Google Trends is neat because unlike searching the NYT, JSTOR, or looking up yearly data, you can detect pretty fine-grained changes over time. So let's take stock of the past five years.
Since the evaporation of third wave feminism sometime in the 1990s, we've been living in remarkably cunt-free times. But what about that whole Larry Summers brou-ha-ha? While those of us in or near academia have felt the effect of this debate for quite awhile, it hardly made a ripple in the mainstream culture, unlike Anita Hill, Paula Jones, and Monica Lewinski. Proof: Larry Summers. Searches flare up in January 2005 when he made his remarks, but the panic is already dead by May of the same year, and has not been re-ignited since then. (The later spikes are due to his being chosen as an economic adviser to Obama.) The broader phrases sexism, sexual harassment, and date rape also show clear downward trends since 2004.
The same is true for race-baiting hysteria. Again, those who focus a lot on such issues have trouble stepping back and seeing the big cultural picture. Remember Rodney King, the L.A. riots, and O.J. Simpson? Ah, the early-mid-'90s rebirth of identity politics, which accompanied third wave feminism. (And people wonder why white male Generation X-ers are so screwed up.) We haven't seen anything like that. Proof: hurricane katrina and jenna six. Unlike Rodney King, these purported instances of institutional racism barely kept anyone's attention -- and they had all the backing of the race hucksters, including Kanye West going off-script during a live awards ceremony to say things like "George Bush doesn't care about black people," referring to Hurricane Katrina. The broader phrases racism, police brutality, affirmative action, and even slavery show clear downward trends.
Rounding out the triumverate of Groups We're Supposed to Care About is, of course, homosexuals. Under the Old Left, the poor or working class would have dominated, but since the mid-'70s, wealth or class only matter to the extent that they overlap with one of the three primary groups -- black poverty, working women, and destitute fashion designers. It's hard for me to even think of a high-profile event to examine, the recent equivalent of Matthew Shepard. But again we see downward trends for the broad phrases homophobia, gay rights, and gay marriage.
While the hysteria over sex, race, and gayness hasn't dropped precipitously in the past five years, to see any steady decline in so brief a period of time is encouraging. For comparison, it looks like the period of these hysterias is about 25 years (between peaks in, say, 1967 and 1992). This is the length of a human generation, but it may be a coincidence.
Moving on to a lighter topic, let's make sure that Google Trends can actually pick up increases in popularity -- maybe the previous trends are misleading, so that even increasingly popular things would show declines. Nope: quinoa, acai, pomegranate, and cupcakes. These are the superfoods de jour -- yep, never mind the tons of sugar in cupcakes, as long as they're made with organic whole wheat flour, fair-trade frosting, and recycled-paper wrappers. Not surprisingly, low-carb diets didn't catch on, and we continue to blimp out.
And then there's the perennial favorite of everyone over 25 -- how slutty the girls seem to be dressing these days. As I pointed out before, sales data for thongs have plummeted for five years, being replaced by super-modest boyshorts. Sure enough, Google Trends confirms that this reflects changing interest among consumers: thongs, boyshorts. Here's more evidence of more modest dress, from how much of the belly-to-crotch region girls display: low rise vs. high waisted. This disproves the urban legend that women dress more provocatively in economic booms, and more conservatively in gloomier times. If you only looked at the most recent phase of the business cycle, that's what you'd conclude, but when you recall the '80s boom, you remember girls who wore very high-waisted jeans and shirts and sweaters so big you couldn't see the shape of their upper body at all. Also, skinny jeans have risen in popularity during the downswing of the economy, continuing the existing upward trend from the boom, showing that they are independent of economic trends. And tighter jeans surely count as more provocative.
As I mentioned before, clothing cycles follow their own course, divorced from economic cycles. If peaks coincide, that is not because they are linked, but because they are like two independent sound waves that occasionally produce beats.
On a related note, when exactly did the '80s revival begin? Judging by searches for 80s night and headbands, sometime during 2006, taking off in 2007.
Last, a required topic here: young girls. Using generic age terms doesn't tell us whether the intent is sexual or not, so I looked up "porn teen(s)" and "porn milf(s)." A basic Google search shows that "porn teen" has a larger supply than "porn teens," and that "porn milfs" has a larger supply than "porn milf," so I compared "porn teen" vs. "porn milfs." Here is a graph:
Until winter of 2007, teens were more popular than milfs, and since the end of 2007 milfs have been winning. This parallels one of the trends in porn titles that I noted before, the relevant graph being this one:
There are downward trends for age of consent, underage girls, and schoolgirl. There is one exception -- jailbait -- but most of this seems due to the media's obsession with pregnant teenage celebrities and other teenage stars like Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez. The search volume is low and flat, then rises with the news reference volume and milestones referring to Jamie Lynn Spears, etc. I'm tempted to relate this to economic trends -- preferring to invest time, energy, and resources in young girls during a boom, and in older women during a bust -- but I'd obviously need a lot more data from other business cycles to see if the pattern were even real.
One supporting bit of evidence is that over the past 500 or so years in Northern Europe, age at first marriage does track economic conditions -- men and women marry earlier in good times and postpone marriage in tougher times. The interpretation is that if people plan somewhat prudently, as when middle-class values began sweeping through Northern Europe, they want to be sure they can provide well for their children, rather than marrying and pumping out babies early, and hoping for the best. Even I'm not immune to this change -- anyone who's been reading for a year or so can tell I've focused a lot less on the general topic of teenage girls since the recession became evident to the average person sometime during the summer or fall of 2008.
Hopefully Bernanke and Summers, the only high-level people in Obama's group who have any brains and insight, can get us out of this mess by the end of the year, and I can ring in the new decade with re-invigorated lust.