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    Safe sex scenes

    SEX / Exploring the female body in Hollywood by tracing the making of sex scenes, the toll it takes on those involved, and what it means for women in the real world.
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    Country: USA

    For most of its history, Hollywood has been globally gaslighting the world, exporting the lie that the male gaze is somehow always benign or «neutral,» when of course, nothing could be farther from the truth. Fortunately, we now have Kristy Guevara-Flanagan’s (Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines) eye-opening Body Parts, which world-premiered in the Spotlight Documentary section of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, to unpack both how we got to this patriarchal cinematic state and how those in the camera’s line of sight are now shooting back. Drawing from a sweeping range of classic film clips and knowledgeable voices on the subject of simulated sex onscreen – from film scholars to intimacy coordinators to Jane Fonda – the doc is, sadly, proof positive that it didn’t have to be this way; the «inevitably» of female objectification in the movies actually the result of a highly systematic manmade plan.

    Body Parts, a film by Kristy Guevara-Flanagan
    Body Parts, a film by Kristy Guevara-Flanagan

    Era to era to era

    As we learn right from the start of Body Parts – going all the way back to the Roaring Twenties (and 30s), which were the «sexiest time» for female characters. These were the days when the likes of Bette Davis, Garbo and Mae West ruled the box office along with the silver screen. In other words, had real power. And they used that monetary mojo to wield control over their roles, embodying professionally accomplished women (from doctors to aviators) and shamelessly sexually assertive (see my personal number one Hollywood heroine Ms West). And yet these take-charge stars could only portray their strong characters because of the talkies’ screenwriters. Indeed, Pre-Code Hollywood skewed 50-50 female-male regarding the scribes (a far cry from the gender disparity we’re still battling in writers’ rooms today). Alas, cut to Will H. Hays to put an end to all that «immoral» equality.

    And enter in the era of female demonization – particularly when it came to Black and Asian characters- rendered hyper-sexualized and wicked. After all, they couldn’t be allowed to pose any threat to the white leading ladies (and, of course, couldn’t actually be the leads to the white male stars as interracial marriage was a big no-no both onscreen and off). Until that is, the Swinging Sixties swung the pendulum back again.

    Indeed, the 60s and 70s, according to one white female scholar, were the period when American purity collided with European libertinism – embodied by none other than the now octogenarian (cryogenically preserved?) Jane Fonda, who went from ingenue to Barbarella (and Henry’s daughter to Roger Vadim’s wife). And yet, far from celebrating the women’s lib moment, Hollywood instead decided to double down, confining sex to a «homosocial» experience – a means for men to impress other men with conquests (see 1971’s Carnal Knowledge); the onscreen women nothing more than ornamental notches on a chest-thumpers’s belt. As another (male) scholar puts it, we went from «romance without sex» to «sex without romance.»

    That said, the meteoric rise of blaxploitation films did open the door for feminist heroes (Foxy Brown!) – but also for harems and «ho’s.» And the lily-white Bond series likewise chose to make history/cash in on the times by casting its first Black Bond girl, Trina Parks; who takes pains to point out that her character Thumper in Diamonds Are Forever had to be killed off since Bond couldn’t (and still can’t it appears) end up in an interracial relationship. So it seems the Hays Code never truly went away.

    For most of its history, Hollywood has been globally gaslighting the world

    The good news

    That’s the bad news. The good news is that, slowly but steadily, journey-women actors throughout the movie biz (like frontline workers everywhere) are getting organized/unionized and demanding to have their say. Most notably, and perhaps not so surprisingly, thanks to MeToo, when it comes to onscreen sex scenes. (That said, the SAG nudity rider is both ridiculously specific – «frontal nudity, no nipple» – and still subject to change without warning on set.) This, in turn, has spawned an entire female-led profession of intimacy coordinators.

    Though perhaps more surprising is the fact that we can thank none other than accused harasser James Franco in part for that. According to David Simon and a veteran TV actress named Emily Meade, in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against The Deuce co-star, Simon asked everyone on his set to speak up with any concerns. And to his credit, the household name showrunner actually listened and then took the advice of Meade, at the time a little-known twenty-something playing a prostitute. Thus Hollywood history was made by hiring the industry’s first intimacy coordinator, which worked out so well that HBO now employs them on every production.

    And their work goes far beyond choreographing sex scenes to include boot camp-style workshops. «Romance, passion and dominance” are just three highly detailed topics one intimacy coordinator covers in her class. Of course, the dominance theme might present its own set of problems. One scholar notes that «kissing into submission» is a long, troublesome Hollywood trope. As are rape scenes – overused as a means to create strong female heroines «out for revenge.» We’ve gone from punishing women for being strong to punishing them to make them strong – without questioning Hollywood’s obsession with portraying women being punished in the first place.

    On the upside, feminist advocacy also now extends to the historically dismissed profession of body doubles – at least according to the «Body Parts Model President» interviewed in the film. Also interviewed is Shelley Michelle, Julia Roberts’ unheralded body double for Pretty Woman. And even Marli Renfro, Janet Leigh’s for the Psycho shower scene. (Who over six decades later still seems rather miffed that she wasn’t acknowledged, let alone thanked, in Leigh’s autobiography.) However, no one pretends that body doubles are the solution to avoiding uncomfortable on-set situations – as unless you’re an A-list actress, you’re likely out of luck (and expected to get naked).

    Body Parts, a film by Kristy Guevara-Flanagan
    Body Parts, a film by Kristy Guevara-Flanagan

    Few have a choice

    This brings us to the (male) visual effects artist whose job is editing blemishes, smooth post-natal bellies, and generally making (mostly female) actors look younger. Interestingly, this dedicated fixer seems truly conflicted about his job – forever wondering if he’s part of the problem of setting unreachable, self-esteem-destroying expectations for women and girls everywhere. (As transgender actress Alexandra Billings would later quip, «Penises are pornography, tits are art.» Yet another flimsy excuse to objectify the female form while keeping the male anatomy safely tucked away, so to speak, from that same soul-crushing scrutiny.) And even more discouraging to the VFX expert is the realization that the actresses themselves are all too quick to unquestionably buy into this devil’s bargain.

    Then again, few have a choice. «In Hollywood, exclusion is part of the story,» as one (queer Black) scholar notes. But the fact that women of all shapes, sizes and identities are finally being both seen and heard undoubtedly counts as a sign of progress, however incremental. (That said, Rose McGowan would much prefer to «cut off the head of power» rather than keep «biting around the ankles.») In fact, as more women create and green-light movies and TV series, the power is starting to shift. And groundbreaking actresses like Billings and Lauren «Lolo» Spencer, who made history as the first African-American disabled female lead, are upending the tables on the male gaze by demanding that their sex lives be recognized. On their terms. Which in turn is opening up the aperture. Creating a Hollywood prism in which even male viewers are unconsciously finding themselves looking through a wider lens, from the perspective of a new and improved female gaze.

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    Lauren Wissot
    Lauren Wissot
    A US-based film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer.

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