Film, Gender and Eroticism

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Film, Gender and Eroticism

This entry contains the following:

Carina Yervasi

Judith Roof

Francesca Candé Sautman

Gary P. Cestaro


A history of the representation of eroticism in cinema dates back to some of the earliest images in moving pictures and other popular culture genres. The first public screening of projected images, organized by the Lumière brothers, took place in France on December 28, 1895, and consisted of predominantly images from everyday life such as work, family, and games. Other moving image technologies, such as hand-cranked kinetoscopes (mid-1890s) and nickelodeons (early 1900s), although middlebrow entertainments in their heyday, were precursors to the "peep show."


The first critical works that attempted to catalog eroticism in film were written by Ado Kyrou (1967) and Raymond Durgnat (1966). Durgnat defined eroticism as "often pornographic, and almost always aphrodisiac … rarely engage[s] the personality exclusively at the point of sexual excitement…. But nonetheless … has a potent effect in attracting and pleasing audience" (Durgnat 1966, pp. 11, 16). Those two writers did not deal specifically with theoretical questions of gender or sexuality in erotic arts; instead, they were concerned with classifying the nature of images that are considered erotic.

Durgnat's Eros in the Cinema (1966) identified visual pleasure by using wardrobe eroticism, music and dance numbers, and bodily expression as defining categories. Kyrou's Amour-Érotisme au Cinéma [Love and eroticism in the cinema] (1967) stressed orientalism and erotic horror fantasies. Both linked their scholarly pursuit to surrealism, an early twentieth-century European art movement that was known to champion popular culture. Both writers referred to erotic entertainment in international mainstream films, but Durgnat reserved a lengthy discussion for the visual pleasure elicited by stars' bodies and fashions, transvestism, homosexuality, and verbal double entendres in the pre-Code Hollywood film industry, stating that "the most lavish and exotic era of screen romance was the late 1920s" (Durgnat 1966, p. 77).


Early filmmakers, relying on a preexisting popular repertory, put vaudeville skits, music hall and dance hall numbers, and melodramatic stories into the service of erotic entertainment. The Moving Picture World, an American magazine for cinema professionals, ran cryptic advertisements for the rental and purchase of erotic short film loops as early as 1907. The ads presented not explicitly heterosexual erotica but what the film historian David Robinson called "visual novelties" (Robinson 1996, p. 124).

Through the Keyhole (1901) by the French company Pathé and D. W. Griffith's A Search for Evidence (1903) offered spectators the voyeuristic pleasure of peering through a hole (created by a camera mask) to spy on goings-on in hotel rooms, often of an errant husband. The film scholar Sabine Hake argues that "the keyhole shot seems to lay down forever the sexual order in and of the cinema" (1992, p. 41) and that in early cinema the keyhole shot, complicating ideas of gender and spectatorship, suggests narrative control, even if the look may seem insignificant in comparison to the erotic display on the screen. Other films, advertised with the original German title as Pikanter Herrenabend (literally hot or spicy gentlemen's night or stag film), were produced by the Austrian Saturn production company between 1906 and 1910. Short films of dance hall numbers by the French magician and filmmaker Georges Méliès (1861–1938) often showed scantily clad high-kicking women and earned early French films a reputation for being erotically charged.

By the 1910s flesh barely hidden beneath a fine film of clothing was the signature costume of many popular female stars worldwide, including the two most famous "vamps": the French Musidora (Jeanne Roques) and the American Theda Bara. Musidora, best known in the role of "Irma Vep" (an anagram for vampire) in a skintight black hooded leotard in Louis Feuillade's Les Vampires films (1915–1916). Bara starred as the Vampire in the director Frank Powell's A Fool There Was (1915). Those films are considered the precursors to pre-Code 1930s erotic horror films that featured the male stars Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff and the 1970s erotic horror fantasies of the French director Jean Rollin.

