J. & C.'s Movie Reviews

Our Notes on Movies Made Public

On Sex in Movies

Posted by J on July 23, 2008

You regular readers of this site already sense that we have a strict standard about theatrical depictions of sex, or any romantic affection for that matter.  The “strictness” you sense is actually greater than you might think.  It is hidden to a degree by what is not seen here, that is, all of the movies we have considered watching but did not.  Almost all the job of censoring in our household has been completed before the “Play” button has been pushed and the review written.

Now we know others far stricter than ourselves, and we might even agree with them at times.  If it came to it, if a man or women were to err one way or the other in regard to depictions of sex and romance, he or she should err on the side of avoidance.  Joseph ran away at Potiphar’s advance, while Samson let Delilah entice him and the young man in Proverbs 7 had his life destroyed by the harlot.  There is little difference in the nature of temptation between a real person and a virtual presentation of one, such as we find in film.

Sex and romance, however, are treated far more liberally by Christians we know when placed in something honored with the label “work of art.”  The thinking goes that a movie presents something unreal, in that two actors are merely pretending, and that a movie may present a love scene but give a proper moral presentation of it (e.g., adulterous sex as destructive sex).

And, no surprise, the Bible is frank in talking about sex.  We have heard unbelievers squeal with delight in talking about the hypocrisy of prudish Christians who don’t know that their favorite book contains an entire book on eroticism (the Song of Solomon).  So, taking the Bible as a standard for story-making, it appears that there is something to credible, aesthetic representations of sex, sexuality, and romance in film, these all being essential parts of our reality and God’s creation.

Yet several problems exist for those who prefer liberty to strictness.  There is, for instance, a great difference between the medium of film and the medium of books.  These are not just different technologies that have different effects on the brain, but the mode of representation is wholly different.  The actions of a story in a book hide behind the books’ words, which do not necessarily translate to explicit images in every reader’s mind.  We may read that so-and-so “knew” so-and-so in the Bible, but only the perverse are intent on imagining what that looked like.  Film, by contrast, presents a visual image so that nothing is hidden if a filmmaker does not want it to be.   You do not have to read about so-and-so “knowing” so-and-so; the director can just show it to you.

The Bible is clear that nakedness is shameful when displayed to the wrong kinds of people or in the wrong context.  Adam and Eve covered themselves with fig leaves immediately after the Fall, and Noah’s sons covered their eyes from seeing their drunken, naked father. It is hard to imagine any movie nudity (or even partial nudity) that is not shameful for both the actor and the viewer, who are both anonymous to each other.

This problem extends beyond partially explicit or explicit sex scenes, however.  Suppose we had a Christian movie company that wanted to make updated versions of great movies.  This company employs actors who are Christians, and one of the scripts calls for a dramatic kiss between the hero and the heroine.  The actor playing the hero happens to be a married man.  Now what should his wife think of the script that demands her husband not only pretend to love another woman, but also to show that love physically?

Most people tend not to think in these terms, instead passively accepting what the screen tells them, that the actors on-screen are simply good-looking actors playing fictional people who do fictional things.   But actors are real people required to physically do all the things they must in a movie.  That may include passionately kissing a woman who is not even an acquaintance.  Such an act — even if it were pretended on-stage — would not be tolerated in good churches.  And, at best, it would be very weird to stare at two strangers sharing a scene of any degree of physical pleasure.  But this is actually what we do when watching movies.

Our general thinking goes like this: we wouldn’t want either of us to pretend to love somebody else physically (or emotionally for that matter), especially when it’s being recorded for all of posterity to remember.  Not even a peck on the cheek.  So what are supposed to think and feel when we see two real people — not just characters in a movie — being recorded while pretending to have sex?  Or even pretending to be physically affectionate?  It seems like it should be repulsive.  Would you want your wife, or your daughter, or your mother, in such a scene with another man?  Wouldn’t you squirm if you watched such a scene with them?

So that we are not accused of putting heavy burdens on others, however, we are simply not sure that acts of viewing any onscreen physical affection are always and everywhere sinful.  Most might be, but you know better than we do your motives towards God and fellow man.  It does seem better to be strict rather than loose on this issue, however, and that means that many movies praised by the league of contemporary film critics and moviegoers will not even be mentioned here.

Postscript: There are ways that sex can be effectively used but hidden in a movie.  Consider a scene from the older version of 3:10 to Yuma.  The evil Ben Wade sets out to seduce the female bartender, and when she looks deeply into his eyes, we understand what is going to happen.  Then there is a cut and the next shot shows them walking out of a private room.  We know what has happened without asking, the needs of the plot are accomplished, but nothing explicit has been put before our eyes.  Obviously, most movies these days do not go for tact, even though sex and nudity are never necessary to a visual narrative.

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5 Responses to “On Sex in Movies”

  1. Polites said

    Great commentary, J&C. I tend in the same direction. In fact, when our family is watching a movie, someone will invariably grab the remote, ready to skip scenes, if it looks like one of those gratuitous scenes is coming (though we’re discrete and try to be cognizant of the fine print under the PG, PG-13, or R, we’re sometimes surprised). Just typing that last sentence made me think of another question. Do you avoid R-rated movies? Sometimes an R is milder than a PG-13, it seems to me. I guess it depends on what the rating is moved to R for, like exceeding the count of curse words.

    Here’s another thought to chew on, interacting with your example of actual actors doing actual physically objectionable things in the name of art. How would that objection change if the actors were simulated electronically?

  2. Polites said

    By the way, I would really be interested in your take on the movie Bella. It was remarkably devoid of that which you mention in this article and I found it a worthwhile viewing, as did my lovely wife.

  3. J. said

    Thanks for the recommendation. An R-rating doesn’t mean anything except to keep kids under 17 who are by themselves out of the theater, assuming that the theater manager is vigilant (not likely). R is likely to be “filthier,” but it is not always true that R is worse than PG-13. We don’t pay attention to these ratings anymore and instead we go to the Kids in Mind website.

    As for cartoon actors instead of real ones, certainly that could avoid one of our objections. Obviously if the cartoons are doing something pornographic, that’s still pornography. Though actors and a film crew aren’t involved, a team of animators is. CGI figures engaged in light physical affection seem inherently harmless. Of course, the closer an animated figure looks like a real human, the more suspicious and less sympathetic people are of them. We tend to feel weird about a robot that looks very like a human but, obviously, is just a little bit off. Same thing with CGI. I recall seeing that Zemeckis Christmas movie with Tom Hanks as a train conductor; the characters are quite creepy. Tellingly, movies like that rarely make a profit. So maybe we won’t ever see much of animated actors.

  4. […] July 26, 2008 by Polites | No comments Our general thinking goes like this: we wouldn’t want either of us to pretend to love somebody else physically (or emotionally for that matter), especially when it’s being recorded for all of posterity to remember. Not even a peck on the cheek. So what are supposed to think and feel when we see two real people — not just characters in a movie — being recorded while pretending to have sex? Or even pretending to be physically affectionate? It seems like it should be repulsive. Would you want your wife, or your daughter, or your mother, in such a scene with another man? Wouldn’t you squirm if you watched such a scene with them? ~ J. & C. […]

  5. shanewarn said

    hiii i l;ike it

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