WASHINGTON — It was a slow news day, what with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright temporarily off the front page and the fifth anniversary of President Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” appearance aboard an aircraft carrier having just passed. Still, the headline caught the eye: “More signs the world isn’t ending.”

It was the tease into a CNNMoney.com article about how some people are parsing the dismal economic numbers and concluding — as Wall Street analysts tend to conclude, even as Main Street is reeling — that things aren’t as bad as they seem. Sure, jobs have been cut for the fourth straight month, the government reported on Friday, but at least consumers are spending a bit and the economy actually grew anemically, rather than shrink convincingly into recession.

But really, what triggered my thoughts about that “signs-the-world-isn’t-ending” headline wasn’t the economy. It was the way it seemed to capture my queasiness about the tabloid stories that have bombarded us these past few weeks, giving me a confused sense that maybe the world is ending.

At least that world in which an occasional cultural scandal — involving, say, a movie star or a mogul or a politician — intrudes on the consciousness, only to be forgotten quickly as something those people do. See: Eliot Spitzer. Who has heard a word about him lately?

At the moment there is a cavalcade of sexual miscreants filling our television screens, and they are of the sort that make the skin crawl precisely because their deviation cannot be attributed to the grandiosity that afflicts celebrities and politicians. The worst of these apparitions is the 73-year-old Austrian who, authorities charge, built a secret chamber of horrors in his basement where he imprisoned his daughter for 24 years and fathered seven children with her. As his lawyers prepare an insanity defense, the circumstances of Josef Fritzl’s marriage dribble out. His wife stayed with him, relatives say, because she had been forced to submit to his tyrannical rule.

In Texas, meanwhile, authorities still sort through the complexities of the polygamist compound where 463 children were swept from the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado because authorities believe underage girls were forced into sex with older men. Officials say 31 of 53 girls between 14 and 17 who were removed from the camp have children or are pregnant; one boy was born just after his teenage mother was taken from the ranch. There are now suspicions, as well, that older boys at the camp may have been abusing younger boys.

Just this side of the divide between frightening, violent weirdness and crass pop culture, the Disney teen star Miley Cyrus (aka Hannah Montana) was photographed semi-nude for a spread in Vanity Fair that includes bizarre shots of her lounging intertwined (though fully clothed) with her father, the country music star Billy Ray Cyrus. Miley Cyrus is the current queen of tweens, a group created by the clothing, makeup and entertainment industries to target prepubescent girls (they are mostly targeting girls) roughly between the ages of 8 and 13. The premature sexualization of girls for fun and profit has long been a source of parental angst. Even so, Vanity Fair’s soft-porn treatment of a young actress whom millions of girls adore neatly captures the unsavory overlap between innocence and indecency that undermines the efforts of teachers and parents everywhere who wish their daughters to grow as people, not sex objects.

There is a link between the horrific violence committed against the women of the captive Austrian family and the apparent abuse of teenage girls in Texas, and it is the same unbroken chord that connects them tangentially — but significantly — to Hannah Montana’s fall from grace. When women and girls are routinely viewed as objects, they are dehumanized. They can be seen as chattel or animals, until someone uncovers a horror so complete that we recoil from it. Yet every day around the world, women are still sold into marriage, shunned for their husbands’ adultery, and raped as sexual assault is used as an instrument of war.

No, the degradation we have seen so much of these past few weeks does not signal the end of the world. But it provides a chilling reminder that history itself, with our own culture of sexism and misogyny feeding it, still consigns women to fates no man would wish upon himself.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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