David Horsey, LA Times, 2012
“It seems today that all you see is violence in movies and sex on TV…” so says Peter and Lois while they sing the theme song of the hit show Family Guy. They certainly are not wrong. Most of the huge blockbuster movies and TV shows today, such as Bridgerton or basically any DC/Marvel movie, all center primarily on action or sex. It’s very normal to see a flash of a breast or someone completely decapitated (or both at once if you watch horror movies!) But this normalcy, particularly around sex, wasn’t always the case in media. In fact, it’s a relatively new concept in television.
A Personal Story
I remember back in the 90’s, my grandparents would watch movies every night. My grandpa was a huge movie buff and loved everything from action to romance, to mystery and comedy. You name it, he’s probably seen it, and could probably give you a synopsis of what happened and who were the main actors. He was always a cool, non-complicated type, real salt of the earth.
My grandparents had bootleg cable thanks to my in-and-out-of-jail father and his rebellious ingenuity. You see, my dad had installed an illegal black box and had hooked it into the cable lines that ran behind my grandparents house. A little snip here, a little twist there — presto, instant cable with every channel imaginable. And I mean, every channel.
One night when I was about 12 years old, my cousin and I were watching a nice, wholesome movie with our grandparents in the living room. We were all watching Mystery Men, presumably on one of the upper division movie channels like HBO or Cinemax. My grandma was sipping on a Gin & Tonic, her favorite drink, while grandpa was kicked back on the couch with his fingers crossed across his belly, totally relaxed. Nobody was the wiser to the madness that would soon ensue as it was 9:59pm, and the witching hour was fast approaching.
It was no secret back then that bootleg cable had an uncanny knack for switching channels at certain times, usually to something very inappropriate, and not wholesome, to watch with your grandparents. None of us were the wiser on this day though, we were all happily relaxed and enjoying the movie.
“None of us were the wiser on this day though, we were all happily relaxed and enjoying the movie.”
My grandparents owned a huge grandfather clock in the foyer that made a loud chime sounds every hour, on the hour. On this particular night, at 10pm sharp, the chime sounded more like a death rattle. As soon as the grandfather clock started chiming, our wholesome family movie suddenly switched to a movie of a lovely naked woman who seemed to be getting hugged from behind by a lovely naked man, on a train for some reason. This was already pretty disconcerting for our young, virginal eyes, but as the camera panned down her legs also seemed to be kicking coal into the steam engine. Don’t ask me how that worked, but it seemed the Mystery Men were no longer shrouded in mystery. It was all out there, all over Skinemax, and in Dolby Digital surround sound.
My grandmother had completely spilled her entire gin & tonic onto the carpet and let out a banshee scream while the clock continued it’s death bell. My grandfather jumped up from his relaxed position and had the look of sheer terror had washed over his bright red face. He grabbed the remote from the coffee table but fumbled with it over and over, dropping it every time he picked it up again while the lady on the movie squealed what sounded like a mixture of both pain and excitement. In true early sexual deviant behavior, my cousin and I were still glued to the TV, both equally intrigued and excited and confused and bewildered at our grandparents momentary panic.
My grandpa finally got his bearings enough to change the channel while my grandma shouted, “Movie’s over! It’s time for bed! Get to your rooms now!” at my cousin and I. Both of us were shocked and confused at what just happened but we knew better than to disobey grandma and we went begrudgingly to bed, never speaking again of what transpired that night ever again. Not even to each other.
What did we just see? What were my grandparents so scared about showing us kids? I mean Skinemax films are softcore at best, rarely showing anything but a woman’s breast every now and again. I’ve seen movies in theaters with more nudity. Perhaps the fear of us kids seeing a boob on TV was rooted in something deeper than we think.
A Brief History of Sex in Television
I Love Lucy
Hollywood has always had a tumultuous relationship with sex, and the rules for what can be said or shown on television were a lot more strict in the early days. I Love Lucy is a prime example of this kind of censorship, and as history shows, Lucy and Ricky had to fight for their right to portray true-to-life situations on the show.
“Lucy is Enciente” — I Love Lucy, 1952
The first two seasons of I Love Lucy, Lucy and Ricky were still seen on screen sleeping in separate twin beds. They were barely allowed to show anything romantic, apart from a hug here and there or giving a good night peck as they turned out their lights to go to sleep. Despite being married in real life, as well as in the show, couples sharing a bed just wasn’t regularly depicted on television for years. It was deemed too inappropriate by the censors.
