New-old Lessons on Love and Family

The culture wars have caught an unlikely target in their cross-fire, the wildly popular book-turned-movie, "The Bridges of Madison County." "Bridges" is being bombed by both conservatives and feminists.

Echoing presidential candidate Bob Dole's recent salvo against Hollywood, a Chicago Tribune op-ed piece by law professor Douglas Kmiec blasted the sensuous story of a four-day extramarital affair between Francesca, an Iowa farm-wife (played by Meryl Streep), and Robert, a world-travelling, free-spirited photographer (Clint Eastwood). The film, argues Mr. Kmiec, defends "selfishness" as "entitlement," presenting "unwarranted sexual gratification . . . as essential freedom."


That's not the film I saw. (I won't comment on the book, which is both less subtle and more syrupy than the movie.) "Bridges"' conservative critics neglect the fact that the film's climax is not the affair. It is Francesca's choice to end it. This is where things get ironic, because Francesca's reason for ending the romance -- her commitment to husband and family -- is the reason some feminists have been burning "Bridges."

Francesca's choice to stand by her family rather than roam the world with her true love is pure poison to a generation of feminists raised on Erica Jong's "Fear of Flying." In a fuming piece in the New York Times Magazine, Frank Rich blasted "Bridges"' sympathetic portrayal of Francesca's choice as "the 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' of the gender wars." Today's loyal wife is the moral proxy for yesterday's good slave. By dropping the burden for saving the family on Francesca's shoulders, "Bridges" is only one more peddler of the cycle of women's sense of obligation to and hence victimization by men.


Who's right? Does "Bridges" build a case for promiscuity or patriarchy? -- sin or serfdom? Fortunately for us, neither.

Instead, the film's popularity and power lie in its artfully authentic portrait of the ongoing battle in every human soul: between pleasure and duty, self and others, personal freedom and family-citizen obligations. "Bridges" clarifies and dignifies the struggle and pain that inevitably follow our efforts to face these tensions, that is, to lead serious lives.

If you doubt this, imagine that Francesca had decided to leave her family for Robert. The divorce and child-custody matters would be easily handled in a society grown easy on divorce. The children would be sent to a certified therapist, in order to prevent the trauma of the divorce from wounding them and their generation "X." Gone would be the power and passion of the story. Mother and family having, as Robert advises, "moved on," there would be nothing left in the story to move us -- meaning, absent Francesca's choice, there would be no story.

"Small price," feminists rejoin, "for a woman's being able to realize herself." But the whole point -- of Francesca's choice, of "Bridges," of a serious life -- is to face without flinching the natural fact that there can be no easy, no final, certainly no just resolution of the war in the soul between desire and obligation.

Both the left and right critics of "Bridges" cringe at the natural fact that to be human -- male as well as female -- means to have needs that can never be satisfied. By a "natural fact" I mean only this. Mr. Eastwood's character, Robert, sings the praises of Africa's jungles. Everything is "natural" there, he says. There is no "imposed morality." Just like a man to think so. Man, by untamed nature, may drop his seed where he will, without thought for the (nine-months-down-the-road) consequences. After each liaison, nature does not prevent men from taking off to roam once more as "citizens of the world."

But for woman, by nature, sex brings the burden of pregnancy. For her a one-night stand can engender a lifelong responsibility. Yet this natural "burden" is what accounts for the fact that women's attitudes toward sex are generally far more mature than men's. Women's maturity explains why "Playgirl" magazine's sales continue to trail far behind "Playboy": neither ideologues nor entrepreneurs can convince women to become as "visual" (read: shallow) as men.

Pregnancy teaches women that sexual choices carry unavoidable consequences, that pleasures bear duties. This lesson in self-restraint women then teach men: by Francesca's self-control Robert is tamed, brought out of Africa to Iowa. She elevates him from jungle-love to the profound attachment of which only human beings are capable.

At a crucial point in the film, Robert is brought by Francesca to confess that his free-love ethos is not a brave defense of "autonomy" but a fearful retreat from the pain of "needing what he cannot have." The simpler but wiser Francesca responds that any serious life must come to terms with the natural fact that "love refuses to obey our expectations," and her courage in the face of this teaches us that dignity consists in living with the knowledge that some needs must go forever unmet.


From Francesca's choice we learn that the tragedies that follow from eros, love, and marriage are inevitable. They can be neither legislated nor psychologized away. Frances ca deserves to be happy, yet her choice to stick by her commitments is the source TTC of not only the tragedy but also the dignity of the film.

"Bridges"' immense, almost universal, appeal lies in its ennobling depiction of one woman's resolve in the face of the tragedy that universally follows our attempts to live by and with, rather than to flee from, our life-choices.

This is why the attempts to politicize the film are so unfortunate. Because "Bridges" sympathetically depicts forbidden needs and desires, it insults some conservatives, for whom needing what you cannot have is immoral. Because it simultaneously defends a woman's choice on behalf of her family, it offends some feminists, for whom needing what you cannot have is slavery. Because it illuminates and ennobles the struggles of everyday life, "Bridges"' has endeared itself to a movie-going public starved for the emotional support that popular art can provide.

In the end, then, "Bridges"' lesson is not new. Few truths are. "Bridges" artfully defends what all of us know in our bones: the goodness of choice can be defended only by those who take responsibility for their choices, who know that life is, as Francesca tells Robert, "the choices we make." Old or new, the film's defense of human responsibility is one lesson that should bridge the gap between left and right.

Thomas K. Lindsay, an adjunct scholar at the Heritage Foundation, teaches political philosophy at the University of Northern Iowa.