Why would anyone want to hang on to the dated, exploitative concept of the explicit sex scene? How often are these essential and who enjoys watching them?
Directors UK has updated its “directing nudity and simulated sex” guidelines, suggesting that those working in film and television need to think creatively in lockdown (for example, suggesting sex rather than explicitly depicting it and using technology to fake it). The guidelines also advise film-makers to query whether certain sex scenes are necessary.
It’s a tricky area. When, like me, you’ve written on this subject before, you start feeling as if you’re morphing into a finger-wagging cultural puritan. Still, something is wrong when, even post-MeToo, a branch of the arts has enforced nudity/sexual stimulation practically written into the job description. Even in the over-sexualised music industry, pop stars get to keep a few clothes on. Nor would on-set social distancing stop this, because it isn’t just about pretend sex, it’s about levels of exposure. An actor, male or female, could feel just as stressed alone and naked in a scene as they would in a clinch.
As I find most sex scenes an eye-roll, I can always fast-forward. What’s unbearable is the thought of a young actress on a film set, shivering with fright, dreading having to perform an explicit scene. There’s a big difference between “creatively challenging” and “humiliating”. Moreover, too often such scenarios are about structural power and societally endorsed misogyny, as if to say: “Look how we reduce even the most talented and beautiful women to sexual meat.” Nor does the artist have much real choice, unless “do it or lose the job” is a choice.
What keeps driving this? Perhaps most female viewers are less interested in sex scenes because we’re much less likely to watch porn. Thus we’re not conditioned to feel “entitled” to nudity or sexual stimulation. Just as film and television directors are overwhelmingly male, so too, it seems, is viewer-entitlement to sexual content. Put bluntly: sexually driven men are giving other sexually driven men what they want and women just have to put up with it.
This is where the “brave libertine versus shrieking prude” argument crumbles. This isn’t “storytelling”, it’s the normalisation of exploitation. It’s also lazy. Exactly how “creative” is it to force actors to remove their clothes and simulate sex to liven up a dreary film? We all know that the vast majority of explicit sex scenes are unnecessary. There’s nothing full nudity can convey that a naked back, shoulder or thigh couldn’t express as convincingly. It should be possible to portray unbridled passion without showing a couple rutting.
If this is your directing or screenwriting job, then get on with it and stop expecting actors to get butt-naked to distract from your shortcomings. With lockdown, there’s an opportunity to reset boundaries about sex scenes and viewer-entitlement to them. Let’s take it.
Uncomfortable TV viewing is a luxury migrants can’t afford
Why don’t people want to see footage of migrants attempting to cross the Channel in boats? The BBC received more than 8,000 complaints about a report on its breakfast news show this month, where reporter Simon Jones broadcast live from a boat that pulled up alongside a dinghy containing migrants, some of whom said they were from Syria. The migrants were described as struggling and trying to bail water from the boat.
Many complainants found this news item offensive and insensitive. In one way, I find it worrying too. Namely that there’s always the danger that this kind of thing becomes “good telly”, with viewers becoming numb to the idea of real human beings at peril.
Apart from staying alert to our own desensitisation, what is the alternative: how else could the facts be conveyed? Do children have to keep dying, washed up on beaches, before it shocks people awake to what’s going on? Is the suffering of desperate migrants to be censored and restricted because it upsets someone’s digestion?
Elsewhere, there have been complaints that TV crews are only reporting and filming, rather than pitching in and helping. This specific BBC crew stayed with the vessel until the occupants were picked up by the UK Border Force. Regardless, journalists and camera crews are already helping in the most powerful way: by recording what is happening and ensuring the truth gets out to the public.
The Stones have got cleaning up licked
Mick Jagger, Mickey Mouse. It’s increasingly difficult to see the difference. The Rolling Stones continue their process of ultra-branding quasi-Disneyfication by planning to open a shop in Carnaby Street, London, with merchandising company Bravado. It will sell Stones-related clothing and merch, including Baccarat glassware engraved with the band’s tongue logo. There’ll also be a glass floor of Stones lyrics and the simultaneous launch of a colour called Stones Red and – don’t fret! - a groovy collection to go with it.
Obviously, touring has become difficult, but I’m not sure the Stones qualify as in need of lockdown aid. One might even make an argument for them using the proceeds from this shop to help out less wealthy musicians.
Of course, it’s not just the Stones slapping their tongue logo on everything - all acts flog merchandise as hard as they can and many need the proceeds to keep going. However, the Stones’ shop takes it beyond musical nostalgia into shameless theme park/tourism territory. The omnipresent tongue could start reminding people of the shops in the Disney parks, where every last thing is stamped with Mickey Mouse ears, including, you come to suspect, your own brain. Nobody “out-merches” Disney but the Stones are giving it their best shot.
• Barbara Ellen is an Observer columnist