The suggestiveness and fetishistic qualities of the costumes and the ways in which actresses were lit, staged, and filmed became as important as the stars in defining erotic pleasure for men and women viewers. Two great screen stars who bridged the silent to talking film eras—Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo—epitomize the erotic body and its relationship to costume. The historian Gaylyn Studlar (1988) makes this case for many films starring Dietrich that were directed by Joseph Von Sternberg, such as The Blue Angel (1930), Morocco (1930), Dishonored (1931), Shanghai Express (1932), Blonde Venus (1932), and The Scarlet Empress (1934). Greta Garbo's on-screen persona and visual presentation as sculptural form, the film critic Lucy Fischer (2001) has suggested, are equated with the "erotic" category of Art Deco—"kinky, highly sophisticated women dressed in leather trouser suits, insolently smoking cigarettes" as defined by Victor Arwas (quoted. in Fischer 2001, p. 90)—in films such as Flesh and the Devil (directed by Clarence Brown, 1926), Love (directed by Edmund Goulding, 1927), The Mysterious Lady (directed by Fred Niblo, 1928), A Woman of Affairs (directed by Clarence Brown, 1928), Wild Orchids (directed by Sidney Franklin, 1928), The Kiss (directed by Jacques Feyder, 1929), The Single Standard (directed by John S. Robertson, 1929), and Mata Hari (directed by George Fitzmaurice, 1931). The theme of orientalism is especially evident in the erotic representation of Garbo in Mata Hari.


Will H. Hays, a former postmaster general, was hired by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) to draft a self-regulatory code of ethics to standardize images of sex and sexuality, costumes and dance, violence and criminality, and obscenity and profanity because Hollywood wanted to show that American films could be "responsible for spiritual or moral progress, for higher types of social life, and for much correct thinking" (Hays Code 1934). Although some self-censorship of the industry had begun in 1922, the Hays Code regulated explicitly erotic imagery such as "scenes of passion," "excessive and lustful kissing," and "seduction" and banned any explicit representation of homosexuality or bisexuality, including the words gay, homosexual, and bisexual.

Formally introduced in March 1930, the Hays Code went into effect on July 1, 1934. Some explicitly erotic images and content still appeared in films in the 1930s through the 1950s, although they often were billed as morality films that were intended to educate the public about vices and showed nudist beaches, striptease dances, and even childbirth, among other "immoral" activities.

By the 1960s, filmmakers were pushing the limits of the Hays Code and pressure from civil liberties groups forced the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to revise its codes. The sexual revolution of the 1960s in the United States, the advent of underground cinema by artists such as Andy Warhol, the ease of production with 16-millimeter cameras, and the availability of European "art house" cinema changed not only the erotic content of films being made in the United States but also the viewing habits of mainstream American audiences. Most important in the code changes was the lessening of restrictions on films' sexual themes and content. The Hays Code was abandoned in November 1968 for new MPAA categories that rated films in accordance with the suitability of a film for a viewer's age. Further changes were made in September 1990 to eliminate the X rating in favor of NC-17 (No Children under 17 Admitted).


The film scholar Eric Schaefer (2002) noted that sexploitation films and pornography influenced the mainstream industry and redefined erotic cinema in the 1960s and 1970s. The year 1972, the feminist film critic Linda Williams has argued, signals the "transition from illicit stag films to the legal, fictional narratives" with Deep Throat (1989, p. 98). In the same year Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris (1972) received an X rating for its erotic realist content even though it featured the commercial star Marlon Brando. In February 1973 the American journal Film Comment published a special issue titled "Cinema Sex" that focused on representations of sexuality and censorship in both commercial and soft-core pornography film industries.

With the elimination of government censorship in much of Europe by the mid-1970s, the erotic film industry grew, with the French erotic narrative Emmanuelle (1974) heading the list with $600 million in profits worldwide. The year 1976 marked the beginning of the San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. In addition, academic debates about the merits of high and low culture and a reassessment of aesthetics by art historians and film critics (Richard Dyer, Stefan Morawski) and particularly feminists in the 1970s and 1980s (Laura Mulvey, Linda Williams) made the study of erotic art and eroticism in film legitimate forms of academic pursuit.

Gina Marchetti's annotated bibliography on women and pornography published in Jump Cut in 1981 argued that by defining erotic expression, "Morawski sees erotic art as a cathartic, liberating aesthetic experience" (Marchetti 1981, p. 57). Laura Mulvey, influenced by both Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis and writing specifically about scopophilic pleasure (the love of looking), first defined a kind of male gaze of Hollywood cinema, which, she argued, objectified women by denying them subjectivity. She later revised her argument to reconsider the power dynamic of the look and addressed women's pleasure of looking in film. Linda Williams's 1989 work on the relationship between surrealism, popular culture, and commercial horror films and more recently on the dynamics of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and straight pornography in Porn Studies (2004) reopened the debate on erotic pleasure in watching commercial mainstream films.

see also Baker, Joséphine; Blaxploitation Films; Body, Depictions and Metaphors; Censorship; Dance; Dietrich, Marlene; Gaze; Gender Studies; Gender, Theories of; Monroe, Marilyn; West, Mae.


