They say that ‘sex sells’, but if that’s true, why has it practically disappeared from modern Hollywood filmmaking? It wasn’t always this way: romantic scenes used to be important narrative drivers in Hollywood, even making up some of film’s most iconic moments. Here’s our take on how Hollywood’s strange relationship with intimacy reflects the declining movie industry, why Marvel films avoid sensuality at all costs, and how streamers and fandoms have begun to take control of these narratives.
They say that ‘sex sells’, but if that’s true, why has it practically disappeared from modern Hollywood filmmaking? The issue is being debated recently, with You star Penn Badgley asking to completely remove intimate scenes from the show’s most recent season, and Stephen Soderbergh commenting on the sexless nature of current superhero blockbusters.
But it wasn’t always this way: romantic scenes used to be important narrative drivers in Hollywood, even making up some of film’s most iconic moments. Here’s our take on how Hollywood’s strange relationship with intimacy reflects the declining movie industry, why Marvel films avoid sensuality at all costs, and how streamers and fandoms have begun to take control of these narratives.
The history of sexuality in American film can be traced back to The Kiss, an 18-second-long film from 1896. In it, a couple shares a brief kiss, which sent viewers and critics alike up in arms. And to an extent, ever since, movies for general US audiences have had to reckon with this ‘taboo’ nature of romantic expression on film.
But there can be strong artistic value to well-done intimacy scenes. As film critic Ann Hornaday writes, they’re “capable of producing a spontaneous physical frisson just as cathartic - and gratifying - as a sudden belly-laugh or a good cry.’ Sometimes this has been pulled off in widely seen movies. Major films of the 80s and 90s, like Ghostbusters and Terminator, were not shy in their depictions.
Dana: “Take me now, subcreature.” – Ghostbusters
The 90s was the era of the erotic thriller. In 1999, Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut questioned the strength of marriage through an exploration of the erotic. 2005’s Brokeback Mountain uses intimate scenes to portray the raw and withheld relationship between Jack and Ennis. And the intimate scenes in 2017 romance Call Me By Your Name are also important because they capture the nuance of a young gay male’s coming of age. In contemporary mainstream Hollywood, there is some eroticism: the 50 Shades of Grey franchise garnered over one billion dollars in revenue, though by presenting a pretty tame version of some of the practices it touched on.
But for the most part, today’s big-budget studio films are practically devoid of sex. Out of the 10 top grossing movies of 2022, not a single one contains an intimate scene. While the original Top Gun is famous for its memorable scene, Top Gun: Maverick distinctly keeps any relations between Maverick and Penny off camera.
Amelia Benjamin: “Mom, I’m home!”
Penny Benjamin: “I thought you were staying at Karen’s tonight.” – Top Gun: Maverick
And while Avatar notably included a love scene between Jake and Neytiri, Avatar: The Way of Water does not show any tail bonding between the Na’vi. It’s plain and clear, the modern blockbuster is also a sexless blockbuster. But why? A big part of the answer is the decline of the mid-budget movie. Previously a staple of movie going, the mid-budget film existed outside of franchise films or glossy blockbusters.
It was marketed to adults, won big awards, and often pulled a substantial audience. Comedies like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, The Hangover, The Proposal, and Superbad performed exceedingly well at the box office next to their high-budget counterparts – and some of them got to pretty racy, or even carry an R rating.
Now however, blockbusters are the sole vehicle getting people to the theater, and a threatened landscape pre-pandemic has become even more fragile post COVID. Arthouse and microbudget indie films are still made exclusively for grown-ups, but the mid-budget film has left the in-person market entirely – it’s often sent directly to a streamer, or turned into a TV series instead. Matt Damon, an outspoken defender of the mid-budget film, stated that studios “...want the most accessible thing [they] can make, in terms of language and culture. And what is that? A superhero movie.”
In order for theatrical releases to guarantee a large profit, studios must cater to all ages, therefore limiting the content able to be shown on screen. Many highly anticipated, but rated R big-budget films like Babylon, The Northman, and Halloween Ends failed to crack higher than the top 30 grossing films this year. And while Jordan Peele’s Nope performed well despite its R rating, it was marketed as a Spielberg-esque blockbuster.
Jordan Peele: “The first notion that I latched onto when I was writing this movie was this idea of making a spectacle, making something people would have to see.” – TODAY
And it remained remarkably family friendly despite its horror elements, further emphasizing that the modern blockbuster is a sexless one. Keeping things at a PG-13 rating is what sells. But if franchise films are so devoid of sex, why do they continue to cast the hunkiest actors in entertainment?
It’s no secret that the MCU is scared of sex. But why? The franchise is known for having notably hot actors and actresses at the forefront of their films. Chris Evans, Paul Rudd, Chris Hemsworth, and Michael B. Jordan have all been named People’s sexiest man alive over the past ten years. And Scarlett Johansson’s introduction as Black Widow in Iron Man 2 was literally designed to be ogled at. But although we know that these actors are the hottest of the hot, the idea of their characters getting intimate, or even displaying physical affection, is more often than not completely pushed off screen.
While Chloe Zhao’s Eternals was the first MCU film to have a ‘proper’ love scene, very little is actually shown. Zhao said:
Chloe Zhao: “It was written into the script because it’s a very mature love story, and we wanted to show them physically loving each other.” – IGN
But the declaration of love between Ikaris and Sersi feels like the ticking of a checklist rather than a moment of true intimacy. The camera is deliberately positioned to ensure that no nudity is seen, and it lasts less than thirty seconds. And if Marvel wasn’t already afraid of sex, the box office failure of Eternals was likely the nail in the coffin.
