I parked my pickup and jogged to the entrance, not wanting to squander the goodwill of the corporation, which had graciously offered to host my family at the House of Owl, by showing up late. The young (like, really young) hostess at the front desk greeted me, and I tried to explain myself. I gave her my name, told her that I was supposed to ask for the manager, that she was expecting me...did any of this ring a bell?
"Oh, yes, of course...we have a table waiting for you [something something unintelligible] you're from corporate?"
My hearing is pretty bad (guitars and Skilsaws), and there was quite a bit of ambient noise happening. Also, the hostess spoke a version of Flirtatious Teenage Southern Californian that was very unfamiliar to my ear. I moved to San Diego at age 36, so while I've heard this dialect in movies all my life, it's sometimes harder to parse on the ground.
"Yes. No. Wait. I don't know if I understood you. I was supposed to ask for Sandy? Somebody from PR made arrangements?"
She didn't seem to understand my Boring Grownup accent, but nodded and led me to a booth with a big "RESERVED" sign taped to the table. She never stopped smiling for a second during the exchange. I could see the ghost of recently removed braces on her teeth. She wore...well, you know what she wore: a tight tank-top with the Hooters logo on the chest, silky orange high-waisted shorts, nylons, scrunchy socks, and white sneakers. That's what all the ladies wore, except for the manager, who came over to welcome me as I took my seat. The manager was allowed to wear jeans and a shirt with sleeves. Which probably gave her a great sense of authority over the wait staff.
Because let's be honest. The Hooters outfit projects nothing if not vulnerability. At least that's what I thought as I scanned my surroundings. The shirts seem pretty easy to pull off [honestly unintentional double entendre--I caught it while proofreading and am leaving it] for a woman who is reasonably fit, especially given the advances in bra technology over the past few decades. But those shorts? Who ever thought those were a good idea? And then pantyhose? Look, I'm not usually one to cast aspersions on anyone's sexual or aesthetic predilections; but whoever continues to enforce the bottom half of the Hooters uniform is a sick bastard. There were a bunch of attractive young ladies working in that restaurant, all of whom would have looked fifty times better in anything other than those shorts. Remember the Seinfeld episode about "Bad Naked"? That's what this scene reminded me of. Women who probably looked lovely in their street clothes, hunching over to wipe tables, straining under trays full of fried chicken parts, singing their special song to the diners who raised their hands when an announcement asked anyone who was celebrating something to identify themselves, all wearing what looked like the product of a sadistic PE teacher's twisted fantasy. The uniforms may have worked in the context of beach volleyball or cheerleading; but when combined with food service drudgery, there was nothing sexy about them. The visual effect wasn't exactly horrifying or anything; it's just that the flimsy little outfits invited examination of every flaw in posture and proportion. I mean, the whole ethos of the restaurant invites the customer to feast his or her eyes on the "Hooters Girls." And to feast is to judge the fare. I was trying not to be a snooty, socially conscious killjoy about this experience--just soaking it all in in the spirit in which it was offered--and yet it all made me immediately uncomfortable. Because I couldn't imagine that these women were comfortable, knowing they were being scrutinized by assholes like me while they wore outfits that amplified every imperfection in their bodies.
But maybe I'm projecting. Maybe I'm getting it completely wrong. Maybe they love going to work every day, and their outfits give them the confidence of a feminist superhero: "I am Hooter Girl--hear me roar! I have a real body that's not photoshopped and you'd better just eat your fried pickles and get used to what women look like in giant orange panties and tank tops! Death to the Patriarchy! Free wings with the purchase of a Hooters Girl Bikini Calendar!"
I sat for less than a minute before another young lady slid into the booth with me, told me her name, and said, "I'll be your Hooters Girl tonight." Not "I'll be your server," or "I'll be taking care of you." No. "I'll be your Hooters Girl tonight." My discomfort must have been palpable.
She walked me through the beer list, which started with Bud and Bud Light, and, to the franchisee's credit, eventually got around to a local craft brew, which I ordered with something close to desperation in my voice.
"Would you like that in a Hooters Girl size or a Man size?" she asked.
"What the..." I sputtered. "That's a really dirty trick. Does any guy ever order a Hooters Girl sized drink?"
"Not very often," she answered. "But you can. Some guys do. Or so I hear. Do you want a Hooters Girl sized beer?"
"Of course not!" I said, all my gender-norm-challenging pretensions dissolving as this gauntlet was thrown down. "I'll have the Man size! Unless there's something bigger available." I was quickly able to rationalize this capitulation by reminding myself that I would have opted for the larger beer regardless of the sexist labels.
