The Mirror Up to Nature: Sex & Nudity On Stage & Screen

As a director of both film and stage, I have directed several scenes involving nudity and simulated sex scenes. I find them completely justified, and would argue that they play a vital role in the art we produce and consume.

As Hamlet says:

“…the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the
first and now, was and is, to hold, as ’twere, the
mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature,
scorn her own image, and the very age and body of
the time his form and pressure.

In other words, one of the primary purposes of art forms like television, film, and theatre, is to reflect nature as we artists see it, and as it really is. Some people — perhaps you — want their art as pure entertainment, and only require it to distract and entertain. These people want relatively mindless entertainment that doesn’t ask much of them, and is escapist enough that it doesn’t bear any resemblance to their own lives — or even any real lives on earth. This kind of entertainment is often considered wholesome and family friendly. Yet, some of this work transcends the mundane and blithe entertainment some families love, and actually educates and enlightens its audience. This brand of wholesomeness can be found in the work done by Pixar. It obviously has no nudity or swearing, and yet, it is smart and thought-provoking. Movies like Wall-E ask its audience to think about the earth, and how we treat it, and mildly condemn our sedentary consumerist lifestyle. What’s more, it does all of this without the use of very many words. Like the later Pixar film, Up, Wall-E allows the viewer to watch action unfold and tells its story wordlessly, trusting in the intelligence of the audience, and in its own ability to educate AND entertain. Movies like this don’t need to be encumbered by sex or violence to keep our attention, but still appeal to the unique feelings and emotions that make us human.

Those films are special, and although ostensibly being “children’s movies,” they have mass appeal to many adults. This is mostly because they can present kid friendly characters and scenarios in a way that is very adult, and can be fun and entertaining, while still be thoughtful and satisfying to older people.

However, sometimes it’s necessary for the subject matter to get more adult and portray mature themes only appropriate for people of a certain age. If the purpose of playing is to hold a mirror up to nature, that means that sometimes we must be unwavering in our depiction of humanity, and show our lives as they are, not as some Disney movie paints it. The reality is, sex and violence are two of the most enduring facets of human life. It seems that as long as humans roam the earth, they will inflict violence on one another, and they will have sex with one another. The very future of humanity depends upon the latter. As we know, money is the driving force behind the actions of many people, but sex has proven to be an even greater and more compelling motivator. It’s human nature, after all. We are all hardwired to procreate, and this is, and perhaps always will be, a determining factor in the choices we make in life. How could an art form pretend to portray real life, and hold a mirror up to nature, if it didn’t attempt to portray sex on screen or on stage?

When I direct a play, and it has nudity and a sex scene, I am extra vigilant about how I portray those moments on stage. If you consider how uncomfortable sex scenes on screen may make you feel, imagine live theatre, where two naked people could be simulating sex just a few feet away from you. In such a case, it is even more imperative that a director pay careful attention to how they are depicting such intimacy. Personally, I make sure that the nudity is never gratuitous, but is not afraid to show the actor fully and unflinchingly. When directing a sex scene, I pay careful attention to the power dynamic in the relationship. That doesn’t mean one character doesn’t dominate the other, but I try to get at why that is, and how that looks. I direct the scenes to be very realistic, while also artistic and with a slightly lyrical quality. The audience should be pulled into the action, but at the same time, have a vague awareness that they are watching art unfold. That they are watching a glorious illusion, and that these are artists making art in front of them. As a director, I enjoy that duality. It makes the experience meta, and the art can exist as a sort of reality AND like a painting in an art museum. You can be sucked into the painting, but will never totally forget that you’re in a gallery, and there are other paintings on the wall, all around you.

Some directors don’t want any fourth wall. They actually seek to demolish the device, and strive to create art that is so hyper-realistic, you actually think you are in the room, experiencing exactly what the characters are experiencing. The film directors Lars von Trier and Abbas Kiarostami are unflinching in what they show on screen. They believe that a film should be as close to real life as possible, and often eschew the trappings and tricks of filmmaking. Their films are truly examples of Cinéma vérité, a sort of documentary style cinema, where directors attempt to capture the darkness and grittiness of real life. In France, the spirit of the French New Wave, in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s was a revolt against the traditional old school Hollywood style that had come before. The classic Hollywood film was the embodiment of wholesome, symmetry, clean, neat, and orderly, and the stories weren’t messy and always ended happily and conveniently. These movies never had any nudity, of course, and the love and violence were G-rated. The French New Wave was an avant garde revolt against all things pleasant and orderly. The films were often hand held, and they were lovingly chaotic, messy, graphic, non-linear, and violent. These directors sought to rip down the fourth wall, and sucked the viewer right into the action. Not surprisingly, the films often contained graphic nudity and depicted simulated sex scenes. These directors wanted to show the vagaries of life, and refused to settle for some syrupy sweet and contrived story that bears little resemblance to actual life.