Bean, Jennifer M., and Diane Negra, eds. 2002. A Feminist Reader in Early Cinema. Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press.

"Cimema Sex." 1973. Film Comment, special issue, January-February.

Doherty, Thomas Patrick. 1999. Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immortality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930–1934. New York: Columbia University Press.

Durgant, Raymond. 1966. Eros in the Cinema. London: Calder & Boyars.

Fischer, Lucy. 2001. "Greta Garbo and Silent Cinema: The Actress as Art Deco Icon." Camera Obscura 48 16(3): 83-111.

Hake, Sabine. 1992. "Self-Referentiality in Early German Cinema." Cinema Journal 31(3): 37-55.

Jacobs, Lea. 1991. The Wages of Sin: Censorship and the Fallen Woman Film: 1928–1942. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Koch, Steven. 1973. Stargazer: Andy Warhol's World and His Films. New York: Praeger.

Kyrou, Ado. 1967. Amour-Érotisme au Cinéma. Paris: E. Losfeld.

Marchetti, Gina. 1981. "An Annotated Working Bibliography on Women and Pornography." Jump Cut 26: 56-60.

Robinson, David. 1996. From Peep Show to Palace: The Birth of American Film. New York: Columbia University Press.

Schaefer, Eric. 2002. "Gauging a Revolution: 16mm Film and the Rise of the Pornographic Feature." Cinema Journal 41(3): 3-26.

Stevenson, Jack. 1997. "From Bedroom to the Bijou: A Secret History of American Gay Sex Cinema." Film Quarterly 51(1): 24-31.

Studlar, Gaylyn. 1988. In the Realm of Pleasure: Von Sternberg, Dietrich, and the Masochistic Aesthetic. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Williams, Linda. 1989. Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the "Frenzy of the Visible." Berkeley: University of California Press.

Williams, Linda, ed. 2004. Porn Studies. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

                                              Carina Yervasi


Art films emphasize the artistry, innovations, edginess, and vision of cinema. Cinema began as a novelty, presenting lowbrow entertainment aimed at mass audiences although, even in its early years, filmmakers had aspirations towards the kinds of high art legitimacy that characterized cultural forms that were more traditional. As studio production developed in the United States and Europe in the early twentieth century, avant-garde experimentalists began working independently with film as a way to express different, less realist practices such as cubism, dada, and expressionism. Because of film's ability to combine image, abstraction, and perspective, it became the perfect medium through which independent artists could present alternative and experimental work. These films appealed to the more sophisticated audience who would understand and appreciate what the filmmaker was attempting, who appreciated a film's allusions to other films, and who could engage with the film's complex and often iconoclastic take on controversial material. Finally art films often, though not always, take more chances exploring sexual relations. This last attribute means that the term art film is sometimes a euphemism for the kinds of sexually explicit films shown at burlesque houses.


The art film is most often associated with independent filmmakers. This connection relates to the structure and workings of studio systems of filmmaking in Hollywood and in Europe. Filmmakers working within the Hollywood system, no matter what the quality of their films, had to comply with the self-censoring rules that Hollywood had set for itself. Dealing mostly with issues of sexual explicitness and suggestion, these rules, called the Hayes Code, limited the kinds of images that a Hollywood film could present. Sexuality was represented more by innuendo than by depiction. Even the suggestion that married couples slept in the same bed was curtailed by requiring twin beds in their bedrooms. Because independent films did not usually cost as much as studio films to make and because they did not represent a venture focused primarily on turning a profit, such films did not need to appeal to mass audiences. The filmmakers could therefore take the kinds of chances in style and content necessary to their artistic expression.

Given the ascendancy of the Hollywood studio system in the United States, most art film made between the world wars came from Europe. Many art filmmakers worked in relation to avant-garde movements. Surrealists Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel made An Andalusian Dog (1929); Jean Epstein made the expressionist Fall of the House of Usher (1928); painter Ferdinand Leger fashioned Ballet mécanique (1924); Carl Theodor Dreyer directed The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928); F.W. Murnau contrived the expressionist vampire film, Nosferatu (1922); and Fritz Lang made several expressionist films about Dr. Mabuse (Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler [1922]). Even films considered a part of mainstream cinema in Europe, such as films by Jean Renoir and Erich von Stroheim, became art film in America because their European provenance and languages rendered them less accessible to a U.S. audience.