Before the 1952 episode of I Love Lucy titled “Lucy is Enciente” there had never been a pregnancy on television, either. The most interesting part of this is that Lucille Ball became pregnant in real life. Instead of taking time off or canceling the show altogether, they subsequently decided to make it a key plot point of the show in a time when they still couldn’t even use the word “pregnant” on television. Thus why the episode is titled with the French word for “pregnant,” — “enciente.” Both Lucy and Ricky had to fight their producers and censors on the show to depict a real pregnancy on television. Eventually the producers caved, and in the 1953 episode “Lucy Visits the Hospital” she gives birth to Little Ricky. In an ironic twist, a mere 12 hours before the premiere of the episode, Ball gave birth to her son in real life, Desi Arnaz Jr.
I Love Lucy was a boundary-pushing show in so many respects. Not only did the pregnancy rock the boat of censorship on television, but before Lucy and Ricky, there were no bi-racial or bi-cultural couples on television at all. I Love Lucy never veered away from controversial topics even when censors and viewers fought against them. Lucy and Ricky were rebels and revolutionists of their era and would be proud to call themselves sexual deviants.
“Lucy and Ricky were rebels and revolutionists of their era and would be proud to call themselves sexual deviants.”
Another fun fact: two early shows that had depicted married couples sleeping in the same beds were Bewitched and The Munsters. In Bewitched, Samantha was a witch and Darrin was a mortal. While in The Munsters, Herman Munster was a Frankenstein monster and Lily Munster was a vampire. Neither couple were entirely human. Did this mean that only non-human romantic partners could sleep in the same beds on television? Or only non-humans had sex at all? It’s interesting to think about and certainly sends a particular message to viewers who are savvy enough to pay attention to the the things left unsaid.
Another hot-button sexual issue that made its way into people’s living rooms was abortion. The television series Maude (1972–1978), created by Norman Year and Bud Yorkin, tackled this issue when most other shows wouldn’t even touch such loaded, political ideas. In 1972, while The Supreme Court in the U.S. was still mulling over the details of Roe v. Wade, Maude Findlay (Bea Arthur) was mulling over being pregnant at the age of 47.
A little backstory: Maude, was a spin-off show of the hit television series All In The Family (1968–1978). Maude Findlay was a supporting character in the show and was the cousin of Edith Bunker (Jean Stapleton). Television dad Archie Bunker (Carroll O’ Connor) was a cut-out of generic character fathers of the time as he was white, working-class, sexist, and conservative. Maude Findlay was sort of the antithesis to this character as she was female, liberal, and upper-middle class. Her character was often lampooned in the series for being a caricature of a “bleeding-heart feminist.”
“Maude’s Dilemma” — Maude, 1972
Cut to 1972 and the series Maude — Maude Findlay, bleeding-heart liberal feminist, who has no problems tackling the status quo and addressing true-to-life scenarios, is a sleeper hit. (Spoiler alert) after two episodes of mulling over having an abortion, Maude Findlay did choose to have it, as carrying a pregnancy at such an age could be detrimental to her life as well as the development her unborn child. It was a radical shift from the political views of the decade and the episode certainly reflected the times.
This wasn’t the only hot-button issue tackled by the series, however. Other topics included alcoholism, domestic violence, and even mental health. While each topic was unique, each was handled with openness, honesty, and grace which was definitely not the norm for the decade. These topics were rarely used as key plot points in other television series’, but Maude chose to go where no other shows would dare step foot. Their radical candor has gained them the great title of sexual deviant as far as I can tell.
The 80’s brought about a very different kind of TV viewing pleasure to America, one that came scantily clad and a whole lot bustier than before. TV executives came to the realization that sex sells, because nearly all major hit television shows of the decade were 30% action and 70% sex appeal. Thus, “Jiggle TV” was born.
The name “jiggle TV” was coined by NBC executive Paul Klein, who used it as a critique of ABC’s newest gimmick — female stars of shows wearing loose-fit clothing or underwear that allowed their breasts and buttocks to move — or otherwise “jiggle.” Shows like Charlie’s Angels (1976–81), Three’s Company (1977–84), and Baywatch (1989–99) were all products of the same marketing scheme — female sexuality — and it worked. The onslaught of “jiggle TV” permeated the pop culture zeitgeist, and was a total flip from previous decades. It was a new era where sexuality was freely discussed, and was often a huge part of the plot of many shows.
Buffy The Vampire Slayer
In another what-in-the-actual-fuck moment of displaying sexuality on television, came unexpectedly from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In the 14th episode of season 2, titled “Innocence,” Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) lost her virginity to Angel (David Boreanaz.) During the course of the episode Angel lost his soul, tortured Buffy’s friends, and almost sent the entire town of Sunnydale to literal hell. The only way to stop the apocalypse from happening was for Buffy to stab her love through his heart with a stake. It was a very bloody, Shakespearean ending for the two star-crossed demon lovers.
