pointed out that their outfits were not any more revealing than what you might see young women wearing at the mall.
Oren, a Baltimore father of a boy and a girl, said:
“Well, I consider myself a feminist, and I have no problem with Hooters, and definitely no problem with a dad taking his son to lunch. I'm not the one determining what other people should be offended about, but to me, it's nothing. I think Hooters is ridiculous, but I don't think it's evil. I've been to strip clubs twice, and I didn't feel sad for humanity. I don't think strip clubs are sexy, personally, but I guess other people like these things.
There are much worse things than young women being happy with their sexuality and making some money while wearing revealing clothes, and from what I've heard, their chicken wings are good. If my girl ends up working there, I won't feel like I've failed her. But you know, my opinions are my own.
Oh, and also, we can all say cheerleaders are talented acrobats, but really, it's the same thing, and if my son takes a picture with the Ravens cheerleaders, I'll put it here.”
Another dad, Eric, chimed in along the same lines:
“I think about feminism when I choose activities and media for my kids. I want them to understand that gender doesn't define someone's potential or ‘place.’ With that said, to avoid absorbing media and taking part only in activities which don't contribute to or display some facet of the patriarchy would pretty much leave us with competitive chess and Lifetime movies so I try to focus on the lessons we can learn and how we react rather than censorship. There are better things than Hooters. There are worse. It's honestly probably a great chance for a talk that could be useful to a teen boy on sexuality, objectification and how/if a woman's dress should affect how we interact with and treat them.”
Many of the over 100 responses on the thread were thoughtful and well-said (and at least as many were light-hearted, risqué, and/or stupid), but none of the pro-Hooters arguments were particularly compelling to me. I will gladly concede that women are capable of objectifying men, even in harmful ways, and I agree that Hooters is not the worst place in the world. But neither of those rationales are a reason to take an adolescent boy there as opposed to, say, a standard sports bar or maybe even a place that serves good food. Dogfights may not be as bad as snuff films, but that’s no reason to go to a dogfight when there’s a perfectly good action movie playing at the local cineplex. The only reason I can see to take a young man to Hooters is as a rite of passage into an unpleasant aspect of traditional straight male culture. While I feel I’m sometimes guilty of objectifying women (although I’ve learned that the definition of objectification is quite elusive), it’s not something I would want to implicitly condone by accompanying my son to a business that relies on it to sell hot wings.