It appears acts of the erotic kind can be harder to swallow on screen than the gruesome.
By
Jim Mitchell

20 Jul 2017 - 10:48 AM  UPDATED 20 Jul 2017 - 10:48 AM

Before SBS’s sumptuous historical drama Versailles had even debuted in Britain last year, some media were branding it with variations of “primetime porn”. When it eventually aired, The Daily Mail was out to sensationalise that point to the hilt:

“The programme about France's Sun King Louis XIV airs on BBC2 tonight and features no less than seven sex scenes which include frontal nudity and even a dwarf inside the Queen's skirt.” Quelle horreur!

Britain’s conservatives agreed. Sam Burnett of lobby group Mediawatch UK said: "Dressing up pornography and violence in a cravat and tights doesn’t make it cultural," despite the fact that life at the time was indeed sexually charged and violent.

And earlier this year, news.com.au heralded season two with the dubious claim that there were “buckets of X-rated material to come”.

Primetime porn? X-Rated? Er, pull the other one. Versailles is no more explicit than its historical epic stable mates Outlander and Game of Thrones.

Buried in the tabloid exposés were mentions of Versailles’ violent scenes – torture, bludgeoning, dismemberment. “Primetime violence” doesn’t exactly headline quite like “primetime porn”.

So what exactly drives hysteria over sex and nudity rather than violence on our screens? Is it a throwback to a puritanism of old, of the fire and brimstone Old Testament kind? Or is confronting sex and nudity more confronting than confronting violence?

Since Game of Thrones (or the “tits and dragons” show as guest star Ian McShane so reductively described it) hit our screens in 2011, there’s been a lot of wringing of hands about the show’s ample sex scenes and nudity. US blogger and critic Myles McNutt famously coined the term "sexposition" because of the show, a term Michael Hann of The Guardian describes as “the art of outlining all that tedious plot against a background of no-holds-barred sex”.

The critics were right to point the practice out, not that it was anything new (remember The Sopranos’ many Bada Bing! strip club scenes?). But excepting widespread discussion of the show’s sexual violence, much less has been made of all of Game of Throne’s other varieties of bloody barbarism. Are we more offended by casual coitus and full frontal nudity because it seems exploitative and gratuitous? Isn’t a stab to the eye equally so?

But violence has become part of the furniture. Perhaps we’re less fussed by it because its over-the-top-ness is so far removed from anything most of us will ever experience in our day-to-day lives. As IndieWire’s Casey Cipriani writes of Game of Thrones, “You’re not going to have your eyes crushed by a giant because you agreed to act as someone’s champion in a tournament to the death. You’re not going to be beheaded because you refused to take orders.”

But Game of Thrones creator George R R Martin has another hot take of considerable irony – that people should be more concerned about the violence in the show (and his books) than sex and nudity.

"I'm always astonished that there's always so much more controversy about the sex than about the violence,” he said at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2014, before the Sansa Stark rape controversy erupted the following year.

"I can write a scene and describe in detail a penis entering a vagina, and there will be a portion of the audience who get very upset about that. But I can write a scene about an axe entering a human skull and nobody will complain about that. Generally speaking I'm much more in favour of penises entering vaginas than of axes entering heads. People seem to accept the violence much easier than they accept the sex."

Tellingly, criticism of TVs other most violent of shows, The Walking Dead, only reached fever pitch this season, the show’s seventh. With a premise of zombie apocalypse survival that demands brutality, it was accused of finally going too far by explicitly depicting villain Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) horrifically bludgeoning two beloved characters with his barbed wire-wrapped baseball bat named Lucille. There was no need for concern regarding sex and nudity in The Walking Dead, though – it barely exists due to the content dictates of broadcaster AMC.

Where US premium TV is the place for sex and nudity to frolic, it’s the global dominance of the Hollywood film system that continues to encourage a puritan attitude towards movies, governed by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) ratings system. The MPAA has a history of giving harsher restrictions to films with sexual content over those with violence.

On the promotional trail in 2012 for The Sessions, the tender story of a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt) and her disabled client (John Hawkes), William H Macy expressed his frustration at the effect of US puritanism:

"I feel like the whole perversity with which the United States deals with sexuality is reaching some sort of critical mass,” he said.  “I think it's time for somebody to say, 'Sex is good. It's really good, it's great. And violence is bad - it's always bad.' This film [The Sessions] is R-rated and Batman [The Dark Knight Rises] is rated PG-13. Well now that, that’s ill."

(America’s R rating is the equivalent to Australia’s MA15+ rating, PG-13 equates to our M rating.)

It’s illustrative of the industry joke that the only thing separating the American R and PG-13 movie ratings is that in the former, showing a naked breast is kosher, and in the latter, the breast must be covered while the owner is hacked to pieces with a chainsaw.

And it rings true with a 2015 survey of parents commissioned by the Classification and Rating Administration (CARA) finding the top concern about film content was graphic sex scenes (80 percent), followed by full male nudity (72 percent), hard drugs (70 percent), full female nudity (70 percent) and graphic violence (64 percent). Only 44 percent believed PG-13 rated movies have too much graphic violence.

So the commercial imperative, understandably, is there for Hollywood to favour violence-infused blockbuster fare over sexual content.

“My guess would be that Hollywood studios will continue to shy away from candid sexuality,” says David Gritten, film reporter for The Daily Telegraph. “They’re more at ease with family-friendly content, which brings in more revenue because it sells more tickets per family.” 

But on prestige TV at least, sex and nudity will continue to be a mainstay, however uncomfortable or not we are with it. Versailles is slated for a third season, so get set for another round of salacious headlines to come.

 

Season 2 of Versailles starts on SBS from 27 July, but you can see the first episode a week early on SBS On Demand:

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