Niall Anderson looks at the knotty history of sex and nudity on television
Note: This article contains spoilers for The Wire and The Sopranos
In an earlier life, I used to catalogue DVDs. My duties were to look at the contents of the box, view the contents of the disc, and make sure the details matched. I’d check the technical specifications (region code, aspect ratio, audio set-up) and enter all the details in the catalogue. I never had to watch a whole film, and only ever did on flat Fridays or when I wanted to waste time.
Quite a number of these films – say 5%, conservatively – were pornographic; usually the semi-hardcore things you find gummed to the front of skin mags (which I was also cataloguing). These films feature real sex you can never quite see. There is a lot of sound, and circumstantial evidence of fury, but they signify literally nothing.
I bring this up because whenever I came to match the contents of the pornodisc with those of the pornobox, I could almost never do it. If the box promised you ten chapters, you’d only get five. If the box promised you a certain performer, it was touch and go they would actually appear. On one occasion, only a few weeks apart, I saw the same porno under two different titles with completely different listings for cast and crew. From this I learned that almost everything to do with filmed sex is based on lies.
Looking into the history of sex and nudity in mainstream film and television, you notice subtler iterations of the same blunt trend: we don’t seem to be able to approach sex without some sneaky sleight of mind or marketing. In porn, of course, the trick lies in promising more than you actually get; in drama, it lies in dressing up the pornographic so it looks like something else.
These disguises have varied over time, but they seem to have settled for now on three main types: literary respectability, strict realism, and realism’s slightly iffy cousin, historical accuracy. Since the turn of the century, it’s the last category we’ve seen most of.
It started, perhaps, with HBO’s Deadwood, continued with the HBO/BBC co-production, Rome, and has reached a kind of dazed apotheosis with Starz’s hack-and-fuck spectaculars, Spartacus: Blood and Sand and Spartacus: Gods of the Arena. It’s not a surprise these four shows were all produced primarily for US cable television, away from network TV compliance rules. What’s really striking is the extent to which each grabbed the licence for smut from its forerunner and ran with it as fast and far as it could.
Nonetheless, it began pretty austerely. In Deadwood, sex is an integrated part of the show’s political economy: it is both an engine and a function of power in the pioneer community the show describes. Sex most often happens for money, and even where it doesn’t there are usually grim consequences for at least one participant. But because Deadwood is perhaps the most democratic piece of TV ever made, you do at least see the consequences from the point of view of those exploited. If the show overplays its hand in terms of its sheer explicitness, at least it does so for intelligible reasons.
In Rome, the bodices get looser, and the social framework fuzzier. There is still a political trade in sex, but in contrast to Deadwood, the people furthest down the social ladder rarely have a voice. This is perhaps as it was in a slave economy, and it’s a fiction writer’s absolute privilege to present it this way, but the result is a kind of thinness to the presentation of sex in Rome. For much of the time, you’re just watching people having sex because people in Ancient Rome had sex. There’s a circularity to this that doesn’t answer the simplest question: why so much sex?
Some of it comes down to an authentic – and even admirable – historical revisionism. The Ancient Rome of film and TV series’ past tended to pivot around the advent of Christ and the resulting elision of Rome’s empire with God’s. There’s not a lot of room in such a story for pagan sensuality. (More generally, it’s entirely possible to watch something like The Greatest Story Ever Told and wonder what, exactly, Jesus came down to reform, so civilised and reasonable is his opposition.) Programme makers want to put the blood, guts and sex back into history: great.
But some of this revisionism is less authentic, and might better be described as generational. The showrunners of some of the most explicit US programmes – Deadwood (David Milch, b. 1945), Rome (John Milius, b. 1944) and The Sopranos (David Chase, b. 1945) – are all from the Boomer Generation, which, if you’ve been reading your National Review, is the generation that conservative critics tend to blame for inventing permissiveness, and maybe even Satan. In one sense, it’s unfair to yoke these three names together – their expressed politics are very different – but each of their main shows has pushed deliberately against the idea that certain permissive (and even destructive) ideas were born when they were.
This is one of the reasons the explicitness of these shows still feels explicit: there is a political edge to it that stops the more extreme ingredients from ever seeming casual or natural. Under the guise of realism or plausible historical reimagining, ideological points are being scored.
That drama can be a vehicle for ideology isn’t news; nor is it bad news. But a problem occurs when the dramatic methods for expressing those underlying ideas harden into mannerism. A parody HBO show would these days need to include an epigraph from a respected author of antiquity, a leering tittyflash or two, some manly grunted oaths, and some grunted manly violence. You see the problem? How radical and how different can these shows really be if the ingredients intended to mark them out are all the same?
