This Friday marks the release of that rare beast, the female-oriented sex comedy: written and directed by a woman, The To Do List stars Aubrey Plaza, of Parks and Recreation fame, as a recently graduated high school valedictorian who decides to spend her last summer before college catching up on the sexual education she’s heretofore let slide. The To Do List has received generally positive reviews – it’s has a 66 score on Metacritic and is at 67% positive on Rotten Tomatoes – and has also, perhaps more importantly, been singled out as a particularly feminist film: as Scott Mendelson writes in Forbes, “It should in fact be noted how nonchalantly feminist this picture is. It treats the sexual adventures of a teenage girl with no more gravity than the ‘boys will be boys’ escapes we see as a matter of course.”
The history of sex in American cinema has been fraught since the inception of the medium: indeed, the strict Hays Code, which prevented Hollywood films from showing questionable content, was in effect from 1930 until, amazing, 1968, although it had lost much of its power by the 1950s. The specifics of the Hays Code are historically fascinating: on top of banning things like profanity, sexual content, and drug use, the Code also banned miscegenation, “ridicule of the clergy,” and “white slavery.” (The fictional enslavement of any other race of people was, evidently, not a concern.) Storytelling in the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood cinema was, therefore, largely dictated by what the Code did or did not allow: moral ambiguity was not exactly in vogue. Of course, some clever directors managed to get around certain Code stipulations – perhaps most famously Alfred Hitchcock, who included a two-and-a-half minute kissing sequence in Notorious comprised of many shorter kisses, to comply with the Code’s rule that men and women could not be shown kissing for longer than three seconds.
American film has, happily, made great strides since the 1930s, at least as far as censorship goes. Yet all is not well in Hollywood when it comes to sex, and particularly when it comes to sex scenes focused primarily on women.
The Motion Picture Association of America’s film ratings system, which came into effect in 1968, rising out of the ashes of the increasingly obsolete Hays Code, wields a peculiar power over American moviegoers and, indeed, over American film culture as a whole. Despite its complete authority in dictating what content is considered “inappropriate” for moviegoers, the MPAA is not, in fact, a government organization, and its members are not made known to the public. Its criteria for each rating are also not publicized, and are often nebulous. Sofia Coppala’s adaptation of The Virgin Suicides, for instance, was rated R for “strong thematic elements involving teens,” whatever the hell that means, while Twister was rated PG-13 “for intense depiction of very bad weather.” (Many more can be found at Thought Catalog.)
The intense secrecy surrounding the organization is made especially problematic by its tendency to deem sex more “inappropriate” than violence. In his documentary on the MPAA, filmmaker Kirby Dick emphasized the extent to which sex – particularly queer sexuality and any form of female sexual pleasure – has been stigmatized by the ratings association. In the film, Kimberly Pierce, director of Boys Don’t Cry, points out that the MPAA had no problems with a scene in which a transgender character is brutally beaten, but did object to a long shot of Chloë Sevigny’s face during an orgasm. Similarly, others have raised criticisms of the organization for being more lenient with violent rape scenes than with scenes depicting female sexuality in a positive light – a debate that was catalyzed in late 2010 by the ratings the MPAA gave to Black Swan and Blue Valentine.
Both Black Swan and Blue Valentine featured not especially explicit depictions of cunnilingus – and yet Black Swan received an R rating for “strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, language and some drug use,” while Blue Valentine received the dreaded NC-17 for “a scene of explicit sexual content,” presumably the scene featuring cunnilingus (though Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling’s characters do have sex in another emotionally harrowing but not especially explicit scene).
The differences between the two scenes in question are striking: Mila Kunis’ character performs oral sex on Natalie Portman’s character in a kind of erotic yet nightmarish fever dream from which Portman eventually awakes, ultimately nothing more than a hallucination. Her fantasies are the byproduct of a mind that is very clearly on the verge of collapse. By contrast, the cunnilingus in Blue Valentine is a loving and positive act, performed not long before the two characters get married. And yet it was this relatively bland depiction of consensual sex that was characterized as utterly inappropriate for anyone under the age of 17. As Gosling said himself, about the controversy sparked by Blue Valentine’s ratings classification (which was later, through the machinations of Harvey Weinstein, downgraded to an R):
You have to question a cinematic culture which preaches artistic expression, and yet would support a decision that is clearly a product of a patriarchy-dominant society, which tries to control how women are depicted on screen. The MPAA is okay supporting scenes that portray women in scenarios of sexual torture and violence for entertainment purposes, but they are trying to force us to look away from a scene that shows a woman in a sexual scenario, which is both complicit and complex. It's misogynistic in nature to try and control a woman's sexual presentation of self. I consider this an issue that is bigger than this film.
Two and a half years later, little has changed. Indeed, the state of women in film is increasingly dire: according to the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California, only 28% of characters in last year’s biggest hits were women, down several percentage points from five years ago, while women make up only 7% of all movie directors and 13% of screenwriters. Until the release of the unsurprisingly popular buddy-cop comedy The Heat, there were no major films easily accessible to most Americans featuring women in major roles in release.
It is encouraging to see a film like The To Do List – a film written and directed by a woman about a woman’s relationship with sex – in wide release, but even if it does extremely well at the box office (and it will certainly turn a profit, given the fact that its budget was a mere $1.2 million), its impact on the industry at large will likely be minimal at best. In the wake of movies like Bridesmaids and The Heat, critics and pundits often wonder whether the tide is turning – women, the more ignorant among them exclaim, do go to the movies! – and yet this has yet to materialize. Still, we should appreciate the existence of a film that the MPAA has, presumably with much distaste, rated R for “pervasive strong crude and sexual content including graphic dialogue, drug and alcohol use, and language - all involving teens.”