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Vice Capades: Sex, Drugs and Bowling from the Pilgrims to the Present

Americans have a love-hate relationship with vice. We indulge in it while combating it, often by enacting laws that, just as often, we later unenact—or double down by increasing their penalties. Plus, over the span of American history, that which we view as punishable vice has changed—sometimes slowly, sometimes rapidly (as seen recently with views about those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or what is sometimes referred to as queer or questioning). Indeed, a number of views of vice have changed not only in the span of history but sometimes within the span of our individual lives.

But what caused these views to change?

Also, of course, our views differ. But, there too, what’s behind those differences? Be it sex, drugs, violence, gambling, dancing, shuffleboard, juggling . . . Yes, once upon a time in America, shuffleboard and juggling were punishable vices. What’s the deal with what we view as punishable vice?

Let’s take some quick peeks at what, over the past two thousand years or so, people considered to be vice, keeping an eye out for a common denominator that can and (no surprise to say) will be explored more closely in this book regarding punishable vices in American history.

Aristotle said vice consisted of those acts that lead to infamy. For instance, we view the Marlboro Man as infamous, that cigarette-smoking modern cowboy who, for over twenty years, was the television and print advertising symbol for Marlboro cigarettes. Except he was not viewed as infamous during those years—quite the contrary: many people smoked cigarettes in emulation of his allure. Aristotle also said vice included that which appears to be “base.” In the nineteenth century, many Americans considered Mormon leader Brigham Young base for having fifty-five wives—but his wives did not consider him base. Or did they? We know of one who expressed her reverence for him in her private writings and another who thought him so depraved she fled and expressed her disgust.

Clearly, vice is in the eye of the beholder. The underlying question is: What’s it doing there? Why, for instance, do many people view certain vices as punishable when engaged in on Sunday but not on the other days of the week? Selling alcohol tops this list. Why, however, did the list formerly include many more businesses prohibited from being open on Sundays? Why, at one time, were the federal penalties for marijuana equivalent to those of heroin, while lesser penalties were stipulated for cocaine? Why is whistling at women now something that might get you fired when previously it was widely acceptable? Clearly, these views were then, as now, serving the powers that be, which, though sinister sounding, are not necessarily nefarious. Just as clearly, those included among those sources of power have shifted.

But what about Rock Hudson? This movie star from the 1950s and 1960s—who was gay, albeit secretly—stated in 1962 that the Motion Picture Production Code should never have been changed in regard to homosexuality. “It’s all right to let the bars down for a man like [director] William Wyler,” he told Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper. “When he does a touchy subject, you know it will be done with great taste. But it leaves the way open for the boys who want to make a quick buck by turning out dirty pictures.” Did Rock Hudson consider his own sexuality a vice? Or might he have been expressing such views to hide it? Suppose we ask it this way: What power was he seeking to maintain through this view of vice? The power that accompanies stardom, I suspect. And if so, suppose we ask: What group(s) in 1962 had the power to bestow stardom?

Groups and power also figure into the director Hudson mentioned. William Wyler’s much-lauded films included Mrs. Miniver (1942), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Ben-Hur (1959), and, the year before Hudson’s remark, The Children’s Hour, based on Lillian Hellman’s play by the same name, which depicted the shattering impact of a rumor that two teachers were lesbians. In fact, Wyler directed two films based on this 1934 Broadway play. The first, released in 1936, changed the title to These Three and changed the rumor to being one of the teachers having slept with the other’s fiancé. In the 1930s, references to a long-term, monogamous, same-sex relationship were evidently viewed as acceptable to the groups that predominated in a Broadway audience but not to the groups that predominated in a movie audience. Yet those very same references were acceptable in movies by the 1960s, which Hollywood recognized (to Rock’s consternation) by altering that aspect of its Motion Picture Production Code.

Which brings us back to Aristotle, who addressed vice in entertainment. He emphasized that, in comedy, vice is depicted for laughs, and, he noted, that’s a good use of vice in entertainment, since it ridicules vice. In tragedy, he pointed out, vice is not presented for laughs but as the cause of our concern, and we witness the damage it does. Also a good thing to do, said he. And said the Motion Picture Production Code for many years by prohibiting films in which crime or vice was not punished.

But not everyone is sure of all that today. Regarding both unpunished violence in entertainment and cartoon violence, one of its most outspoken opponents is herself a cartoon, Marge Simpson, from the longest-running television series, The Simpsons. In one episode, Marge crusaded against the graphic violence in The Itchy and Scratchy Show, a cat-and-mouse cartoon show her children, Bart and Lisa, frequently watch. Stepping out of Marge’s TV world and into our own, we find that many Americans agree with Marge that cartoon violence is a vice. In 1991 a fourteen-year-old viewer wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times complaining about an episode of The Simpsons in which “Maggie, the baby, seeing a mouse hit a cat over the head with a mallet . . . then hit Homer Simpson, the father, over the head with a mallet.”

Setting aside for the moment this idea of views of vice serving the interests of those who hold power, let’s ask (as this book will continue to ask) a very important question: Does vice lead to crime? Or to put it more specifically for this instance: Do depictions of violence, even cartoon violence, engender violence? Chicago’s highly respected reviewer Richard Christiansen wrote in 1993, “Sociological and psychological studies are demonstrating with regularity that youngsters are indeed influenced by the violence they see in so-called television programming, a disturbing condition that is treated satirically in ‘The Simpsons,’ where cartoon kiddies, Bart and Lisa Simpson, sit entranced in front of the TV set while they watch the bloody cartoons of ‘The Itchy and Scratchy Show.’ What to do? What to do?”