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In the broadest sense, sexuality refers to sexual behavior. While closely tied to biological urges that seem to impel human beings (and other animals) to mate, there are many socially constructed concepts that influence an understanding of sexuality. In many cultures, for example, heterosexual monogamy is considered the only "proper" sexuality, and all other types of sexual behavior are deemed sinful or unnatural. In the wake of the "sexual revolution" of the 1960s, when more men and women felt freer to explore and experiment with other types of sexual relationships, many attempted to hold onto this traditional concept of "normal" sexuality. As writers such as Michel Foucault and Judith Butler have discussed, though, the concept of sexuality (categorizing sexual desires into orientations that form identities) has been a relatively recent social development—with definitions of sexuality being contested and negotiated constantly. Concepts of sexuality have differed from era to era, and from community to community. What is considered taboo in one culture may be accepted as part of the social system in another. Consequently, all sexualities—including heterosexual monogamy—are exposed as cultural developments rather than natural drives.

Just as sexuality is intricately threaded into people's daily lives, so has it been with the history of motion pictures. For generations, heterosexual couples have used movie theater balconies and (in the post–World War II era) drive-ins for trysting. A number of major urban cinemas during the first half of the twentieth century also became cruising spots for homosexual men. Filmmakers repeatedly turned (and still do turn) toward sexuality as a method of drawing in customers. Almost as consistently, various concerned citizens (individually and in groups) voiced objections to such images and called for greater censorship and punishment. The simultaneous fascination with and outcry over representations of sexuality in motion pictures may have been partly fueled by the ongoing negotiations around definitions of sexuality across the globe during the past century. Cinema has been swept into such struggles as it reflects, disseminates, and sometimes contests dominant attitudes.


Thomas Edison's (1847–1931) first ventures into motion pictures already included representations of sexuality. Hoping to woo viewers to his kinetoscope parlors, Edison's company made short film loops that had sexual appeal: "cooch" dancers, pillow fights in a girls' dormitory, a close-up of an actor and actress in full embrace. Watching these loops through the kinetoscope created a "peep show" experience. While it seems these snippets were mainly aimed at arousing heterosexual men, heterosexual women and homosexual men may have derived pleasure at the kinetoscope of Eugen Sandow bulging and rippling his muscles—and gay historians have pointed out the possible pleasures of the clip of two men holding each other and dancing. While not all early filmmakers focused on sexuality, many did. The French film Le Bain (1896) followed in the peep show tradition by letting audiences watch a woman strip nude before bathing. Many early uses of shot/reverse shot, such as British "Brighton School" filmmaker G. A. Smith's As Seen Through a Telescope (1900), have characters looking surreptitiously at women in dishabille or couples en flagrante. The prevalence of such displays of sexuality indicate that they were popular with some customers, yet others were aghast. Such alarm extended beyond the screen, as reformers criticized the opportunities that the low-lit environments of nickelodeon theaters created, even asserting that unaccompanied female patrons were likely to be kidnapped and sold into prostitution.

The clamor against nickelodeons grew so dense that the New York City police department closed down all of the city's theaters in December 1908. A number of obscenity laws and court decisions were also handed down that reformers and local police could use to shut down theaters and arrest exhibitors (and sometimes even audiences). County councils in Great Britain and city and state censor boards in the United States were given legal authority to edit salacious content from films or to ban them altogether. In the United States, the Supreme Court judged that film was a business and not an art form in 1915, and thus not protected by the Freedom of Speech provision of the Constitution. Similar actions occurred throughout much of the world by the end of the 1910s, such as the establishment of federal censorship bureaus in Denmark (1913) and in Egypt (1914), and the passage of New Zealand's Cinematograph-Film Censorship Act in 1916.

