American Cinema and Sex: Why So Serious?

It's no secret that when it comes to entertainment, America is lax on violence but really uptight about sex. The MPAA gives out NC-17 ratings four times as often for sex as for violence; really, the Hostel movies alone demonstrated that it's practically impossible to get an NC-17 for blood and gore. Meanwhile, in one of the most notorious examples, The Cooler was initially slapped with an NC-17 solely because in a sex scene with William H. Macy, Maria Bello's pubic hair was visible. If only Macy had been torturing and dismembering her rather than having sex with her! Then it would have been fine.

And it's not just the MPAA's ratings board. Yeah, they're a bunch of prudish, irrational, hypocritical clown-shoes -- but their obsessing over sex while giving violence a free pass is often a reflection of American attitudes in general. Not only do we tend to equate ALL nudity with sex (remember how the world almost ended when Janet Jackson's nipple was briefly exposed on TV?), we also tend to consider ALL sex taboo.

Recently, ads for Zack and Miri Make a Porno were dropped in some cities because the word "Porno" in the title was too suggestive. Then there was the story last week, first published by the New York Post, about how a chain of Utah theaters has declined to show the movie at all.

The Megaplex Theatres, owned by Utah Jazz owner and auto dealer Larry H. Miller, famously canceled its engagement of Brokeback Mountain in 2005 too. (To his credit, Miller later admitted he'd made the wrong call on that.) Megaplex spokesman Cal Gunderson told the Post that Zack and Miri "is very close to an NC-17 with its graphic nudity and graphic sex." When it was pointed out that the Megaplex chain is showing the ultra-violent Saw V, Gunderson said, "No comment."

Miller is obviously allowed to show whichever movies he wants in his theaters. Cinema owners make choices all the time, usually based on what will make the most money, but sometimes based on other factors. And that's why, when contacted by the Post, Miller's guy should have said, "We simply made a business decision not to book this film." There are plenty of theaters where the film isn't showing. What separates them from the Megaplex chain is that they had the good sense not to publicly state WHY they didn't book it, whether that reason was benign (too many better choices) or controversial (we think it's dirty). By framing the decision in terms of its content, Miller's company invites people to point out times when films with similar content were not rejected -- for example, Sex Drive and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, both of which played in Miller's theaters recently and are arguably as filthy as Zack and Miri.

But Miller's company isn't alone in shunning sex while embracing violence. America in general tends to do this. Look at our TV shows. They're full of crime and violence and rape and mayhem and severed body parts, but very little sex. Lots of raunchy jokes ABOUT sex, of course, but very little in the way of actual bedroom scenes, and certainly not with anything more than a fleeting glance of partial nudity, if that.

I suspect the reasoning goes like this. When we see an act of violence on TV or in a movie, we're aware that no one actually got hurt. The blood is fake; the actors aren't in pain. There's nothing inherently offensive to our morals in seeing people pretend to do something violent, even if actual violence is offensive. When we see nudity, though, those actors really ARE as naked as they appear to be. The sex isn't real, but the nudity is, and the physical movements involved in simulating it are, and part of our puritan heritage makes us uncomfortable with that. Sex should be a private thing that people do under the sheets and never discuss publicly. As a society, that's still hardwired into our brains.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, either. There's no question sex has been trivialized and cheapened, and kids are exposed to it at younger and younger ages. But on the one hand there's teaching kids that sex is taboo, dirty, and wrong, and on the other hand there's total reckless permissiveness. There ought to be a balance between those two extremes, but it seems like we usually fall on the side of super-uptightness. That's something you can thank our puritan ancestors for this Thanksgiving.