After World War II, with the exportation of Hollywood films to Europe and vice versa, increasing numbers of filmmakers saw film as art. Younger artists gained access to filmmaking equipment and began making short films with a more personal vision, which often included frank presentations of sexuality. Maya Deren and Kenneth Anger were art filmmakers of the 1940s and 1950s. Deren made Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), a short film strongly influenced by surrealism. Anger made impressionistic short films, including Fireworks (1947) and Scorpio Rising (1964), that explored issues of gay sexuality. Film pioneers such as Stan Brakhage and Frederick Wiseman worked in the 1960s and 1970s. Brakhage's films are often abstract and lyrical, and include explicit material about birth, sex, and death. In films such as High School (1968), Wiseman perfected the cinéma vérité style of documentary filmmaking in which the handheld camera captured real, unstaged events.

American art filmmakers were less adventurous, and although their films often addressed issues of sexuality and death, the more ambitious scope of European art films defined the category. In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, art film houses imported avant-garde films from French filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and Alain Resnais, as well as a series of life/death explorations by Swedish director Ingmar Bergman and art films from Italy made by directors Federico Fellini, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and others. Often working with controversial subjects such as adultery, crime, the holocaust, war, homosexuality, and sexual passion, Godard's Breathless (1960), Truffaut's Jules et Jim (1962), Resnais' Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), Bergman's Cries and Whispers (1972), Fellini's Juliet of the Spirits (1965) and Satyricon (1969), Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up (1968), Pasolini's Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom (1975), Peter Brooks' Marat Sade (1975), and Japanese director Hiroshi Teshigahara's Woman in the Dunes (1964) presented an alternative, often graphic, sometimes shocking, cinema that pushed U.S. directors to be more unique and explicit. As a result Robert Altman, for example, made political satires with mature themes such as M*A*S*H (1970), whereas Martin Scorsese directed Taxi Driver (1976).

These art films from the 1960s and 1970s were joined by films that were less artistic and more explicit, such as Emmanuelle (1974), which used the techniques of the art film to present soft-core pornography. Borrowing some tropes of art cinema, including long contemplative shots without conversation, an emphasis on atmosphere, and creative camera work, these soft-core art films substituted sexually explicit content for the art films' painful explorations of difficult topics.

Since the late 1980s, art films have acquired a more mainstream audience. Directors David Lynch (Blue Velvet [1986]), Jim Jarmusch (Stranger Than Paradise [1982]), Spike Lee (She's Gotta Have It [1986]), and Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights [1997] and Magnolia [1999]) join European filmmakers Chantal Akerman (A Couch in New York [1996]), Pedro Almodovar (Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down [1990] and High Heels [1991]), and Neil Jordan (The Crying Game [1992]) in producing edgy, thoughtful films that locate issues of gender and sexuality as a part of the human experience.


Hiller, Jim. 2001. American Independent Cinema: A Sight and Sound Reader. London: British Film Institute.

Monaco, James. 2004. The New Wave: Truffaut, Goddard, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette. 30th Anniversary edition. New York: Harbor Electronic Publishing.

Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey, ed. 1996. The Oxford History of World Cinema. New York: Oxford.

Rees, A. L. 1999. A History of Experimental Film and Video: From Canonical Avant-Garde to Contemporary British Practice. London: British Film Institute.

Sitney, P. Adams. 2002. Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 1943–2000. New York: Oxford University Press.

                                                 Judith Roof


Cult and marginal films hold an ambiguous status among the public, the critics, and film historians. Subject to any combination of attack, censorship, contempt, criticism, ostracism, rejection, and ridicule, they can paradoxically become the object of attention from critics and academics and adoration from a part of the public. At times subversive, at times crudely normative, cult films are often shunned from the company of serious filmmaking art, and are situated between the abject and the celebrated. They can range from auteur or independent film, to provocation, rehash, formulaic recipe, genre clone, and outright trash. Few films have exemplified so many of these categories at once as much as John Waters's (b. 1946) Female Trouble (1974)—avowedly shocking, mercilessly lacerating motherhood, childhood, the judicial system, sex, and more, all the while being laced throughout with cruelty, violence, and scatology—a work that can only be deemed brilliant by some and repulsive by others.

Although they seldom succeed at the box office, some cult movies receive awards at film festivals, such as Asia Argento's (b. 1975) Scarlet Diva (2000), a film regarded by many as being poorly made and acted—in spite of the cult diva status of the star filmmaker—that exploits the theme of the sexually victimized woman in a post-Sadean universe of degenerate, corrupt, male film industry moguls. Some cult films are both adopted by a community and experiment with groundbreaking filmmaking, such as Melvin Van Peebles's (b. 1932) Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971), which became emblematic of a certain form of resistant African-American cinema.

