Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Once OK - Once Taboo

I can see the jolly African American singer, Fats Waller, sitting at his piano and merrily belting out the following tune in a dance hall in 1936.

"Say up in Harlem at a table for two,
There were four of us,
Me, your big feet and you,
From your ankles up, I'd say you sure are sweet,
From there down; there's just too much feet,
Yes, your feets too big.
Don't want ya, 'cause ya feets too big.
Can't use ya, 'cause ya feets too big.
I really hate ya, 'cause ya feets too big."

This song would NEVER fly today.  It’s offensive.  The song has the singer withholding love from a woman, because of a single physical deficit.   Hardly PC.  Yet, the song serves as a prime example of how artistic standards change in response to the values of an era. 

When women and minorities "knew their place," 80 years ago, songs such as "Your Feet's Too Big," and Ernest Hogan's "All Coons Look Alike to Me," were common place.  The moment the songs were over, or once Bugs Bunny escaped from Little Black Sambo‘s stew pot, very few people thought about the social or political ramifications of the piece. 

Today the NAACP, and other watch dog groups, would be up in arms over such artistic depictions.  Likewise, Hogan’s Heroes, the 1965 sitcom about the whacky goings on at a NAZI prison camp, wouldn’t last a season, now that most of us have seen pictures of gas chambers and mass graves.

While our sensibilities have evolved, and increased enlightenment has moved certain artistic slants to the taboo list, other topics are OK to talk about today, which were once kept hushed.  Gay culture/rights is, arguably, the best example of a liberated topic.  As late as 1974, it would have been unthinkable for Beaver Cleaver or Greg Brady to be depicted as having a gay friend.

The tide began to turn in 1979 when Officer Zatelli came out to NYPD Captain Barney Miller and the fictional captain took up the cause of gay rights in the work place.  A bold sitcom topic 35 years ago, now seems rather common place in an era that’s been privy to “Will & Grace,” “The L Word,” and “Queer As Folk.”

Similarly, until relatively recently, disabilities were rarely discussed in polite society.  Even the liberal leaning Kennedys hid Rosemary, JFK’s mentally disabled sister, in a nursing home and never acknowledged her publicly.  Plus, there were few, if any, handicapped characters within mainstream media, unless they were deformed and/or evil, such as Captain Hook & Bedford Falls' Mr. Potter.

These days we’ve been exposed to heroes with disabilities such as X-Men’s Xavier, “My Left Foot’s” Christy Brown, and San Francisco’s Chief Ironside.  Plus, we can’t watch TV without seeing ads for wheelchairs and catheter supplies.

There’s little doubt that as society’s values evolve our taboos change.  The once acceptable is now unthinkable, and the once shocking is now considered mundane.  Today popular music & fiction can talk about gay rights, disabilities, and other sensitive topics, but we can no longer mock groups, based on surface differences.

As our morality evolves, I wonder what will be acceptable tomorrow?

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