Flipping the bird: No longer controversial? -- From ''Titanic'' to ''Seinfeld,'' the rude gesture is becoming downright trendy

In case you haven’t noticed, some folks seem to be doing an awful lot of finger-pointing lately.

And not just at the White House.

Extending the middle finger — or ”flipping the bird” — is becoming as trendy as flipping open a StarTAC cell phone. In Titanic, the dainty Rose (Kate Winslet) comes of age by brandishing an uneasy bird. In Wild Things, spoiled rich girl Kelly (Denise Richards) gets the finger twice. The cover of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women boasts the nude author flaunting the vulgar insult sign.

Of course, the bird has been flying high for centuries. Its origins date back to ancient Greece, where the playwright Aristophanes used the obscene gesture in The Clouds, and Hollywood has pointed the finger with aplomb for several decades, from 1969’s Easy Rider to a 1994 Seinfeld episode in which George believes a waitress is discreetly slipping him the salute.

But is all this sudden birdspotting a media manifestation of road rage? ”There’s no question that [society’s] becoming more blunt and expressive,” offers Bernard Beck, an associate professor of sociology at Northwestern University. Others view the finger as good, clean comeuppance. Which explains a recent Billboard ad that, along with text about Johnny Cash’s surprise Grammy win, features a classic photo of Cash letting it fly. Rick Rubin, who produced Cash’s album, explains that country radio ”is telling us John’s not a country artist, and then he wins Best Country Album. [The ad] really was vindication.”

Fact is, flipping the bird — once the ultimate symbol of counterculture rebellion — no longer seems as controversial. Book retailers don’t seem leery of the Wurtzel tome. ”Certainly, it’s a provocative cover,” says Borders spokeswoman Jody Kohn. ”But we’ll be supporting it.” And, of course, Titanic isn’t hurting at the box office. Which raises the question, Will the bird become domesticated, or fly the coop? ”Maybe we’re seeing the last gasp of the era of wide-open nastiness,” ponders Beck, ”and now we’ll see more civility in society.” Until then, Miss Manners will just have to keep her fingers crossed.

(with additional reporting by Tom Sinclair)