Films are not reality, we all know that. Yet influences from films sneak into our minds without us realising it, skewing how we look at the world. This series examines some of these ‘Hollywood Frogs‘. In this final post: Sex.
Hollywood has a love-hate relationship with sex. Unsurprising, really, given that some of its viewers love it, and others hate it. Moral standpoints aside, the details of sex are often not so aesthetically pleasing. To get around this, Hollywood has developed conventions about how to show sex that are, when you think about it, decidedly weird. We laugh about the decorous fades away from the action, the ‘L’ shaped sheets that perfectly cover a woman’s breasts while exposing the man’s muscular chest, the immaculately made-up faces the morning after. But other myths that Hollywood promotes about sex are not so obvious, and these Hollywood Frogs have crept between our sheets to warp our views about how sex should really be.
Sex is easy
Whether inexperienced virgins or expert Casanovas, one-night stands or married couples, sex in Hollywood is effortless. Kisses are followed by caresses, which seamlessly flow into the act itself. There are no awkward fumblings, no banged noses while kissing, no wrestling to unhook bra straps, no stuck zippers. Clothing slips to the floor in an elegant flurry. No struggles to open the packet and get the condom on without tearing it, no need to nip to the bathroom for other types of contraception. No sagging erections, no premature ejaculation, no troublesome hymens. Unless interrupted by some external intervention required to further the storyline, sex always succeeds. And it succeeds to mutual satisfaction, judging by the blissful faces as the couple lies in bed afterwards (tucked under those spotless, unwrinkled L-shaped sheets).
The key exception is that sex is allowed to falter when there are problems between the partners. Difficulties with sex, in Hollywood, are usually a sure-fire sign that a relationship is on the rocks.
Gross-out films are more open. Think of the awkward teenager in American Pie (premature ejaculation), or the dope in Knocked Up who causes an unplanned pregnancy (condom trouble). But the characters in question are usually losers or idiots, upholding the idea that sex is only a challenge if you’re a bit ‘challenged’ yourself.
The real-life reality of sex often falls far short of this perfection. When it does, we feel bad about ourselves. We are stupid and clumsy, we are bad lovers. So we must therefore be losers or idiots. I am eternally grateful to the honest friend who related her own experience of sex: ‘It was awful the first few times, and I thought to myself, why do women do this?’. We don’t expect to drive a car perfectly the first time, to scale a high jump on the first attempt, to perform an operation on the first day of medical school. Why, then, do we expect to be perfect lovers the very first time? The answer is simple: because that’s what Hollywood shows us to be the norm.
Losing your virginity isn’t the only hurdle, either. Every partner is different, and good sex often takes some getting used to each other. While it is true that problems in a relationship can lead to problems in sex, it’s perfectly possible to have problems with sex while the relationship itself is fine. We should be able to see that as a normal occurrence and something that can be worked out, rather than the cue for a dramatic crisis and an emotional scene. Medical issues (big or small), stress, tiredness, even a simple difference in sex drive can cause our lovemaking to flounder. Which brings us on to the next Hollywood myth:
Sexual desire is always mutual
Sex, in Hollywood, simply happens. Two people’s eyes meet, and they just know. The desire is instantly communicated. There is no need for consent, as the attraction is obvious. It is always the right time, and the right place. There are no periods, no headaches, no bladder infections or prostate trouble. No simply not being in the mood (this is a giant red flag according to the ‘sex problems = relationship problems’ cliché). No matter how much alcohol has been consumed, both the desire and the performance are unaffected. And full-on sex is always the outcome. The idea of kissing, caressing, and then leaving it there does not seem to exist in Hollywood.
This assumes an incredible synchronicity between the partners involved. Firstly, that both are even romantically interested in each other. A smile, a joke, a flirt may be nothing more than that. Secondly, that they are ready for sex together. Some people are quite comfortable with having sex on the first date; some might want to mess around a bit but not go so far; for others a kiss might be moving too fast. Nor are desires always in step. One person may feel aroused late at night, another may prefer languorous morning sessions, yet another may be amorous in the afternoon. Timing aside, sex drives differ greatly. If one partner is satisfied with once a week, while the other feels randy every other day, then some sort of compromise will have to be reached. It is simply impossible that they will be equally turned on at the same time, every time.
