Few notions regarding history are more mistaken than the idea that we are on a descending spiral of laxity, where more and more is permitted, and standard after standard of taste and decency are abandoned.
I think this is because we assume that certain trends in some areas apply to all manifestations of expression. Yes, obscenity spreads and becomes more common. Moviemakers fretted over Rhett Butler saying "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn," at the end of "Gone With the Wind," in 1939, while now all TV channels except the big three broadcast networks relish whatever dirty words they see fit.
But there are sub-currents. For instance, nudity was more acceptable in general media in eras gone by than it is now. I remember seeing microfilm of the Sun-Times original coverage of the 1955 Schuessler-Peterson killings, where the paper published photos of the naked bodies of the boys in a ditch, lightly airbrushed. Something we would never do today, out of consideration for the families of the victims and the knowledge that the paper would be torn down brick by brick by outraged readers if we did.
On the other hand, clothed corpses are another matter. I noticed that the CBS Evening News, once the platinum bar of excellence, didn't hesitate last month to flash a photograph of Prince's body, sprawled in his Paisley Park mansion, to illustrate a minor story about how no one was being charged for providing the drugs that lead to his death. I don't believe that would have happened a decade ago. I'm not pleased it happened now, but I am of an earlier age.
Although I should point out a detail about this ad, if you can tear your eyes away from the windblown flapper: the watches are for both sexes, men and women. The ad is designed to appeal to both and, indeed, advertising studies show that women look longer on a photo of a naked woman than men do. Gloria Steinem said it's because the women are automatically comparing themselves to the picture.
So are we better now, having shelved this kind of thing? I tend to disapprove of anything that reins in creativity. Rules are generally made to be broken. And standards change quickly. When this blog started, almost five years ago, I would encounter people who were troubled by its slightly risque title. Now I never do. Which means either tastes are changing; or my circle is narrowing. Or both.