Kathy Deveny is big enough to admit it: "I have been a closet Paris addict for years, and I can't read enough about these chicks--Paris, Britney, Lindsay Lohan," she says. "They're young, beautiful and do whatever the hell they want. I've always had a soft spot for good-time girls."
And then came parenthood. Kathy, an assistant managing editor and the author, with Raina Kelley, of this week's cover story, is the mother of Jing Jing, a 6-year-old who, like many young girls, is fascinated by the Lindsay-Paris-Britney celebrity axis. "One morning I was mocking Lindsay and Jing Jing got upset," Kathy says. "I said in an offhand way that Lindsay, Paris and Britney are kind of bad girls. 'They are not ,' Jing Jing said. She was very indignant, took it very personally. All of a sudden I could imagine her teen-age rebellion, and it scared the hell out of me. I realized that I want her to someday have the beauty and independence of those girls, but still dress and behave the way I think she should--and definitely not have sex."
The result of that unsettling--yet, among parents, common--epiphany is our cover story on the effect a sex-saturated culture may be having on young girls. Yes, parents have fretted about the declining morals of the coming generation from time immemorial, but the fact that concerns are ancient does not make them any less relevant to the present. While some social-science trend lines are moving in the right direction (teen pregnancy, for instance, is down), kids, educators and parents we talked to worry that there is a growing "Girls Gone Wild" effect--that, as one mother put it, we are at risk of raising "prosti-tots." Many people clearly sense that something is afoot. In the NEWSWEEK Poll, 77 percent say celebrities like Hilton, Spears and Lohan have too much influence on young girls, and 84 percent think sex plays a bigger role in pop culture than it did 20 or 30 years ago.
I suspect that some readers will take a look at this week's cover and think we have, in the language of media critics, "gone soft." A quick, cynical interpretation might be: NEWSWEEK wanted to sell a lot of magazines, so we are playing the celebrity card with Paris Hilton and Britney Spears--an interesting interpretation, but an inaccurate one. First, our newsstand revenue, while important, is a very small part of our business, and I have no expectation that this issue will sell any more or any less than most issues do. Second, the story is not another celeb profile, nor are we pretending to have discovered that, hey, there is a whole lot of sex out there in the culture.
Our essay is, rather, a serious-minded attempt to figure out how the prevailing celebrity ethos of women behaving badly is--and is not--affecting girls. We cover the country in full, and little is closer to home than the impact the culture has on our families.
We know there is still a war on in Iraq; the issue is rich with coverage of the president, a Shiite death cult, China's designs on the moon and Evan Thomas, Howard Fineman and Fareed Zakaria on Bush, 2008 and Islam's civil war. Elsewhere, Debra Rosenberg has an exclusive interview with Sandra Day O'Connor, Susannah Meadows writes about Hillary Clinton's spiritual journey, and Allison Samuels and Sean Smith ask whether the rising number of black nominees signals a new day for the Oscars.
On that morning when Kathy and her daughter were discussing Lindsay Lohan, Kathy was reminded anew of a truth about parenting: "This is really hard." It is, and in the end, the answer almost certainly lies where it always has: at home, in the values we teach in word and in deed.