Sex Sells…But Have We Gone Too Far?

by Corinne Barber

Sex sells, and there’s no business like show business, baby doll. Platitudes these may be, the recent furor over the provocative Eva Green/Sin City Poster comes as no surprise. Visible nipples and the curve of Green’s breasts was a hard pill to swallow for the MPA, and articles discussing the outrage sprung up all over the internet. Was it just an excuse to point readers in the direction of the photo in question? Cue eye-roll. Films such as Blue Is The Warmest Color, Shame, Under The Skin, and Nymphomaniac mark an increasing trend in cinema whereby explicit nudity and sex scenes are 
showcased in all their glory. Highly sexed TV shows such as True Blood, Game of Thrones, The 
Tudors, and Spartacus are a continuation of this theme. While the currency of sex on screen is nothing new, and while ‘art house’ filmmakers like Lars Von Trier and Abdellatif Kechiche would argue that their sex scenes are no more salacious than they are a relevant thematic and storytelling device, the real issue is: where should cinema draw the line between artistic representation of reality and deliberate sexualization?

Nudity and sex in cinema are nothing new; pop culture still hails iconically named ‘sex kittens’ such as Brigitte Bardot and Marilyn Monroe, both of whom spent the majority of their onscreen time clad in outfits that, above all else, were designed to promote their sex. Last year the Bond franchise celebrated its 50-year anniversary, and I’d be lying if I claimed that watching Bond films as a young 
adolescent wasn’t a thinly-veiled excuse to catch a glimpse of naked flesh to fuel my hormone driven fantasies. It’s not for nothing that the VHS of Dr No became worn out around the decontamination shower scene (sorry parents), and Sean Connery’s hairy chest still makes me feel about 13 years old! But there’s a level of innocence in the Bond films and other earlier examples of cinematic 
expressions of sex and nudity that film and TV lack today.

Blue is the warmest colour

In Blue Is The Warmest Color, for instance, I can accept the artistic reasoning behind nudity as an expression of the characters’ openness, passion, youth, and fragility. But the now infamous ten minute-long lesbian sex scene felt contrived and didn’t appear to add much in terms of character or narrative development that couldn’t have been achieved by the two-minute mark.

Whenever there’s graphic nudity in a film, the media jump to analyze and critique. Needless to say, in addition to the two lead actress’ vocal complaints about their director, Kechiche, and the demanding filming schedule, much of what made Blue Is The Warmest Color so newsworthy at the time of its release was the sex.

That Scarlett Johansson’s nudity in Under The Skin was the focus of a lot of film reviews rather than the film’s exciting contribution to filmmaking (cinematography, minimal dialogue) is another recent example of our obsession with nudity and sex onscreen.

Eva Green_Sin City

There’s great financial incentive to arouse salacious interest from the press and public alike. This is especially apparent in an ever-evolving media landscape of online streaming which often occurs through non-revenue generating websites. In short, it’s harder to make people pay to see films and so including nudity and sex adds a further draw.

Fair enough, but what about the cultural implications of continuing to employ sex as a currency? What about sexual objectification and exploitation? These kinds of representations can not only impact negatively on the actors involved but are also absorbed by audiences and therefore influence 
culture. And predictably, it’s women who are more often the focus of such onscreen sensationalism. An infographic from the New York Film Academy in 2012 highlighted that in 2007–2012, 26.2% of female actors were partially naked as opposed to 9.4% of men. The percentage of female teenage nudity in films also increased by 32.5% between 2007 and 2012, and roughly a third of female 
speaking characters were shown in sexually revealing attire. Should filmmakers and studios not take responsibility for the cultural implications of such female sexualization? On the extreme end of this argument, does this not translate as “women are sex objects and deserve to be subject to the male gaze?”

Game of Thrones

Although there are examples of male nudity in films such as Shame, 300, Boogie Nights, and even Borat, the focus remains on female nudity. Perhaps if the media were able to interpret female nudity as just a par for the course and unworthy of comment, as is often the case with male nudity, then half of the problem would be solved. TV is a fraction ahead of the game when it comes to this. Game of Thrones, Spartacus, and True Blood are well known for equal opportunity nudity, yet the palpable appetite for boobs remains.

Nudity is everywhere, from music videos to page three UK ‘lads’ magazines to adverts and fashion trends. We all have bodies that are occasionally (or often) naked, the majority of us will have sex at some point (or often) in our lives, and surely cinema has the right to portray this. So in some ways, a trend towards more graphic nudity in cinema is a good thing; film can help to destigmatize and 
encourage us to embrace the fact that sex and our naked bodies are just part of life; it’s unrealistic to depict characters who have relationships but don’t have sex. Sex in film can also be seen as an important counter to the potential cultural damage done by porn in which sex is an act undertaken with little context or personality.

Will Ferrell

Overall though, female nudity in cinema has gone too far. It is more graphic than male nudity; while we are exposed to limited shots of penises in film and TV, representations of women in their 
underwear, topless, or completely nude are commonplace. Censorship focuses on preserving the modesty of men by making sure that their naked bodies are not shown onscreen in their entirety, or if they are, they are frequently the focus of a joke as seen in many of Will Ferrell’s comedies. 
Honestly guys, if you’re doing it to spare us the blushes, don’t bother—we can handle dicks with the best of them and it seems only fair that if we show you ours, you should show us yours.

Everyone gets naked at times—let’s face it, beneath all of our clothes is flesh and bone. I think what cinema should focus on now is portraying nudity in an equal manner; men and women should both (or both not) get their kit off and reveal an equal amount of bare skin. And filmmakers, studios, and the media alike shouldn’t always focus on the sexual aspect of nudity. Nudity that isn’t overly 
sexualized is surely more groundbreaking, interesting, and progressive than the graphic sex scenes we’re all too familiar with.

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1 Comment

  • Al says:

    It’s not necessarily the nudity by itself I’m concerned with, it’s the fact that nudity – and graphic sex scenes (not just kissing and rolling around in bed) – are now considered obligatory for any program (TV or film) that purports to be “adult”. I hear actors (almost always female of course because male actors are never asked) coming up with creative ways to justify sexual explicitness on screen – sometimes to the point of becoming overly defensive. You never hear anyone say “I didn’t want to do it but I need the job and if I said no they’d fire me or hire someone else.” And my favorite one is when I hear someone who has actually done hardcore on screen (and there’s a growing number of those) say “it wasn’t porn”. Even since this article was published almost exactly a year ago we’ve already seen two TV series feature scenes that you only saw in porn a little while ago – I refer to the Alison Williams “rear end” scene in Girls and the makers of Sense8 decided their show just needed an extreme closeup of the business end of a strap on after it has been used. And a full hardcore film by a respected director, Love, was showcased at Cannes. I did the math recently and I realized that of the actresses I see in TV and film and that I admire who are currently active and under the age of 45 and over the age of 18, the majority have done either major nudity or graphic sex scenes or both. On the bright side, if every actress and actor in Hollywood ends up having to do hardcore then it’ll lose the stigma and maybe the hundreds of entertainers in the porn industry ostracized for their career path might get a bit more respect. But there’s going to be a lot lost in the transition. And if the next Bond film has an explicit sex scene in it, I’m walking out of the theatre and never darkening 007’s door again.

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