The primary reason why many writers and directors include nudity and sex in films, play, and tv shows is that it’s a part of real life. Why should we show fist fights, but shy away from murder and death? Why should we show love and attraction, but abstain from showing where those urges lead? Human beings have sex. A LOT of it, and most of it is not for the purpose of procreation. Why would we not depict something that consumes most of our minds, most of the time, and has driven men to murder, started wars, and ultimately led to each of us, from the lowliest born to the most royal King? Sex is what got us here, and it’s apparently what’s getting us through.

Finally, many people feel more invested in a story which they can relate to, and one which depicts a sort of avatar of themselves. Usually, we either see two people we want to be, OR we see two people who could be stand-ins for us. When people see nudity on screen, there are many different reactions. No offense, but some more prudish people have a reaction like you do, and are disgusted and repelled by what they see. They see such depictions of flesh as gratuitous, and can’t find any justification for why it would be included in any form of entertainment. Some are religious, some are moralistic, and some just aesthetically object to the practice. Many feel that sex scenes are off-story and tangential, and pollute an otherwise good story. When done poorly, I completely agree with this sentiment. All sex scenes — like violence — should be motivated by the character, and serve the overall story arc of the plot. Sex should never be gratuitous or salacious, just for the sake of shock value. It should have purpose. Realistically, the type of person likely to be offended is becoming more and more infrequent in society, as more of us have become desensitized to such cinematic and stage devices. Currently, many people demand such verisimilitude in their shows and films.

Without a doubt, for some, the inclusion of prurient material is sexually stimulating, and a draw to the work. These people seek out certain productions for the purpose of seeing sex and nudity. It may come as a surprise, but this group of people is small in number, and doesn’t adequately represent the average viewer.

For many of us, it’s rather something in between. I’m not interested in going to see some movie and being forced to endure some gratuitous sex scene with non-simulated penetration and graphic displays of flesh. To me, that’s not artistic. That’s porn. If I want to watch porn, I’ll simply go on the Internet. However, for the majority of people, the inclusion of nudity and sex adds to the art and reality of the experience. It makes the moment more realistic, and allows for the audience to be sucked in even more to the story. When we see two actors naked, they are vulnerable and reveal much more of themselves than we see when they are clothed. There is something unique and special about those moments, and it endears a character to us in a way unlike any other. When we see two actors engage in sex, we somehow buy into their characters more, and we feel more compelled to believe what we are seeing. People like to see people, flaws and all, and this moment of intimacy reveals a lot about people. Just like we often enjoy seeing actors improvise, or the camera to be placed in jarring documentary-style positions, we also enjoy seeing the story and actors laid bare. There is nothing more “behind-the-scenes” than human nudity and actors engaged in simulated sex.

Graphic sex and violence have no place in your children’s entertainment, and if you find it there, than something is seriously wrong. Children shouldn’t be treated as adults, not should they be treated as mindless drones. We should be mindful of their ages, and what is appropriate for them to see. Family entertainment is all a bit bland and mindless to me, but I see its worth. Personally, I prefer stuff like Pixar, which is family friendly AND thought provoking. It is entertainment that is both socially conscious and responsible. It manages to get my mind moving, and do so without the use of graphic sex and gratuitous violence. And that’s great. BUT there is a time and a place for more mature elements in modern entertainment. A show like Game of Thrones is excessively violent and depicts graphic nudity and sex. AND IT SHOULD. That is the kind of art it is. For us to buy into this world of Westeros, we need to see something we can relate to. Additionally, since it is an analog for the middle ages, it is necessarily as violent and filled with sex as that lurid time in our history. We shouldn’t have to watch some Disneyfied version of George R.R. Martin’s instant classic, and be subjected to G-rated tales of ribaldry and action. The show depends upon its graphic depictions of sex and violence. Earlier this season, many fans of the show were turned off to a scene which ended in one of the beloved characters being raped by a monster of a character. In this particular case, the door closed, and we didn’t actually see the encounter, but briefly hearing it was enough. Many people were outraged at the sexual brutality a male character inflicted on a weaker and powerless female character. Meanwhile, for years these same people had watched people naked, dismembered, burnt, tortured, and massacred, but this was apparently the straw that broke the camel’s back. None of this would have been possible had it not been for the graphic and unflinching nature of the show. Was it the right decision or not? Had the show gone too far? IT DOESN’T MATTER. It went there, and it generated a lot of discussion, and invariably raised awareness about rape and sexual assault. Like all good art, it generated a discussion, and that’s something a lot of other films and shows can’t do. And that was all about something we DIDN’T see. Seeing all the graphic stuff before made THAT moment even more traumatic. It wouldn’t have been half as impactful had we not seen such graphic sexual acts prior.

