Penis. Vagina. Queer Sex.
When each of the above words are visualized in cinema or television in the United States, harsher scrutiny is applied by American censors (MPAA, FCC). It’s something film and media students have discussed amongst themselves and in their classes for years. How can a person be more permissibly tortured and graphically killed in a franchise like SAW (2004-2010) beneath an R-rating, while “a scene of explicit sexual content” in a film like Blue Valentine (2010) warrants an NC-17? This well-documented dilemma has been discussed and contested multiple times, yet European films are reputed to be more sexually liberal – that is, until recently.
Eva Green responds to MPAA vs. Sin City Poster controversy
American movies and television are beginning to embrace sex more freely, but violence isn’t tapering off. Instead, what’s happening is a blending of sex and violence and audiences are witnessing controversial, discomforting, and sometimes erotic scenes or images. Below I’ll present to you several recent instances that illustrate America’s new-found obsession with bizarre sex.
Let’s begin first with a title making headway with our new fixation: American Horror Story (2011-).
Fans of FX’s original series will immediately recognize any number of scenes depicting controversial sex. Season one, “Murder House,” repeatedly teases and shows a man donning a bondage suit. The man is the source of Vivien Harmon’s (Connie Britton) psychological torment and eventual rape. Then, the significantly darker season two, “Asylum,” provides viewers with even more controversial “love.” From the nearly instant death of Leo Morrison (Adam Levine) mid-fellatio to start the season, to Shelley’s (Chloe Sevigny) sexual advances toward Nazi doctor Arthur Arden (James Cromwell), to Sister Jude’s (Jessica Lange) fantasy with Monsignor Timothy Howard (Joseph Fiennes) – American Horror Story: Asylum upped the ante for bizarre TV sex – then came “Coven.”
Queenie and the Minotaur (AHS: Coven)
According to creator Ryan Murphy, season three was tonally lighter – but Coven wasn’t devoid of bizarre sex. If anything, Coven pushed the boundaries further. Viewers of the show will recall several edgy instances of sex, most notably Queenie’s (Gabourey Sidibe) with the Minotaur (Ameer Baraka). As she encouraged the mythical beast to mount her, Queenie motions her hands to lift her skirt and begs the line, “Don’t you wanna love me?” Additionally, the season featured a satanic, snake-laden pregnancy ritual between Cordelia Foxx (Sarah Paulson) and husband Hank (Josh Hamilton), and an implied/lightly featured incestuous relationship between Kyle (Evan Peters) and his mother that was interwoven with an on-going necrophilia-ménage-a-tois between Kyle, Zoe Benson (Taissa Farmiga) and Madison Montgomery (Emma Roberts).
American Horror Story isn’t the only show to present necrophilia or incest in primetime, either. These themes figure prominently into two other top-rated shows, one airing on FOX, the other on A&E.
Season two of FOX’s The Following (2013-) features Sam Underwood as twin brothers Luke and Mark. The brothers calculatingly murder and dine with female corpses amidst sexual suggestion and homoerotic, incestuous undertones. What is the basis for their strong connection to one another? Yes, they’re fighting for the same cause as serial killers and rapists, but is it normal for these brothers to be intimate together? What about their unyielding commitment to one another? Luke and Mark’s connection is suggestively deeper than brotherhood, though it’s not overstated and was downplayed after the first few episodes.
Norma and Norman Bates (Bates Motel)
A&E’s Bates Motel (2013-) poses a similar question – this time about the relationship between mother and son. For two seasons, Bates Motel has been teasing Norman’s (Freddie Highmore’s) obsession with his mother Norma (Vera Farmiga). Season one featured a surprising, but inevitable (perhaps “predictable” would be a better word) kiss and awkward relationship between the two. Season two pushes the envelope a little further by not only depicting more shared kisses, but by placing the characters in bed (non-sexually) together on different occasions, and by revealing a previous instance of incest – the rape of Norma. The entire premise of Bates Motel is to explore the psyche of Norman Bates pre-Psycho (1960), so naturally, the relationship will only intensify.
Artemisia and Themistocles (300: Rise of an Empire)
Intensity’s become a key factor in both television and cinematic sex. Take the movie 300: Rise of an Empire (2014) for example. The sex scene between Persian naval leader Artemisia (Eva Green) and the Grecian Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) is one of the most intense I’ve ever seen. Mortal enemies on opposing armies, the two come together to forge a deal and end up engaging in a fierce scene where seduction is filled with danger, passion is replaced by power and violence becomes empowering. From this – what appears as a psychosexual game – allows Artemisia finds superiority against her male counterpart.
While I’m not saying Hollywood hasn’t exploited female sexuality to “empower” women in TV or movies, I am saying that there’s been a shift in the way women have presented and owned their sexuality. In 300: Rise of an Empire, Artemisia exists as a formidable force beyond her sexuality before and after the scene – and during the scene, she was always in control. Take the Starz series Spartacus(2010-2013) for another example. Creator Steven S. DeKnight gave the series several strong, empowered female leads - notably Lucretia (Lucy Lawless) and Ilithyia (Viva Bianca). Both women existed in the aristocratic echelon of society – and while they employed seduction and sex to further their own political agendas, they also used sex for pleasure, to objectify men (their property), and each other.
