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"Women can choose capri pants over hot guys if we want to."
-- Lisa Ling, defending her indefensible Old Navy commercial

Thank you, Lisa Ling! Thank you for pointing out that I can have capris or men. Here I was, trying desperately to thin my wardrobe and fend off my many TV boyfriends, and you've given me an out: I can wear some skanky, boxy pants and clear my calendar.

Those of you about to write me and complain because you love capri pants, chill. I own two pairs myself. What amazes me is not that there's some flap over Old Navy commercials -- take away ancient style doyenne Carrie Donovan and there's going to be a backlash -- but that Lisa Ling apparently hasn't learned a thing about controlling her public image yet. At least Barbara Walters gets in hot water over softballing an interview with the exceedingly creepy Ramsey family; Ling's getting flack for appearing in a genre of commercial that brought us the idiot Brewer twins.

Some of you -- those of you who have been cackling mordantly over the missteps the token View Gen-Xer seems fated to make -- may be familiar with Lisa Ling's already shaky public image. Those of you who aren't as spiteful as I might need a little background: Lisa Ling beat out self-appointed Gen-X spokeswoman and Real World alumna Rachel Campos as Debbie Matenopoulos's replacement on May 3, 1999. Almost four months later -- August 2, to be precise -- Ling was making the New York Post's Page Six for trying to weasel out of a 15% apartment finders' fee in return for an on-air plug.

For those of you not versed in broadcast ethics, negotiating goods and services in exchange for free advertising is verboten. Then again, professionalism doesn't seem to have been a criteria in hiring token hip Gen-Xers for The View. Debbie Matenopoulos was to television anchoring what Ethan Hawke is to novel-writing, and it looks like Ling is shaping up to be the Stephen Glass of the airwaves -- someone whose ethical obligations never got in the way of a good deal.

The real issue is not that the 1970s spawned a generation of lying weasels, but that there's a need to conflate professional accomplishment with some sort of generational allegiance at all. The only people who are enamored of generational zeitgeist tend to be the insecure who rely on media-generated trends for self-identity, and those who profit off the insecure. The ones who buy into it -- including all the twits we love to hate on The Real World, the prim and shellacked Pundits of Tomorrow choking CNN's political shows and anyone who desperately wants to be shown up by Joy Behar and Starr Jones on a daily basis -- are just as bad.

Although Matenopoulos was kind enough to be both an easy and deserving target, she had two things going for her: first, she was the pioneer in The View's mix and therefore had no idea what she had gotten herself into, and second, her mistakes were the natural result of her limited insight and talent. Ling lacks both those advantages: she actively campaigned for the now-a-known-quantity Gen-X spot, and she had ten years of broadcast experience going into the job. She knew what she was getting into and yet she keeps stepping into situations that common sense and experience should prevent. You don't set yourself up as a role model if you're not prepared to be held accountable for it later.

Ling claimed to take the Old Navy job in an effort to combat stereotypes -- a first for any series of ads that firmly reinforced dumb-blond jokes. Her defense -- "I saw this commercial as empowering and pretty cool because it shows a minority woman in control and not submissive to a white man's needs" -- is packed with buzzwords without making much sense; when you apply it to a genre of commercials that specialize in campy non sequiturs, one has to wonder, how was Ling planning on using Old Navy commercials to empower the victims of stereotyping? By confusing their oppressors?

It would have been a far better thing for Ling to have said, "You know what? I took the Old Navy job because they offered it to me. I wanted the money, and after my desperate plea for a mate in the bridal issue of InStyle, I was hoping to score me a blond himbo during the shoot." God knows Starr Jones has said considerably more crass things in print, and she's doing all right for herself.

Then again, that comprehensive honesty policy might lead Ling, or other attention-hungry twentysomethings, to admit that they're working the Gen-X label not because they feel an allegiance to a larger cultural group but because it makes for a good career move. Labels provide simplistic, catchy television, and anyone who can enthusiastically embody a telegenic label has an advantage over the complex iconoclasts hoping to get by on the strength of their work.

The irony of using one stereotype to advance her career and land a television commercial purporting to defuse another is probably lost on Ling. But for those of us who now have considerably more brain power available now that we no longer have to choose between fugly pants or men, it's all too apparent.


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