Last week, some of the recent developments in HBO's flagship series led to criticisms of it. The cast of Showtime's Masters of Sex differentiated the depiction of sex in their series with HBO's Game of Thrones by implying the sex in Game of Thrones is gratuitous and degrading toward women. That was coupled with the creator of the History Channel's Vikings calling Game of Thrones "soft porn" in an interview with TIME, and Dave Itzkoff's column in the New York Times about "rising unease" with the way sex, and the violence that surrounds it, is handled in the series. This type of commentary being directed at the show is not new. And defenders of Game of Thrones, as well as George R. R. Martin himself, have argued the series is set in an inherently misogynistic society and time, and it would be disingenuous to the themes of the story to sugarcoat either the sex or violence. It's also worth noting that there have probably been more columns written concerned and upset about images of breasts and shaved female genitalia in Game of Thrones than any complaining about the scenes of people being beheaded, castrated and brutally murdered.
So, in search of a topic for this week's column, I thought about how sex is presented in TV shows and movies, and whether there's a right way of doing it? Is there anything wrong with a TV show or movie being titillating just to be titillating? And maybe there isn't a correct, universal way, and the particulars of each story demands it being handled in a different way each time. Usually when this issue is discussed, it leads into arguments over objectification, sexism, patriarchy, gender roles, body image, etc., as well as any deeper cultural messages and significance to the attitudes reflected in the works. With that in mind, what does Hollywood get right about sex, and what does it get horribly wrong?
More analysis below the fold.
"There are two kinds of sex, classical and baroque. Classical sex is romantic, profound, serious, emotional, moral, mysterious, spontaneous, abandoned, focused on a particular person, and stereotypically feminine. Baroque sex is pop, playful, funny, experimental, conscious, deliberate, amoral, anonymous, focused on sensation for sensation's sake, and stereotypically masculine. The classical mentality taken to an extreme is sentimental and finally puritanical; the baroque mentality taken to an extreme is pornographic and finally obscene. Ideally, a sexual relation ought to create a satisfying tension between the two modes (a baroque idea, particularly if the tension is ironic) or else blend them so well that the distinction disappears (a classical aspiration)." —Ellen WillisThe first "adult" films with graphic sex scenes I can remember seeing was Emmanuelle and The Story of Lady Chatterley late at night on Cinemax (aka Skinemax) as a teenager. Even though I was young and impressionable, and as much as I may have wanted to believe it, I don't think my takeaway from the films at the time was that sexually frustrated women go on tours of the countryside and have sex with everything that has a heartbeat. But both movies are indicative of why sex works in porn, and doesn't always function well in stories that need to build a narrative.
If a sex scene is present in a story, it's either there to arouse and be masturbation material, it's an important moment for the characters, or in some cases both aspects can be true at the same time. For a porno, the sex works because that's what a porn film is about. It's there to present a sex fantasy with the sex being the main show. It doesn't matter that the scenario or even the sex itself may be unrealistic. But for a movie that needs to tell a story beyond sex, sex scenes are usually a double-edged sword. It will definitely draw eyes and titillate, but the problem is that whatever momentum a story has just stops for a two-to-five-minute scene of actors pretending to screw each other. And if it's done badly, the sex adds nothing to the story, feels like a distraction and becomes the very definition of gratuitous.
So my argument would be that there's nothing wrong with watching sex that titillates. But if it's being done in service of a story, there are some traps the depicted sex should avoid if at all possible.
- Women that like sex are scary and weird: Late last year, The CW series Reign cut a scene from the pilot of a woman masturbating. However, in the very same episode, there was a mildly graphic sex scene and a beheading. When it was announced that The CW was cutting the scene, there was a little debate over whether it says something about how different we look at sex with a partner versus sex with your hand or a dildo? Or was it because a woman was masturbating? Usually when masturbation is depicted on TV or in film, it's as a joke. It's a young male that's hiding it from his mother, girlfriend or wife, and high jinks then ensue. But in the past, there have been more than a few instances where female pleasure is judged differently than male satisfaction. For instance, the movie Boys Don't Cry almost received an NC-17 rating from the MPAA because a scene depicting a female orgasm went on too long. Also, ever notice the trait usually shared by femme fatale killers in thrillers and mysteries? They're sexually aggressive and like to have sex. And who survives in thrillers and horror movies with a male killer? The pretty girl who doesn't have sex. Freud would have a field day with the dichotomy of a desire for a "virgin whore."
- Men always like having sex, and if they don't there's something "wrong": This gets into sort of ingrained gender roles, but men are usually depicted as the "aggressive" party in any relationship or sexual act (e.g. Fifty Shades of Grey). While there is truth in television to this kind of notion, with many women attracted to cocksure, confident men, the trick comes in with not making the female characters submissive and fragile compared to the men. And where things can go completely off the rails is with how TV and movies depict men who don't like sex. If a guy refuses sex from a pretty girl in a story, you can bet that he's going to be a gay character nine times out of ten. It is almost always used in a "coming out" story. If in the off chance it's not a coming out story, it will probably signal the guy has a fetish or is disturbed in some way.
