“Those who are easily shocked should be shocked more often.” – Mae West
I’ve said it before: media is an arbiter and reflector of our society. What we see on screens, big and small, affects the way we perceive the world around us. It also shows us ourselves, or at least a portion of ourselves, obscured and often distorted, but not the less poignant for that. And when it comes to sex in cinema, that understanding bothers me a lot.
Adult conversations about sex were not always quite as taboo in Hollywood as they now appear. In the early early days, before the advent of the Production Code and the systematic repression of anything to do with adult sexuality, films were surprisingly explicit, dealing with teenage pregnancy, extramarital sex, prostitution, or simply two married people sleeping in the same bed. Case in point: Mae West, an actress and writer who always played a woman entirely in control of her own sexuality.
This is one of the women responsible for the Production Code because her films were considered to be so risque. She made her last major film (of only 13 works) in the 1940s, had a brief resurgence in two embarrassingly bad sex comedies in the 1970s and has largely vanished from the cultural discourse. Although no one actually takes their clothes off in her films, they are more fun-loving, more mature and more adult than many of the sexually explicit films that we see today.
In I’m No Angel, West ends up having to defend herself at a breach of promise trial in which a whole parade of her previous sexual partners step in and out of the witness box, attesting to her promiscuity. The film highlights the sexual mores of the time period: that men are allowed to be promiscuous, but not women; that to be intimate with more than one man in a woman’s life means that she is ‘fallen’ and therefore unworthy of protection before the law. That women should not enjoy sex. Does this sound even remotely familiar?
West gives the lie – hilariously – to all that. She’s neither a prostitute nor a fallen woman; just a woman who enjoys men. But the very fact that she is in control of the discourse – that she chooses who she sleeps with, when and why – is a threat to the foundations of the society. She never apologizes for her behavior; she revels in it. But she also loves a man (a very young Cary Grant) – and it is his love she wants.
West was a woman accepting of her sexuality, of the sexuality of others; a woman who loved men. The film depicts her conversing with her maids about what type of men they prefer; commenting on the ‘rhythm’ of Cary Grant, on the inadequacies of former lovers, on the attractions of others. When Grant accuses her of having an affair, she points out to him that he’s the one who failed to behave like an adult: to actually talk to her about what happened, rather than believing the word of another man.
West represents a healthy, humorous sexuality that Hollywood and American society attempted to destroy. The Production Code that fell into place in the early 1930s, the progenitor of the MPAA and dictated largely by the Catholic Church, put sex back into the taboo section. Married characters were stuck in separate beds; kisses could not last longer than a minute; promiscuous women were punished for their promiscuity, often with violence or death. The healthy discourse that West and actors and actresses like her tried to produce were rejected in favor of censorship. In West’s films, no one ever took their clothes off. It was the fact of openly and joyfully speaking about sex – and, implicitly, a woman speaking about sex – that was so dangerous.
Why is all this important to cinema today? Look at where we’re at. We’ve reached a place in cinema where it is not taboo to talk, often very explicitly, about sex. But my problem is that the discussion remains firmly ingrained in adolescence. The way that characters openly discuss sex is the same way boys and girls made uninformed jokes in the hallways of my middle school. Sex is embarrassing, ridiculous – words like penis and vagina produce childish giggles from grown-ups. Senators are apparently incapable of saying those words. Relationships between men and women in mainstream movies tend to take on either dark dimensions of obsession and control (Unfaithful) or rise to the heights of childishness (The Hangover, The Babymakers). What is attractive and interesting about the Mae West films, by and large, is the fact that the conversation is so HAPPY. Sex, in West’s world, is fun and should be fun for all parties.
By placing such obscurity around the open discussion of sex in the media, we pave the way for confusion for both men and women. Rather than viewing sexuality as something to be smiled at and celebrated, it becomes something that happens in the darkness, that holds impossible weight, that determines how we are viewed by our society. Mainstream movies need to break away from the perpetual weight of censorship. Bring it into the open, show it on screen, let us talk about it, laugh at it, be in control of it. Give both men and women the power of their own sexuality and their own desires. The movies can do it. They’ve done it before.