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Sunday, April 14, 2024

The Case for More—and Better—Sex Scenes

The Monitor is a weekly column devoted to everything happening in the WIRED world of culture, from movies to memes, TV to Twitter.

Gather, comrades. We need to talk about boning. Actually, we don’t; a lot of other people are already deep in discussion on this topic, but if we don’t there could be a lot less sexuality in film and television and, frankly, that’s unfortunate. 

First, let’s take it back to Penn Badgley. Earlier this week, comments the actor made about no longer wanting to do sex scenes on his Netflix show You took over the internet. On the surface, Badgley’s request was reasonable enough. Every actor should be able to decide what they do and don’t want to do in a role. But what he said also reignited a long-festering online debate about the necessity of nudity and sex scenes in movies and TV—and the comfort of those who watch them. “Think about every male lead you’ve loved. Are they kissing someone? Are they doing a lot more than that?” Badgley said on the podcast Podcrushed. “It’s really not my desire to.” 

This would likely not fly on House of the Dragon. But at the same time, Dragon’s copious sex scenes still don’t seem as intense as those on Game of Thrones, which Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen) later described as terrifying to film. There has been a movement in recent years, post-Me Too, for every set to have “intimacy coordinators”—people whose job it is to make sure everyone is comfortable with what’s being filmed and how it’s being acted out. The presence of these coordinators has made productions safer places to film sex scenes (House of the Dragon has one), but at the same time the prevalence of these scenes has led to discussions about whether such sex scenes are necessary. 

The short answer is: They are. Sometimes. The long answer is that they have a history so fraught, it would take 10 more columns (at least) to get into all of them. But the short (please understand these are very broad strokes) version is that at one time, starting in the 1930s and stretching into the ’60s, Hollywood—in an attempt to rehabilitate its image and be permitted to show its wares all over the US—censored itself. The Hays Code, named after Will Hays, the former postmaster general who developed it, listed 36 “Don’ts and Be Carefuls”—guidelines that, while they extended beyond sex and sexuality, had a stifling effect on what intimacy filmmakers could put on screen. No nudity, no “perversion” (generally understood to mean no queer stuff), no “first-night” scenes (you know, like in Romeo and Juliet). The idea was that if movie productions followed these rules, the government wouldn’t get involved.    

As adherence to the Hays Code dissolved, largely because the film industry was facing stiff competition from the emergent medium of television, the Motion Picture Association of America began instituting the kind of ratings systems we know today, and more explicit content found its way into mainstream movies. While this gave filmmakers more leeway to show honest depictions of sex and sexuality, it also led to questionable situations for actors, who found themselves in potentially compromising situations (see: Last Tango in Paris).

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By the time the ’90s came around, so had the idea of the erotic thriller: Body of EvidenceBasic InstinctDisclosure. Without making a qualitative judgment on these films (OK, many are bad, but some are also bad in a fun way; watch artist Leo Herrera’s series on the subgenre on Instagram to learn more), many of them reinforced the idea that sex in movies was mostly about titillation. Butts on screen will get butts into seats. It might make you uncomfortable if it comes on while you’re watching with your parents, but you’re still definitely going to rent it at the video store. 

It is this kind of sex scene, if not this kind of movie, that seems to be the focus of the current debate. The people who are voicing upset at nudity and sexuality in movies and TV now seem to be doing it under the presumption that it’s gratuitous. Anyone can dislike any kind of scene, of course, but saying sex scenes have little to no place onscreen gets dangerously close to saying sex is not a necessary part of the human experience, and that’s just not true. 

To that end, it’s not that nudity and sex scenes should be censored or considered unnecessary, it’s that they need to be thoughtful and intentional—to tell stories of intimacy, heartbreak, healing, joy. They would do well to be collaborations between filmmakers and actors (with intimacy coordinators!) that show how sex intersects with the emotional and physical lives of actual people. They have the power to, in queer cinema especially, be images of representation and rebellion. They can even demonstrate thoughtful moments of people deciding not to have sex. Most already do these things, and focusing the discussion around those scenes on the comfort levels of every viewer misses the point. Film and TV need more authentic representations of sexuality, not less. Look no further than The Last of Us for proof. 

For whatever reason, this recent debate reminded me of a Saturday Night Live bit from 2021: “Lesbian Period Drama.” The joke was that too often films in the genre follow a similar playbook of slow-mounting tension that builds up to “a sex scene so graphic, you’ll think, ‘Oh right, a man directed this.’” It was a keen observation. There have been several lesbian romance films in recent years—period dramas or otherwise—that have fallen into these traps (think: Ammonite, Disobedience). But many of these films, particularly the ones not directed by men, like Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, were deepened by the intimacy onscreen. This intimacy may be uncomfortable for some viewers, but it’s liberating for others. And it should be. 

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