Fifty Shades of Grey Area: Sex and the Movies 

February 13, 2015

Last week’s blog focused on a central but persistently difficult to discuss aspect of American movie history: comedy. On the occasion of the opening of the much anticipated and much vilified movie version of Fifty Shades of Grey, this week we look at sex. Or at least talk about it. (Next week I will complete the trinity by writing about violence). Just mentioning Fifty Shades of Grey in casual conversation is guaranteed to produce a reaction, and it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t have an opinion about the book, the movie, or both, whether or not that person has read or seen it.

It’s no major insight to point out that sex has always been a part of American cinema, and that it has always been a source of controversy, debate, and censorship. Fifty Shades of Grey is just the most recent manifestation of this cultural tension. In fact, some critics of the movie might say the controversy isn’t really about sex at all, but about whether the film glamorizes violence and abuse against women, as in this article by Emma Green in The Atlantic about the misrepresentation of consensual BDSM (bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism) practices.

This question of whether Fifty Shades of Grey is “really” about sex, or a kind of sex, or a form of abusive behavior masquerading as sexual pleasure leads to the topic I want to talk about this week: the instability of the meaning of “sex” in the movies. It’s not just that movies have always shown sex or been about sex, as if “sex” were a stable, well-defined term that we all agree about (the way we all agree, say, that an apple is kind of fruit). The movies in America have not just depicted sex, they’ve been part of the changing cultural definitions and meanings of sex in America since the first peep shows opened at the turn of the 20th century.

Take the scandalous1896 hit “The Kiss,” the 18-second film of John Rice and May Irwin reenacting a scene from their stage play The Widow Jones (and discussed in Chapter One of Screen Ages). Is this short movie an example of “sex in the movies”? Many 2015 viewers might consider this a ridiculous question: “It’s not sex, it’s just a kiss, and kind of an awkward kiss at that.” But does that reaction mean that kissing has nothing to do with that array of human behaviors we label “sex”? Is all kissing “erotic”? Or just some kissing? And what difference does it make that these two actors aren’t just pretending to kiss; they’re really doing it, as actors have continued to do onscreen ever since. The NY Times movie critic A.O. Scott makes this very point in his essay about the history of kissing in the movies—and how that history has influenced what kissing means and even the logistics of kissing—“A Brief History of Kissing in the Movies.”

This focus on details—on what specific activities depicted on screen can be taken as signifying “sex”—has marked the long history of movie censorship, from warnings against “Excessive and lustful kissing” and “Indecent or undue exposure” in the 1930 Production Code to today’s alphabet soup rating system, which makes reference to “brief” nudity (how brief is “brief”?) and famously or infamously requires reviewers to keep careful count of vocabulary words ( for example, single use of one of the “harsher sexually-derived” words requires at least a PG-13 rating; more than one is an automatic “R”).

The references to “indecent exposure” and “nudity” are cases in point. Is “nudity” always sexual? As the character of Cher in Amy Heckerling’s 1995 movie Clueless advises us in terms of how to get a boy’s attention, “Anything you can do to draw attention to your mouth is good. Also, sometimes you have to show a little skin. This reminds guys of being naked, and then they think of sex.” Does but does “naked” always mean sex? And what does “naked” mean, anyway? The term seems obvious, but its meaning actually varies a great deal from culture to culture and screen age to screen age. If we’re honest, for example, we would all admit that “nudity” really refers to the depiction of specific parts of our external anatomy, and even the ratings system recognizes that, in spite of what Cher says, just seeing those parts doesn’t necessarily provoke any kind of response on our part, “sexual” or not; it all depends on the context of our screen experience.

It’s easy to laugh at what seems like the prudishness or—as Cher might say—the cluelessness of previous generations, and it would be hard to deny that compared to the America in which “The Kiss” first appeared, we have in general developed a broader cultural acceptance of the range of human sexual experience and identity. But that acceptance is by no means universal, and we still argue and disagree about what counts as “sex,” what sex means, and how we should think about sex in terms of ethics and morality. As we study the history of American cinema, we can explore how the movies have played a central role in this development and what the controversies over “sex and the movies” tell us about the mix of behaviors, values, assumptions, styles of gender performance that constitute what word “sex” means in each screen age.