Chris Pine Is Right About Our Distorted Views of Violence and Nudity in Film
It's a fun conversation featuring a lot of film history.
Last Friday, we rang in the weekend with a discussion of Chris Pine baring it all in his newest film Outlaw King. Naturally, it was all anyone wanted to talk about during interviews, which Pine spoke about at a press conference at the film. “We all have certain body parts,” the actor said, “yet there’s so much disemboweling and beheading in this film, it nearly makes your mind spin. That, somehow, to a human modern audience is not nearly as interesting or revelatory or exclamatory as someone showing A) a sex scene, or B) their penis.”
“I think we as human beings should probably just take a minute to gestate, really meditate on that. That this kind of Western society, this puritanical society, to show people making love, to show what we all have, is somehow a Google alert. It’s a trip,” he concluded.
And really, he’s got a point. Almost enough for me to regret half the puns I made in my initial article on the subject. (Almost.) Why is it that nudity is somehow worse than brutality in film? Outlaw King looks to have a myriad of medievally violent scenes, and probably will include at least one drawing and quartering. Why is the fact that Pine drops trou what we’re all talking about?
Well, firstly, male nudity is rare enough in film. As I wrote in my initial article about the scenes, we rarely get male frontal nudity outside of comedic scenes or the occasional background penis in an HBO show. I can count on one hand the number of nude scenes I’ve seen with male actors that aren’t supposed to fall into either of those categories. Even when we get a glimpse of a naked male behind, it also draws a huge amount of attention; take Tom Hiddleston talking about how his nudity in Crimson Peak was literally for gender equality.
But therein lies the problem. This is not a piece that will decry violence in film as the end-all, be-all of society’s problems, but we’re going to have a little chat about how violence has become the norm in film, and why sex and nudity is a big shocker, because honestly? Pine’s got a point. This society does have a somewhat messed up view of what constitutes controversial, and in a way, we have become desensitized to acts of violence onscreen.
Outlaw King is a purportedly a good example of this, though admittedly only a few have seen the actual film. It’s described as being incredibly brutal, with plenty of swords impaling people and whatnot.
The problem is is that our society is, indeed, selectively puritanical when it comes to portrayals of sex and nudity. We can get away with violence because our society is conditioned to accept violence more acceptable than positive, or even simply neutral and matter-of-fact, portrayals of nudity and sex. This stems back to the Hays Code, which was first written in 1929 and came into rigid enforcement just a few years later. The code was written by two members of the Catholic Church to prevent films from having a negative impact on sensitive audiences (sound familiar to anyone?), and was in effect from the early thirties to the beginnings of the modern rating system in the late sixties.
Elements of the code were mostly based around the idea of promoting the “right” way of life and values. Out of wedlock “relations” were banned, and authority figures had to be respected, while criminals and crime were supposed to be treated as bad and the wrong way to live. Certain things were banned without specific mention at all in the code, such as depictions of same-sex relationships and the use of certain curse words. The entire thing was created because art supposedly had a moral imperative to uphold these fundamental values, albeit explicitly Catholic ones.
With the creation of the rating system, it’s notable that depictions of violence are allowed in all films no matter the rating, if on a certain scale. Nudity of any kind, on the other hand, automatically gets a PG rating at the very least, and any sexual nudity automatically gets an R rating; sex scenes without nudity don’t have any explicit criteria, but they tend to get PG-13 or higher ratings when present in films. Depending on the scene, there is also the notorious NC-17 rating for films that go beyond the pale in the eyes of the MPAA; these films are, usually, sexual in nature.
Consider the backlash to Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams’s sex scene in the film Blue Valentine, which received an NC-17 rating for a scene in which Gosling’s character performs oral sex on Williams. Gosling was furious about the rating, and said in response: “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 onscreen.” Female pleasure does tend to be less shown onscreen, and oftentimes is given a more restricted rating.
Certain language is also oftentimes also given a higher rating, which results in films that younger audiences need to see, such as 2011’s documentary Bully or 2018’s coming-of-age tale Eighth Grade, being made inaccessible (A24 hosted screenings of the latter, where ratings weren’t enforced, across the country last month). However, with a few modifications, horror and slasher films can be rated PG-13, which means that watching a woman die brutally is more acceptable than watching her enjoy sex or hearing a teenager say the f-bomb.
There’s also the misunderstanding that LGBT+ representation in films is considered more explicit than heterosexual relationships and automatically merit a higher rating, but to dive into that would take another 1000 words and a lot of fury.
Pine is right. There is something wrong with Western film society when nudity is considered more shocking than violence. We’ve accepted brutality as a part of film culture, but nudity and sex is considered taboo; that is something that needs to change. This doesn’t mean that we need to erase all violence from films, but we can address the culture around violence vs. sex and language and correct it so that we can have a more balanced look at films. Thank you, Mr. Pine, for calling that out.
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