Since the shocks of last October, the entertainment industry has taken a number of helpful steps to try to stop sexual harassment. Harvey Weinstein is no longer in a position to use his power to allegedly coerce actresses sexually. Time’s Up, a new organization founded by Hollywood power players, is targeting problems within the industry and raising money for a legal defense fund to help sexual harassment victims who don’t have the fame and resources to speak out on their own. But one trend in the industry seems very un-helpful. As Tatiana Siegel writes in the Hollywood Reporter, the movie business is shying away from sex as a subject and doing so in a way that suggests that a lot of people in Hollywood are still confused about what distinguishes what’s sexy from what’s sexist.
As proof of a supposedly puritanical climate, the piece cites a stalled Hugh Hefner biopic, a “James Franco-produced stripper/prostitute travelogue titled ‘Zola Tells All’ (complete with a 15-year-old Russian prostitute)” that’s now lingering “in development” and a decision to pivot a remake of “A Star Is Born” from “steamy to something far more chaste.” Supposedly still okay? “Material that features empowered participants” or projects that “offer a spin on the victimized-female motif in their depictions of sexuality.”
It’s a little disturbing that a Washington-based newspaper columnist has to be the person to break this down for Hollywood executives. But believe it or not, this split doesn’t actually signal the death of “big-screen erotica” or even “sex.” It just suggests the end of a very narrow way of thinking about what’s alluring.
First, let’s distinguish between movies that are about sex or contain sex scenes, and movies that are primarily intended to be erotic. A movie about Hugh Hefner would, almost inevitably, have to include both sex scenes and naked women, just as “The Deuce,” David Simon and George Pelecanos’s HBO series about sex work in New York City has both of those elements. But, as “The Deuce” so ably demonstrates, there is a distinction between selling a fantasy and telling a story about the process of selling that fantasy. The depiction of street-level prostitution and the nascent porn industry in “The Deuce” is generally profoundly unsexy, even though the show is highly explicit. A genuinely interesting movie about Hefner might demonstrate why his sales pitch was so effective, but it would have to break down the costs and effort involved in manufacturing that dream, too.
It’s also important to note that not everyone gets hot and bothered by the same thing. A “stripper/prostitute travelogue” with a 15-year-old main character may be some director’s dream, or some movie-watcher’s, but to plenty of others, it’s a tiresome and decidedly unsexy trope that raises disturbing questions about the sexualization of young girls. (It probably doesn’t help that Franco himself has been accused of sexual misconduct.) Maybe the power dynamic in “A Star Is Born” is a turn-on to some people, but at a cultural moment detonated by stories about how an older Hollywood power player used his authority to sexually coerce young women, it’s a story that might not have widespread appeal for reasons having to do with ethics, not puritanism.
The fact that some Hollywood higher-ups appear to be feigning ignorance about these fairly basic ideas, or unimaginative enough to think about sex with both creativity and empathy is disappointing not just because plenty of people working in the Hollywood system have managed to make very hot movies that are also thoughtful about the relationship between sex and power. If Hollywood is truly backing away from depicting or telling stories about sex out of cowardice, it’s an enormous missed opportunity for an industry that’s tolerated so much horrendous behavior to model what good sex looks like.
I’m a woman and a feminist: Obviously, the movie business has tried to sell me reams of sexist, objectifying garbage for years. But Ron Shelton’s “Bull Durham” also suggested that it was perfectly reasonable for a woman to know what she wanted out of sex and to pursue it, and that smart men would like her better for it. John McTiernan’s 1999 remake of “The Thomas Crown Affair” was the first time I saw characters crack up while having sex that they were both enjoying, a striking cinematic example that this is all supposed to be fun. Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “Love & Basketball” put the lie to the ideas that movies can’t make condom use sexy, or that caring that someone has a good first sexual experience makes a man soft or weak.
The choice Hollywood faces about how to handle sex right now is not between upskirt shots, 15-year-old Russian prostitutes and lionizing Hugh Hefner on the one side and nothing on the other. It’s a choice between running away from a new reality or adapting to it, and telling stories that illustrate something true: that equality between men and women, good communication and acknowledgement of complexity don’t keep sex from being hot, and might even combine to make it hotter.