We talk often about how porn is shaping, and damaging, young people’s ideas of sex, but give less thought to Hollywood, which doesn’t only influence our ideas about sex but also about love and romance. Early in Sex on Screen, a masterful and politically powerful BBC Storyville documentary about the making of sex scenes and the impact they have on the world, the writer Stacy Rukeyser (Sex/Life) reflects that as a girl watching Hollywood romances “I desperately wanted to be the object”. How succinctly she captures the problem, the Hollywood starlet’s power and her vulnerability, her veneration and her objectification, the way that I still find it hard to watch a beautiful woman on screen bring a sexy man to his knees without wanting to be her.
What does it feel like to be that sex symbol? It sounds mostly like the world’s worst anxiety dream. Who would want to get their kit off in front of all their colleagues, then simulate oral sex with their creepy co-worker with several cameras trained on them, zooming onto their nipples? Even the biggest stars must navigate this, although they have more power to resist than the newcomers, desperate for a break, worried that they may lose the gig if they admit they are uncomfortable. They also have more agency than their body doubles. “If you’re a body double, they pull you out like you’re a chicken dinner,” says one.
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But then there is also the longer-term, irreversible impact of many millions of people seeing, and admiring, your naked body. “When you’re sold as a sex symbol, the message men get is that they can touch you, that they own you… because you’ve turned them on,” says Rose McGowan, the actress who accused Harvey Weinstein of rape and emboldened many other victims to come forward. Even while Weinstein terrorised women behind doors, his films publicly shaped people’s ideas about sex and desire. McGowan, who describes movingly how she had to disassociate to survive filming sex scenes, speaks scathingly of Hollywood rape plots, the writers who “imagine that the only way a woman can get strong is after they are raped”. The documentary-makers splice her interview with footage from Kill Bill, Uma Thurman covered in blood. “These aren’t strong women,” McGowan says, “these are brutalised women that have to survive… and look good while doing so.”
It’s not news that most films cater to the straight male gaze, but it still feels shocking and stark when you explore the problem from so many angles, as this documentary does. Thankfully, there are moments of lightness: the artist who lovingly knits merkins that she likes to present to actresses in a decorative box; a spirited interview with Marli Renfro, who was Janet Leigh’s body double in the Psycho shower scene. “Janet Leigh wrote her autobiography and she let on that she did the whole thing,” Renfro says, before loudly sucking her teeth and adding, “it pissed me off”.
The documentary strikes an optimistic note: more film and TV sets use intimacy co-ordinators now to make sure actors are able to maintain their boundaries and feel comfortable during sex scenes, and new, diverse filmmakers are creating films that no longer focus on straight male pleasure or only treat thin, white, able-bodied women as sexy and sexual. “I can’t believe I have to say this, trans people actually have sex! With other people!” says Alexandra Billings, a trans actress who once struggled to get work beyond hospital scenes but in 2017 appeared nude in the TV show Transparent. She said she wanted to normalise trans bodies and relationships, to show the casual intimacy of any other couple, having a conversation when one has just come out of the shower.
“It’s changing, you can feel it,” Jane Fonda says. It’s about time.