Spartacus and Ilithyia (Spartacus: Blood and Sand)
Spartacus’ most intriguing (and relevant) sex comes during season one (“Blood and Sand”), after Ilithyia oversteps her bounds in the eyes of Lucretia. Ilithya desires one of Lucretia’s slaves, but the one Lucretia delivers only ensures humiliation. Ilithyia’s sex scene with Spartacus (Andy Whitfield) delivers eroticism and fantasy to the viewer, but also on the murkiness becoming common-place in TV/movie sex. The scene is immediately followed by two acts of violence that increase in severity and gruesomeness. The erotic nature of draped sheets, gold body paint and secretive masks co-exists with themes of deception, humiliation, anonymity, and shame, yet the moment exists to create (or to inspire?) fantasy and allure. No longer are men using women regularly for sexual exploitation – women are now using their sexuality against each other and men.
Deceptive “use” is a keystone figuring prominently into another primetime show airing on FX – The Americans (2013-). The Americans introduced us to Phillip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) Jennings, two covert KGB agents in America during the 1980s. In disguise, throughout seasons one and two, Phillip and Elizabeth both employ sexual activity to gain information from the US government. The twist comes during season one when we repeatedly see Elizabeth disregard sex and harbor no emotional attachments, whereas Phillip becomes entangled in a faux marriage to FBI secretary Martha (Alison Wright). The double life begins progressively affecting Phillip, becoming noticeable later (in season two) to Elizabeth.
After involving herself out of necessity, Elizabeth learns about Phillip as a lover to Martha, and asks Phillip to become “Clark,” his alter-ego with her for a night. The scene is riddled with discomfort – Phillip is visibly frustrated and Elizabeth is left in pain, crying on the bed. Here we have another instance where deception becomes a violent and emotionally damning sexual act – and we have a sexual relationship (Martha-Clark) built entirely on false pretense and the objectification of a woman. The irony is that the same show sexually empowers and demeans women and men. Is this depiction real? Are people this easily manipulated by sex?
Malkina mounts the Ferrari (The Counselor, 2013)
There’s a particular scene in the 2013 movie The Counselor, starring Cameron Diaz, that addresses my last statement and question. While Malkina (Diaz), an affiliate to the Mexican drug cartel, is empowered through cunning, association, and sex, she is demeaned by what could be considered one of the most bizarre sexual acts to ever be featured in a movie. I’m talking about the moment she mounts a Ferrari and does the splits on the windshield, to seduce her boyfriend Reiner (Javier Bardem). Interesting to note however, Reiner finds the moment less erotic and more unnerving and intimidating.
This moment and Diaz’s entire performance are powerful. She’s continuously revered for her feminist traits, including intelligence, independence and boldness (which are stated overtly throughout the movie), but also for her incredible sex appeal. All of these traits combine to create a dynamic and unpredictable female lead. So are people easily manipulated through sex? The answer seems to be that there are great powers in act of seduction – and if you’ve seen the end of The Counselor you know the answer to the question.
But while a woman like Malkina does exist, so too does a woman like Law & Order: SVU‘s (1999-) Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay). Since 1999, Detective Benson has been a beacon of hope for strong female leads – in television and cinema. She’s been portrayed as an intelligent woman not reliant upon her sexuality and as an equal member of the male dominated police force. She’s risen through the ranks and now exists as the top-billed character and face of the show as it enters it sixteenth season. Detective Benson has done well for herself – until being confronted by an intense arc that sees her victimized by serial rapist and murderer William Lewis (Pablo Schreiber).
Olivia Benson as a victim (Law & Order: SVU)
Lewis, one of SVU‘s most terrifying villains, is known to torture girls before raping and killing them. He is eroticized by the helplessness of women – Benson becomes his strongest, most resilient target – his prize. In the squad room, Lewis’ objective is clear: he wants his victims to fight for life, to resist him - it feeds his desire for power. He tortures them (forces them to consume alcohol, burns them with cigarettes, and terrifies them with guns). The last moments of these women’s lives are hell – but the Benson-Lewis saga was successful enough that it survived beyond the season fourteen finale and season fifteen premier and carried throughout all of season fifteen.
Why was SVU‘s victimization of Benson such a successful storyline? Was it because the crime-procedural had an actual arc? Or was it because of Schreiber and Hargitay’s amazing work together? It could be either of those things, but it could also be because fans liked seeing Olivia Benson in peril, fighting for her dignity and for her life. The question “Will Lewis rape Benson?” loomed over all of their interactions, especially Benson’s captivity. Fans cringed at the idea, but had to know how or if Benson would survive William Lewis. Could she carry on as a detective (and later sergeant) if she were to have been raped by Lewis? Could this man undo one of TV’s most powerful women?
