Saturday, June 8, 2013

Sex on Screen: "The Joylessness of Sex" on Television

I previously noted the decline of sex as a theme of blockbusters at the American box office, and the disappearance of gratuitous nudity as an element in major hits.

Of course, this has had partially to do with the unprecedented abundance of sex on television. Still, as Gina Bellafante notes over at T Magazine,
what's striking about the current depiction is how much of it just isn't sexy — how much of it is divorced from any real sense of eroticism or desire. The audience, at home in bed in need of diversion, is betrayed. What they get instead is sex that is transactional, utilitarian — the end product of a kind of twisted careerism.
This is less surprising than it may seem. Even as some applaud a new age of openness, and others decry the sexualization of culture, society remains at bottom deeply sex-negative. In those quarters where religious-traditionalist hostility to sexual imagery has weakened (or at least, sunk beneath the surface of everyday life), postmodernism and identity politics have filled its niche. Terms like "objectification," when tortured far past any useful meaning in that way that has become routine, can virtually outlaw such concepts as physical attraction, sexual fantasy and even sexuality itself.

Whether intentionally or unintentionally, proponents of such ideas have had their effect, one which has naturally been manifested in our cultural production. Sex as a set-up for degradation or self-destruction, sex as a temptation to be resisted or a display of weakness, even sex as banality and disappointment, whether treated comically or tragically or tragic-comically, is broadly accepted. Sex as an occasion for embarrassment or frustration or gross-out gags (as in "raunchy" comedies), sex scenes which make the viewer's skin crawl (Ms. Bellafonte describes several), are what we can expect. The idea of sex and sexuality as a source of pleasure (for the characters, or the viewer) is regarded with much more apprehension, and within the mainstream, is rather more elusive, even as depictions of sex have become more frequent and graphic and accessible.

Once again I remember Roger Vadim's remark that "Hollywood is sometimes licentious, but always puritanical."1 And that hasn't changed. If anything, that characterization seems truer of the place than ever.

1. Also consistent with this sensibility: sex as a prelude to the monster or killer striking like some cosmic punisher (as in horror movies), or sex as indiscretion or transgression for which someone will soon pay dearly (the basis of the erotic thriller and much other drama).

The Decline of Sex in American Film: The Mysterious Disappearance of Gratuitous Nudity
The Decline of the Sex-Themed Blockbuster

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