Column

Hanging out at the shopping mall—the somatose generation sleepwalks into the ’80s

Barbara Amiel September 3 1979
Column

Hanging out at the shopping mall—the somatose generation sleepwalks into the ’80s

Barbara Amiel September 3 1979

Hanging out at the shopping mall—the somatose generation sleepwalks into the ’80s

Column

Barbara Amiel

In front of the Arcadia at Ontario’s Mississauga Square One shopping centre is a black machine called a computerized sex tester. “The bad kids,” the girl at the pet shop had told me, “are in the Arcadia and hanging around the cinemas. The good kids are at the Five Kitchens food places.” Whatever the bad kids at the Arcadia are up to it clearly does not involve the computerized sex tester. The pinball machines along the wall are crowded. There is no fighting, no dope, no ripple of sexual tension in the air. It is all very silent except for the din of the machines and the sound of loose change.

Finally, betraying my weakness, I go to the computerized sex centre, put in a dime and press the button—after some hesitation-marked FEMALE.

The lights begin to flicker up and down the list of characteristics: “hot pants,” “prude,” “sexy,”

“frigid”—then stop on the word “motherly.” Once again I am astonished at the perceptiveness of modern technology.

“They’re a terrible lot, these kids,” my high-school teacher friends have told me. “They’re dead. They care about nothing. Go to the shopping plazas and see them.” So I go. At the Eaton Centre in Toronto I check with the security guard.

“What do you want to see?” he says. “Black kids or Orientals?” Puzzled, I reply, “Kids. You know, the sort of pinkish acned look.”

“Aren’t any left,” he answers and then turns away to make whispered sounds into a walkie-talkie. Well, there are some left. Moving like little pouter pigeons on top of four-inch heels that thrust chests and spines forward, emphasize convex stomachs and plump buttocks thrust high up into astonishingly tight jeans, 15-year-old girls teeter by. Hair growing out of Farrah Fawcett layers and mouths chewing gum, they size one another up as teenagers have for generations. Strutting next to them, the desperate beginnings of their moustaches too frail to survive a tough blast of air-conditioning, are

their male counterparts. They walk and eat—God, they never stop eating—Styrofoam plates of coleslaw and chips carried from one bench to another, dumped into garbage cans and replaced by neoncolorëd drinks.

Shopping plazas are community centres for great numbers of teen-agers, it appears. This is not particularly astonishing. Teen-agers have been gathering variously under streetlights, at bowling alleys, in parks and cinemas. In earlier times one imagines that while, say, Michelangelo was painting the Sistine

Chapel (with the help of a few outstanding teen-age apprentices), the great majority of young people were roaming village squares, waiting vacantly for the seasonal fair. But what is different about this generation—the generation of the ’80s?

“He looked at me and I thought, oh my God!” the 16-year-old girl tells her awestruck girl-friend as they both stand in front of Sam the Record Man.

“Don’t say it,” replies the girl-friend beseechingly. “You didn't.”

“It’s true. I thought, ‘Oh, my God.’ ” Well, in the ’60s, they would have asked each other if there was a God. Maybe they would have marched arm-in-arm singing “give peace a chance.” Yesterday’s teen-agers, now in their 20s, might still talk about “relating” and their “Karma.” Teens today would get tangled up in their canvas and leather tote bags—sabotaging any group demonstration. Now they talk about jobs and where to buy the T-shirt “that girl over there is wearing.” In fact, they talk

very little and their eyes move only to watch one another, but it seems—and I’m making a purely unscientific judgment—that there is little real sexuality in their stares. It is all sizing up on a cash-register basis: how much the blouse cost; are those jeans from Woolco or Le Château? They are a curious combination of the most negative qualities of the ’50s and ’60s. Their vacuity comes from the worst sort of empty ’50s materialism. The vague sensation—without the moral consciousness—thatsomehow society has shortchanged them is a descendant of the most aggressive defiance of the ’60s. Most of these children sitting around the shopping plazas of our land seem to know nothing and know it.

But perhaps that is precisely what the technological society of the ’80s needs—the somatóse generation Huxley foresaw. In pre-industrial society a person needed at least one real skill: baking bread, tilling a field, thatching a roof. Now at the lower end of the spiritual—though not necessarily socioeconomic—scale people need to learn less than they ever did. One can punch a button on an assembly line or fill up a gas tank without stirring the brain too deeply. All the same, I can’t share the total pessimism of most of my peers about these apparent lumps of blancmange wobbling from shop to shop on Saturday afternoons. I remember the lines of Yeats: The best lack all conviction/While the worst are filled with passionate intensity. Now, luckily, it’s the worst who lack all conviction. Since these children are not concerned with improving or changing the world, they are less likely to change themselves into the passionate pre-fascist mobs of the ’60s—burning, bombing, unable to tolerate any dissent from their own mindless convictions. Our shopping plazas have, as yet, few mobs. The minds and faces in them are void. It is the difference between an empty canvas and a pornographic picture. On a clean canvas something worthwhile might still be painted.