The Problem With How Hollywood — and the Oscars — Treat Sex in Movies

The Problem With How Hollywood — and the Oscars — Treat Sex in Movies

For being something so central to our everyday lives, Hollywood sure dislikes representing sex — specially sex that isn't framed in misogynistic or exploitative ways.

Take this year's Oscar best picture nominees. Despite offering variety in terms of genre, national setting, historical period and subject matter — though not, of course, race — the films up for the most coveted movie prize in the industry are all either wary, oblivious or indifferent to sex and sexual pleasure. Sex positivity, as it turns out, is rare in serious-minded, Oscar-winning films.

If you look back at the past 15 years' worth of Oscar winners, you notice that while R-rated violence is handily embraced, proof perhaps that important films deal unflinchingly with the reality around us (see The Hurt Locker, No Country for Old Men and Crash), sex is often central to these films only when it comes to depicting sexual assault (12 Years a Slave) or when it's framed in terms of guilt and shame (Chicago, The Departed). 

You'd actually have to go back to the romances of Titanic and Shakespeare in Love to find a best picture-winning film that understood the importance of sex and incorporated it into its own plot in ways that were never gratuitous nor incidental. That's right: It's been 17 years since a movie with sex-positive themes won Oscar's top prize.

It's no surprise that when sex does factor into this year's best picture nominees, it does so in terms of sexual assault. Room, Spotlight and Mad Max: Fury Road offer complex narratives about the nature and effects of rape, painting a particularly damning picture of the rape culture that so pervades American society. They've sparked urgent and necessary conversations separately; taken together, they offer yet another reminder that dramas that tackle sex as an important subject matter tend to do so by focusing on negative or harmful stories.

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What we're left with is an industry that undervalues sex positivity. This is an issue that echoes the Motion Picture Production Code from the mid-20th century, where any licentious or suggestive nudity, miscegenation, sexual hygiene, childbirth ("in fact or in silhouette") and any inference of sex perversion" (i.e. homosexuality), were forbidden from being represented. But its successor — the Motion Picture Association of America film rating system — has shown itself to be just as inherently prudish on issues of sex, especially when it comes to depictions of feminist approaches to sexuality.

Ryan Gosling put it best in 2010 when responding to the NC-17 rating that was attached to Blue Valentine where his character goes down on his wife (played by Michelle Williams):

"The MPAA is OK supporting scenes that portray women in scenarios of sexual torture and violence for entertainment purposes, but they are trying to force us to look away from a scene that shows a woman in a sexual scenario, which is both complicit and complex. It's misogynistic in nature to try and control a woman's sexual presentation of self. I consider this an issue that is bigger than this film."

Somehow, making a film that features a frank sexual scene between two consenting partners requires cordoning it off from teenagers, making it harder to reach broader audiences, implicitly condoning the idea that healthy sex is inherently dangerous to young people. The opposite, of course, is rarely the case when dealing with needlessly violent entertainment.

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But it also speaks to gendered and generic assumptions of what constitutes quality storytelling. It's not surprising to see female-driven and female-targeted films like Fifty Shades of Grey, Trainwreck and The Diary of a Teenage Girl tackling sex positivity in ways that male-skewing films rarely embrace. Indeed, even the snubbing of Todd Haynes Carol in the top categories shows a clear discomfort with celebrating films that explore women's sexual pleasure and autonomy.

Calls for gender parity and gender equality in the film industry (and at the Oscars) need not and should not be restricted to who is making the films. They should also address the types of films being made — and the cultural biases that they no doubt imprint on screens and audiences alike. Media representation alone will not redress the parochial and sex-negative values that are still deeply entrenched across America in 2016, but surely we can do better than continue equating sex positivity with triviality. Sex can factor into a serious-minded film even when it's not framed in terms of violence and assault.