Thursday, August 16, 2012


Re-watching WEST SIDE STORY reminded me of how innocent, in a sense, the world of the movie seems, and not only because the music and choreography elevate to romantic tragedy what would be a sordid gang war in real life. When the two combatants whip out knives during the rumble, which was supposed to be only a one-on-one fistfight, we get a real frisson of shock. And there’s only one gun in the entire story, viewed with horror by all concerned except the shooter himself. Nowadays, it’s sadly commonplace for urban gangs to use guns against each other and innocent bystanders. Also, we don’t see the Jets and Sharks stealing, mugging, vandalizing, using or much less selling drugs (although the “Sergeant Krupke” song contains allusions to drugs), or committing any crimes onstage except against each other.

The contrast between the shocking gun murder of Tony and today’s gang shootings presents an example of “defining deviance downward,” the trend for phenomena formerly condemned by society to become, if not accepted, regarded as routine. Some other examples include casual sex and public cursing. On the other hand, in a few areas our culture has defined deviance upward. Public smoking, for instance, which we see in WEST SIDE STORY presented without comment (as in most movies and TV shows of the time—in that respect, watching DVDs of the original TWILIGHT ZONE made me feel I’d entered an alternate universe even before the supernatural plot elements appeared), has become rude in most places and illegal in many. Although the racist attitudes alluded to in the sardonic song “America” still exist, openly endorsing them is no longer socially or politically acceptable. Our present-day concern for the environment leads us to define as unacceptable lots of behaviors that were routine in my youth.

To my embarrassment, I clearly remember eating popcorn in movie theaters in my teens and leaving the empty container on the floor for the staff to clean up, because that’s what you did with your trash in movies then. I wouldn’t think of doing that now. My parents kept our Boxer in the fenced yard because the residents of our recently built suburban tract housing adhered to a bizarre new custom called a “leash law.” In my grandmother’s neighborhood, though, dogs wandered free just like Lassie on TV and Lady and her friends in LADY AND THE TRAMP. That's what dogs were SUPPOSED to do, as far as I knew. Likewise, my future in-laws let their old, docile dog roam around during evenings and weekends, when animal control workers wouldn’t be randomly patrolling, because the neighbors knew Pilot and would never consider turning him in to the “dog catcher.” It came as a shock to me when the neighbors in our first Navy housing unit (Hawaii, 1972) objected to our new puppy’s running loose; they took that “leash law” stuff seriously. Nowadays, of course, we would never let a dog out unleashed except inside a fence, and our cats are strictly indoor pets. Likewise, people routinely spay and neuter pets unless intending to show and breed them. In my youth, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth (unneutered), some people spayed female dogs and cats, but I don’t think it occurred to anyone to bother “fixing” males. And can you imagine buying or riding in a car without seat belts?

What behavior patterns commonly accepted now will become illegal or immoral by the time our grandchildren reach middle age? Or vice versa—what actions that shock us today might undergo a shift as major as the change in attitudes toward unwed pregnancy between the 1950s and now?

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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