Does Sex Make Movies “Authentic”?

I have a quick word on this take on movies and culture from Freddie deBoer. I agree with 99% of what he says, and have tried at various times to make the point he makes. But I do have one issue with his thinking, and that is his notion that a film without sex is hollow and inauthentic. I think the equivocation of sexuality with authenticity in movies is actually a terrible idea that is ironically responsible for some of the dysfunctions in Hollywood that Freddie picks up on.

Freddie is hardly alone in supposing that sexlessness means inauthentic. Most respected film critics would agree, and most successful film studios seem to as well; for a long time there’s been a disproportionate amount of sexuality in Oscar-contenders, compared to the high grossing blockbusters. Sexuality means seriousness, so goes the thinking.

I see immediately 4 problems with this idea:

1) Healthy people usually devote a comparatively small amount of their life to their sexuality. The idea that a film without sexual activity is “inauthentic” should trigger the response, “Inauthentic to what?” 

One of the major realizations of adulthood is that what Hollywood and pop culture think of as “sex” doesn’t really exist. If you go into marriage expecting that part of your life to look like the hot and steamy stuff you’ve seen onscreen, you will be incredibly disappointed, and such disappointment can indeed threaten relationships. Cinematic sexuality is not authentic to begin with. It’s not really designed to be. It’s designed to be sexy: titillating, exciting, and perhaps more than a little addicting.

I’m reminded here of the stories about the lead actors of “50 Shades of Grey” and their offscreen awkwardness, frustrations and even hostility. There’s something about the exploitation of sexuality for public enthrallment (read: money) that actually undermines the healthier sexual impulses of real people. In much pop culture, sex is the center of existence for everyone. In real life, sex is only the center of existence for desperate, sad, lonely people.

2) Most of the movies that spend a lot of time “exploring” sexual issues are gross-out comedies, not profound artistic pieces. 

Admittedly, this point may not have been true 30 years ago, but I think it’s true now. Equivocating sexuality to authenticity may sound good in theory, but if you look to sexualized films for existential meaning and aesthetic weight, you’re going to be frustrated. The overwhelming majority of films most fixated on sexual themes turn those themes into set ups and punchlines. If there’s anything meaningful to say, it almost always comes in the form of a half-baked, whimsical moral in the conclusion, usually about the very cliches that Freddie talks about (“Everyone is special,” “You shouldn’t be mean to people,” etc etc).

3) If truly authentic films depict sexuality, most of the greatest movies of all time are at least somewhat inauthentic. 

Citizen Kane, The Godfather Part II, Vertigo, To Kill a Mockingbird, Lawrence of Arabia, The Sound of Music–all these films would, by this standard, be inauthentic. Obviously that’s not a position anyone would want to seriously take. But flip the equation around. Accepting that these are indeed existentially “authentic” films, what makes them authentic, in the absence of overt sexual themes or scenes? It’s an odd question, because the answer really is: Well, everything! We don’t doubt the profundity of these stories. It’s self-evident. The fact that these movies are “sexless” doesn’t at all mitigate their effect on the imagination, precisely because an emotionally healthy audience doesn’t look for authenticity merely in sexuality.

It would be a strange person indeed who came away from It’s a Wonderful Life frustrated that the film didn’t really probe into the images and inflections of George Bailey’s bedroom. Most people would agree that such a response would be not only wrong, but troubling. The very modern, very Freudian, and also very market-driven notion that all humans are walking around obsessed with sex is merely a projection of our culture’s anxiousness to justify itself.

4) Perhaps it is not the superhero movies that are remarkably sexless. Perhaps its the recent corpus of Hollywood that is remarkably sex-obsessed.

My theory is that audiences flock to superhero films not because such experiences are blissfully sexless but because they are, however inconsequential, 120-minute reminders that courage and intelligence and goodness are real things, not just euphemisms. Perhaps the Avengers and Star Wars are refreshing breaths in the digital age that has monetized sexual addiction and dysfunction more aggressively than any other generation in human history. Perhaps “sexless” stories are not sexless after all, but are actually stories that speak to our sexuality by pointing us to life beyond passion and pleasure. Perhaps, at the end of the day, pop culture’s lack of authenticity is traceable to its insistence on a hedonistic, flawless, pregnancy-free existence.


Author: Samuel D. James

Believer, husband, father, acquisitions editor, writer.