While such events may make it seem as if filmmakers were sex radicals needing to be kept under strict surveillance, most in the industry tended to endorse mainstream concepts of sexual desire. Such an assumption is borne out in the prevalence of narrative features that focus solely on patriarchal heterosexuality. The clichéd formula of "boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-wins-girl" became endemic in films from Hollywood to Bombay quite early in film history. Whether explicit sexual attraction or heavily muted romantic courtship, every film industry has been dominated by stories of male/female coupling. Such emphasis often created a sense that heterosexuality was the only "natural" sexual desire—if not the only desire at all. As theorist Laura Mulvey would point out in the 1970s, mainstream narrative motion pictures also tend to support a patriarchal heterosexuality by presenting women as sexual objects for men (in the narrative as well as in the audience) to ogle.

Yet cinema also could provide access to contested or "inappropriate" sexualities—demonizing them but acknowledging their existence in the process. For example, a number of US silent pictures, including Ramona (1910), The Birth of a Nation (1915), and Broken Blossoms (all directed by D. W. Griffith, 1919), dealt with interracial desires. Almost exclusively such stories told of the tragic, and often horrifying, consequences of these desires. Similarly, early Indian cinema often dramatized the harrowing outcomes of people loving across caste lines. In a similar vein, German cinema during the Nazi era included lurid anti-Semitic tales of Jews lusting for Aryan beauties. Motion pictures also emerged during a period of shifting roles for women in the United States and in western Europe. When women began entering the workplace in greater numbers and demanding the right to vote, these male-dominated cultures were now forced to acknowledge that women had their own sexual desires—often evidenced through rampant adoration of male motion picture stars. As a recognition of female (hetero) sexuality, the figure of the vamp—a highly eroticized female who lured men to their doom with her charms—became popular in motion pictures during the 1910s and 1920s. Actresses such as Theda Bara (1885–1955), Pola Negri (1894–1987) and Greta Garbo (1905–1990) became international stars by playing vamps. Often, sweet Victorian wives or virginal ingénues played counterpoint to the treacherous vamps—and actresses such as Mary Pickford (1892–1979) and Lillian Gish (1893–1993) became stars embodying what was considered a more appropriate female role model.

In addition to interracial (or intercaste) sexuality, and challenges to previous understandings of female sexuality, there grew a greater awareness of what the medical profession had recently termed homosexuality. At the turn of the century, concepts of homosexuality were strongly linked to concepts of gender. Consequently, homosexuals were commonly thought of as a "third sex"—men who wanted to be women, and vice versa. When homosexuality was depicted on screen at this time, filmmakers employed stereotypes of feminine men (often called "pansies") or what were termed "mannish women." Because of this definition, same-sex affection between two conventionally masculine men or two conventionally feminine women was often not regarded as homosexual. Thus same-sex characters in silent cinema sometimes embrace in a manner that would likely be regarded as suspect to today's Western audiences. When Hollywood films included homosexuals, they were minor characters, often held up for ridicule. However, a small circle of European films tried to address the topic more centrally and sympathetically—including Vingarne (Wings, 1916, Sweden), Anders als die Anderen (Different from the Others, 1919, Germany), and Die Büsche der Pandora (Pandora's Box, 1929, Germany). German films in particular were able to discuss homosexuality (and other sexual matters) more forthrightly after World War I because, for a short while, censorship laws were abolished. If such films managed to get imported to more restrictive countries, they were heavily cut.


Sex did not disappear from Hollywood cinema in the wake of the 1915 Supreme Court ruling, as vamps, pansies, and racial minorities lusting for white partners roamed the screens—even if the narratives framed them as wicked or ridiculous. As well, various sex scandals erupted around a number of Hollywood stars in the early 1920s. Hollywood gained an image of wild parties and scandalous affairs, and studio motion pictures generally championed the growing sexual liberation of the post-Victorian "Jazz Age." In response to a renewed outcry for reform, the industry decided to create an organization for self-regulation in order to forestall any further attempts at federal regulation. Former Postmaster General Will Hays (1887–1937) was hired to head the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) in order to oversee the morality of the industry, including the attachment of morals clauses to studio contracts and the creation of a list of "Don'ts" and "Be Carefuls" for films to follow. The British film industry had established a similar industry-founded organization as early as 1912, the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC). In general, the MPPDA's abilities were limited and functioned more as public relations. The director Cecil B. DeMille (1881–1959) shifted from making suggestive sex comedies like Old Wives for New (1918) and Don't Change Your Husband (1919) to Biblical epics like The Ten Commandments (1923) that still showcased a wide spectrum of sexual licentiousness—but then punished the transgressors. Hollywood films were wildly successful across the globe, and an increasingly "movie-mad" public made sex idols out of stars like Rudolf Valentino (1895–1926) and Clara Bow (1905–1965).