I had sat awkwardly alone at the booth for no more than five minutes before my wife and four-year-old twin girls walked in, but I don't know when I have been happier to see them. My wife looked particularly radiant to me in her stylish yet modest work clothes, and my children looked like models from a Tea Collection catalog. It wasn't their contrast to the other customers that was so striking--the crowd wasn't particularly seedy, and in fact there were other couples with young kids there. I think it had something to do with how much better my family makes me feel about myself. I was no longer self-conscious about being a grubby middle-aged dude in a place where people go to leer at waitresses.
Was I overthinking this? Of course. That's what I do, in general; and Hooters had been on my mind for a while. I wasn't taking my family to dinner at Hooters on a lark, exactly. You see, I had written an article for The Daily Beast a few weeks earlier, wherein I recounted an incident in which an acquaintance had taken his adolescent son to Hooters in what seemed to me like a (probably unintentional) rite of passage into the time-honored tradition of objectifying women. In the article, I mentioned that I had never actually set foot in a Hooters myself, and that my impression of the institution was from reading about it and perusing its website.
Days after the article was published, I got an email from a PR person who wanted to give me a chance to see how awesome and not-gross Hooters really is. I parlayed the offer of a meal on the house for me to free dinner for my whole family, and so there we were.
It may seem hypocritical that I would censure another parent for taking his 12-year-old boy to Hooters and then turn around and take my own children there a couple weeks later. I can totally see that. But my kids are four. The subtleties of gender relations are a bit beyond their ken. The following is a breakdown of the observations they made that night:
Regarding the atmosphere: "There are a lot of TVs in here."
Regarding our Hooters Girl: "She says 'awesome' a lot."
Regarding another Hooters Girl who checked on our table: "I can see her belly button."
As for my and my wife's impressions, we both thought the shorts were terrible, the food was just as mediocre as we had expected (although the crab legs, which I was shocked that my wife ordered, were surprisingly good), and we didn't understand why anyone who wasn't interested in scantily-clad waitresses would ever go there. The service was great (but tinged with sexual weirdness if you can't get yourself to forget that you're eating in a restaurant whose very name reduces women to pairs of boobs), and oh my God do they have a lot of complicated special offers and calendars and swag and free wings on certain days and other cost-saving schemes to inspire you to become regular customers. I was so impressed that our Hooters Girl could remember all that stuff that I almost forgot about her breasts for a minute there.
And believe me, if you've never been in a Hooters, they make it difficult for you to not think about breasts for more than a couple seconds. There's the name of course: Hooters. The franchise has been around for so long and become such a part of the cultural landscape by now that it may not even register that "hooters" is (or was) one of the most common vernacular/crude/offensive-to-some terms for breasts; and they didn't name the restaurant "Hooters" because they sell owl meat, despite what the logo may suggest. And then there are the outfits. The breast theme continues on their menu too, where there are little jokes like "Double-D" and "More than a mouthful" worked into the names of dishes.
So there you are, being bombarded with reminders that boobs are awesome and there for your pleasure, and then your server, who is half your age, wiggles up to take your order, and tries to get you to buy the Hooters Girl calendar, in case you want to stare at pictures of young ladies in bikinis during the times when you can't be at Hooters. AND YOUR WIFE IS SITTING RIGHT THERE. MAYBE SHE WOULD LIKE A CALENDER FOR HER OFFICE AS WELL. W.T.FUCK? I can see this being no big deal if it were a bunch of guys out together, or even a group of men and women where it was all for a risqué chuckle; but as a family outing, I found it to be just about the strangest dynamic possible, mainly because we were supposed to pretend that there was nothing odd about being all together in a place that encouraged Daddy to ogle and fantasize about the nice ladies who brought the food while Mommy and the kids colored the placemats. It would be a little odd if a waitress in a neighborhood restaurant flirted with me in front of my wife; but I would just figure she was angling for a good tip. But this is a place that says, "Come on in! Look at our tits! And our weird orange shorts, if you're into that kind of thing! Bring your family! It's all good clean fun!"
I'm not a prude, and I don't hate myself for finding women's bodies attractive. I really don't. But I just don't get Hooters. I tried to approach this with an open mind and leave my snobbery and self-righteous progressive values in the cab of my dirty pickup, but the fact that a boob-themed restaurant is a mainstream, strip-mall thing where people sometimes chose to go with their spouses and kids...I just don't get it.