"Kinsey": All Bonobos and No Chimps

Behold the bonobo, Dr. Kinsey tells his enraptured students. They're our closest relatives, and they have sex all the time, with as many partners as possible, while living together in peace and harmony!

Way cool, we say. But depending on our knowledge of primate evolution, we might also ask why the kindly prof doesn't mention chimpanzees, those larger cousins of bonobos who really ARE our closest relatives (just a few chromosomes away from Uncle Fred). Is it because recent field research suggests that chimps in the wild take giddy delight in such activities as rape, mate-battering, and murder?*

Personally, I don't put much stock in sociobiology. It's fascinating to compare ourselves with animals, but for a couple of millennia, human beings have understood that, like it or not, we are different. For one thing, animals don't conduct scientific studies of their own sexual behavior, publish them in best-selling volumes that contribute to significant changes in social organization (if not behavior), then make movies celebrating only one side of the story.

To be fair, "Kinsey" tells its one-sided story gracefully. Bill Condon is a deft director with a flair for sexual themes (see his excellent 1998 "Gods and Monsters"). And Liam Neeson is a vast improvement on the original Alfred Kinsey - not only is he better looking, with a better sense of humor, he is also better behaved.

Oops. This is science, folks. We're not supposed to judge behavior as better or worse. That belongs to the dark ages B.K. (Before Kinsey), when ten-year-old boys were forced to wear cruel contraptions to keep them from masturbating.

Huh? Where did I get that idea? From a gripping scene in which it is revealed that the suffering flesh of Kinsey père (John Lithgow) had been mortified in this bizarre way. As it happens, there's no evidence that such a thing ever occurred. Why then add it to the movie? The answer is simple: to make the dark ages look even darker than they were.

America had no lack of sexual hangups in the 1950s: anti-gay prejudice, racist myths, and gross disinformation about female sexuality (thanks a lot, Sigmund). A more measured film would not feel the need to add sexual morality to the list. I say this because the last I checked, sex was a pretty strong passion that sometimes needs channelling, if not curbing. (I assure you, my acceptance of this hard fact does not compel me to strap chastity belts on ten-year-old boys.)

One one level, "Kinsey" accepts this hard fact. There aren't many erotic practices out there that most people agree are wrong, but raping children is one. So "Kinsey" includes a moment of moral indignation at it, as though trying to reassure the audience that this is a movie about noble scientists, not nasty libertines.

The trouble is, Kinsey and some of his associates WERE libertines, and like all libertines they ended up hurting and violating one another. There are some hints of this: a scene where two researchers who've been sleeping with each other's wives succumb to jealous anger; and one great line: "When it comes to love, we are all in the dark."

But these are only hints, which is too bad, because underlying this story is a compelling set of questions about what science can and cannot tell us about ourselves. For example, love is not the only thing science cannot illuminate. Morality is another. Can it be proven scientifically that raping children is wrong? Of course not. That is a truth of another kind, no less true for not being subject to the experimental method.

If "Kinsey" went a little further in addressing such questions, instead of pulling back from them (for fear of appearing prudish?), then it would be a great movie instead of merely a good one.

* My source is the work of anthropologist Richard Wrangham, whose 1997 book, "Demonic Males," uses solid research to buttress a less-than-solid brief for what might be described as the bonobo lifestyle.

December 7, 2004 9:45 AM |



PRC Pop 

The Chinese pop music scene is like no other ...

Remembering Elvis 

The best part of him will never leave the building ...

Beyond Country 

Like all chart categories, "country" is an arbitrary heading under which one finds the ridiculous, the sublime, and everything in between. On the sublime end, a track that I have been listening to over and over for the last six months: Wynnona Judd's version of "She Is His Only Need." The way she sings it, irony is not a color or even a set of contrasting colors; it is iridescence.

Miles the Rock Star? 

Does Miles Davis belong in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame? Here's my take on his career ...

Essay Contest 

Attention, high school jazz listeners ...

more trax

Me Elsewhere

Edward Hopper 

Painter of light (and darkness) ...

Dissed in Translation 

Here's my best shot at taking Scorcese down a few pegs ...

Henri Rousseau Revisited 

"Henri Rousseau: Jungles in Paris" appeared at the National Gallery of Art in Washington this fall ...

Paul Klee's Art 

Paul Klee was not childish, despite frequent comparisons between his art and that of children...

Our Art Belongs to Dada 

Rent my "Dadioguide" tour of the Dada show (before it moves to MoMA) ...

more picks


About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by published on December 7, 2004 9:45 AM.

Video Virgil: Nice Beards, Great Bathrobes was the previous entry in this blog.

Shining Brother Ray is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

AJ Ads

AJ Blogs

AJBlogCentral | rss

About Last Night
Terry Teachout on the arts in New York City
Artful Manager
Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
blog riley
rock culture approximately
critical difference
Laura Collins-Hughes on arts, culture and coverage
Richard Kessler on arts education
Douglas McLennan's blog
Dog Days
Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
Art from the American Outback
Life's a Pitch
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
Mind the Gap
No genre is the new genre
Performance Monkey
David Jays on theatre and dance
Plain English
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Real Clear Arts
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
Rockwell Matters
John Rockwell on the arts
Straight Up |
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude

Foot in Mouth
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Seeing Things
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...

Jazz Beyond Jazz
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...

Out There
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Serious Popcorn
Martha Bayles on Film...

classical music
Creative Destruction
Fresh ideas on building arts communities
The Future of Classical Music?
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
On the Record
Exploring Orchestras w/ Henry Fogel
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
Bruce Brubaker on all things Piano
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Slipped Disc
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds

Jerome Weeks on Books
Quick Study
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera

Drama Queen
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off
lies like truth
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world

Aesthetic Grounds
Public Art, Public Space
Another Bouncing Ball
Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
John Perreault's art diary
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary
Modern Art Notes
Tyler Green's modern & contemporary art blog
Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.