Renewed complaints by watchdog groups led to the industry commissioning a new set of rules called the Production Code in 1930, to more specifically outline what was acceptable and unacceptable to show or say. Yet, just as with the list of "Don'ts" and "Be Carefuls," no effective method of enforcement had been established. As the Hollywood studios grew desperate to draw audiences during the height of the Depression, sex and sexuality became even more blatant. A whole cycle of "fallen women" films (Blonde Venus, 1932; Rain, 1932; Baby Face, 1933) had almost every major female star playing characters turning towards prostitution. A veritable "pansy craze" developed in the early 1930s as well, with films such as Palmy Days, (1931) and Call Her Savage (1932) allowing audiences to hear the lilting lisps of effeminate men. Degrees of nudity and depictions of pre- and extramarital sexual relationships also increased.

Public opinion in the United States turned, though, by the mid-1930s. Many sought to blame the economic downturn as a result of lax morality—and saw Hollywood as a prime culprit in this slump. Soon, various groups (including the Catholic Church, which created the Legion of Decency in 1933 to monitor films) began organizing boycotts and pressing for federal intervention. Worried by this new turn of events, the studios revamped their attempts at self-regulation. In 1934 the Seal of Approval was devised as a method to enforce the provisions of the Production Code. All studios agreed to submit their films to the Production Code Administration for the Seal of Approval, and to pay a hefty fine for distributing any film that did not receive a Seal. The Production Code specifically forbade Hollywood films from acknowledging "miscegenation" (interracial sex) and "sex perversion" (homosexuality). The portrayal of heterosexuality was extremely circumscribed as well. Indications of extra- or premarital heterosexuality or of prostitution were not allowed. Even further, time limits were placed on kisses—and they could only be done with closed, dry mouths. Double beds were eliminated on-screen, even for married couples. The Production Code Administration even decided that when a reclining couple kissed on a couch in The Merry Widow (1934) that one foot always had to be touching the floor, supposedly keeping the couple physically incapable of "going too far." The Seal of Approval proved an effective method of self-regulation for almost the next two decades of Hollywood cinema.

While the Production Code led to a whitewashing of sexuality in Hollywood, inventive filmmakers at the major studios sometimes slyly managed to indicate sexual activity through metaphor: dissolving from a couple embracing to waves crashing or fireworks exploding (or, in the notorious final shot of North by Northwest, 1959, a train going into a tunnel). Dialogue could also allude to sexual attraction without actually naming the topic, as when a conversation between the characters played by Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep (1946) seems to be about horse racing, but can also be understood as sexual flirtation. While prostitutes were officially absent from Code-era pictures, one still could find plenty of "dance-hall hostesses" and "saloon girls." Various film genres also effectively veiled libidinous energy. Sadomasochistic tendencies often filtered through horror films, for example, and romantic dance sequences in musicals worked as metaphors for sexual coupling.

Hiding sexuality under a veil of connotation was not reserved solely for heterosexuality. At various points, intimations of homosexuality were included in Hollywood films as well, and managed to slip by the watchful eye of the Production Code Administration. As queer theorist D. A. Miller has pointed out, though, once the concept of connotation is introduced, it becomes possible for many lesbian and gay male audience members to read connotative homosexuality into characters or moments that may not have been intended by the filmmakers (p. 125). Thus, rather than quelling the existence of "sex perversion," the enforcement of the Production Code may have led to a wider and more diffuse sense of homosexuality for some viewers.

b. Bressuire, France, 13 July 1948

Based in Paris, Catherine Breillat became famous as a writer and filmmaker confronting sexuality from a candid and unsentimental viewpoint; she was even dubbed a "porno auteuriste" by some critics. Her start in film was a supporting role in Bertolucci's landmark exploration of sexual politics, Last Tango in Paris (1972).

