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Not in the Mood

The Overuse of Sex Scenes in TV and Film


Recent reviews of the Yorgos Lanthimos movie Poor Things all agree on one thing: it is noticeably brimming with sex. Emma Stone stars as Bella Baxter, a Frankensteinish woman who leaves the lab where she was reconstructed to discover the world. The first significant discovery she makes, however, is her ability to make herself orgasm. Sexual liberation turns out to be a central theme as she sleeps with countless men and women for work and leisure. Some have seen this as artistic bravery, a form of feminist storytelling with more bite than Barbie. Others see the sex as gratuitous, chauvinistic, and symptomatic of a larger trend in TV and movies becoming obsessed with ogling. So is this a matter of personal prudery, or are there deeper reasons for why we might be sick of sex scenes?


One common concern is for plot. Sex can drive a story forward, but its representation on-screen also has a tendency to drag. The TV show Normal People, acclaimed for its subtlety and sensitivity, was famous also for its glacial sex scenes, with some episodes dedicating almost a quarter of their runtime to a single tryst. Connell and Marianne’s dynamic was central, yet it was their failures to communicate clearly, their clues and confusions that made the show engaging; the sex, conversely, was a bit pat.


On that point, dialogue tends to suffer in the bedroom. The centrepiece of Channel 4’s steamy thriller miniseries The Couple Next Door has two swingers make love while their partners fail to do the same. In the interests of drawing out this key moment, however, the lusty couple interrupt their kissing with strange remarks, like when the completely nude PC Whitwell tells the mostly dressed Evie Greenwood to “take a good look.” Contrast this with Fleabag, a show very much about love and relationships, but whose second season crescendos, culminates in five seconds of depicted sex, then shreds you apart in its aftermath. Less is typically more: longer, more numerous sex scenes have a habit of interrupting the thrust of the story.


Then again, our attachment to plot might be too clingy. Neatly constructed, tightly plotted shows can be satisfying to watch, sure, but we may rightly be tired of their rather Victorian contrivance. Proper pacing does not mean rattling through the beats of a story at breakneck speed. The awkward and disturbing sex scenes in I May Destroy You or Priscilla help create atmosphere, as well as presenting more honest depictions of sex’s ugly side that might otherwise go undiscussed. Equally, the nicer ones could be enjoyed simply on their own terms. Like the outlandish explosions in a superhero movie, sex scenes may be understood as ornaments to the story, harmless fun for sheer viewing pleasure.


Another concern, though, is that the fun isn’t harmless, and that women are consistently objectified by male directors fixated on showing skin. Nudity seems to be distributed unequally on-screen, with breasts almost commonplace in arty French cinema while other private parts go demurely obscured. Moreover, we might mistrust the depiction of straight sex in a visual medium as altogether pornographic, and a ceding to “male fantasy” (the charge frequently thrown at Poor Things). Meanwhile, the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice is typically cited as a landmark in the representation of female desire on-screen. It would be 25 years before producers inserted sex scenes into a regency drama like Bridgerton, but the former’s complete success without overt raunchiness points to their pointlessness. The reliance on sex scenes could well be a reliance on an outdated male mode of storytelling.


There is certainly something to this Andrea-Dworkinesque discomfort, but it also risks making women into a monolith. Emma Stone was not just the star of Poor Things but one of its producers, with real agency to decide that her story would heavily feature “furious jumping.” Moreover, avant-garde cinema like James Bidgood’s Pink Narcissus or Julia Ducournau’s Titane continues to explore the possibilities of on-screen sex, including its non-penetrative, non-human forms. There’s no need to scrap sex scenes completely, so long as they continue to excite, speak to people’s myriad experiences, and make us consider more critically our deepest desires.


Illustration by Darcey Bateson

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