It's not every day that a star-studded motion picture with Oscar aspirations details the life and work of a Bowdoin alum. Kinsey, a Fox Searchlight release starring Liam Neeson, has received much critical praise since opening in select cities November 12.
The film is also getting attention in another way: by reviving the controversy surrounding the life and work of its subject, sex researcher Alfred C. Kinsey, Class of 1916.
"To say that [the film] is rank propaganda for the sexual revolution and the homosexual agenda would be beyond stating the obvious," wrote Tom Deven, a movie reviewer for the influential Christian group Focus on the Family, whose website labels writer/director Bill Condon a "gay activist" and claims the film "lionizes" the life of a man whose research has "done much to destroy the moral fabric of America and ruin tens of thousands of lives."
Other groups have responded negatively to the film, including Generation Life and Concerned Women for America, which has distributed fliers online titled "The Real Alfred Kinsey that Kinsey Doesn't Show."
Among their complaints, these groups attack the film for being too admiring of its subject. In an online review of the film, Morality in the Media President Robert Peters complained that Kinsey "is portrayed as someone who exerted a positive, rather than negative, influence on society," going on to charge Kinsey's research with having helped bring about such problems as teenage pregnancy and an epidemic of sexually-transmitted diseases.
While working on his psychology and biology degree at Bowdoin, Kinsey was a far less controversial figure. Better known as "Al" to his friends, according to a press release issued by the Bowdoin Office of Communications, he kept a low social profile, pledging a fraternity only because they served pie at breakfast, and never dated. It wasn't until three decades later, after earning a Harvard doctorate in biology and joining the faculty at the University of Indiana, that Kinsey would cause such a stir.
Kinsey's national notoriety began with the publication of his two groundbreaking studies into human sexuality, both of which would become international best sellers: Sexual Behavior in the Human Male in 1948 and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female in 1953. Despite much contemporary criticism of the work on both moral and methodological grounds, many in academia now regard Kinsey as a scientific hero, acknowledging his role in de-mystifying sex and laying the foundation for a more sex-affirming culture.
"Kinsey's work is definitely important despite the controversy over it," said Professor of Biology Patsy Dickinson, who has taught a course on sexuality at Bowdoin. "His studies served as a basis for later studies in this area, and really were instrumental in opening up human sexuality as a subject for legitimate research," she said.
The "Kinsey Reports," as the two studies became known, shook post-war America by revealing the gap between sexual myths and actual sexual behavior. Among the study's most shocking findings were the prevalence of masturbation, pre-marital sex, and extra-marital sex in both males and females, and particularly the notion that homosexual behavior was far more commonplace than its social stigma would have people believe.
Kinsey's devotion to academic work stretched back to his days at Bowdoin, where he graduated magna cum laude and even delivered the Commencement address to the Class of 1916. According to biographer James H. Jones, Kinsey enjoyed his time at the whispering pines, writing that the institution introduced him to the "life of the mind."
Despite his celebrity, Kinsey is not a well-known alum on campus.
President Barry Mills, a Bowdoin biology major himself from the Class of 1972, said he had no idea during his undergraduate studies that Kinsey had ever attended. "It is very interesting that over the years Kinsey seems not to have made it to the list of prominent alums when we talk about famous Bowdoin alums," Mills said, adding that he has made an effort to mention him more often.
Associate Professor of Biology Barry Logan said he only recently became aware that Kinsey once attended Bowdoin. "He certainly had a high profile as an individual because he was working on such sensitive issues," he said, but added that he was not aware of any Kinsey lore in the department.
Dickinson, who is familiar with Kinsey's work, only knew his connections to Bowdoin after having been contacted for this article. In the bio department, it's certainly not a well-known fact," she said.
As for the controversy, Dickinson implied that she is not surprised that a film about scientific inquiry has caused so much commotion. "It seems that whenever science seeks to study subjects on which some groups have very strong opinions, controversy arises," Dickinson said.
"It's my impression that a lot of [the controversy] comes not so much from Kinsey's work as from information that has been revealed about his personal life–which really shouldn't affect one's view of science," she said.
Indeed, some groups have attacked the film for not portraying some controversial details of Kinsey's life accurately enough, such as his sexually open marriage with wife Clara McMillan Kinsey and his various homosexual affairs—a criticism Professor of Film Studies Tricia Welsch finds a bit ridiculous.
"No biopic is ever accurate," she said.
Welsch, who teaches a course on biographical film, takes issue with the motivations behind such demands on Hollywood production, especially when placed on a film that explores a topic the industry doesn't often portray: "the life of the mind."
"Americans are very conflictive about intellectual inquiry. We think it's interesting unless it challenges our morals," she said.
Dr. Laura Schlessinger, a conservative radio host who has also attacked Kinsey, went as far as to attack the entire American film industry in a Fox News story last year, saying that "Hollywood needs to have some level of responsibility somewhere for making sure when they represent a piece of history or a man like Kinsey that they fairly show the whole truth."
When asked whether or not films have a strict duty to accuracy, Welsch gave a clear no. "Those making movies have right or responsibility to explore their own interpretation," she said. "It's the only prayer these movies have of becoming art."