What is Peter Bart Smoking?


The celebratory media frenzy over the 50th anniversary of The Pill has reached even the pages of Variety, where past editor and current vice president and editorial director Peter Bart has written a strange essay called “‘Sex’ and the summer franchise” (subscription required) that somehow contrives to link a blip in summer movie patterns to five decades of contraception.

Bearing the subtitle “Fifty years ago the Pill changed everything, including the movies,” the essay is an odd mishmash of social commentary predicated on a tenuous entertainment news note: This summer’s movie roster features two (2) chick-flick franchise sequels (the third Twilight movie and a Sex and the City sequel), and only one (1) guy franchise sequel (Iron Man 2).

An unusual state of affairs, certainly, but not much meat to build an article from. Has Hollywood’s guy-centricity changed in any fundamental way? Probably not. And what exactly has this got to do with the Pill? Bart strains to connect the dots:

The Pill celebrated the sexual liberation of women, but 50 years later it has also ushered in an era in which women are paying the bills, delaying the babies and also looking after the sputtering ids and egos of their guys, most of whom have been laid off or never had a job to begin with.

It’s a fascinating trade-off: Controlling your reproductivity means increasing your productivity.

There’s an odd tone of feminist gloating here, as if Bart considers the increased financial pressure on women a small price to pay for the downgrading of the male id and ego. I hadn’t heard, though, that even in these days of 10 percent unemployment (or 17%, or 22%, or whatever adjusted figure you prefer) “most” guys were unemployed if they ever had jobs in the first place. Perhaps it’s only “most” of the guys with whom these luckless career women are saddled? If so, who knew that male unemployability was such a key indicator of success with women?

Bart continues:

The first few years of post-Pill America were a time of hubris. Women rejoiced in their sexual freedom and the boys did all they could to help. Businesses started hiring more women because they knew their new recruits wouldn’t automatically start having babies. Women got the message: In the 1970s alone the percentage of women in law schools soared from 10% to 36%.

Translational note: “Hubris” seems to be viewed as a positive thing here. Oh, and why “women” and “the boys”?

Then comes this howler:

A couple of generations later, however, society is at once more liberated and more repressed. Conservatives and evangelicals have decided that contraception weakens the marital bond by separating sex from procreation.

“Conservatives. And. Evangelicals. Have. Decided.”

Bart. What are you smoking? Do you even know any conservatives or Evangelicals? Reading this, I picture you as the polar opposite of The Blind Side’s Tuohy family: “Who would have thought we’d have a black child before we knew a conservative Evangelical?”

Where do you start critiquing all that is wrong with this statement? First, there’s the absurdity of crediting “conservatives and Evangelicals” with recently “deciding” what has always been taught by the largest religious body in the United States, and what every major Protestant tradition affirmed until exactly 70 years ago this year. Second, as a statement about current conservative and Evangelical attitudes toward contraception, it’s about as wrong as it is possible for any statement beginning with the words “conservatives and evangelicals have decided” to be.

The droplet of truth in this ocean of absurdity is that Protestantism by nature is incorrigibly heterogeneous, and very few uncontroversial propositions can be formulated beginning with clauses like “All Protestants believe” or “Evangelicalism unambiguously affirms.” Seventy years after Protestants began defecting from the historic Christian opposition to contraception that previously united Catholics and Protestants, that defection is, to date, not 100 percent absolute. Fringe groups and movements under the Protestant umbrella can be found rejecting contraception (and even natural family planning), such as the Quiverfull movement, which Wikipedia describes as numbering “a few thousand.”

But the massive, overwhelming sociological fact is that conservative Evangelicals have embraced contraception about as wholeheartedly as they’ve embraced anything. Christian rock is more controversial among conservative Evangelicals than contraception. Acceptance of homosexuality is more widespread among self-described Evangelicals than rejection of contraception.

But Bart’s not finished. He goes on:

Thus in Sarah Palin’s America, young people aren’t supposed to talk about sex, just engage in it.

This, of course, is really a dig at Bristol Palin, the culture of death’s poster girl du jour for Christian hypocrisy. The really amazing thing here, though, is how 18 months after the election here we are living in “Sarah Palin’s America.” You’d think the Administration would have done something about that by now. Last I heard, even Sarah Palin’s Alaska was under new management. Way to confirm the Palin Derangement Syndrome stereotype, Bart.

Then there’s this brilliant observation:

Meanwhile marital bonds have weakened, not because of the Pill (the only relevant pill these days is Viagra) but because couples live too g**d*** long. The inventors of marriage were thinking of short-lived peasants, not 90-year-old geriatrics.

Riight. That’s why divorce courts today are jammed with 90-year-old geriatric couples who just can’t take it no more. Thus the famous “hockey stick” graphic showing how divorces rise sharply the longer a couple stays together. Oh wait. No, in this reality, divorces follow a ski slope pattern, with the most divorces occurring in the first five years, then tapering off after that. Yes, there has been an increase in long-term marriages breaking up too, but the steep part of the slope, the early years, is still where the bulk of the increase has occurred.

Still, longevity, not contraception, must be the key factor. It must be because twentysomething newlyweds find themselves looking across the breakfast table asking themselves, “This is fine for now, but can I really live with this person into our geriatric years? It’s not like we’ll both be dead in a decade or two, like short-lived peasants in the good old days.” That’s the ticket.

“The only relevant pill these days is Viagra.” Gosh, I hadn’t heard that oral contraceptives were so irrelevant these days. The pope must be pleased.

Bart wraps up:

Fifty years after the Pill, society is giving off very mixed signals. Sexual freedom was supposed to bring enlightenment. I actually believed that. What was I smoking?

“Was,” Bart?

Cultures of Life and Death