So freely did Elvis Presley “bump, grind, and shimmy” around on stage that Ed Sullivan pronounced him “unfit for a family audience” in the 1950s. However, after selling millions of hit singles, in 1956 Sullivan reluctantly hired Elvis to perform, yet still insisted that Presley be on camera “only from the waist up.”

In the same year, Eddie Condon of the New York Journal said of Elvis: “It isn’t enough to say that Elvis is kind to his parents. That still isn’t a free ticket to behave like a sex maniac in public before millions of impressionable kids…”

If Elvis was considered a “sex maniac,” what would Mr. Condon have to say about culture today?

Upon reading this fact from the past, many would think: well that’s ridiculous, people were so prude and strange in the 50s. Or, perhaps the innocence and modesty refreshes you, making you secretly wish you lived back then. Whatever side of the fence you are on, there are interesting thoughts to be had of how culture has moved over the years.

Our good friend Merriam Webster defines culture as “the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; also : the characteristic features of everyday existence (as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time.”

Darling believes that culture, although technically intangible, is a thing of beauty. It is constantly arguing with, affirming, changing, or growing us–stretching the current norm–which can be fascinating, moving, or even offensive at times. Looking back in history at social norms and beliefs always brings perspective to the present, and can show us if perhaps we need to bring some ideals back, or leave them in the past.

So we must ask: what was it that was so offensive about the shaking hips and hints at sexuality on TV? Was it because they didn’t want kids to grow up too fast? Did they believe that anything of a sensual nature was more of a “private” thing? Or was it only morals without reason passed down from previous generations?

Whatever the reason, the reality remains that we have moved, in a little over 60 years, from high standards of modesty and diligent efforts to protect young eyes, to a virtually unrestricted freedom to display overt sexuality in media, music, TV, and movies. Yes, we do have “rating” systems, but the Internet by no means follows the rules, and even our PG-13 would have shocked mothers of the 1950s to the point of throwing their TVs onto the lawn.

And we aren’t talking about the Elvis shimmy anymore. Now it’s “okay” for young people to do more than shake their hips, and they can do it in lingerie or teeny, tiny skirts in a music video, or even in front of thousands of teenagers in a sold out Madison Square Garden. They can kiss and touch their way to shock value right in front of mainstream viewers.

Is this move a progression in human society and a part of what some now call claiming our “sexual freedom?” Or is it inappropriate not only for children, but also for us as adults?

While we can’t blame any one person or people group for the lack of modesty or sexual discretion in media and culture, we can have an opinion and standards for ourselves and our children someday. It seems as if society today abides by the unspoken rule: don’t say anything is wrong because what’s wrong for you may not be wrong for someone else. One thing society of the 1950s had was a more united front (obviously with some opposers) on issues of morality and decency. Although most of us don’t agree with their extremities, we can also gain wisdom from some of their ideals and begin movements toward united beliefs in order to protect ourselves, our marriages, and our children.

British journalist Alex Hamilton once said, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything,” and this has much truth for us today. How can we be passionate, world-changers with no convictions about what is right or wrong? How can we build up a younger generation in integrity and morality when we have no solid moral code of our own?

Darling believes an important part of forming our “standards” is to stand on a ground of grace mixed with honesty. This is a place of claiming what we believe is right or wrong, while still respecting the beliefs of others. So, it’s not like we want to return to wearing aprons and watching Leave it to Beaver every night, but we do think culture has something to learn about leaving something to the imagination when it comes to sexuality and modesty.

Now we know these topics are controversial, and that’s why we want to dive in deeper and discuss several culture issues along these lines in coming articles. So stay tuned for more in the Spectacles on Society series.


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