Although this show was entirely a work of fiction, the message that viewers received with was that of perplexing confusion. The nuance of this episode essentially told the young audience that sex was bad and you will go to hell for it, you and all your friends. The only way to save yourself is to kill your boyfriend and save yourself from temptation. The orthodox Christian and Catholic symbolism of this episode left many people very confused about what kind of show they were actually watching. Is this an alternative television show, or was it encased in something more religious? Either way, the show went on until 2003 and remained a cult favorite for years after.
Of course there have been many other cutting-edge depictions of sexuality on television and in movies, but these are some of my personal favorites. I have created this pictograph of some of the other shows that have permeated pop culture through the years.
Have you ever asked yourself why we can turn on any channel at any moment and see a violent car crash, someone getting stabbed in the eye with a drain pipe, a police shootout, or Vin Diesel crushing some dude’s skull with his bare hands — while seeing next no male genitalia, or a single female areola? Every time something like this happens naturally or accidentally on live television, the censors jump right in and blur out the infraction and change the rating. Live shows even have to be delayed slightly to allow for quick edits to the transmission by censors and editors, such was the case of Janet Jackson’s infamous nip slip, thanks to Justin Timberlake exposing her on live television to millions of viewers at the Super Bowl in 2004.
Janet Jackson was embarrassed by David Letterman’s line of questioning, post Super Bowl debacle in 2004.
But why is it that Janet had to endure months of awkward talk show interviews in order to clear her name, while Justin got to walk away essentially problem-free and his career untarnished? This, my friends, is called a double-standard, and they exist all around us.
Male sexuality and female sexuality is often seen with this same type of double standard. When men are seen as promiscuous they are told they are “players,” “bachelors,” or “romantics.” When women are seen as promiscuous they are typically labeled as “sluts,” “whores,” and “Jezebels.” These types of name-calling reinforce the binary idea that men can be sexual and women cannot.
The same goes for the double standard of sex and violence on television. On television you can be as gory, disgusting, or humiliating as possible and still only get a PG rating. The moment you show a glimpse of genitalia, you are flirting with X-rated pornography. Sexuality is frowned upon societally in such a way that we can literally see a decapitation by helicopter on television and not even flinch, but a female nipple? Well that is JUST TOO FAR!
There has been tremendous effort to normalize sex and not have it be such a “thing.” Shows like Sex Education (Netflix) and Jane the Virgin (2014-present) have sought to have open and honest discussions about sex and the trials and tribulations that surround it. Shows like these have been working towards a more nuanced discussion when it comes to sexual issues, and are doing some really great work in the process. With these new takes on the sexual paradigm, and the boundaries that are currently being pushed socially, real discussions around sex and what can or cannot be shown on television is getting a little bit more normalized each and every year.
Also, maybe one day we can see Vin Diesel’s junk plastered on the silver screen. A guy can dream, right?
The Madonna-Whore Binary
Society as we know it has existed on a binary scale for as long as we can remember: man-woman, gay-straight, and conservative-liberal to name just a few. Female sexuality has existed on this binary as well, much to the dismay of feminists everywhere. It is easy to see the draw of such binaries as they often leave little room for critical thought or discussion, thus freeing up people from overthinking or having to have some serious really awkward conversations. However, these binaries can often do more damage in society and the social paradigms that exist within.
“Madonna Whore Complex” by Pat Gaudette
Female sexuality has often fallen into binary thinking. For a very long time women were depicted in media as either a completely puritanical virgin, or you were a massive slut. Society often saw female characters in books and films in this rigid dualistic approach to female sexuality. Even females themselves have perpetuated this myth with each other through schoolyard bullying, hazing, or harassment of fellow female students in schools. It is easy to blame people for their behavior, we are all in charge of our own choices and how we react to things, but such behavior has been reinforced again and again through imagery, story-telling, and social norms that have been handed down by generations of stifled, suppressed sexuality.
This dual sense of female sexuality is called The Madonna-Whore Binary and it is in fact, utter bullsh*t. (Madonna as in The Holy Virgin, not the singer, by the way). Just because a woman chooses to have sex once does not make her a whore, and just because a woman chooses not to have sex does not make her a prude. This kind of blind thinking leaves the open and honest expression of oneself and their sexuality a rarity, and often leads to negative behaviors that reinforce these stereotypes. Female sexuality is nuanced and deeply personal to every female-identifying individual and should be treated as such.
Binaries are dangerous in every respect as they often breed negative stereotypes which can lead to harassment, violence, victimization, political strife, and a watering down of the true spectrum of life in which we actually live. Whether it be by race, religion, or class, we don’t have to see the world as simply black and white, that there are different shades of grey that exist between us also. If we open ourselves up to the possibilities of different schools of thought we can all learn how to think more clearly and be more understanding of others and their stories. It doesn’t have to be as complicated as we think it is, we simply have to listen.
“Whether it be by race, religion, or class, we don’t have to see the world as simply black and white, that there are different shades of grey that exist between us also.”