Her first film as writer and director, Une vraie jeune fille (A Real Young Girl, 1976), focuses on the sexual experiences and desires of a young woman, but eschews the romanticism often associated with such tales. Instead, the main character shows no particular reaction to the plainly incestuous attention of her father. In contrast, a blue-collar worker's indifference toward her creates an insatiable passion for him. 36 fillette (Virgin, 1988) and À ma soeur! (Fat Girl, 2003) are also offbeat narratives of young women coming of age. In each of these films, the female protagonists are not viewed as passive victims in a male-dominated society, but as active agents of desire grappling with their feelings, as well as the assumptions and roles that are thrust upon them by society. This is also true of many of the adult women in Breillat's other pictures, such as Romance (1999) and Anatomie de l'enfer (Anatomy of Hell, 2004).

Yet consistently, Breillat's films frustrate attempts to psychologically investigate the female characters. Instead, stylistic choices (including a lack of emotional response by the performers) create a sense of cold objectivity that works to keep the viewer at a distance from the characters. Rather than attempting to explain their desires, Breillat simply presents them—even when the films portray their various sexual fantasies. As Breillat herself said of one of her films, "If people go to see Romance with arousal on their minds they will be disappointed." Depicting the unpleasant and unlikable sides of the women characters often prevents female viewers from identifying with them.

It is perhaps this combination of dispassionate technique and forthright depiction of sex in all its polymorphous perversity that has led to numerous outcries against Breillat's films. A Real Young Girl had difficulties being screened upon its completion. Scenes of actual heterosexual intercourse and a shot of an erect penis in Romance almost kept the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC) from allowing the film into the United Kingdom. Neither film was distributed in the United States. The Ontario Film Review Board in Canada also originally banned Fat Girl, objecting to scenes depicting sexual activity by minors and frontal nudity. In 2002 Breillat made the film Sex Is Comedy (Scènes intimes), a self-reflexive story about a female director trying to film an explicit sex scene the way she envisions it while facing obstacles from all fronts. Often outraging both male patriarchal notions and feminists, Breillat's films create their own unique, unblinking attitude toward sexuality.


Une vraie jeune fille (A Real Young Girl, 1976), 36 fillette (Virgin, 1988), Romance (1999), Sex Is Comedy (Scènes intimes, 2002), À ma souer! (Fat Girl, 2003), Anatomie de l'enfer (Anatomy of Hell, 2004)


Armour, Nicole. "Far from Romance: The Coming-of-Age Films of Catherine Breillat." Cinemascope 9 (December 2001): 12–16.

Sean Griffin


The development of film industries in areas outside the United States and western Europe also had to negotiate representations of sexuality. For example, in many nations where the Catholic Church held a powerful presence, such as some Latin American countries, there was a strong pressure on filmmakers to keep their representations of sexual desire within the bounds of religious doctrine. It is also important to recognize that filmic depictions of sexuality in these regions differed from motion pictures in the United States and western Europe due to different conceptualizations of sexuality. For example, while sex between men and sex between women existed across the world, the medical category of "homosexuality" was largely a western European concept during the early twentieth century. Also, while first-wave feminism had swept western Europe and the United States, creating a new image of women's active sexuality, such a movement or image had not taken hold in much

of the rest of the world. Therefore, depictions of vamps, pansies, or mannish women were much more limited in motion pictures beyond the West.

