Traditional Values on Screen, and on Trial

Deploring the Sixties and the sexual revolution has become big business. Myron Magnet may have kicked it off with his book The Dream and the Nightmare, which focused on the poor. (The publisher bills this as “the book that made George W. Bush President,” but honestly, I don’t think you can blame Magnet for that.) He followed that with Modern Sex: Liberation and Its Discontents. For the younger generation, Wendy Shalit offered A Return to Modesty. Like a lot of conservative authors, she told us that the ladies of “Sex and the City” are a walking embodiment of “the failure of sexual liberation.”

No doubt the new rules about sex, gender, courtship, and marriage have indeed brought much heartache. But there’s a reason people threw over the old rules. We can point to some sociological explanations–the pill, for instance. Not to mention the pill appearing on the scene at the same time as the explosion in college attendance and the Vietnam war. See Brink Lindsey’s forthcoming book The Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed America’s Politics and Culture for some of that story.

But there’s also a more personal reason that the old rules failed: they too caused a lot of pain. Friday night the TCM channel will broadcast a sweet and sad movie, Cheers for Miss Bishop, released in 1941 and set in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Miss Bishop graduates from college and stays on to teach for 50 years. She never marries. And that means, given the strictures of the time, that she never experiences a full love affair. In her youth she is engaged to a young man, but he takes a tumble with her less-respectable cousin, so of course she can’t marry him. Twenty years later, mirabile dictu, she gets another chance, with a cultured and educated visiting professor. But his wife won’t give him a divorce, and she can’t go off to Italy with a married-but-separated man. So it’s back to spinsterhood for Miss Bishop.

I can never remember if this movie is called Cheers for Miss Bishop or Tears for Miss Bishop. It’s presented as a touching story, with 50 years of students returning to celebrate the difference she made in their lives. And so she did. But she gave up two chances at real happiness because of the strictures of the old rules. The old rules certainly had their uses – there were fewer STDs and fewer fatherless babies (there’s an irony, considering that it was the pill that helped to usher in the new world) – but they also condemned some people to lonely lives.

Watch Tears – I mean, Cheers for Miss Bishop Friday night and give two cheers for the sexual revolution.

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