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Unfashionable Adultery

[Washington Examiner, February 1, 2005]

Feeling nostalgic for the good old days, when popular entertainment was full of good old-fashioned values? No nudity, teen sex, or potty jokes. Instead, there was lots of adultery.

That’s not the usual take on our cultural history. Instead, commentators keep insisting that popular entertainment used to be pure, and now it’s garbage. Here’s Helena Handbasket, frowning on your television and reciting the familiar decline-and-fall litany: a supposedly gay shark in Dreamwork’s "Shark Tale," the Madonna-Britney kiss, Janet Jackson’s "wardrobe malfunction." (I recently mis-read a reference to this as "Jesse Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction." So you see, things could be worse.)

According to Helena, the evil sixties repealed all moral values, and now there’s no hope. The train has left the station and it’s never coming back. But she’s wrong about something. She’s wrong about the past. Our era’s abundant "bad values" replace different "bad values" that gradually fell out of fashion. We could point to racism or excessive drinking, but since sexual morality is the current concern, let’s look at the example of adultery.

It was Cecil B. DeMille who gave that age-old staple of drama a sympathetic turn, back in the 1920’s. In earlier silents an evil "vamp" or villain had seduced an upright spouse, but now De Mille showed true love striking people who just happen to be already married. They "went away" with a lover and then returned, sadder but wiser, and everyone was very understanding all the way around.

This theme of sympathetic adultery pervades films of the following decades. In "Now Voyager" (1942), Bette Davis has a shipboard romance with a married man, and we are expected to sympathize with them against the unseen wife simply because they are so much in love. In "The Women," (1939), a husband leaves his wife and daughter for a venal shop-girl. When the wife decides she must divorce him, her mother scolds her for destroying her family over foolish pride.

Remember "The Philadelphia Story" (1940)? The father of Tracy Lord (no, not Tracy Lords) is excluded from her wedding because he has moved out and taken up with a dancer. Later, her parents tell her she is being judgmental. Her dad even says his fling is Tracy’s fault; she didn’t give him the adoration a dad deserves, and he was forced to seek it elsewhere.

We tend to miss these themes in older films because we expect them to display "old-fashioned moral values." They do; these values are just not what we thought they were.

Adultery, at least for men, was viewed as something to be tolerated for the sake of keeping a family together. But a cultural consensus gradually emerged that it would be better to get it all out of your system before marriage. The focus shifted from adult playtime to the effect on children, both the pain of a broken home and the strain of premarital chastity. In "Splendor in the Grass" (1961), Natalie Wood’s unrequited lust drives her to a nervous breakdown.

As premarital sex was being tentatively accepted, adultery went into steep decline. "Fatal Attraction" (1987) and "Crimes and Misdemeanors" (1989) taught that it’s bad, selfish, even dangerous to stray. New films favor fidelity even in a difficult marriage ("Spanglish" 2004, "We Don’t Live Here Anymore" 2004, "The Ice Storm" 1997, and one of my favorites, "The Good Girl" 2002).

Helena’s mistake was in thinking there’s such a thing as progress. Instead, cultures shift about laterally, correcting problems as they become obvious, often in ways that create new problems. It’s true that the train isn’t coming back. It’s going to a new station, and we don’t yet know where. Hold on for the ride.


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