Years ago, when our movie critic at The New Orleans States-Item was given private screenings so he could review films for publication on the days they came out in theaters, my husband and I went to almost every one. We saw scores of good movies, including “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “Midnight Cowboy.” When we went to see the latter, we took his mother, who was visiting from out-of-state, with us.
My mother-in-law wasn’t a film buff and hadn’t been to the movies in almost 15 years. So when the show got a tad raunchy, I nudged my husband, who was sitting between us, and asked, “How’s your mother doing?”
“I don’t know,” he replied. “She hasn’t exhaled yet.”
I got to thinking about that today, and in a minute I’ll tell you why. But first, I need to say that I figured it happened about 20 or 25 years ago, but knew I had to look it up for readers who want their T’s crossed and I’s dotted. According to Wikkipedia, “Midnight Cowboy” came out in 1969. My, how time flies when you’re having fun!
The “Midnight Cowboy” episode crossed my mind after I went for a pedicure today and was squirreling around in the salon’s magazine rack for something to read. They didn’t have any of those weeklies that I love to peruse to see who’s in Cabo in a thong right now or try to figure out who Heidi Klum and the Kardashians are, so I picked up a copy of Cosmopolitan. I probably hadn’t seen it since Helen Gurley Brown was editor.
Now it’s clearer how my poor mother-in-law felt. I almost failed to exhale the first time I heard our own Ellen Degeneres say, “I’ve got to pee” on her sitcom, and today culture “surprise” washed over me. One of the Cosmo pieces consisted of very short quotes from about 50 dudes who were graphically outlining what they want or don’t in bed. I won’t elaborate.
While I was mulling the changes in Cosmo from household hints of one kind to household hints of another, I got to thinking about something I once read that suggested that if one of the very smart people from history — say Benjamin Franklin or Leonardo Da Vinci — were to time travel to the modern world, he would have no trouble comprehending the uses to which we’ve put electricity or modern conveyances like automobiles and helicopters. Heck, Leonardo even drew diagrams of the latter.
But how would they deal with modern culture? Depends on the individual time traveler, I guess, and decided to think way back past the Victorian-era novels and Jane Austen romances I love to read. If you’ve seen Peter Ustinov as the emperor Nero in a movie set in ancient Rome, then you know the Romans were no prudes. In the Middle Ages, things sometimes rocked, only they had no printed materials to advertise it. History tells of many societies that have gone from restrained to risqué to raunchy and back again, and I’m bringing this up to explain where a person of my age is coming from. We’ve inherited a little something from a queen who lived not so long ago when you think about it.
The Victorian era’s strict social code came about when Victoria was ruler of England (1837-1901), and since the Brits’ empire was so widespread, influenced the world. (Two hundred years earlier, the Puritans had had their turn at imposing sexual restraint, and weren’t they some of the people who populated the New World?) Since Victoria has been gone only 110 years and I’m 75 (the distance between us is less time than since we saw “Midnight Cowboy”), my younger years were influenced by the Victorian morality code. “Nice” people did it, but they sure didn’t talk about it.
Now you understand your grandmother a little better. And for heavens sake, don’t let her see a copy of Cosmo.
Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living section of The Times Picayune, for which she wrote “Silver Threads” until her retirement. Email comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.