MAXWELL:  A meditation on the magic of Hooters

11/19/1995 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Ah, those Hooters Girls.

Their name alone triggers surges of unbridled sexuality, Freudian twinges, profound depression, feelings of inadequacy, delusions of power, flights of fancy. These beautiful, larger-than-life wait-personages are in the national spotlight again because their Atlanta-based restaurant chain has angered Uncle Sam.

After a four-year investigation, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which has a backlog of thousands of really important cases, has singled out Hooters, charging the company with refusing to hire men _ those hairy-armed, hairy-legged, mustachioed crybabies _ as waiters. Moreover, the commission has ordered the chain to pay $22-million into a fund for EEOC to distribute to the aggrieved men in a class-action lawsuit.

Intellectually, I appreciate the equal-rights issue in this flap as much as the next freedom-loving American. But my instincts, not to mention my sense of propriety, will not let me side with Sam on this one.

Why? Because I grasp the simple wisdom of Hooters Vice President Mike McNeil, who argues that the issue is not one of “sex discrimination” but one of “common sense.” Indeed, Hooters would not be Hooters without its buxom beauties in skimpy tank tops and sculpted bottoms. Hooters is more than food, which is secondary. It is entertainment, ambience, male-bonding.

And I certainly agree with the sentiments expressed on the placards that some of the Hooters Girls displayed at their anti-EEOC protest in Washington: “Give a Hoot!” and “E.E.O.C. Out of Control!” and “Washington _ Get a Grip!” and “Hooters Guys? Nahhhh.”

All that said, though, I am compelled to dig beneath the reams of legalese and journalese and relate some of the more complex underlying causes _ gleaned from various academic disciplines and literary genres _ of what may yet prove to be an epoch-changing event.

Hooters, the image, is our shared doppelganger, the “twin peaks,” as it were, of contemporary American civilization, one “peak” perhaps representing our Puritanical strain, the other teasing our irrepressible Epicurean proclivities.

Yes, we could go on and on about how the “peaks” symbolize our politics, the left standing for our liberal side and the right pointing to our conservatism. But let us leave such mundane analyses to the likes of Rush and his cult of brain-dead “dittoheads.”

Hooters, the emerging pop culture archetype, is the embodiment of the primordial Great Mother working her mischief within the hu(man) psyche, finding external expression in the rituals of devouring chicken and burgers, swilling brew and salivating over the unblemished, shapely, totally female flesh _ captured in colorful tank tops and tight shorts _ alighting from table to table.

The Hooter’s experience (and one does exist, you know) is “a movable feast,” a portable fiesta, a mobile Mardi Gras.

Hovering above each table is the ghost of Henry Fielding, admiring his creation, a lusty Tom Jones (and here we have reality imitating art) longing for the touch of the wondrous Sophia, the giver of “favours,” his chosen Hooters Girl. Sophia is why our modern-day Tom returns time and again.

He returns, too, for the feast, for the excess of the experience. Visit any Hooters at lunchtime and you will find the typical working stiff secretly reenacting imaginary Bacchanalian vignettes that are replete with drink, music, dance and ancestral memories of fertility rites.

If his behavior is licentious, he is in good company. If he enjoys himself, he knows that he is normal. The grit and the sweat of reality are forgotten. This is his hour, when, protected from the pretense of the outside world, he unabashedly worships life and craves the female.

Hooters, where function and form are synonymous, is a Magic Kingdom on the boulevard, a palace of sweet erotica. It is a make-believe world where all women are beautiful; where each glass slipper belongs to an innocent maiden; where mice metamorphize into mighty steeds; where pumpkins become gilded carriages _ all during daylight hours.

And, make no mistake, Hooters is a place of status-seeking. As such, it also is a place of conspicuous consumption all around. Not only do guests go there to be seen, they also go there to spend, to participate in ceremonial, public gluttony, to eat and drink in quantities that would shame King Farouk himself. And think of the number of chickens and cows Hooters’ suppliers must slaughter each day for this feeding frenzy.

Hooters offers the serious student of American culture a veritable potpourri of symbol and myth. I am reminded, therefore, of the final act the Hooters waitresses committed when they demonstrated in the nation’s capital Wednesday: On a sidewalk, they left behind their signature orange shorts and come-hither tank tops.

Why would ordinarily decent Hooters Girls litter a public sidewalk? What is the underlying meaning of this bold, symbolic act? Stumped, I turned to Sean Holton, a colleague at the Orlando Sentinel, who explains that the Hooters Girls left behind those outfits to let the bureaucrats know that, although their physical attributes are the essence of their appeal, they are serious individuals.

“Those outfits,” Holton says, “developed to spawn awareness among environmentally sensitive male patrons about the plight of the endangered hoot owl, just are not built for power politics.”


Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the St. Petersburg Times.