But this hesitancy wasn’t always the case, as seen in another very rare instance of sex in the MCU, well, before it was the MCU. A scene in Iron Man, released in 2008, notably sees Tony Stark flirt, and later sleep with, a Vanity Fair journalist. While the moment is relatively tame, this scene is a sheer anomaly in context of the MCU. Mere seconds of Tony and the journalist thrashing in bed are the only seconds in the franchise, prior to Eternals, indicating that any of these characters get laid.
Disney bought Marvel in 2009, a year after Iron Man’s release, so this shift makes sense – even too much innuendo doesn’t fit with Disney’s infamously squeaky clean brand. his relationship with Pepper, while one of, if not the strongest relationship in the MCU, is physically displayed through occasional kisses and pecks on the cheek. This leads viewers to view Tony much as Peter Parker does, from the viewpoint of a child who hasn’t yet begun to see their parents as people with real needs and desires. When Captain America receives a sultry kiss in Captain America: The First Avenger, he’s quickly caught, berated, and shot at by Peggy Carter.
Peggy Carter: “You always wanted to be a soldier, and now you are. Just like all the rest.” – Captain America: The First Avenger
This moment sets a clear distinction for the type of romantic expression allowed in the MCU. Agent Carter’s reaction, while representative of her jealousy, also represents that in these films, lust is a bad thing. From there on out, Steve’s lust is nullified completely. He can share kisses with Peggy, and later Sharon Carter, because their relationships are traditional and established. And when he kisses Natasha in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it’s all in service of the mission at hand. So, Marvel subliminally emphasizes that intimacy is only okay in the context of a conservative, traditional commitment.
While sex isn’t totally necessary in the MCU, the franchise’s glaring lack of sensuality emphasizes Marvel’s desire to placate audiences of all ages. Therefore, the ripped actors on our screens become the literal action figures they’re paid to bring to life. By distracting us with vast multiverses and world threatening villains, Marvel smooths over the fact that real human experiences, like sex, love, and sensuality, are deliberately being cut out of these films.
But if we look to the past, superhero films weren’t always this way. Arguably the most identifiable scene from Sam Rami’s Spiderman is Peter and Mary Jane’s upside-down kiss.
Mary Jane: ”Do I get to say thank you this time?” – Sam Rami’s Spiderman
Michelle Pfeiffer’s leather-clad catwoman brings eroticism to Tim Burton’s Batman Returns. There are some modern exceptions, too. Deadpool’s tongue-in-cheek commentary on the PG-ness of Marvel films lends itself to raunchy sex scenes, and Matt Reeves’ The Batman may not have any intimate scenes, but the tension between Robert Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne and Zoe Kravitz’s Selina Kyle is palpable.
Although sex has slowly vanished from mainstream films, it’s not just alive in indie films; it’s actually thriving on television – which ironically used to be far more censored in this regard. Shawna Kidman, a media professor at the University of California notes that “Television for decades had to contend with standards and practices and pretty strict censorship. With streaming, there’s no ratings, no limitations.”
Today shows of all genres have the freedom to tackle conversations about and depictions of sex because the fragmented landscape means shows aren’t even trying to capture all demographics. HBO is infamous for its no-holds-barred approach to nudity, but its shows often explore sexuality as a crucial aspect of the narrative. In Succession, it’s used as a tool to gain further insight into Roman’s messed up psyche, and deep-set insecurities, through his subversive relationship with Gerri.
Gerri: “You know what you are?”
Roman: “What am I?’” – Succession
Big Little Lies depicts the darker aspects of abusive relationships. I May Destroy You provides an authentic and nuanced take on assault through its unflinching depiction of these very real issues. Extending past the prestige drama, intimacy is also a crucial component of many teen shows. Series like Degrassi and Sex Education tackle uncomfortable and taboo topics head on not only to entertain, but also to inform. Plotlines exploring queerness, sexual assault, abortions, etc. both validate the experiences of real teens as well as inform them about the true realities of being sexually active.
Unlike viewing a film in a packed theater full of strangers, watching TV is a private act. And with the rise of streaming, watching television has never been more of a solo activity. Free from the shackles of ratings and the shame of public viewing, sex is free to take center stage on television. While film pushes sex to the corner, television embraces its privacy by blurring the moral lines that Hollywood is so afraid to cross. There’s also another corner of the entertainment industry doing the same: fandom culture. Although the MCU may be sexless, Marvel fans create and shape their own sex-inclusive readings of these characters through fan works. Fanfiction works become an outlet where viewers can inject their desires into the films’ landscapes.
Countless fanfictions exist between Marvel characters, and while some of them are outright smut, others focus on detailed worldbuilding featuring romance plots that allow these characters to feel fully. Some partake in a queer reading of these narratives, exploring relationships between characters like Cap and Bucky Barnes. In this way, fans create their own metatext out of a franchise that doesn’t fully serve them. So, sex in Hollywood isn’t dead; it’s just been forced into privacy.
It seems that sex on film has been deemed unpalatable for wide audiences, becoming something that exists in a private and hidden relationship only meant to exist with the viewer. But as blockbusters continue to shy away, the more streamers, and fan cultures, expand to fill that need for viewers and narratives.
Thor: “Um. Uh. Trying to focus.” – Thor Ragnarok