The term cult originated in the United States and is historically associated with Tod Browning's (1880–1962) Freaks (1932). It designated films deemed purposefully bizarre, shocking, or exaggerated, and then B and Z series, low-budget productions, mostly from the horror or science-fiction genres. It has become a broader but fairly recognizable category, including subgenres such as gladiator and prison films or road movies, and tapping into other forms such as animation and martial arts. In the early twenty-first century, the term has become abusively applied to any commercial film that risks a dubious success at the box office, as if the label cult could offset that result.

In the United States, Hollywood's domination of viewing practices often results in relegating films from other countries to a cult or marginal status that only sometimes becomes auteur. This is especially true of films that comment oppositionally on the sex and gender order. Cult films are frequently willing vehicles for explicit, even brazen, representation of sexual situations and unconventional gender behaviors. Although bold sexual content is often decisive in ascribing cult status (for instance, with the Japanese film In the Realm of the Senses [1976]), a sharp critique of the gender order can result in permanent marginalization. The fate of countless films with artistic ambitions and a social or political message can be directly related to contentious treatment of gender issues, sexual orientation, or exposés of the status of women. Such films often garner critical acclaim, but lag behind in box office receipts.

Even critical success, in the end, may not suffice to counter this kind of marginalization. Deepa Mehta's (b. 1950) Fire and Water are of high artistic value, but their sharp contestation of traditional sex and gender norms in India provoked fierce opposition and obstacles to filming; in India, Hindu nationalist militants staged riots and fire-bombings of theaters. Her films thus acquired a subversive counter-fame in India in spite of opposition, whereas in the West, they remained known only to a small fraction of the public. David Lynch's (b. 1946) films are both cult and auteur—his Blue Velvet (1986) routinely figures in cult film lists and in fact incorporated a cultlike underworld in the plot. Yet Mulholland Drive (2001), one of his most ambitious works, was only a relative success, in part because of his complex treatment of Freudian concepts such as latency, dream transference, and tensions between the ego and the id, but also because of his direct and matter-of-fact treatment of lesbian passion.

When transferred to VHS and DVD, marginal films may have a second life that is more successful. Unknown films can become cult, and cult and marginal films can accede to a higher status. However, taglines and jackets often distort their content, usually by selling sex even if it is absent. Films are thus labeled as cheap erotic exploitation regardless of their aims. A defining U.S. cult movie, Jonathan Demme's (b. 1944) Caged Heat (1974), has thus been misconstrued as a sex exploitation action film with lesbian undertones, although it is much more of a female-bonding escape movie. Now metonymic of the cult subgenre of the women's prison movie associated with exploitative sex scenes, sadomasochistic display, and sexually charged violence, Caged Heat assumed its ambiguous cult status, reinforced by Demme's rise from obscurity to fame, making his early work of interest to critics and film lovers.

An extreme case of marginalization is a low-budget French film made by two women, one of whom is a known porn star. Baise-Moi (2000) was intended to be provocative and shocking, with a nihilistic message about women as victims of violence turning into perpetrators of unbridled violence. But the filmmakers were outflanked by French regulators of the film industry and critics: in the midst of a heated controversy, the film was officially labeled pornography and forced out of mainstream venues into more disreputable movie theaters, all of which rapidly spelled its demise. The film never had a chance at even being cult, in contrast to Bertrand Blier's (b. 1939) Les Valseuses (Going Places) in 1974, which focused on two thugs who spend their time abusing and sexually assaulting women while committing murder and other crimes; yet despite the violent subject matter, the film is considered both auteur and mainstream. The message could not be clearer: committed and represented by men, violent crime is art, but women, especially those associated with the sex trade, cannot step behind the camera to show it without being condemned as deviant. As feminist film critics have pointed out, their role is to figure monstrosity itself, and their mutilated bodies to remain objects of scopic fantasy.

Because of its freedom with utter fantasy, unrealistic social situations, and outrageous narrative components and visual effects, cult cinema has the option to be in open rebellion against the sex and gender order. However, this potential seems overwhelmingly channeled in one direction, showing violence exercised by and against women, in a variety of subgenres. In contrast to women as victims, these films represent them as prone to violent excess. They frequently reaffirm the power of men as the unavoidable focus of desire, with women who are ready to kill for their man (such as in Switchblade Sisters [1975]). Animation, with its connection to childhood as well as the graphic license offered by the distancing of drawing two-dimensional figures, can go very far in juggling gender-transgressive images with very patriarchal codes. For instance, in an animated television series (Gunslinger Girl) from Japan, little girls with skirts, teddy bears, and patent leather shoes become gun-wielding trained assassins. Perhaps grim humor is intended, but the gender message that the girls are both ruthless and dependent is violent and conventional, and the display of children as wounded combatants is deeply disturbing.

