Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Movies Giving A Realistic Portrayal Of Sex

Before proceeding, I have to point out that this is not a posting about explicit sex movies.  In fact of the two movies I am going to mention, though one, has been rated an 18 in the UK it is rated 12-16 in other EU states and U for universal in France, the other has been rated 15 but as low as 11-12 in other EU states.  Sex features in both movies, but it is not the focus and a lot of it is implied rather than observed.  This posting builds on previous ones about advice to young people and also media coverage of the very distorted view teenagers, especially boys, are getting about sex and how this impinging badly on their relationships.  Compared to even twenty years ago it is extremely easy for young people to view explicit sex on the internet, no matter what controls are put in place. 

As was noted on the television programme shown in two series in 2008 and 2009 on Channel 4 in the UK, 'Sexperience - The Sex Education Show Vs. Pornography' the distorted picture that young people get from pornography gives them unrealistic expectations about sexual encounters they may.  It was noted that teenage boys expect women their age to have artificially enhanced breasts of the size shown in such movies and that if their penis is not the size of the men shown then they are inadequate.  In addition, the favoured approaches shown in much pornography especially ejaculation into women's faces is now often perceived by young men as the 'normal' way to have sex and so they bully women their age into doing such things that they (like the majority of women) are uncomfortable with.  As the 'norm' is defined by such distorted portrayals, it gives force to peer pressure to behave in this way rather than actually what is more ordinary, typical sexual behaviour in the UK.  Other impacts are poor knowledge about STIs and a feeling among young people that aggressive behaviour in a relationship is acceptable.  Ironically, heavy sexualisation of our media is meaning that young people are ending up with misogynistic, unhealthy approaches of, say, the 1950s.

Reflecting on this and my recent posting citing Percy Sledge and William Shakespeare as two sources of what I feel is useful information for young people (partly with a thought about how I am going to be called on to advise the 8 year old boy who lives in my house in the future) I began thinking, what would I point to in terms of movies that I felt gave a better impression of what real sex is about.  By this I mean all the aspects like cramp and farting and the fact that people's bodies are pretty ordinary and quirky and yet all of these things do not prevent you from having a great deal of pleasure, a lot of fun and vitally wonderful companionship and shared experiences with someone through having sex with them.  I have come up with two examples I would start with.  Being heterosexual I have gone for two heterosexually-orientated movies and realised just now that I have never thought of a good movie to point a gay young person at.  At a stretch I would recommend 'Go Fish' (1994) and 'Rosebud' (1991) for lesbians, though people might say they are more romance than about sex, but for gay men I would be stumped.  I leave such recommendations to those with more knowledge of gay-focused than me.

So, what are the two movies that I would direct a young man towards to get at least a half-decent realistic view of sex.  Wanting to end on a happy note, I will mention 'The Year's Love' (1999) first.  At the time this was categorised as a comedy in much of the publicity and in that way was as wrongly mislabelled as 'Muriel's Wedding' (1994) had been some years earlier.  'This Year's Love' is an episodic UK movie following the relationships of three men and three women living around Camden in North London.  It is almost a downbeat version of romantic comedies of the time, notably 'Four Weddings and A Funeral' (1994) stretching between the break up of a couple at their wedding to their final reconciliation.  Reviews of the movie often state that the characters 'swap' partners, but in fact it is nowhere as organised as this and the characters intersect with each other, drifting in and out of relationships.  The tone becomes increasingly bitter with only a little bittersweet to lift it at the end.  Some of the characters come off badly, notably, that played by Ian Hart, Liam, suffering a mental breakdown brought on by the difficulties of finding and retaining a partner.  Marey, played by Kathy Burke, ultimately finds greater happiness in singing in a pub band than in any relationship.

This might seem the total antithesis of a movie about sex.  However, sex does feature a great deal as it is a movie about relationships of sexually active people.  A lot of the sex is imperfect and that is actually what sex is about, not the stylised, air brushed view off too much pornography.  There is a warning for young men in the scene in which Liam is trying to conduct oral sex on Sophie, played by Jennifer Ehle (turning her 'Pride and Prejudice' role on its head).  He is equipped with a torch fitted to his head, but despite repeated attempts only elicits criticism from the frustrated Sophie who anticipates perfect tongue action from her partner.  Some women seem to think that this their right.  Anyone engaging in sex needs to recognise that every partner, every time there is sexual contact even in the same evening will function differently.  This is why the movie is so educational.  It shows that unlike what pornography may tell you, even one-night stands do not happen in a vacuum.  Sex happens in a context, almost a framework of not only interaction between the participants, but also fears, expectations and assumptions.  If you do not engage with that framework and work at it properly then no good sex can ever come out of it.  Trying to be anonymous lovers, passing strangers in the night having sex, actually needs far more work and care than simply ending up having a 'quickie' with your long-term partner once the cuddling on the sofa has developed further than usual.  'The Year's Love' might make young people feel that in fact sex is so over-rated that it is not worth the bother, though I imagine even with that dousing, hormones will have something to say about maintaining abstinence.

The other movie I would point to, is more accurately portrated as being a romantic comedy, but even this is leavened by certain aspects.  This movie is 'The Tall Guy' (1989).  In many ways this can be seen as a the mirror-image of 'Four Weddings And A Funeral'.  It is about a romance between an American man (as opposed to an American woman in Four Weddings) played by a moderately successful actor at the time, Jeff Goldblum (actress, Andie MacDowell) and an English woman, Emma Thompson (man, Hugh Grant) whose parts had been predominantly historical (though Thompson had done some comedy she was best known for wartime set serial 'Fortunes of War') up until then.  Infamously 'Four Weddings And A Funeral' is about a set of rich friends very few of whom seem to do any paid work.  In 'The Tall Guy', Goldblum's character, Dexter King is a stage actor and Thompson's, Kate Lemon, a nurse.  The movie charts King's troubles in dealing with his arrogant, bullying boss, trying to escape ex-girlfriends and build a relationship with Lemon while giving into temptation to infidelity with an actress. 

There are comic turns and Geraldine James as a nymphomaniac turns assumptions about her characters, notably from 'The Jewel in the Crown' (1984) on their head.  However, there are touching parts such as when Lemon gives King a toy pig when he has been inundated with toy elephants on his first night of appearing in 'The Elephant Man: The Musical'.  The practical way they get down to sex and that it is a ramshackle affair sending them sprawling all over a flat is wonderful.  It is not unrealistic sex (though it might be a challenge to reconstruct) but it is loving, nitty gritty sex of the kind that everyone has the chance to experience.  This movie shows that sex, especially in a sustained relationship (and King learns the value of fidelity), is what can lift up the kind of ordinary lives we lead.  It is not perfect and it may be messy but it is probably the most wonderful thing we can get up to.

I suppose movies are about escapism for a lot of people, but they cannot but help inform us, especially when we are young about life that we might aspire to.  Even before pornography became so easily accessible and distorted young people's view of real sex, I remember my mother saying that these days, unlike in her youth in the 1950s and 1960s (she was 20 in 1958), a young man could not learn how to kiss a woman by watching a movie.  All he learned these days was to slap her around and leap into bed with her for sex.  Even if you are going to end up having sex there are numerous steps on the way there which there is minimal guidance on.  Even if a young woman is going to ultimately do oral sex on you, generally there is a lot of kissing to tackle first.  I am not saying that movies have to be instructional videos, I am just noting that given how much the media shapes our expectations and behaviours let us have a few more movies that show us something a little more accurate about sexual encounters.

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