And this is where we get into the last and most knotty reason there’s so much sex in these shows: somewhere along the line, what US TV networks call ‘content suitable for a mature audience’ began to be taken as proof of actual maturity. The boobs and blood are not just your reward for watching grown-up television: they are the proof of how grown up it all is.
This may be cynical, but it isn’t necessarily ruinous. Only a joyless prude would deny that the big HBO imports of the past ten years or so have been among the best TV of the era. But there is a creeping laziness, nonetheless. To take a single example applying to everything from The Sopranos up to Game of Thrones: the trend for scenes with long expository dialogue to have a naked woman, or several of them, just hanging around, listening. Or the trend, whenever a male anti-hero might be getting a little too likeable, of having him commit an act of violence against a woman. Or the complementary trend – short of actual sexual violence (of which there is plenty) – of making every act of violence against a woman be about her being a woman.
This one is worth examining because it can be done right. When Detective Kima Greggs is shot in a sting operation in the first series of The Wire, the ferocity of the cops’ response is partly tribal, but also to do with her male colleagues’ sense that shooting a woman is worse than shooting a man. A complicated and commonly held idea is beautifully and reservedly dramatised. By contrast, you have the murder of Lorraine Calluzzo in season five of The Sopranos. A money-handler for a Brooklyn crime family, Lorraine’s murder is to do with her inappropriate closeness to a rival New Jersey mob: it is about power. But, aware of the novelty of having an independent woman so close to power, the writers also make it about sex. So she is attacked leaving the shower one morning and chased naked across the floor of her house, being slapped with a towel, before being shot in the head.
The scene is repulsive (and, it goes without saying, NSFW). But it’s repulsive beyond what its creators intended: it makes a point that the show has already made a hundred times – that mobsters like women to know their place – and reaches into the big bag of exploitative imagery to do so.
A show as lengthy and as generally strong as The Sopranos can survive this kind of miscalculation. In this instance, it’s partly the show’s awareness of the gender politics of the world it describes that leads it into miscalculating, but it’s also the lazy ease with which it feels it can be explicit. If you can do it, why resist?
This sort of scene has drawn the producers a certain amount of flak over the past decade, but none has exactly taken a vow of chastity. Indeed, the most common response has been to leave the material that people have found objectionable but offer a corrective in the form of beefcake and cock. True enough, there have been valid complaints about the plenitude of naked female flesh and the relative paucity of male flesh on display, but the double-standard argument is actually the most trivial: it amounts to sauce for the gander. A stray shot of Ian Somerhalder’s cock (NSFW) in HBO’s Tell Me You Love Me doesn’t make exploitativeness disappear.
Likewise with the argument, ‘If you don’t like it: don’t watch. It’s obviously not for you.’ This is fine as far as not watching The Sopranos goes, but the larger issue is that just as boobs somehow came to equal dramatic maturity, the HBO model has come to be the dominant one for quality drama in the English language.
Quality in the last sentence should come with a payload of quotation marks around it: what it means in practice is a mini-series with higher than average production values, usually about the past, and not infrequently based on the kind of middlebrow novel that TV people think is a classic. Channel Four’s 2010 adaptation of William Boyd’s Any Human Heart is a case in point. Whatever the novel might have to say about life in the last century, the TV version is clearly agog at the mere possibility of sex and swearing among the well-brought-up of the 1920s. ‘How good it is to feel the sun on one’s tits,’ announces a pretty bohemian at a picnic, flinging her top off and then disappearing from the action forever. As an insight into the fact that women had breasts in the twenties, I feel this could hardly be bettered. Otherwise, we’re back where we started – with the glamour of the past and the prestigiousness of the source being used to justify material that producers would struggle to include without it.
In such a climate, it seems perverse to give a welcome (however guarded) to Starz’s two Spartacus series. But at least here the legitimising disguise of the past is the barest fig-leaf, and the Cormanesque unseriousness of the whole enterprise means that, for once, what you see is what you get. Still, it won’t be long before somebody comes along and intellectualises the silly honesty out of it: witness the raised eyebrows about Starz’s newest pilot, a series about female NASCAR drivers. Its working title is Tits in the Pits, but it nervously describes itself as “a Red State Mad Men“. Which emphasis will win out: the frankly immature or the wannabe classy? Experience suggests an awkward and unwelcome compromise. Each generation of TV producers starts out with the intention of correcting its forbears’ dishonesty about sex, but ends up creating dishonesties of its own.