'Pushing the Envelope' Toward What?

How has America been transformed from a society that largely embraced the virtues of temperance, individual responsibility, respect for parents, and the obligation to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” into a nation whose popular culture propagates messages that promote self-gratification, entitlement, and absolution for all personal vices by vilifying living and long-departed white, heterosexual, and Christian victimizers.  No single explanation accounts for this devolution into depravity, but one major reason falls under the artistic rubric known as “pushing the envelope.”

“Cutting edge” and “daring” are other terms linked to this highly praised characteristic that’s gone from increasingly explicit sexual references to uncensored depictions of sexual intimacy to dramatic portraits of aberrant behavior (50 Shades of Grey) to the dramatic and in-person sexualizing of children (cf. Cuties, drag shows for kids, and a gender agenda for K-6 innocents).  In tandem with this pushing of the sexual envelope has been critical applause for progressively more realistic depictions of violence, moving from largely anodyne Lone Ranger gunplay to blood-soaked Sam Peckinpah violence to the chest needle-stabbing scene that graces the “classic” film Pulp Fiction.  This envelope is pushed even further when sex and violence are intertwined in ways that would amaze even a sadomasochist like Alfred Kinsey.  Law and Order SVU (Sexual Victims Unit) represents the sanitized popularization of this illicit union under the cover of law enforcement.

Thanks to this relentlessly praised envelope-pushing, premarital sex is now as passé as the serial bedroom romps (one bordering on incest) to which Charlie Sheen’s dramatic nephew was blithely exposed on Two and a Half Men.  Casual sexual dalliances even constitute the non-controversial subject matter permeating programming like the seemingly innocent Seinfeld program -- a theme that became explicit in the “cutting edge” show, Sex and the City.  Currently MILF Manor lines up several mothers opposite their sons for an incest tease since it’s only an adjacent stud who chooses to be “with” the mom.  

This drive toward sexual license received an exponential shove with the near universal employment of cable’s less-restrictive standards which allowed generations of American youths easy access to the debaucheries of MTV, a network whose primary product was aptly described by Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind:  “Picture a thirteen-year-old boy sitting in the living room of his family home doing his math assignment while wearing his Walkman headphones or watching MTV…  A pubescent child whose body throbs with orgasmic rhythms; whose feelings are made articulate in hymns to the joys of onanism… In short, life is made into a nonstop, commercially prepackaged masturbational fantasy.”

As bad as MTV is, the Internet provided a look at the final destination toward which all this envelope-pushing was headed:  the most degrading pornography imaginable short of not-yet-kosher snuff films and the increasingly-defended predilections of “minor-attracted persons.”  Thus, the envelope being pushed is finally exposed as a libertinism that disguises a descent into depravity behind terms like “progress” or “artistic freedom” and disparages moral restraints as old-fashioned, judgmental, and close-minded.  Broken families, crime, homelessness, drug addiction, and a plethora of other pathologies are the byproduct of this drive to dismiss ethical standards that are themselves blamed (via repression and intolerance) for the maladies plaguing society and its presumptively good-natured inhabitants.  

Piggy-backing on this dissolution of moral restrictions, advertisers tout 24/7 the imagined bliss of lives focused on the immediate gratification of sensual desires while mindlessly echoing social causes du jour that provide absolution for their myopic focus on corporate profits.  When the product being peddled has little to do with pleasure, ads utilize our corrupt cultural Zeitgeist to push insurance products via a campaign that makes “becoming like your parents” a fate that requires therapeutic intervention.  Thus is the cultural envelope pushed beyond honoring father and mother (two now-verboten terms) as Madison Avenue confidently declares we stand on the shoulders of embarrassing Pygmies.

In the late 50s a prescient Stan Freberg provided an image of our cultural future with a radio comedy bit that featured two Vegas clubs, the El Sodom and Rancho Gomorrah, each of which sought to outdo the other’s envelope-pushing acts.  The concluding “performance” on the strip simply wasn’t going to be outdone by the other establishment.  It was “The H-Bomb”! The wind and silence that followed the aural atomic blast foreshadow what awaits us (literally or metaphorically) as we continue “pushing the envelope” toward oblivion.    

Richard Kirk is a freelance writer living in Southern California whose book Moral Illiteracy: "Who's to Say?"  is also available on Kindle 

Image: Lee Cannon

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