The Sum of the Parts: Showtime’s “Sex in the Twentieth Century”

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The Sum of the Parts: Showtime's   

Me personally, I’m looking forward to Y2K. Bring on those massive computer crashes. Bring on the blackouts and the air traffic control shutdowns and the grocery store madness, the panicking
citizens, the looting, the delays, all of it: at least then we won’t have to suffer through any more end-of-the-millennium TV programming. Enough already. Find a new metanarrative. Stop making history turn its head and cough.


This summer, American sexual culture gets its centennial check-up on Showtime’s “Sex in the Twentieth Century: From Behind Closed Doors” (premiering Monday, July 26 at 10:15 p.m. EST). In two hours, director Robert Townsend takes

us on a wild, overwhelming tour of the American libido — from the massive drag balls at Madison Square Garden in the ’20s to the puritanism of ’50s Hollywood to the ’80s Meese Commission on Pornography and AIDS — in standard, narratorless documentary form (a form which apparently can suck the life out of any subject — even sex). The past ten decades are set end to end, like eggs in a carton, and tediously examined one at a time. What happened in the 1910s?, asks Townsend. And then what happened? And then what happened? And then what happened? Over and over again, we get the cacophonous answers to these uninspired questions — ” . . . and then Margaret Sanger smuggled diaphragms into the country. And then Prohibition was enacted. And then we went to war . . .” — with no sense of the dynamic interconnectedness of events, or of their complex cause and effect. (Birth control, for example, virtually disappears from the film
once Sanger’s done getting arrested in the early ’30s, never to reappear again
until the ’80s, when it’s mentioned in passing as an accepted and available fact of reproductive life.) By the end of the film, I was more interested in observing just how people’s faces change when they talk about sex than in what they were actually saying.


“Sex in the Twentieth Century” is one of Showtime’s six-part millennium series in which six famous feature film directors have been called upon to explore six subjects (Garry Marshall on marriage, Norman Jewison on comedy, Robert Zemeckis on substance abuse, and so on). Since there were so many people involved in the production of this film — series producers, executive series producers, segment producers, and so on — it doesn’t seem right to blame Robert Townsend alone. (He may have directed the awful and offensive 1997 B.A.P.s, but he also directed Eddie Murphy in the groundbreaking live performance, Raw.) Perhaps what’s wrong with the film is wrong precisely because there were too many cooks in the documentary kitchen.


There are, happily, some little treasures buried throughout. For starters, the film is refreshingly pro-sex; its heroes are pornographers and queers and health educators — people who, after thinking long and hard about it, have decided that as long as it’s
consensual and safe, sex is really quite good for you. (When was the last time you saw Dr. Ruth

presented as a legitimate educator, rather than just a sight gag with a funny accent?) Also, Townsend and his collaborators have collected an eclectic and impressive cast of talking heads to describe, as anecdotally as they can, the changes twentieth-century America has seen in sexual identities and debates. There are the Experts (like queer historians George Chauncey and Kevin Mumford), the Pornographers (like Veronica Vera, founder of Miss Vera’s Finishing School for Boys Who Want to be Girls, and of course, Hugh), the Activists (like Betty Friedan and Ta’Shia Asanti), the Folks-on-the-Street (who actually sound like they’ve read a book or two in their time). And who could ever tire of Joycelyn Elders waxing clinical about the state of shtupping in America?


The film’s ultimate saving grace is the range of rare archival footage the filmmakers have dug up in their research. For example, there’s a young Mike Wallace interviewing an also young, and uncharacteristically nervous, Hefner; an extreme close up of Ann Landers sternly spouting old-school, misogynistic hooey in the name of femininity; stock footage of an S/M bottom passionately testifying to her desire in front of the Meese Commission; and Pat Buchanan looking piss-your-pants uncomfortable as he shouts “No more porn!” at a mid-’80s rally. Priceless.


But these short glimpses of the visual record of our sexual past have been edited together so sloppily, and they pass by so quickly, that before your jaw has the chance to drop, the film is off and running to the next series of images, to the next event, to the next decade. As anyone who’s watched The History Channel for more than a commercial break can attest, unless
the past is molded into some meaningful narrative, it’s always the same: the smiling people of the ’20s move really fast, the super-saturated color panoramas of the ’50s are filled with happy white nuclear families, Ronald Reagan moves his mouth and Greta Garbo bats her eyelashes and Duke Ellington plays the piano. People have sex, and they don’t have sex, and somebody’s always called “pervert.” But who needs a documentary to tell them that?


What I want to be told is a story. I want my desire to be put in context. I want interesting questions asked and answered: Have people always fucked like this? Where’d all these porn shops come from? How, even, has the invention of new plastics changed the economy and nature of desire over the past 100 years? The flappers and the panoramas and Reagan would still have to be mentioned, but in the end we’d get a better sense of how they all helped set the stage for changes in the American sexual landscape, how they made possible (among other things) the Clitoral Alignment Technique, a chain of Hustler stores, and PVC pants.


Oh well, maybe next millennium.

For more Rachel Mattson, read:

Boygirl, Boygirl
Drive: A Suburban Mystery
The Sum of the Parts: Showtime’s “Sex in the Twentieth Century”
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©1999 Rachel Mattson and Nerve.com