Cult films regularly exploit the gender-bending and action potential of women exercising violence but often as an exotic, curious twist to normative plots. Such films on the one hand confront conservative representations of passive women by showing them as strong, brave, and lethally effective; on another level, they may normalize the visual impact of extreme violence directed at and weathered by women. In the best scenario, they expose the complex relationship of women to violence, as both resistant and embracing. In the worst cases, they nurture the cliché that women are unruly, disruptive social forces, eager to commit mayhem, and must thus be controlled or killed. They may also carry powerful psychoanalytical messages that reveal fluctuating identifications with sadism and masochism and their agonistic enactment. Thus Heavy Metal (1981), an overtly sexual animated film with strongly identified heterosexual norms, bills the destroyer of evil as the woman warrior—tough and effective yet dressed in a dominatrix outfit; but before she can show her warrior mettle her naked body has to endure torture and whipping.

Surveying the punishment horror movies mete out to female victims, especially in films of the "woman in danger" type, Linda Williams has argued that films of the 1980s increasingly "[escalated] the doses of violence and sex," showing titillating scenes of purported female desire, to punish the woman even more gruesomely for the expression of such desires (1984, p. 577). Other genres of cult cinema may attract viewers precisely by reversing this process. It may be assumed that the spectacle of female nudity and violence appeals first to male viewers, and primarily heterosexual ones. Yet such scenes and visual formulae need not be merely commanded by the dominance of that male gaze, which Laura Mulvey (1975) famously defined as hegemonic in cinema.

Other types of publics may find viewing pleasure in cult films: the homosocial bonding of women, in the quasi-complete absence of men except as villains or chumps, may appeal to a wide swath of the female public; the representation of strong female characters at once attracted to men and independent from them, might well enthrall heterosexual women; and the eroticism and gender-transgressive strength of female characters would not be lost on lesbian viewers. If, in the horror genre, the woman can be said to be looked at and "fail to look back, to return the gaze of the male who desires her," this is not necessarily the case in other types of cult movies (Williams 1984, p. 561). In strictly female environments (even when blown apart by full conflict, as in prison movies, where it is the independent sadism of the female warden that causes the crisis) male desire and the male gaze can be displaced or even vacated—by a violent act directed at males that silences them. Thus the vexed question of the existence of an autonomous female gaze remains at the center of competing readings of cult cinema and its meanings. Gaylyn Studlar, for instance, has argued for a counter-analysis, examining the "relationship of cinematic pleasure to masochism, sexual differentiation, processes of identification, the representation of the female in film, and other issues" that might be an alternative to the ubiquitous Freudian model (1985, p. 775). Whatever model is proposed, cult cinema continues to provoke viewers and critics to probe the guilty pleasures they derive from it.


BaadAsssss Cinema. 2002. Directed by Isaac Julien. Independent Film Channel.

Baise-Moi. 2000. Directed by Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Ti. France. Nordisk Film International.

Blue Velvet. 1986. Directed by David Lynch. Twentieth Century Fox.

Caged Heat. 1974. Directed by Jonathan Demme. New Concorde.

Davies, Steven Paul. 2001. The A-Z of Cult Films and Filmmakers. London: Batsford.

De Lauretis, Teresa. 1984. Alice Doesn't: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Dirks, Tim. "The Best Films of All Time: A Primer of Cinematic History." Available from

Female Trouble. 1974. Directed by John Waters. New Line.

Fire. 1996. Directed by Deepa Mehta. Zeitgeist.

Freaks. 1932. Directed by Tod Browning. Warner.

Gunslinger Girl. 2002–2004. Directed by Morio Asaka. Madhouse and Bandai.

Hairspray. 1988. Directed by John Waters. New Line.

Hawkins, Joan. 1996. "One of Us: Tod Browning's Freaks." In Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body, ed. Rosemary Garland Thomson. New York: New York University Press.

Hawkins, Joan. 1999. "Sleaze Mania, Euro-Trash, and High Art: The Place of European Art Films in American Low Culture." Film Quarterly. 53(2): 14-9.

Heavy Metal. 1981. Directed by Gerald Potterton. Columbia.

In the Realm of the Senses. 1976. Directed by Nagisa Oshima. Kino.

Kapur, Ratna. 2000. "Too Hot to Handle: The Cultural Politics of 'Fire.'" Feminist Review 64: 53-64.