It is important to recognize too that many of these populations had access to Western images. Hollywood cinema dominated the global market by the 1920s. Most of South America, Africa, and the Middle East was still under the colonial rule of various European countries—and thus exposed to the culture of their colonizers. Therefore, the expression of sexuality in many of these industries negotiated the differences between their cultures and the cultures of their rulers. The film industry in India, for example, held to the rules of propriety dictated by British culture, but also dealt with what was considered inappropriate to its own communities. While British censors allowed on-screen kissing (as long as it was chaste), it became standard not to allow couples to do so in Indian films. When India gained independence from the United Kingdom and established its Central Board of Film Censors in 1949, the ban on kissing became institutionalized, as well as forbidding displays of "indecorous dancing."

Japanese cinema provides another good example of negotiating depictions of sexuality. The Japanese film industry also kept on-screen displays of intimacy to a minimum—possibly suggesting or discussing attraction but keeping most forms of physical contact (including kissing) out of camera range. Yet, while circumspect on this issue, Japanese films had no compunction in acknowledging the existence of the geisha system. Unlike Hollywood films that strove to deny the existence of female sex workers, many Japanese pictures acknowledged geishas as part of the community structure. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the Allied Forces oversaw the restructuring of Japanese society, which included its film industry. As part of the effort to westernize Japanese culture, filmmakers were instructed to include on-screen kissing for the first time. Thus, Japanese cinema's attitudes and portrayals of sexuality began to shift in response to the West.


The establishment of obscenity laws and censorship boards and the development of self-regulation within various film industries worked to circumscribe how much and what types of sexuality could be depicted in pictures produced for general entertainment. These attempts at regulation, though, also led to new types of marginalized filmmaking in various countries that dealt more explicitly with sex than was considered acceptable. The growth of an experimental cinema across Europe and the United States created a space for espousers of modernism and "bohemian" lifestyles (including feminism, free love, and homosexuality) to express themselves in films. French director Germaine Dulac's La souriante Madame Beudet (The Smiling Madame Beudet, 1922) depicted a woman's lack of sexual fulfillment in a conventional middle-class heterosexual marriage. Un chien andalou (An Andalusian Dog, 1929, France), by Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel, presented a Surrealist portrayal of the anarchic energy generated by passionate, unruly desires. Various queer artists also used avant-garde cinema to express themselves, such as James Sibley Watson (1894–1982) and Melville Webber (1871–1947) in Lot in Sodom (1933, US), Kenneth Anger (b. 1927) in Fireworks (1947, US), and Jean Genet (1910–1986) in Un chant d'amour (A Song of Love, 1950, France).

"Stag" films were even more explicit in showing sexual intercourse. These early versions of film pornography consciously broke obscenity laws and hence were often distributed and shown surreptitiously. Working just barely within the boundaries of obscenity laws was a mode of production known as exploitation filmmaking. Made by filmmakers outside the major studios, exploitation films sold themselves by specifically discussing those topics forbidden by the Code, such as homosexuality (Children of Loneliness, 1934), venereal disease (Damaged Goods, 1937), interracial sex (Race Suicide, 1937) and unwed pregnancy (Mom and Dad, 1945). In the 1930s and 1940s, exploitation films raised these topics, but in order to warn against them in favor of heterosexual monogamy. They also usually promised more nudity and sexually explicit scenes than they actually delivered (thus keeping within the law).


World War II helped shift attitudes toward and portrayals of sexuality in the United States and western Europe. "Cheesecake" photography of women helped "remind GIs of what they were fighting for." Members of the armed forces were given explicit education (including films) about sexually transmitted diseases. Roles for women in the workforce expanded to include what had been traditionally considered masculine jobs. Wartime demands for personnel even led military and civilian leaders to tacitly overlook the existence of homosexuality in the ranks or in the workforce. With the end of the war, though, there was a concerted effort to bring society back to pre-war notions of sexuality. Social pressures were placed on women to return to the role of homemaker, for example, and homosexuality was once again deemed a mental illness and a criminal act. Yet the 1950s saw increasing challenges to these attempts. While a "baby boom" erupted in the United States after the war, divorce rates also grew steadily. In 1953 Playboy magazine began publication. Dr. Alfred Kinsey's studies on male and female sexuality (1948, 1953) challenged long-held beliefs regarding the extent of premarital sex for women and the prevalence of homosexual activity among men. Fledgling homosexual rights groups began to form after the war as well in the United States.

