When Blue Valentine was released in 2010 it was hailed as raw, honest, beautiful, and emotionally provoking. It was also rated NC-17 across American cinemas.
That’s a rating reserved for pornographic content. Pornographic. As in full-on, explicit, and with an excess of nudity and sex. This was the rating which the board decided to stamp onto an arthouse film which takes a look at the dissolution of a marriage. Why?
It featured a scene in which the male character (Ryan Gosling) performed oral sex on his wife (Michelle Williams). Partially clothed, I might add, and in the kind of artsy lighting which leaves more to the imagination than not. Still, it seems, that the mere suggestion of a woman enjoying the pleasure of sex is an obscene and offensive thing. The idea that sex can revolve around a woman’s pleasure? Clearly, that makes it worthy of a rating reserved for things that are pornographic.
Both Williams and Gosling took to the press about this matter, deeming it unfair and a direct result of a dated, misogynistic, and patriarchal system.
In one such statement, released by Gosling, the injustice of the situation is eloquently summed up:
You have to question a cinematic culture which preaches artistic expression, and yet would support a decision that is clearly a product of a patriarchy-dominant society, which tries to control how women are depicted on screen. The MPAA is okay supporting scenes that portray women in scenarios of sexual torture and violence for entertainment purposes, but they are trying to force us to look away from a scene that shows a woman in a sexual scenario, which is both complicit and complex. It’s misogynistic in nature to try and control a woman’s sexual presentation of self. I consider this an issue that is bigger than this film.
And he’s right. The Wolf of Wall Street, Hostel: Part 2, and American Psycho were all rated R upon release — despite leaning heavily on scenes depicting drug abuse, male sexual conquest and dominance, violence against women, and general gore. They were all seen as less offensive than Blue Valentine.
But then this is hardly shocking.
Hollywood has a longstanding history of using sex to sell films and then determining the quality of that sex by the male’s ability to come. The woman’s enjoyment is often gauged as a factor of how vocal she is during said sex. You can almost hear the films themselves actually whisper:
“Look. This man is a real man. He is having sex with her. She is very loud. It must be good sex. And now he has come. She must also definitely be satisfied.”
The idea of a woman climaxing in a film is always perceived to be the man’s credit, and it’s often a vulgar, or comic affair at the woman’s expense.
This scene from What Women Want sums up the general use of sex scenes in movies pretty neatly; he’s great at sex, because he’s a manly man, and she’s grateful and loud and fawns over his sexual prowess because that’s her role as a woman.
You don’t need to look very far to see just how deeply ingrained this Hollywood mentality has tainted everything we see — on the big screen and the small. Where the female orgasm isn’t being treated as offensive, it’s simply treated as a joke.
Remember Sex and the City, a show which, at the time of airing, was highly regarded as being empowering to women, pro-sexuality, and open minded? And yet even in this seeming hub of modernity, the female orgasm is the stuff of jest.
This scene features Samantha, who is considered to be confident, sexually empowered, and straight-talking. Many of the show’s sexual storylines revolve around her, and they are always lighthearted and comic affairs: that is the tone Sex and the City has chosen for Samantha, as a woman, exploring her sexuality.
The 2009 flop The Ugly Truth similarly used the female climax for comic effect. There is a scene where the female character orgasms in a restaurant whilst talking to potential clients about soup. It’s loud and out of control and dramatic. Forgetting Sarah Marshall is no different. Here is a film where sex and female climaxing is used as a full on comedic prop with two women trying to be louder than one another with their respective partners, because that’s funny, right?
These examples are not products of nor unique to the comedic genre.
They have not been written with the female audience in mind, or for the female audience’s amusement — although some will argue Samantha’s character in Sex and the City was empowering for the then-novel way it depicted female sexuality. Others will argue against this.
What if we look outside of comedy, at heavier and more dramatic genres?
Sadly, even here, the Hollywood effect has taken place. Think Game of Thrones, Scandal, True Blood, even Fifty Shades of Grey; they all end up with one thing in common, and that one thing is degrading the female climax so that it’s nothing more than a vocalisation of the man being successful in the act of sex.
Fifty Shades, for example, literally shows the female protagonist being whipped to fuel her male counterpart’s sexual desires. It upsets her, and she decides to cut off all contact with him. And then we, as an audience, are supposed to feel his pain and pity him. As an audience, we’re supposed to want her to change her mind.
Game of Thrones is often described as “raunchy” and features plenty of what can be described as gratuitous sex — it doesn’t always add a lot to the plot or character progression, but for a predominantly male audience, why not feature naked female bodies frequently? Why not have men who are virile and sexually strong, who treat casual sex like nothing but a pick me up?
And if this is how the female orgasm is being portrayed on screen, how does that filter down to real life experience and expectations?
Films, TV shows, porn: they all show women in this false light which that means there’s no escaping the perceived reality on screen. All women are expected to climax and come in the same way. It’s not fair on either gender.
As a man, when the screen is off, you might wonder why your partner isn’t being loud and how that reflects on you — aren’t you doing sex right? Isn’t the volume of her voice a direct correlation with how good you are at sex; at being a man? And as a woman, you may feel like you’re abnormal for not enjoying sex as it’s shown on screen. What’s worse is that nobody talks about this, so it’s hard to hard hope things will get better.
Thankfully, there are some more realistic takes on the female orgasm and looking at sex from a female perspective in the mainstream media these days. Bridesmaids (video below) is a great example of a film switching things up and showing the double standards of sex and gender. Trainwreck, another comedy, also takes the novel approach of showing a woman taking control because she wants to be satisfied (God forbid!).
It’s no shocker that these films were both written by women. They were also both huge financial and critical hits, which only shows that there is both a market and a demand for more female writers in Hollywood and the perspective which they can offer.
Are there enough of them out there? That’s a different article altogether.