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WGBH/American Experience on PBS
At one point about midway through the last century, Dr. Alfred C.
Kinsey was the second-most recognized man in the country, outside of the president. If this seems strange to a generation that came of
age after the social and sexual revolutions of the sixties, born into a world in which the
Kinsey Report, the Hite Report and the Drudge Report all vie for space in the popular
unconscious, help is on the way. The last of
three major pieces in the past six months to deal with the sexologist and his
legacyafter T.C. Boyles fascinating novel The
Inner Circle and Bill Condons justly-lauded biopic Kinsey,
starring Liam NeesonPBSs stentorian history series The American Experience now
presents a program on Dr. Kinseys sex studies just in time for Valentines Day.
Its not entirely clear as to why the sudden interest in Kinseys life, although its certainly fitting that the promise of four more years of George W. Bush would send all American anti-moralist crusaders, past or present, up the flagpole in a hurry. And though hes less well known in todays world, this prototypical sexual revolutionarywho maintained a strong marriage despite increasingly strong homosexual and masochistic tendenciesis certainly worthy of history. By all accounts the man was an absolute contradiction in terms, and all three portraits center on the fresh-scrubbed scientist in a bow-tie who nonetheless tirelessly advocated for the utter diversity and variety of human sexual response.
A gall wasp biologist at Indiana University, Professor Kinseyor Prok, as he was known to his graduate studentsbecame concerned with the frightful lack of sex savvy he couldnt help but notice (not least in his own home; the PBS program notes that sex between Kinsey and his wife was all but impossible until she had minor surgery performed on her hymen). His father was a fire and brimstone preacher and, in all likelihood, this spurned Kinseys obsession with sex as much as natures infinite possibilities, though Prokgood anti-Freudian that he waswould have discarded such psychology as haphazard and irrelevant.
The American Experience programnarrated, refreshingly, by Campbell Scottdiffers from the novelization and the Hollywood version in tone, though the content of the stories hardly changes. Ostensibly factual in its biography, the television program avoids all cautionary tale pitfalls that slightly hamper both the film and the novel, and the American Experience program does its best to free its subject from the typically stuffy confines of public broadcasting. To be expected, it combines stock footage from the fortiesclunky Packers cruising down rural roads and coeds jaunting across neo-gothic campuseswith home movies (though not of the explicit variety for which Kinsey would become infamous) and talking head footage from Kinseys surviving family members, biographers and those who worked with him at Indianas Institute for Sex Research.
The programs one bit of controversy deals with this last group, as it touches on the details of the well-known bit of wife-swapping among Kinseys immediate proteges. Kinsey encouraged sexual openness among his underlings, but when Paul Gebhart got too attached to Clyde Martins wife Alice, Prok was forced to step in. According to one source, she never forgave him. The PBS program, which features testimony from both Gebhart and Martin, cheats in its retelling of the events, allowing Gebhart to give a full account from memory, while Martins side of the story goes unheard. The two men continued on as colleagues for another decade, so it stands to reason that they each made peace with the affair, but in only giving one side, the program ends up raising more questions about Proks influence on his inner circle than it answers. Perhaps this is inevitable.
For all the highly publicized Kinsey material in the media this year, the man is no less an enigma. Fittingly, the program ends with Kinsey presiding over a televised speech, declaiming, as he so often did during his life, the absolute need for science to free mankind from the prison of moralistic ignorance. Even in view of the great strides that have been made since his death, Dr. Kinseys legacy is as important today as ever.
January 29, 2005 - Jesse Paddock