Cinema was often caught up in the postwar struggles over sexuality. Many European filmmakers championed greater realism in their work after the war (often in reaction to the heavily propagandistic films during the war). As such, sexuality was treated more frankly—yet (often) not in an exploitative manner. The emphasis on realism often granted cinema greater critical regard, which various film industries were able to use to defend against censorship. The BBFC in the United Kingdom, for example, instituted the X certificate in 1951 as a method of allowing pictures to deal with more adult material instead of simply banning them. When a New York City exhibitor was arrested on obscenity charges for running the Italian film L'Amore (Ways of Love, 1948), the case went to the Supreme Court, which reversed its 1915 decision and declared that cinema was an art form protected by the Freedom of Speech clause in the Bill of Rights.

Hollywood studios were losing audiences in the 1950s, mostly to television, but also to foreign films that were often hyped as more sexually explicit ("shocking realism" became something of a code-phrase for sex in film marketing). Many US audiences had associated European film as more adult for some time (the Czech film Extáze [Ecstasy], 1933, with a scene of Hedy Lamaar swimming nude, was released as an exploitation film in the US, for example). Yet the postwar years saw a major increase in foreign imports—including Et Dieu … créala femme (And God Created Woman, 1957, France), Les amants (The Lovers, 1959, France), Belle du Jour (1966, France) and Jag ãr nyfiken (I Am Curious, Yellow, 1968, Sweden)—that confronted resistance from various local and state censors for their forthright depictions of sexuality. The international attention given to French New Wave films such as À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960) and Tirez sur le pianiste (Shoot the Piano Player, 1960) was due to a variety of factors, one being the free discussion of sexual matters (and occasional moments of topless females). British Angry Young Man films such as Room at the Top (1959) and This Sporting Life (1963) also included frank talk about sex, and Italian director Federico Fellini's examination of contemporary Italian society, La Dolce Vita (The Sweet Life, 1960), culminated in an orgy.

A number of US filmmakers desired more open discussion of social issues after World War II, including attitudes around sexuality. Pictures about interracial romance became more prevalent, for example, possibly reacting to the wave of Japanese war brides that GIs were bringing back to the States. (While laws against "miscegenation" began to be repealed in certain areas, it was not until 1967 that the Supreme Court swept away all of these statutes.) Unlike silent films that tended to picture such desires as threatening, films such as Pinky (1949), Broken Arrow (1950), and Sayonara (1957) were usually sympathetic—yet rarely allowed the interracial relationship to succeed. Other filmmakers began specifically challenging the authority of the Production Code Administration. Otto Preminger's The Moon Is Blue (1953) talked about premarital sex and even used the word "virgin." Denied a Seal of Approval, the film got even more publicity and became a box-office success. Combined with the new Freedom of Speech protection, the success of The Moon Is Blue heralded the slow demise of the Production Code. Mention of unwed pregnancies, prostitution, abortions, and teenage sex—along with pictures revealing more and more of the human body—began to proliferate in US cinema during the 1960s. Studios increasingly bent the rules by including more explicit sexual situations—from sex comedies starring Doris Day and Rock Hudson (Pillow Talk, 1959; Lover Come Back, 1961) to a screen version of the notorious novel Lolita (1962), about an older man's obsession with a teenage girl.

Hollywood filmmakers also began broaching the topic of homosexuality during these years. A number of early attempts were adaptations from recent hit plays, such as Tea and Sympathy (1956) or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958). Yet because the Code specifically forbade mention of "sex perversion," the films were forced to launder any overt references to homosexuality. In response to industry pressures, the Production Code was revised in 1961, and one of the changes was allowing films to mention homosexuality. Homosexuals were no longer exclusively defined (or portrayed on screen) as "gender deviant," but most Hollywood pictures on the topic made after the Code revision, such as The Children's Hour (1961) and Advise and Consent (1962) portrayed lesbians and gay men as pitiful creatures doomed to suffering and suicide. (In contrast, the British film Victim, 1961, confronted the treatment of homosexuals in a heteronormative culture.) Just as the British X certificate classified material as adult rather than censoring it, the Hollywood Production Code was finally scrapped in 1967 and was replaced with a Ratings System to classify what films were appropriate for what audiences. By the early 1970s, many countries (particularly in Europe) had moved to a classificatory system rather than a censorship board.