In some odd way, Benson in peril made for compelling television – and the “will she or won’t she” be raped intrigue caused people to tune in. Despite the dynamics, the fact that Lewis’ sexual obsessions and crimes warranted a season-long arc is noteworthy. His lust blended with violence, and his appetite for rape and death was unnerving, but the character “William Lewis” was a perfect fit for the media’s bizarre new obsession.
UPDATE: On June 6, Hayley Krischer with the Huffington Post wrote an article about the “rape” of Maleficent and how rape culture has permeated Disney movies
Dorian Gray (Penny Dreadful)
More recently, on Showtime’s freshman horror series Penny Dreadful (2014-) we find the character Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney). While the series is just beginning, and its unknown to viewers where Gray is headed sexually or otherwise, we’ve already learned a bit about his twisted infatuations. Through staging, we become aware that Gray is at least bisexual, he’s infatuated with beauty, that he has an affinity for lust and orgies, and that he isn’t phased by people coughing up blood during intercourse (that seemed to excite him further). We’ve also been introduced to his tactics to achieve his desires – notably the scene where he seduces Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) by using a special elixir that inspires a homosexual transgression in Victorian-era London.
Dorian Gray and Ethan Chandler (Penny Dreadful)
It is interesting to note that in 2014, while America is still absurdly sensitive to sex, we find such bizarre instances of sex in so many period pieces like Penny Dreadful (and Spartacus, 300: Rise of an Empire, The Americans). What is it about these times that inspires creators or writers to visualize these societies as sexually explorative and free? Are these interpretations simply fanaticized – or is there merit to the ideas – were those times more provocative than our own? What’s the comment being made toward current society – if these were the sexual attitudes in ancient Greece, Victorian London, or the 1980s?
Perhaps the 2013 movie Her could shed some light on our current state of affairs. Her offers the comment that our society is less-socialized and less interactive, despite being more “social” in a cyber fashion. In our digital age, online dating is popularized, sexting is a norm, and sexual necessities are more easily fulfilled alone (by phone, internet, magazine, erotica novel, etc.). While Her is a gorgeous cinematic achievement, it perhaps offers one of the more bizarre love stories of all – about a man, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), who falls in love and has a pseudo-sexual relationship with an operating system named Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). Is this contemporary love? Can this instant companionship replace physical desire or touch? What is the capability for fulfillment and happiness?
If there’s one positive to Her‘s bizarre sexuality, it’s that the element of violence is removed, but at what cost? Theodore is physically lonely – he’s withdrawn and suffers from depression. Is an operating system a suitable replacement for a human? Or is the comment being made by Spike Jones’ feature that we need people to be totally fulfilled – and to feel love? This question, I believe, is posed in Her and I think the overall message affirms that we do need people to love. We do need touch and intimacy.
As I’ve illustrated, the current media climate is welcoming, and the censors seem to be softening, with respect to sex and eroticism in cinema and television. However, the cost for increased instances of sex is that they’re often accompanied by violence (rough sex, demeaning sex, rape) or are so bizarre in nature they’d be considered disturbing (necrophilia, incest, bestiality) to a majority of viewers. Despite featuring more sex (of all types, heterosexual and homosexual), the media seems to be lacking healthy, passionate, loving, or sensual instances of sex. We’re trading those intimate and deep-rooted desires for harsh images and sometimes cruel seduction and saying “That’s what I want.”
Mark Ruffalo and Matt Bomer (The Normal Heart)
What’s worse is that each instance of homosexuality I’ve mentioned has been accompanied by a deviant behavior (deception in Penny Dreadful, and suggestive undertones of incest and necrophilia in The Following). It’s been nearly a decade since Brokeback Mountain revolutionized American cinema and television – and the passionate, loving, and sensual scenes are still fleeting. Take the powerful HBO movie The Normal Heart (2014), the scene filled with passion between Ned (Mark Ruffalo) and Felix (Matt Bomer) is as fleeting as the flashback depicting their first “hookup.” Why is love still unequal? What is so fearful about two men or two women being depicted in a moment of true love or passion?
At the same time, what is so threatening about a woman being sexy – and in control of a heterosexual scene? Why is there still preference to the missionary position – and why can’t there just be stories about love? Why does everything either have to be categorized as bizarre or follow the romantic comedy formula that presents what I call “soap opera sex?” American media’s journey into the sexual realm is beginning to intensify. I just hope sooner, rather than later, we can start displaying love as it should be – not as something that still brings shame, embarrassment, or that disturbs us. Some stories will warrant the types of bizarre sex prevalent in media – but some stories should just be about passionate freedom. Don’t you agree?
Is there a show, a movie, or a scene from either that you’d consider “bizarre sex?” What about something you consider to be about “passionate freedom,” and love? Let me know in the comments section below. Let’s explore this idea together. Thanks for reading.