Nudity and sex have their place in society’s modern art. It is our right to see life depicted as it really is, not through some Disney lens or some antiquated story about a Prince saving some damsel in distress. We are born into this world naked, and we spend a good deal of time in such a state. We spend hours of our lives having sex, and the very idea consumes many of us, for much of our lives. There is absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t be seeing sex depicted on screen or on stage. Does it belong in your daughter’s saturday morning cartoon lineup? No, of course not. But that is family friendly programming meant for THEM, and all the other graphic sex and violence is meant for US. If you are somehow getting them confused, I would suggest you look into the monitors and control settings on your computers and television. Nowadays, there is plenty of software to filter out inappropriate content for children. Sex and nudity are inescapable parts of human life, and if we see it in the morning every morning, we certainly have the right to see it on screen and on stage every night. The mirror up to nature, indeed.

Having said all that, I think there is probably too much sex and nudity in film, television, and theatre today. And I say that because I recognize that a lot of the time, the sex is not justified, and is included solely for the purpose of titillating and attracting an audience. More recently, I have felt like Game of Thrones injects too much gratuitous sex, and does so in order to entice in an unmotivated and prurient way. This betrays self-indulgence, lack of restraint, and appeals to the lowest common denominator in its audience. As I said earlier, sex and nudity should be like lines of dialogue, and serve the overall arc of the story. They should ALWAYS feel absolutely justified, and motivated by the action in the script. Characters are not mere play things to get naked at will, but should do so for viable and demonstrable reasons that make sense to them. An actor should always be able to justify why they are taking off their clothes.

Near the end of the original Terminator film, we see a sex scene between Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor, and I would argue that it is one of the most justified and motivated sex scenes ever included in a movie. We are seeing the culmination of love that had been building between these two characters, and it is the very embodiment of humanity, with all its organic hopes and dreams, in the face of this soulless machine that was pursuing them. It was so tender and loving, and it necessarily contrasted the mechanical menace that was hunting them, and the uncertain fate that awaited them. Sure, it was a rather cheesy ’80s sex scene montage with tasteful nudity and a synthesized score underneath, but it was also a much needed glimpse of humanity and vulnerability in a relentlessly violent and merciless story. Furthermore, it is the moment in which the imperative character John Connor is conceived, making it epic and vitally important for the future of the human race, and integral to the Terminator story arc. In many ways, it is rather an “Immaculate Conception.” In a movie full of termination, this is the very opposite…that of conception and rebirth. This is the perfect example of a film where the nudity and sex are completely motivated by the script, and help tell a more meaningful story. There are countless examples of television shows, plays, and movies that have similar moments of sex and nudity. It’s a part of life, and therefore, a part of art. That being said, we need to demand more from our artists, and keep them honest. Using sex and nudity recklessly demeans the art form, and reflects poorly on those of us who are trying to use it artfully.

The biggest complaint besides its excessive and gratuitous inclusion, is the way it is depicted. Since first appearing in film and on stage, sex and nudity has been predominantly represented by women, who have had to bear the weight of the act for far too long. The completely disproportionate number of women who get naked, versus men, is a direct result of the patriarchal nature of the movie business and our society, and sadly reflects how much men still control the production and consumption of entertainment. Women have been objectified for far too long, and as responsible artists, it is up to us to stand up for what is right, and bring more parity to the industry. If we expect our women to bare their bodies, we should have no compunctions about asking men to do the same thing. Next to its over-representation in art, sex and nudity need to be far more equal among the sexes. But to condemn it all as obscene and unnecessary is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It more than has a place in the art of today. We just need to be more responsible in how and when we use it.

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