The collapse of the Production Code reflected the emergence of a "sexual revolution" in the United States and western Europe in the 1960s. Women's sexual freedom increased during the decade with the marketing of "the pill" to protect against pregnancy. Soon, a second wave of feminism began championing women's liberation from patriarchy. Beat culture in the late 1950s and the counterculture of the 1960s celebrated "free love," with many choosing simply to live together rather than join in conventional heterosexual matrimony. By the end of the 1960s, a modern gay rights movement had begun as well. Many people began favoring foreign films to Hollywood product—as well as the growing number of US films made outside the studio system.

In the wake of the Supreme Court decision in 1953, exploitation films of burlesque strippers and nudist camps proliferated. As more and more obscenity laws were struck down during the 1960s, exploitation films began including shots of vaginas and flaccid penises. By the start of the 1970s, full on-screen coitus was being presented, and the Ratings System's X rating became synonymous with pornography. The 1960s also saw a growth of experimental filmmaking called "underground cinema" that usually contained explicit nudity and simulated sex acts. Andy Warhol's Kiss (1963), for example, is a series of close-ups of couples kissing, including a heterosexual interracial couple and two male couples. Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures (1963) parodied the Biblical sex orgies of Cecil B. DeMille films by showing—in a bored, listless, campy fashion—full-frontal nudity of both men and women. In the wake of the women's liberation movement, independent feminist filmmakers, including Barbara Hammer (b. 1930) (Superdyke, 1975), Michelle Citron (Daughter Rite, 1978) and Lizzie Borden (b. 1958) (Born in Flames, 1983), experimented with methods of picturing female sexuality without falling into patriarchal patterns of objectification.

By the end of the 1960s, exploitation pictures and underground cinema were exerting a tremendous influence on mainstream filmmaking throughout the United States and Europe. In Hollywood, films such as Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) and Carnal Knowledge (1971) attempted to deal with the sexual revolution. Midnight Cowboy (1969), about a male hustler, won an Academy Award® for Best Picture. In various parts of the world in the early 1970s, important films focused on sexual politics with no holds barred. WR: Mysterije Organizma (1971, Yugoslavia), Last Tango in Paris (Ultimo tango a Paris; Le dernier tango à Paris; 1972, Italy/France), The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (Die bitteren Trãnen der Petra von Kant, 1972, West Germany), In the Realm of the Senses (Ai no corrida, 1976, Japan), and Salo, or 120 Days of Sodom (Salò, o le 120 giornate di Sodoma, 1976, Italy)alldealt with sex in explicit yet complex and intricate ways. Many of these films, for example, showed how heterosexual patriarchal notions often still held sway, even within the so-called sexual revolution. Many exposed the power dynamics that often infuse sexual desire. Others pointed out the limits of sexual liberation without an accompanying change in the social and economic order. Though explicit attempts at a serious discussion of sexuality, these films were viewed by many as little more than smut masking as art. Salo was banned in many countries; In the Realm of the Senses and WR were often recut before they could be shown; the makers of Last Tango in Paris were charged with obscenity laws while the film was still in production, and director Bernardo Bertolucci (b. 1940) briefly lost his voting rights. It is thus perhaps not surprising that an ongoing cycle of similar films did not materialize.