Lentzner, Jay R., and Donald R. Ross. 2005. "The Dreams that Blister Sleep: Latent Content and Cinematic Form in Mulholland Drive." American Imago 62(1): 101-123.

Mulholland Drive. 2001. Directed by David Lynch. Universal.

Mulvey, Laura. 1975. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Screen. 16(3): 6-18.

Pink Flamingos. 1972. Directed by John Waters. New Line.

Sankovich, Marc, et al. 2003. Defining Cult Movies: The Cultural Politics of Oppositional Taste. Manchester, U.K., and New York: Manchester University Press.

Scarlet Diva. 2000. Asia Argento. Minerva.

Studlar, Gaylyn. 1985. "Masochism and the Perverse Pleasures of the Cinema." In Film Criticism, ed. Gerald Mast, Marshall Cohen, and Leo Braudy. New York : Oxford University Press.

Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. 1971. Directed by Melvin Van Peebles. Cinemation Industries.

Switchblade Sisters. 1975. Directed by Jack Hill. Centaur.

Water. 2005. Directed by Deepa Mehta. Fox Searchlight.

Williams, Linda. 1984. "When the Woman Looks." In Film Criticism, ed. Gerald Mast, Marshall Cohen, and Leo Braudy. New York : Oxford University Press.

                               Francesca Canadé Sautman


It is worth pointing out that eroticism is in the eye of the beholder. For the purposes of this entry, eroticism will primarily be found in representations that might elicit an erotic response in a substantial number of lesbian, gay, queer (henceforth lgq) viewers, mostly—but not exclusively—through images of lgq characters in erotic situations on screen. Although the term lgq film is profoundly unstable, the article will follow the leads of Vito Russo (1987) and more recent queer film scholars to consider onscreen moments through all of cinematic history that might be read as queer—or in this case, queerly erotic—by lgq spectators. In mainstream cinema the history of lgq eroticism in many ways parallels the history of lgq identity—cast in deep shadows; villainized; manipulated to affirm the values of viewers presumed straight. But whereas mainstream audiences have become increasingly accustomed to images of lgq identities onscreen since the 1980s, these same audiences continue to balk at open representations of lgq eroticism.

Hollywood cinema in the days before the now-infamous Motion Picture Production Code (in effect to varying degrees from 1930 to 1968) allowed the creative cinematic imagination some limited space for representations of the erotic and homoerotic, as in films such as Cecil B. DeMille's Manslaughter (1922) and The Sign of the Cross (1932) or lesbian director Alla Nazimova's Salomé (1922). At the same time, some early stag films, such as Cast Ashore (1924) or the animated Everready Harton in Buried Treasure (1925), anticipated the pornography of later decades. But by far the most prevalent queer representation in Hollywood through the 1940s was the stock comic effeminate man—the pansy or sissy whose gender-inverted persona was allowed precisely because of his apparent distance from anything seriously erotic.

Some lesbian spectators in the 1930s and 1940s might indeed have sensed something erotic in the powerful, gender-flaunting women played by Greta Garbo (1905–1990) and Marlene Dietrich (1902–1992). At the same time, lesbian eroticism was regularly employed to suggest sickness in human nature or human society. Mrs. Danver's creepy fetishism in Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940) thwarts normal heterosexual desire in marriage and thus—as with sodomites in the Middle Ages—must be destroyed by fire. The lesbian S/M Nazi Ingrid becomes the very emblem of fascist tyranny in Italian director Roberto Rossellini's neorealist classic Rome: Open City (1945). But the 1940s, in experimental films such as Kenneth Anger's Fireworks (1947) and Jean Genet's Un chant d'amour (1950), saw some attempt at a more honest approach to the homoerotic.

Despite the generally reactionary political climate of the decade, the 1950s witnessed a weakening of the Production Code, with female nudity in period burlesque films and nearly naked male bodies as objects of the erotic gaze in physique films, especially those by queer director Bob Mizer. Popular screwball comedies, apparently based on erotic tension between the sexes and featuring iconic sex symbols such as Marilyn Monroe (see Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 1953, directed by Howard Hawks) and closeted heartthrob Rock Hudson (see Pillow Talk, 1959, directed by Michael Gordon), teased gay spectators in the know with sly homoerotic suggestion. Male beefcake homoeroticism was flaunted in Biblical and period epics such as The Ten Commandments (1956, Cecil B. DeMille), Ben Hur (1959, William Wyler), and particularly Spartacus (1960, Stanley Kubrick).