- Male full frontal penis is an automatic NC-17, and rare even on cable: In 2012's The Sessions, the professional sex surrogate played by Helen Hunt is seen completely nude during the movie. However, John Hawkes' character is not. The reason for that is the MPAA has a tendency to give NC-17s to films where an actor's penis is visible. And there's no way in hell the penis can be erect either. 2003's The Cooler received an NC-17 from the MPAA because William H. Macy and actress Maria Bello's genitals were visible for less than second during a sex scene. The disparity is also present on pay-television, where it's rare to see a man totally nude.
From Michael O'Connell at The Hollywood Reporter, 'Orange Is the New Black's' Jenji Kohan Details Her Frustrating Negotiations to Get Actors Naked:
On top of navigating nudity reluctance, Kohan mentioned the contractual limitations that arise when clothing-free scenes come up. "Very often, there's a very specific rider," she said, "only side boob or only this cheek. … The extras, God bless them, are the ones that have it all out there -- and it's only an extra $10 a day for full nudity."
Netflix, she added, is thus far not giving her many boundaries -- though there was one. "We have some male frontal nudity this season," she said, "but I don't think it's going to be erect."
As for her late Showtime comedy, Weeds, Kohan described another penis-related obstacle: a scene in which one actress had to handle a sex toy. "We could show the dildo and we could show the lube," she said, "but we couldn't show her applying the lube to the dildo."
- Singles have dirty, wild, sweaty sex, while couples in relationships are boring: If the characters are a couple with "true love," their sex will be sweet, slow, probably in the missionary position and the very essence of romantic. If it's two singles having a night of fun, they will rip each other's clothes off and can't wait to get to a bed and fuck. They will have sex in the closest available place, like a public bathroom, and do it while bent in all sorts of contortionists ways. Because God knows that nothing sets the mood for sex like the aromas and smells you find in bar or club's toilet. Finally, Hollywood almost always depicts married couples as have boring sex. Because if a film or TV show is showing married people sex, they're usually setting up a reason for why one of the partners is tempted to stray and get single person "fuck me silly" sex.
- Gays and lesbians almost always fall into straight gender roles: If two gay men or two lesbians enter a relationship, they will be differentiated by stereotypical masculine and feminine traits. And this is usually done even though among straight couples the dichotomy doesn't always exist. Although it's slowly changing, you are more likely to see two women kiss or have sex in a movie or TV show than two men. Back in the early aughts with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Joss Whedon had to fight with Warner Bros. to get a kiss between Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and Tara (Amber Benson). And even after the network relented, there were stipulations on how it could be shot and depicted. Interestingly, the further back from the present you go, the more often than not you'll see gay men usually depicted as hypersexual and more camp flamboyant in film. Gay characters of the past have no ability to discern among other men whatsoever, and decadently want to have as much sex as possible. On the flip side, the further back in time one goes, the more "butch" lesbians become, as well as asexual. The most troubling aspect of that asexuality is the implication in more than a few films that all a lesbian needs is sex from the right man in order to "fix" things.
- Characters with a fetish are defined by that fetish: If a character is into kink, then his or her life revolves around that kink to an obsessive extent. More likely than not, the BDSM is a sign that either the character has secrets, is unhappy or a lunatic.
- Beautiful people have sex, or at least beautiful women do: Since most actors are attractive people to begin with, that sort of makes this fait accompli to begin with. However, you are much more likely to see a beautiful woman with an awkward plain/old looking man than an awkward plain/old looking female with a beautiful man. At a press conference earlier this year for the new season of HBO's Girls, Lena Dunham was asked why her character was nude so much on the show and seen in unconventional and awkward sex scenes. Both Dunham and executive producer Judd Apatow bristled at the question, since if Girls was fronted by Zooey Deschanel (The New Girl) or Kaley Cuoco (The Big Bang Theory) or Kat Dennings (Two Broke Girls), would a reporter be asking a question about why the actress was nude so much in the show?
- No prep or lube required: Both men and women have no problem performing oral sex on complete strangers they just met, and have no idea how clean or where the genitals may have been. And in a don't try this at home move, at the very most spitting on a penis is all the lube people need to have anal sex in films. Also, most sex scene show couples in incredibly uncomfortable positions akin to a game of Twister. Because if you're going to show sex, the sex can't be dull. If condoms are shown it's for comedic effect (i.e. the guy can't find a condom or get it on) or to set up the condom's failure. And all couples climax at the same time, unless the point of the sex is to show one character's selfishness. Otherwise, one character gets their enjoyment, while the other is left wanting (or faking it) in order to set up their eventual move to someone else.