Even with the specter of Harvey Weinstein crouched like an 800-pound gorilla behind every creative decision made in Hollywood today, how is it that sex on the screen has become more extreme, more graphic—and less appetizing—than ever before?
Families have gathered around the TV to watch Game of Thrones for eight years now, yet at one point it became virtually unwatchable due to the depraved images of incest and rape, turning escapism into a barbarously pornographic experience. Thankfully, it did soften the extreme sex quite a bit over the last two seasons. Some of that may be the result of nudity riders in the aftermath of #MeToo, which have slowly forced Hollywood to be more sophisticated in their approach to sex. Maybe.
But the decline of the more literary and sensual sex scene has been happening for some time, and it seems uber-feminist Lena Dunham has done as much to get us here as anyone. On HBO’s Girls, she made the erotic neurotic, and forced us to watch as quirky and fey hipsters engaged in (oftentimes bad) intercourse. These scenes were a full-on rejection of the past, savaging romance and the perfumed witticisms of the femme fatale with an odorless and philistine realism that began as empowerment, but quickly became as unproductive as the graphic depictions of Aziz Ansari’s tragicomic love life.
Sensuality in Hollywood is no longer a warm glass of whiskey, but a cold protest that is presumably designed to reject the male gaze—that or an embrace of realism. But to what end? There’s no argument to be made that having sex scenes be more depressingly normal, or just plain depressing, is better for our mental health than having them fulfill the same role as romance or fantasy novels.
In retrospect, the Hays Code that regulated sexuality in Hollywood between 1930 and 1968 is looking more beneficial every day. The puritan morality of the Hays Code helped develop the erotic comedy of Marilyn Monroe. It turned fashion into a couture seduction in the form of Rita Hayworth’s black gown in Gilda (1946), or something a bit cheekier, as in Marlene Dietrich’s falling knickers in The Blue Angel (1930). It helped make Bette Davis smoking a cigarette a phallic act of seduction. Today, with no formal or even informal legislation dictating Hollywood depictions of sensuality, it seems an imagination is as impractical as a chastity belt.
The beautifully antique belief that Hollywood should depict sexuality as a tease has been eroding for decades, but by the mid-aughts, we began to see oral sex scenes that were bordering on hardcore sex. This became fashionable because filmmakers lacked a conservative voice of dissent. “There is no need for phallic symbols today when naked breasts and naked bottoms jiggle and bounce a foot from the camera,” wrote The New York Times in 1992.
The pornographication of the sex scene has retired the smart double entendres that rolled off the tongues of Humphrey Bogart and Mae West. Even Sharon Stone’s racy banter from Basic Instinct seems too witty for the flat, TMI dialogue we have today. The further away we’ve drifted from a morality code, the more sensuality in Hollywood has been cheapened into humorlessly profane, unimaginative hipster wildlife documentaries that are devoid of the suggestiveness, punchy wisecracks, and tense expressions of wanting that made Elizabeth Taylor’s jet-black hair and violet eyes, even in her scandalous white bathing suit in Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), beg for more. We’ve been conditioned to view suggestive sexuality—a flirtation with the camera rather than an orgy with it—as unrealistic, prudish, cheesy, or too interpretative. Yet that was entirely its appeal!
Sex scenes are now designed to make us feel guilty or ashamed, rather than seduce us into the imaginative and surreal experience of reading a Playboy or watching MTV, which were, even at their most tawdry, instruments of escapism. Instead, these scenes have become voyeuristic. Many films today will depict a man and a woman having unfulfilling sex, with the woman looking practically catatonic, as if to remove us from our couch and put us onto the couch of a therapist. That accomplishes what, exactly?
Amateur porn-style scenes have reduced smart screenwriting to ashes, where, as far as I can tell, the once wildly popular genre of the sexual comedy has gone the way of the girdle. We might never again be gifted with the flip ribaldries of Clueless (1995) or Hackers (1995), where Jonny Lee Miller outscores Angelina Jolie in an arcade game, adding himself to the leaderboard. He then flirts in the witty tradition of Mae West, “Well, it looks like I’m on top,” as Jolie rolls her eyes and exits scene.
Today’s sexual comedy is best captured in a scene from Netflix’s Bonding, where a man ejaculates onto the face of another man—insert laugh track. The Hays Code and the unofficial morality code that existed afterwards struck a balance between conservative prudence and liberal salaciousness. They produced what I would argue are the sexiest and most cerebral depictions of sensuality in the history of cinema. We often forget the erotic weight of Dorothy Malone’s glasses in The Big Sleep (1946). When she finally removes them and looks into Bogart’s eyes, it’s as if she’s just slipped off an item of her clothing and invited him into her boudoir for a nightcap. We don’t even want to see her naked. We certainly don’t want Bogie to degrade her like Adam Driver would in Girls.
The vaguely erotic image of Jennifer Connelly riding a coin-operated pony in Career Opportunities (1991) is now simply banal. It shouldn’t be. We’ve transitioned from cinematic sensuality into an era infected by amateur porn with “messages,” peaking with Blue is the Warmest Color (2013), which was delivered to Netflix within a year and became the most widely streamed porn scene on that platform.
I remember seeing Kids (1995) in sex education class in the late 1990s, which is where it belonged, truly. Today, every edgy millennial drama or comedy is just as profane and grotesquely realistic. “If the kind of sex we saw in the movies happened every day, why go to the movies?” Brad Mirman, the writer of Body of Evidence (1993), once asked.
Hollywood itself has used slightly less invasive pornography to teach us things, but why? Is the male gaze really the culprit of #MeToo? Writers in today’s Hollywood seem trapped inside intellectual prisons created by the guilt-ridden perpetrators of that movement, as well as those who believe sexual assault is a learned trait that can be unlearned through the cinema. When Lucy Hale, playing a virgin in Dude (2018), orgasms for “11 minutes,” an exchange about consent gets lost in some pretty graphic foreplay (which is now on PornHub, by the way).
This raises the question: are lessons on bedroom manners the responsibility of a mannerless industry that has prostituted its own talent and ruined the lives of so many talented young women? I suggest Hollywood go back to making visually stunning sex scenes, rather than soiled PSAs that belong on PornHub.
Art Tavana is a L.A.-based writer and culture critic. He’s been published in Penthouse, Playboy, L.A. Weekly, National Review, and Vice.