By the end of the 1970s, a general cultural backlash against the sexual revolution began to develop in many areas, partly fueled by growing fears of sexually transmitted diseases such as herpes and AIDS. The United States, the United Kingdom, and West Germany, for example, elected conservative politicians that promised to restore "traditional values"—which generally meant reestablishing the patriarchal heterosexual family unit. British prime minister Margaret Thatcher promoted a "heritage" culture, which translated into a number of British films taking place in a nostalgic era of Victorian propriety. In the United States, under the presidency of Ronald Reagan (served 1981–1989), "slasher" horror films became popular, visiting violent retribution on young people who had premarital sex (with particular grisly focus on punishing sexually aggressive women).

The sexual revolution was also met with outrage outside the United States and western Europe. As the global reach of Hollywood cinema expanded with the growth of home video in the 1980s, many postcolonial societies complained of a new cultural imperialism. One of the major complaints was that United States and European movies were too sexually explicit, supplanting indigenous concepts of sexuality with Western ideas. (By the end of the 1980s, the pornography industries had moved almost solely into video to provide better distribution.) For example, film censors in Iran after the abdication of the Shah in 1979 focused major attention on what were considered Western-influenced displays of sexuality, particularly regarding women. Attempts by filmmakers in India to discuss lesbian desire in films such as Fire (1996) and Girlfriend (2004) met with censorship troubles and then protests and riots in the theaters. Many in India, as well as in various Asian and African nations, consider homosexuality to be a Western idea that is being imported to their communities through popular culture (even though evidence of some form of same-sex desire can be found in almost every culture's history).

Yet even in the face of such reactions, discussions and displays of sexuality continued in cinema. While on-screen heterosexual kisses were still rare in Indian film, scenes of women dancing "indecorously" in clinging wet saris became a popular feature of Bombay cinema by the late 1980s. While explicit scenes of sexual intercourse remained banned in Japanese cinema, an entire genre of soft-core "pink films" flourished. Furthermore, Japanese animators found a way around this ban by having female characters in explicit sex scenes with aliens instead of humans (an entire

subgenre called hentai, often referred to as "tentacle porn" in the US).

As the 1990s began, various films seemed to indicate a renewed attempt to present serious discussions of sexuality on screen, including The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989, UK), Henry & June (1990, US), and the films of Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar. Together these films led to a small censorship crisis in the United States, which resulted in the creation of the NC-17 rating to distinguish these films from straightforward pornography. German filmmaker Monika Treut explored marginalized sexualities such as female sadomasochism (Female Misbehavior, 1992) and transgendered sexuality (Gendernauts—Eine Resie durch die Geschlechter, 1999). Tied to the rise of radical AIDS activism in the West, the New Queer Cinema movement of the early 1990s also challenged "traditional values" by openly celebrating sexual diversity, and at times even challenging the stability of sexual categories. Although centered in the United States, New Queer Cinema included filmmakers from Canada (John Greyson, Bruce LaBruce), the United Kingdom (Derek Jarman, Isaac Julien) and India (Pratibha Parmar).

Such efforts to confront sex and sexuality in its materiality continued with the start of the new millennium. Independent American directors such as Larry Clark (Kids, 1995; Bully, 2001) and Todd Solondz (Happiness, 1998) have made forthright pictures about childhood and teenage sex, and pederasty. A number of nonpornographic films also began including explicit heterosexual intercourse or oral sex, including Baise-moi (Kiss Me, 2000, France), Intimacy (Intimité, 2001, UK/France), The Brown Bunny (2003, US), and 9 Songs (2004, UK). Many of these films caused scandals and protests. Baise moi, for example, was banned in Australia and Canada, and was recut by censors in the United Kingdom and Hong Kong. Some analysts have pointed out that complaints about the film tended to center around depictions of sexual acts rather than the excessive violence of the film. While some defended these films as attempts to portray sex honestly and without shame, or to investigate the links between sex and violence, others decried them as simply a new version of exploitation and sexual licentiousness. Thus, over the past century of film history, the same debates about sexuality and cinema have continued to rage.

SEE ALSO Censorship;Experimental Film;Exploitation Films;Gay, Lesbian, and Queer Cinema;Gender;Pornography;Race and Ethnicity;Spectatorship and Audiences;Stars


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Sean Griffin

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