Lights, Camera, Action

Sex in cinema should no longer be controversial. But after all those years, and all those clinches, it seems moral guardians are still getting hot under their starched collars.

Blue Valentine: Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams)
Blue Valentine

Last year, Blue Valentine almost received the notorious box-office-killing NC-17 rating (no one 17 and under permitted) in America because of a scene in which Ryan Gosling’s character, Dean, dives between the legs of his new girlfriend, Cindy (Michelle Williams) and brings her to noisy joyous climax. It’s the most romantic, tender and erotic sex scene in the film, yet it was this scene that worried censors – not an earlier and far more explicit one, where Cindy is essentially just a motionless and slightly bored vessel for her animalistic jock ex-boyfriend.

In an era when sex is apparently everywhere and we’re all supposedly more relaxed and open about sex than ever before, why would an intimate and passionate scene raise eyebrows? The minor ratings controversy over Blue Valentine reveals how conservative mainstream America still is about what is considered ‘the norm’ in human sexuality and what is appropriate viewing for the general public. Surely there’s something fundamentally wrong when a commonplace sexual act, which happens to focus on female pleasure, is considered abnormal. Such squeamishness is not just prudish; it’s an attempt to maintain a very conservative status quo based on bland, straight, male tastes.

Mae West
Mae West

It wasn’t always like this. Early Hollywood cinema was comparatively risqué with its highly suggestive dialogue, naked bodies in silhouette and coy undressing scenes. Most shocking of all were popular female actors such as Mae West, who frequently played sexually hungry, assertive and witty characters. Whenever there are expressions of sexuality, however – particularly expressions of female sexuality – there are groups who wish to ban it from the public eye. In 1934, the Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the Hays Code – after the original chief censor, Will H Hays – began enforcing its strict policies. For the next two decades Hollywood cinema was free of any physical expressions of love that were more lustful than a three-second kiss.

In the 1960s things changed, as there was growing demand for intelligent cinema that could explore challenging subject matter without the restraint of dogmatic censorship. By the 1970s, art-house films such as Last Tango in Paris (1972) and Don’t Look Now (1974), featuring American stars in explicit sex scenes, went mainstream and the Hays Code became officially outdated. Gone were the days of having to symbolically suggest sex with strategic fade-outs, bursts of fireworks, shots of the characters smoking or trains going into tunnels. Australian censors took a bit longer to catch up, but by the 1980s local audiences were also able to see such films uncut.

Going The Distance
Going The Distance

Mainstream cinema today is getting increasingly better at acknowledging that sex does not only exist between couples as the conclusion to their romantic storyline. Recent films like Going the Distance (2010), Love and Other Drugs(2010) and No Strings Attached (2011), as well as the upcoming Friends with Benefits (starring Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake) at least toy with the idea that fun and free sex often precedes a committed relationship. Interestingly, while these films play with the idea of ‘casual’ sex, they still conform to a traditional ‘happy ending’ that is conventionally monogamous and heterosexual.

Hollywood has a long history of portraying queer sexuality as something to be laughed at or feared. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or intersex characters are frequently punished with either literal or spiritual death, and plots about previously straight characters indulging their same-sex desire are often used to indicate a descent into violence or madness. The 1990s New Queer Cinema movement challenged these representations, with directors such as Gregg Araki (Mysterious Skin, 2004) and Rose Troche (Go Fish, 1994) creating characters who happily switch between same- and opposite-sex partners. Nevertheless, even a film as recent as Black Swan (2010) fell back on the cliché of an imagined lesbian encounter as precursor to Natalie Portman’s character spiralling into self-destructive insanity.

Secretary: James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal

People who engage in various sexual fetishes and sadomasochistic behaviour have also long had to endure their desires being either mocked on screen or portrayed as a dark, dangerous and shameful subculture. A rare respite, Secretary (2002) provided a non-judgemental portrayal of a dominant/submissive relationship with Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader learning to embrace their desire to engage in sexual power-play games in order to find true love with each other. Funny, sweet and romantic, Secretary revealed how similarly people experience love even when it is expressed in ‘kinky’ ways.

The director of Rabbit Hole (2010), John Cameron Mitchell, achieved something similar in 2006 when he successfully self-distributed his unrated comedy-drama, Shortbus, containing characters who were gay, straight and everything in between. They had unsimulated (ie real) sex as couples, threesomes and more. Age, race, gender and sexual orientation provided no barriers to the fun. This warm, funny and honest look at a range of different relationships celebrated diversity and also suggested that, at heart, we all want to love, be loved and get our rocks off with like-minded people.


The critical and commercial success of independent films like Secretary and Shortbus demonstrate that there is an audience for films about sexuality in all its wonderful and exciting permutations. Hollywood needs to catch up because not only does focusing so heavily on straight male desire exclude more than half the audience, it’s boring. At present, we run the risk of porn scenarios and rom-com narratives having the monopoly influence on how sex is depicted.

Far from shielding ourselves from sex on the big screen, we should be demanding more of it. And demanding that it be more representative, diverse, confronting and, well, sexy!

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 378, 2011

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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  1. brilliant article tom. Wasn’t there some controversy over the sex scene in Sucker Punch with the lead actress – name escapes me – expressing her disappointment at what was shot vs. shown – in the scene she apparently has power over the man but they re-edited it as that would have gotten them the 17 plus rating – how massively wrong is that…
    I do not understand the film industry.

  2. A very poignant and true article. Secretary was certainly a “kinky” endeavor. Blue Valentine is a great film, who cares about the “sexual activity” in it. Nice article

  3. Excellent overview Thomas. Really enjoyed this piece – and a welcome reminder that I really should dig out the wonderfully left-of-centre Secretary again myself. There’s nothing quite like watching Mr.Spader give Maggie Gyllenhaal’s backside a good caning! ;)

  4. I’d be curious to know your thoughts then on the whole Bruce LaBruce LA Zombie controversy.

    Great article, Thomas, as always!

  5. Great article! Sexuality in American cinema is an interesting subject, if only because it tends to mirror conventions of sexuality in American culture at large. We can joke all we want about French cinema, but really, portraying people having sex shouldn’t cause more of a controversy than graphically showing humans tortured and killed in a horror film. Then again, I’m fairly sex-positive and violence-sensitive, so each to his own.

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