Perhaps you heard that a little, grey-ish movie got America’s collective panties in a twist over the weekend. Fifty Shades of Grey is going to make well over $100 million by the end of its first week in release, which, depending on how interested you are in seeing stars get busy, could be a blessing or a curse. Will the success of Fifty Shades herald a new era of mainstream erotic film? It’s too soon to say but I’m not sure I’d throw away my handcuff key just yet. The reviews I’ve read indicate that the film version of Fifty Shades tones down some of the book’s most unpleasant aspects, by which I mean Christian Grey’s emotionally abusive and controlling behavior, not the elementary-level spanking and binding that passes for BDSM in this series. And yet this is still just the latest in a long history of supposedly erotic entertainment that take a prurient interest in sex while being squeamish about actually engaging in it, let alone depicting it in a positive light — particularly when it comes to female pleasure. So, rather than explore what Grey may be getting wrong (which is already pretty well-covered territory, and also involves paying money to see Fifty Shades of Grey), I thought I’d take a look back through film history to see what, if anything, has gotten sex-positivity right. (Please note: for the sake of simplicity, I’m sticking mostly to American cinema, since there’s a plethora of sex-positive films from foreign countries [France is nothing if not sex-positive you guys].)
There was plenty of lurid material that made it to the screen in cinema’s early days, and sexuality was always present. One of the first films ever made was, after all, a kiss, albeit a fully clothed one. Hedy Lamarr famously appeared nude and simulated an orgasm in 1933’s Ecstasy. And Ernst Lubitsch depicted a (relatively) happy throuple in all but name in Design for Living that same year. But beginning in the early 1930s, when the Hays Code went into effect, and during the majority of its reign, any filmmaker who wanted to feature sex of any sort had to smuggle it in via double entendres and tasteful fade-outs, which makes pictures like Sturges’ The Lady Eve and Wilder’s Some Like It Hot as ribald as anything made today, without anything explicit actually happening on screen. I’m not saying I’d like to go back to the days when cameras decorously ducked out of rooms before anything untoward would happen, but both of these films are all the sexier for it; because the sexual tension had to stand in for the physical act it reaches nuclear levels of hotness (case in point: Barbara Stanwyck running her fingers Henry Fonda’s hair in Lady Eve is a one-woman masterclass in seduction). The screwball comedy genre generally allows a greater looseness with so-called morality and both films are notable for, among other things, featuring a female lead who is unabashedly sexual and relentless in her pursuits while not being judgmental about such desires. In fact, it’s entirely possible that Some Like It Hot, released all the way back in 1959, is one of the most sex-positive films in history: every single character is an unabashed horndog, from the two cross-dressing men the story centers around to the lowliest hotel employee, and it’s remarkably open to the fluidity of gender identity as well. Both films retain a freshness even sixty years on that many modern romantic comedies are sorely lacking.
Once the Code was discarded in 1968, the field should have blown wide open — but while the era saw an increase in onscreen sex, how positive those depictions were is pretty debatable. Two seminal films from that time, The Graduate and Bonnie & Clyde, bring the sexual dalliances of their characters front and center but neither could be called healthy in any way: both parties are pretty exploitative of one another in the former while the latter is thwarted by a Freudian imbalance (she’s a nympho, he’s impotent.) It doesn’t get much better as the decades go on and the free love and countercultural hopes of the late 60s gave way to the paranoia and conflict of the 70s. Those searching for sex in the mainstream had to settle for big-busted babes (hi there Foxy Brown and Barbarella) and relationships more damaged by the act than engaging in it (here’s looking at you, Last Tango in Paris). Oh and there sure were a lot of prostitutes, with hearts of gold or otherwise (Midnight Cowboy, Klute, etc.) There are some bright spots: Don’t Look Now is largely a chilly, enigmatic horror film about grief but it also features one of the most realistic and touching depictions of marital sex in film, a jubilant interlude for a couple that had foregone pleasure as they mourned their lost daughter. But these moments are few and far between.
Sex in movies during the 80s and 90s was largely dominated by two genres: teenage comedies and erotic thrillers. Both provided ample titillation and shallow transgression but little substance when it came to honest depictions of sexuality. Not to mention the pervasive fear of female desire that runs rampant, from the discardable objects of conquest in Losin’ It (revived, albeit with a little more voice to the female characters, with the American Pie series) to the deranged villains of Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct. The few films that did play with convention thus stood out: Say Anything is more a teen romance than a comedy but one that nonetheless treats the loss of virginity with a maturity missing from many films even today, and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, while not immune to the nadirs of its genre, was remarkably frank about the ways both young men and women experience and talk about sex. Both films, incidentally, were written by Cameron Crowe. Then in the thriller category there’s Something Wild, an underrated Jonathan Demme film that embraces its female lead’s sexual abandon and liberation (at least before a sharp tonal shift in the second half that takes sex out of the picture entirely.) But again, these were far from the norm.
Mainstream cinema in the 00s didn’t deviate much from this blueprint (apart from the wilting of the erotic thriller as a genre). Judd Apatow’s career is a good case in point: his wildly popular comedies boast racy premises but at their heart are fairly conservative when it comes to sex and relationships: forty-year-old virgin Andy waits until marriage; unlikely family Ben, Alison, and their accidental baby stay together. But the growing independent movement offered more room for experimentation and exploration. Secretary was an early standard bearer, and is still undoubtedly one of the best depictions of a BDSM relationship. For all the deviance and on-the-nose Leonard Cohen music cues, it’s a romance at its heart, a tender portrait of two people fumbling their way toward loving one another inside and out. A few years later there was Shortbus, which contained unsimulated sex acts of all types and orientations between mostly non-professionals. Beyond that headline-grabber though, it’s made with the same all-comers inclusiveness of director John Cameron Mitchell’s name-making music Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Hang-ups and judgments are left at the door. And in 2012 there was The Sessions, a little-seen gem starring John Hawkes as a man in an iron lung and Helen Hunt as the surrogate he hires to initiate him into the sexual world, a warm and thoughtful film about intimacy of all kinds. It seemed there was some hope and yet Fifty Shades of Grey marks the highest profile erotic film since, I guess, Twilight? (Though you’d have to have a pretty rigid definition of eroticism for that to really be true.)
All of which is to say that the real problem is how little Hollywood acknowledges sex as something people, whether in relationships or not, regularly experience. By and large, sex in movies is a means to an end: a culmination, or a punchline. And it is very rarely without consequences of some kind. But this is not how most people actually have sex. This may be a factor of film’s relative brevity. Since the length of time spent with characters is short, everything they do should have a purpose in the story being told. Perhaps that’s why the most sex positive piece of entertainment around today is on television, a long-form medium, and that show is Broad City. I’ve already written briefly about the joys of the show’s first season but the currently airing second season has already upped the ante in terms of sex-positivity, most notably a recent episode that centered on pegging and showed a striking respect for the needs and expectations of both partners engaging in the act. Compared to that, film is far behind, especially when certain acts (cunnilingus, mostly) and organs (penises, mostly) can get films automatically slapped with an NC-17. Which makes Fifty Shades feel like even more of a missed opportunity. That Christian’s kinks are something that require a contract to engage in is problematic enough. That they’re something he needs to be “saved” from is even worse. People experience all sorts of emotion when it comes to sex. It’s too bad that cinema still seems to think shame is the primary one.