The sexual revolution of the 1960s and the symbolic beginning of the lesbian and gay civil rights movement with the Stonewall Riots of June 1969 occasioned more explicit depictions of the erotic generally, including the homoerotic, through the 1970s and beyond. This was particularly evident in experimental and art film of the 1970s. Andy Warhol's reels featured explicit male nudes: his Flesh trilogy (all directed by Paul Morrissey: Flesh, 1968; Trash, 1970; Heat, 1972) put hunky Joe Dallesandro's body on shameless erotic display and launched him into cult stardom. John Waters's comic classics (Pink Flamingos, 1972; Female Trouble, 1974) were calculated as a send-up of—and affront to—conventional notions of the (homo)erotic. Queer Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini's films (Teorema, 1968, or the 1971–1974 "Trilogy of Life") represented the (homo)erotic as idyllic working-class vitality that cut through the oppressions of modern consumer culture. European directors such as Derek Jarman (Sebastiane, 1976) or Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Querelle, 1982) used male homoeroticism to high-minded artistic ends, whereas Frank Ripploh's 1981 Taxi Zum Klo pictured various configurations of gay male sex with a bold realism apparently void of metaphorical conceit. Other, somewhat more popular, features about queer characters offered the naked male body as object of a (sometimes pathological) homoerotic gaze: Midnight Cowboy (1969, John Schlesinger), Myra Breckinridge (1970, Michael Sarne), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975, Jim Sharman), Caligula (1979, Tinto Brass), Cruising (1980, William Friedkin), Making Love (1982, Arthur Hiller), My Beautiful Laundrette (1986, Stephen Frears), The Gold Rimmed Glasses (1987, Giuliano Montaldo), and Prick Up Your Ears (1987, Stephen Frears).

Feminist directors Jan Oxenberg and Barbara Hammer emerged in the 1970s with a series of films that celebrated the lesbian body. Several other films—some widely distributed—showed sex between women: The Killing of Sister George (1968, Robert Aldrich), Je, Tu, Il, Elle (1974, Chantal Akerman), Personal Best (1982, Robert Towne), The Hunger (1983, Tony Scott), and Desert Hearts (1985, Donna Dietch). The 1970s and 1980s also saw the rise of gay male (and to a much lesser extent lesbian) pornography in film and then video—in terms of production and consumption, the most substantial display of queer eroticism in film history. But by the mid-1980s, the AIDS crisis mostly overwhelmed queer filmmaking and muted queer sex on screen.

In the 1990s, directors such as Derek Jarman (Edward II, 1991), Todd Haynes (Poison, 1991), Gus Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho, 1991) and Gregg Araki (The Living End, 1992 but see also his 2004 Mysterious Skin) portrayed frankly erotic scenes of sex among men in a group of films sometimes designated as the New Queer Cinema. In the 1990 documentary Tongues Untied, director Marlon Riggs explored the African-American gay male experience while probing the freighted social constructions of race, gender, desire, and the black male body. Although not explicitly erotic, Cheryl Dunye's 1996 Watermelon Woman also considered the complex dynamics of race, sex, and gender while in its way queerly eroticizing the stock black female servant character of the Hollywood golden era. Spanish director Pedro Almódovar served up an impressive array of queerly erotic characters and scenarios in enormously popular films such as Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990) and All About My Mother (1999).

The year 2005 witnessed the release of two films of note for queer erotic representation. Transamerica (directed by Duncan Tucker) followed the journey of a preop male-to-female transsexual and—though by no means erotic—focused the audience's attention on the realities of transgender bodies in significant ways. A love story between young cowpokes set in 1960s Wyoming, Brokeback Mountain (directed by Ang Lee) promised daring erotic candor but barely delivered. Tellingly, the men's sexual relationships with their wives of convenience enjoyed more relaxed and open representation, and the film's dishonest television marketing emphasized these heterosexual relationships to the clear exclusion of the homoerotic, presumably to seduce straight viewers into seeing something they might otherwise find distasteful. Well past the turn of the millennium, then, filmmakers continue to struggle to make—and evade—queer eroticism palatable to a mass audience.


Benshoff, Harry M., and Sean Griffin. 2006. Queer Images: A History of Gay and Lesbian Film in America. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Gever, Martha; Pratibha Parmar; and John Greyson, eds. 1993. Queer Looks: Perspectives on Lesbian and Gay Film and Video. New York: Routledge.

Russo, Vito. 1987. The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies. Rev. edition. New York: Harper & Row.

                                              Gary P. Cestaro