Hooters is a restaurant-bar for the age: the age of arrested adolescence. The skimpy waitress outfits tell us to step right up, but the modern sensibilities warn, keep your distance. Didn't we work our way through all this sexual exploitation business about a generation ago?
Apparently, in case you hadn't noticed, we did not.
Lawsuits and protests were floating around the country last week, all relating to sexual harassment; charges against the nationwide chain and all making us wonder: Just who needs to grow up around here?
Hooters looks like a trendy fern bar with a slight social problem: It can't stop inviting you to leer like some '50s guy who still gets his kicks out of Playboy. The waitresses wear little shorts and T-shirts often tied tightly to assist nature. The effect, on males who make up the bulk of Hooters' customers, is politically embarrassing: You admire the view but hope nobody notices the very uncool saliva dripping down your chin.
For that matter, how uncool is this? Some newly filed lawsuits say Hooters' managers and customers feel free to grab and proposition the waitresses. One waitress said a customer wouldn't pay her unless she took off her shirt, thinking it was routine practice. Another says she was fired because her breasts became smaller after she stopped nursing her baby.
Outrageous, our enlightened sensibilities tell us. A throwback to the age of woman-as-sexual-object, say protesters. But a lot of people out there -- OK, they're mostly men -- don't seem to care. Hooters has 104 franchises in 25 states, and annual sales around $150 million.
And, not to be minimized, some Hooters waitresses at Harborplace are asking: What's all the fuss about? It's a reasonable place for them to make a living in a difficult time, and nobody has to show up if they don't like it.
''I honestly don't know what the problem is,'' Angie Way, a Hooters waitress for 2 1/2 years, was saying last week. She was standing near a bar sign that read: ''Good Girls Go to Heaven. Bad Girls Go Everywhere.''
''I came up here from North Carolina,'' she said. ''In the South, if you work for Hooters, you're a star. I mean, you get stopped in the mall and, like, 'Wow! You're a Hooters girl!' In Baltimore, the women look at you like you're trash. I'm not trash, I'm a waitress.''
But, protesters say, a waitress yielding to old, repugnant sexual stereotypes. A waitress who works in an atmosphere conducive to abuse. A waitress whose outfit unwittingly legitimizes sexual come-ons.
''Come-ons?'' asked another waitress, Julie Mendoza. ''I get them when I'm not here. That's just the man-woman thing. Walking to my car, going to a club. That's why I don't go out any more. You just get hit on by men.''
Mendoza says she's working for a master's degree in child psychology. She substitutes at a day care center when they have an opening.
Way says she got her college degree in counseling, worked with juvenile offenders, got laid off in state budget cutbacks.
''I sent out 50 job applications in three months,'' says Way. ''What am I supposed to do? I have to eat. I'm not on welfare. I'm not standing on Light Street with a cup in my hand. If I don't like it here, nobody's stopping me from leaving.''
''I worked part time at a book store for about $50 a week,'' adds Mendoza. ''I do that much in tips on a slow night here. I have a three-year-old at home to support. If I don't have a problem with this place, why is it anybody's business but mine?''
There's the rub: Sometimes, one person's enlightenment is another person's loss of livelihood. A tough economy forces some people to take any port in a storm. In this case, the port seems a throwback to about 1953 instead of 1993.
It's not just the women in skimpy outfits, it's the implication of what might be allowed: come-ons, hiring and firing on the basis of body parts, and the perpetuation of old sex-object stereotypes.
And thus we have Angie Way, with her degree in counseling, standing at the Harborplace Hooters last week with her T-shirt tied tight around her anatomy, declaring: ''There's a fine line between dangerous and playful flirting. They don't tell us to flirt .. at all. They don't tell us to tie our T-shirts tight.''
And then, in the next breath, adding: ''Of course, sometimes it depends on when my rent is due. I mean, I'm not stupid.''