Even assuming that both partners want to do it, the circumstances aren’t always right. If the only place available for sex is the room next to your sharp-eared parents, then that can understandably put a damper on things. Given that women are, on average, on their periods for 2-7 days a month, it is truly amazing that Hollywood sex always falls outside of that. A short story by Alice Munro is more realistic, featuring a young woman who blurts out to the man she is in a clinch with that she is a virgin, as she is too embarrassed to simply say that she is menstruating. At the same time, men are assumed to be ready to go at any moment – what red-blooded male ever says no to sex? Never mind that anything from tiredness to illness to self-doubt can intervene to prevent desire translating into an erection. Hollywood would do well to include fewer scenes with ‘yes, yes, yes’ and more scenes with ‘no’ or ‘yes – but some other time’. Yet doing that would require shattering the third Hollywood myth:
Sex is silent
It’s understandable that Hollywood doesn’t want a realistic soundtrack of sex, to avoid red-faced cinemagoers disappearing in droves. But the silence in Hollywood sex is extended to speech. Witty dialogue, ardent professions of everlasting love, sweet nothings – in Hollywood they all stop when the bedroom door is closed. Hollywood lovers are clearly adept in body language or are secret mindreaders, as despite the lack of conversation, they know exactly what to touch and how, which position, which speed. Sex proceeds as if it is scripted, which, well, it is.
Once the act has been performed, the actors’ voices are restored, and they can have a heart-to-heart about anything they want. Anything, that is, except the sex that they have just had. There’s no need to check if their partner was happy, no exchange about what worked and what didn’t, or what they might like to try the next time. Of course, there’s no need for that, because – see preceding points – sex is easy, desire is mutual.
Hollywood does us a grave disservice in this respect. Because sex isn’t easy, desire isn’t always mutual – and the best way to work this out to is to talk about it. But we are never shown an example of how we could do that. Hollywood encourages us to lie back and keep our mouths shut. It’s far too embarrassing to do otherwise, because:
Sex has an audience
Finally, Hollywood implants in our minds the notion that we are always being watched. By definition, films show sex from an outside viewpoint. This teaches us to be self-conscious during sex, to worry about how we appear to others. To compare the frequently unaesthetic reality of our normal sex lives with the airbrushed Hollywood version, and feel ashamed. That gets in the way of how we should be experiencing sex: entirely within ourselves and in the moment, together with our partner in complete intimacy and privacy.
There are many more Hollywood myths surrounding sex. Sex is (almost) always heterosexual. Sex is for young, healthy, beautiful people, mostly white. Sex is confined to a narrow range of acts and positions. Thankfully, Hollywood is not the only source of information on sex. I am eternally grateful for the more niche films, for the TV series, books and magazines that provide a broader, more honest picture. Best of all are the friends who dare to share their own experiences.
But not everyone feels comfortable with such open discussions, while Hollywood films have a huge amount of airtime. At the same time, more and more stories are coming out over how uncomfortable, intimidated and even exploited actors feel when filming those idealistic sex scenes. It seems that consent and communication are sometimes as absent during filming as in the films themselves. It would help us all if Hollywood would take some sex education from real life, instead of the other way round.
Hollywood Frogs, take a final bow
This post brings the Hollywood Frogs series to a close. I’ve looked at Hollywood’s narrow definition of a hero, its prescribed way to react to an emotional moment, the big changes it pushes us to make in ourselves and in the world around us, and finished off with the narrow template it imposes on our sex lives. Hollywood does not represent the way we really are. Yet when we notice the differences we tend to search for the fault in ourselves, instead of in the films.
Maybe in the future, Hollywood will be forced to become more representative under the pressure of their paying public. But we can’t ever expect them to lead the way. Independent and fringe cinema dares more. But it remains the case that films – any films – are there to entertain, to provoke, not to faithfully represent reality. They will always depict more exciting events, contain better dialogue, and be more artistically lit and shot than real life.
So, next time you feel that you aren’t hitting the mark, or that life isn’t coming up to your expectations, think about where those expectations actually come from. You just might spot a Hollywood Frog.