The Shag Gag

Austin Powers Lays Two Nations on the Carpet

"I didn't even know it was a real term," says a colleague. "I thought it was invented for the Austin Powers movies."

All of which makes it a perfect pop word, a light, hollow entity, not a word so much as a balloon, signaling fun, party, and certainly more about flirting than fucking.

Shag, though, did not exactly float over the head of Tamatha Brannon, the Georgia woman who filed a criminal complaint against Toys "R" Us for selling an Austin Powers action figure that said, "Do I make you horny, baby? Do I?" The toy chain says it was a mistake: it was supposed to receive a version of the doll that says merely, "Would you fancy a shag?" But Brannon says she would have protested that as well: "A vulgarism is a vulgarism. It doesn't matter if our kids don't understand the word. If British kids come over here, they'd be subjected to it, too. " (The controversy, of course, resulted in soaring sales.)

"Would you fancy a shag?" At your local toy store, an action figure with a chest merkin and a Union Jack on his bum.
photo: Michael Sofronski
"Would you fancy a shag?" At your local toy store, an action figure with a chest merkin and a Union Jack on his bum.

It's nice, I guess, to give it to the religious right, to sneak this in under their watch. Wall-to-wall shag is part of the great loosening-up of America, Bob Dole on Viagra at the head of the parade, marching arm in arm with Mike Myers.

But why doesn't it feel like much of an accomplishment? Maybe because what ultimately makes the word's meaning disappear is that corporations have legitimized everything shag with massive marketing tie-ins.

The word's pungent flavor is now spread thin across apple juices and airplane wings. The company that makes Mott's applesauce has launched cocktail mixers called "Shagadelic Shakers"; Virgin Atlantic has a newly named "Shaglantic" airplane; other ad tie-ins and/or movie product placements include Philips HDTV, MasterCard, Starbucks, and, of course, Heineken. Corporations are in effect saying, "Shag is a perfectly upright word because we're upright companies."

And yet the word's raunchy residue gives advertisers just that little jolt of "subversiveness" they need in order to appear cool. It's a daily phenomenon: A powerful marketing assault can simultaneously make something risqué undergo Disneyfication and can make something too wholesome seem rakish. In the process, it becomes as easy for us to ignore the meaning of a word as it is to ignore the constant merchandising of every movie moment.

The press, as it always does, has conspired in this corporate grooviness, splashing every headline and upbeat TV segment about Austin Powers with a cutesy "Oh, behave," "Yeah, baby," or "Shagadelic." It's as if sneaking shag in under the radar is a huge joke being played on the mainstream by the mainstream.

This commercial mojo has such awesome powers that not even Tom DeLay bothered to link shagadelia, along with day care and the teaching of evolution, to the Littleton murders and the downfall of civilization. I called last week to ask the congressman whether he might want to weigh in on this morally offensive word that's getting more play than all 10 Commandments combined. But apparently the magic of the market has rendered shagging invisible even to the Hammer. "He's got so much legislation on his plate," says a press gal, "that I don't think he's paying attention to new movies."

Research assistance: Michelle Miller

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