There's more. The scene changes: Close-up of same man now in suit and tie (subliminal message: going out like this makes him all squirmy and stressed). She straightens his necktie (message: men can't dress themselves) and she declares, "You're going to love the ballet." He grimaces broadly, facing the camera, and groans in agony, "You better bring the Tylenol!" Blackout.
You'd better what?
Surely the people who manufacture Tylenol aren't trying to tell us that ballet gives men headaches? And if this is their message, can Tylenol afford to offend customers who regularly use their product, a nonopioid analgesic called acetaminophen that is often taken instead of another leading painkiller, acetylsalicylic acid (aspirin), which can cause unpleasant side effects? Since the main drug in Tylenol is available in other compounds, probably for less money, switching brands is easy. Dancers have great purchasing power. Would Tylenol feel the loss of those who are more prone to aches and pains than, I suspect, the general population?
Am I being too sensitive on this subject? Tylenol may be guilty only of ignorance and not malice, of political insensitivity and not a burning desire to trash and humiliate in a powerful media format a very vulnerable area of our performing arts. The arts have struggled for years to escape the stereotypes that Tylenol has ressurected. (The recipients of our annual awards have worked a lifetime to enhance the profile of their profession; see pages 30-31.) Perhaps Tylenol mistakenly intended to show that sports and ballet are somehow incompatible? But we all know the answer to that one: the making of a ballet dancer requires many years of discipline and careful, exhausting preparation, which is why ballet dancers outperform sports people in stamina, agility, and aesthetics. Why has the ugly specter of bad image been resuscitated at a time when the most difficult reality dance companies face is financial solvency, which is linked to public perception?
There's better news out on the financial front these days, however. Noting that performing arts groups receive as much as 40 percent of their total income from donations (compared to less than 20 percent for other non profit groups), a nonpartisan Committee on the Arts and Humanities, appointed by President Clinton, has recommended that Congress increase significantly government support for the arts. Although President Clinton did little for the arts during his first administration -- probably trying to limit further attacks by some conservatives in the House -- he has emerged last with a plan that may change things. Empowered by his lame-duck status, he wants to reverse the downward trend in arts funding. In exchange, he will leave behind the telling legacy of his enlightened administration -- support for the arts.
And that means a great deal for America. Because winning that support and public recognition has been a dicey and sometimes humiliating game in the past. Compare today's enlightened attitudes with those around only a generation or two ago: In the 1950s, that prosperous post-World War II decade, our national isolationist policies dictated cultural tastes as well. Things foreign were regarded with suspicion@ even the consumption of table wine was limited. Children in the public schools who spoke with foreign accents were treated as outsiders. The arts -- music, painting, opera, ballet -- with their European origins were outside the lifestyles of most middle-class Americans. It was not uncommon to hear musicians called "longhairs," our intellectually gifted called "eggheads" -- and male dancers not referred to at all! Artists we fair game for wildly popular, coarse comedy routines broadcast primetime on nationwide TV starring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. The only acceptable food was the omnipresent loaf of packaged white bread, the only religion you could practice if you hoped to win a political election was Christianity; the only sex you could be and hope to succeed at the corporate level was male.
How far we've come! And the enduring presence of dance has played an integral role in the evolution of America's cultural tastes. Dance on television brought the form into our living rooms and we learned to love it. Federal money from the National Endowment for the Arts provided a much-needed model and stimulus for private giving. And when Isadora at the beginning of this century said she could "see America dancing," I doubt if she had any hunch, even in her wildest dreams, of the phenomenal growth of regional dance companies that have strong community support and provide opportunities for respectable careers in the arts.
The insensitivity Tylenol has displayed with its TV ad is simply another blast at ballet by the uncomprehending, observing what they may claim is incomprehensible. Or is it? They could certainly undo the bad impression we have of them and the pain they have caused performers by returning on a regular basis some of the millions upon millions that they have made, literally, on the backs (and the feet and the knees and the arms) of the very people they have belittled for the sake of a cheap joke. We need them. They need us. What can we do with this very valuable knowledge?