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New Hollywood sex scene rules cover up same old exploitation

Eilis O'Hanlon


The film industry is so toxic, it now has to employ chaperones to protect young actresses from itself, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

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Ava Gardner

Ava Gardner

Ava Gardner

The Hays Code used to demand that, during love scenes, any actress lying on a bed had to keep one foot on the floor at all times. There was also a fatwa against "horizontal kissing".

Everyone now thinks that was mad, Ted. The counter- culture of the 1960s did away with such laughable prudery.

Now, though, the Screen Actors' Guild in Hollywood has been forced to unveil new rules to combat the sexual harassment and exploitation of actors while filming love scenes on set. There's nothing yet about keeping one foot on the floor at all times, but it just goes to show that everything comes full circle in the end.

The big difference, of course, is that, back then, the rules were to protect audiences' morals, whereas now they're having to be brought in to stop performers being taken advantage of by the industry itself in light of #MeToo.

But in a way, there's not that much difference between the two positions. Both are rooted in a belief that Hollywood cannot be trusted, and there's plenty of evidence to prove that's a wise precaution.

The unmasking of Harvey Weinstein was a reminder that institutions rot from the head down, and it remains remarkable just how much hypnotic power this rotten industry has been granted over us all. We literally carry devices in our pockets at all times that allow these strange people to colonise our minds, and gladly pay them for the privilege.

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Rita Hayworth

Rita Hayworth

As the critic Camille Paglia once said: "Hollywood is a business, a religion, an art form, and a state of mind."

Its biggest names continue to pose as semi-divine moral arbiters, while closing their eyes to the abuses going on around them in order not to damage their own careers.

Even these new rules have been drawn up by an organisation which knew all along that young and vulnerable, mainly female performers were being exploited by networks of repellent producers and directors. They're only jumping into action now because it's been exposed.

It hardly needs saying that anything at all which protects the vulnerable from the deviance of the film industry has to be welcomed, but some of the suggested new rules sound more like bad jokes than serious proposals. One is that there should be "intimacy coordinators" on hand during every sex or nude scene, just as there are stunt coordinators for action sequences, to oversee standards and protocols.

On one level, it sounds sensible. If there is to be nudity on set, it's better that it take place in a controlled environment.

But what it basically amounts to is an admission that the film industry is so toxic that young actresses can only work there if they have chaperones, and even that's probably just a way for Hollywood to cover its own back.

It would be miraculous if, years from now, a parade of actresses don't come forward to detail the way they really felt on these sets now being policed by intimacy coordinators. For that matter, what protections are in place to shield young actresses from the insidious expectation to get naked for every role they're offered? Is that not a form of exploitation in itself?

No one would say to a female High Court judge: "Well, you're eminently qualified for the role, but do you mind doing it topless every Tuesday?"

There is one solution which doesn't appear to have been considered, and that's to have fewer nude scenes in films and TV shows; but to even suggest that is to be immediately accused of peddling buttoned-up Victorian values, rather a rational belief that the depiction of sex on the big and small screen alike has gone from being a healthy depiction of a normal part of life to serving an extremely creepy agenda.

Hollywood sexualises everything it touches. That's the real problem. It's not only shows for adults, but also for teens, which, everyone knows, means for much younger children, who watch them too.

One of the shows which has an intimacy coordinator on the payroll is Sex Education, which is about a boy whose mother is a sex therapist and who sets up a sex advice business with a fellow student at high school. The sexual content is rated by the Internet Movie Database as "extreme".

The children's show Sabrina The Teenage Witch, based on the Archie Comics character, has also recently been revived by Netflix as The Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina. One episode featured a pagan ritual which began with teenagers picking the names of partners randomly from a jar and ended with what one fan website described, approvingly, as "a run through the woods which climaxes in a frenzy of orgiastic carnality". It's not called Hollyweird for nothing.

Netflix may think it's being progressive by employing intimacy coordinators, but this is a classic example of having your cake and eating it too.

The film industry is now having to deal with the side effects of its efforts to desensitise viewers to explicit sexual activity on screen as the line between pornography and mainstream entertainment gets ever thinner, rather than going deeper and asking what's behind that impulse.

In its effort to commodify sexuality, mass entertainment is inherently exploitative. Maybe that's what really needs to be tackled, but that would require some humility and imagination. Instead, these new rules are a last ditch attempt to show that self-policing works, and when did it ever?

Its all very well having intimacy coordinators shuffling about on the sidelines, but the casting process has been professionalised for decades now, and it still hasn't stopped powerful Hollywood alpha males coming on to young women with the explicit understanding that they can ruin your career if their advances with menaces are turned down. In the early days of silent Hollywood, the LAPD even used to be in studio to ensure young women were not mistreated. That didn't work either. It still needs people to risk it all by complaining about those on whom they're reliant for work.

If Camille Paglia is right, and Hollywood is a religion every bit as much as it's a business, then it's like accepting that the Vatican, riddled with abusers and those who covered up for them for decades, should be allowed to pretend everything's now fine by employing a few people with a made-up job title to keep an eye on paedophile priests.

Hollywood made a few sacrificial offerings to appease uneasy worshippers after #MeToo, then went back to doing what it always did.

It should have been an opportunity to rethink how women are treated in the round. Instead, they've merely formalised exploitation by now drawing up contracts to specify exactly which body parts will appear in each scene, down to such absurd specifications as - no joke - "side breast but no nipple" and "three quarters of the buttocks". As a result, they can now turn around to actresses and say: "See? You agreed to it. It's here in black and white, with your signature."

When increasingly explicit nude scenes remain ubiquitous in Hollywood, what choice do they really have, intimacy coordinators or not?

There have always been other ways to suggest sensuality on screen. Even Paglia, an apostle for the sexual in art, bemoans "how false and manufactured sex has become" in filmmaking, saying: "There's no real eroticism anymore."

The women she idealises were the modern equivalent of pagan goddesses - the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth - and she deplores how young women no longer have equally mysterious idols in the bare-all age of Instagram.

"The current surplus of exposed flesh in the public realm has led to a devaluation of women," she declares. "If women want respect, they must do their part to raise their own value. Stop throwing it away on empty display."

But that's not easy to do when Hollywood demands it as the price of entry.

A few new rules won't change that, much less dilute the film industry's mania for selling "orgiastic carnality" back to a mesmerised audience as liberation.

Sunday Independent


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