Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Decline of Sex in American Film: The Mysterious Disappearance of Gratuitous Nudity

A quick search of the Internet for the words "gratuitous nudity" turns up innumerable expressions of nostalgia for the '70s and '80s as a golden age for this kind of content, which devotees of a common line of argument hold virtually disappeared from film by the end of the 1990s.

Political correctness, of course, keeps reputable mainstream writers from expressing such laments, so those thoughts turns up mainly in dialogues between anonymous users of a web forum, or quirky independent blogs, or lists made by the users of sites like the Internet Movie DataBase. Still, there are exceptions, Roger Ebert notably expressing what many more were thinking in his review of '70s blaxploitation movie spoof Black Dynamite when he wrote that he was
happy to say it brings back an element sadly missing in recent movies, gratuitous nudity. Sexy women would "happen" to be topless in the 1970s movies for no better reason than that everyone agreed, including themselves, that their breasts were a genuine pleasure to regard . . . Now we see breasts only in serious films, for expressing reasons. There's been such a comeback for the strategically positioned bed sheet, you'd think we were back in the 1950s.
To my knowledge there has been no really serious attempt to statistically quantify movie nudity over the years, let alone do so in the methodically more rigorous way that tracking the incidence of gratuitous nudity requires, but there seems to be something to the perception nonetheless. The "desk clerks at resorts who just happened to be naked [and] coeds strolling the halls of dorms all day wearing nothing but incompetently tied towels" on which Steve Penhollow remarked in The Journal Gazette are clearly gone from our movie screens, while the propensity of characters to just happen to hold their meetings in strip joints has similarly gone into decline. So has the way that action sequences tended to crash through the doors of rooms where people just happened to be having sex (like in 1985's Commando, or 1988's Die Hard). Where nudity does occur not only is it usually more plausible within the plot, but it also tends to be briefer, angled and positioned and lit so as to conspicuously limit what is shown, and in general suggest rather than display. (This was even the case with the threesome in Wild Things that put Denise Richards on the pop cultural map.)

What caused all these changes? Certainly the explosion of alternative options for accessing sexual content, generally cheaper and more convenient than going to the theater (as is the case with flipping a channel, visiting a web site or ordering a disc), greatly diminished the effectiveness of cinematic nudity as a way of selling tickets, which after all is the point of the enterprise. The dampening effect of identity politics on sex in film has also been a factor, with any female nudity that might be branded gratuitous especially vulnerable to such pressures.1

There was also the explosion of film budgets. In the 1980s would-be summer blockbusters (like the aforementioned Commando) were still being made for $10-20 million--or $20-40 million in today's terms. Now comparably positioned movies cost $150 million as a matter of course, requiring filmmakers to shoot for a gross of $400 million or more, a financial territory where the R rating to which film nudity easily leads is a major liability2--so much so that the Terminator and Die Hard franchises went PG-13 for their fourth installments in the late '00s3.

Unsurprisingly, nudity is probably less present in such productions than in any other kind of film today, the PG-13-rated nudity of X-Men's Mystique as far as the megabudgeted superhero films go. Much the same can be said for the other, upper-tier action films, from family-friendly fantasy epics to the movies of Michael Bay, who out of exactly those considerations famously had Scarlett Johansson keep her bra on (despite her wanting to go without it) during a love scene in The Island.

While less susceptible to such changes given their lower (if also burgeoning) budgets, and readier embrace of the R-rating, the "raunchy" comedies which seem like such "naturals" for this kind of content have nonetheless been subject to the same climate, and have similarly become more inhibited about nudity of this type (such nudity as does appear in them of quite other sorts, for quite other purposes).

On the whole it seems that the less commercially ambitious the fare, the more leeway it possesses in this area, a situation which would suggest exactly the opposite of the familiar claim that "sex sells." Or at the very least, its qualification by another adage, that less has become more, a subtler use of this particular spice (like casting an action movie heroine who can enticingly fill out a jumpsuit, or the presentation of a teasing, strategically concealed glimpse of what's under the jumpsuit) the more profitable approach.

Still, it all leaves many a movie fan dismayed at the thought that they will never get a really good look, while a good many men of a certain generation look back longingly on movies like Porky's or Fast Times at Ridgemont High, both the films, and what they represented. In these quarters, they seem as much objects of nostalgia as the paramilitary action movies of the same era, that long, strange period between the cultural upheaval of the 1960s, and the millennium bug.

1. Take premium cable television, where gratuitous nudity is comparatively alive and well, helped by lower financial stakes, and the flexibility television's serial nature affords, while the small screen also has fewer alternatives where the sensational is concerned. HBO's Game of Thrones can go only so far in presenting epic battles or historical pageantry, but it can afford plenty of what Steve Penhollow terms the "cheapest special effect." Nonetheless, TV is certainly not immune to the aforementioned cultural politics, the threshold for giving offense at times surprisingly low here (witness the intensity of the criticism of a few seconds of an episode of Stargate: Universe in which Julia Benson wore a perfectly intact and completely dry T-shirt).
2. This might be reinforced by the likelihood that while those who bestow film ratings may have become more forgiving of some sorts of content (like profane language), they have become less forgiving of nudity--the PG ratings bestowed on Airplane! (1980) or Sheena (1984) seeming rather less plausible today.
3. The trend did not continue in the case of the Die Hard series, of course, the recent fifth film appearing with an R rating--but not because of any nude scenes.

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