For an industry that has always used sex to sell their product, Hollywood has always been problematic in its depiction of sex and sensuality. If not the early puritanism of the Hays Code, then you have the showcasing of gratuitous, exploitative sex scenes from the early 70’s until… to be determined. By both ignoring the very existence of sex, but also by showing audiences the exclusively masculine, exclusively heterosexual fantasy of sex and sensuality, American media built sex up to be this repressed expression of our deepest darkest desires. You can fill a library with comprehensive publications that explore media’s depiction of sex and its effect on the American society. I wanted to use space to discuss something I haven’t seen a whole lot of academic discussion about: the abject lack of sexual content of modern mainstream films.
I want to frame this discussion by laying out the obvious hypothesis that mainstream Hollywood cinema reflects American attitudes about sex (i.e. the “classic era” of erotic thrillers occurring in the early-to-mid-eighties as a reaction to the Christian conservatism that blanketed the country during the Reagan administration). I believe that in response to the uber-patriotic, uber-masculine excess of the Bush era—during which casual sexism was part-and-parcel with men doing their usually violent jobs—films under the Obama era tended to reflect the air of respectability that the general populous wanted to shift toward. This is perfectly evident in the evolution of the Marvel films. Iron Man (dir. John Favreau, 2008) and Captain America (dir. Joe Johnston, 2011) have a whiff of sexual tension to them where there is at least a slightly sexual dynamic between the romantic leads of each film. By the time movies like Doctor Strange (dir. Scott Derrickson, 2016) and Captain America: Civil War (dir. Anthony and Joe Russo, 2016) had been released that tension dissipated and sterilized into lifeless, sitcom-esque romance: the protagonist is not allowed to think about sex, but if he does, it’s in missionary with his socks on and the lights off.
I would be remiss to not bring up the effect the success of the Marvel films and how they have affected the sexual content of mainstream filmmaking. The success of four quadrant event films suitable for the whole family have encouraged every major studio to follow suit. Sex and sensuality don’t tend to be key ingredients in that formula.
Now, I am not saying that Mickey Mouse should be teaching your kids about the birds and the bees. What I am saying is that the absence of sex and sensuality from the mainstream is a form of stigmatization. It is important to cease addressing centuries of ill-informed attitudes that result in toxic sexual behavior with the removal of sex from the conversation. The positive portrayal of sex and sensuality (removed from exclusively the heterosexual male gaze) in accessible media will play a pivotal part of how we move forward and grow into a more sex-positive society.