Changing Sex on Screen

Maisie Allen is a third year Liberal Arts student at KCL majoring in English Literature. She is passionate about accessibility within the arts, socialism, feminist podcasts, and her cello.

[Featured Image: Regé-Jean Page and Pheobe Dynevor as Simon Basset and Daphne Bridgerton in the series Bridgerton]

*Contains mentions of sexual, racial, and homophobic violence/discrimination, and spoilers for Bridgerton, I May Destroy You, and It’s a Sin*

Over the past few decades, depictions of sex on screen have gradually become to change for the better, acknowledging sexual power dynamics that have been at play for centuries, the creation of so-called intimacy co-ordinators who have been used on such shows such as Sally Rooney’s Normal People help direct actors to feel safe when having sex on screen and ensure these scenes are portrayed in a sensitive manner. However, whilst these are steps in the right direction aimed at tackling rape culture in the media, wider reactions to some recent shows have sadly highlighted that there is a still long way to go before the taboos surrounding sex and power are shattered. 

On December 25th 2020, Netflix released their new glossy 8 part period drama Bridgerton, labelled as a steamy Regency romp to much popularity and acclaim across various parts of the world. However, whilst its depictions of sex, including discussions on vaginal masturbation, have been viewed as refreshing in the eyes of its twenty-first century audience, they allowed a much darker scene to slip through their fingers without much attention – namely a scene in which the male romantic lead is raped by his female counterpart when they are married. The lack of discussion surrounding this highlights the wider taboo of male sexual assault, and whilst women are disproportionately more likely to experience sexual violence, to leave male victims out of this completely is incredibly saddening. 

Even after Michaela Coel’s smash hit BBC series I May Destroy You explored the sexual assault of main character Arabella’s best friend Kwame by another man and opposing discrepancies in support for male and female survivors from the police force, to see another high-profile series disregard this topic and even glamourise it through the lens of female power and control is troubling. The additional racial power dynamics at play between the Duke, a man of colour, and his wife Daphne who is a white woman, highlights how broader conversations and approaches to sexual violence centre cisgender, white women as the sole face of victimhood while simultaneously hypersexualising and villainising people of colour like the Duke. 

The author of the Bridgerton series of novels which the series has been based on, Julia Quinn, claimed that when writing the said scene in 2000 that there wasn’t a deep understanding of what consent entailed. This is true to an extent, but in a post-#MeToo world, the team behind this adaptation should have known better to at least explore the implications of the Duke’s assault. Instead, Bridgerton was met with great positivity because of its approach to sex, and while certain aspects challenged preconceived notions of what sex should be, or even entail, its ‘shock of the new’ factor and additional somewhat tokenistic approach to minority characters leave a lot to be desired, especially when portrayed as desirable because of their otherness. 

Furthermore, whilst Bridgerton was met with acclaim for its apparent sex-positive nature, the double standard comparing depictions of heterosexual relationships as opposed to same-sex ones was clear to see after Russell T Davies’ new Channel 4 mini-series It’s a Sin, exploring the AIDS crisis in 1980s London was met with outrage for its depiction of sex between multiple men. Now, unlike Bridgerton, the outrage that met It’s a Sin for its portrayal of homosexual sex exacerbates how the mainstream media is still largely homophobic and gay sex and desire is still seen as ‘other’ and somehow shameful. 

There are various stereotypes at work here, with depictions of sex that take place out of the white heterosexual narrative either exoticised or villainised, convincing viewers that the intersectionality of sexual desire does not exist in a civilised society. The negative reactions to Davies’ It’s a Sin whilst not completely shocking, given the entrenched homophobia that still pervades our world, is still frustrating given that approximately 38 million people across the world still live with HIV and depicting individuals getting sexual health tests alongside raising awareness of the disease can flip societal assumptions on its head and present a more truthful reality, even within a dramatic setting. 

Sex and desire are such a huge part of social relationships and corresponding dynamics and during a time when these hierarchies are being questioned now more than ever, film and television has a responsibility to interrogate these on screen and ask their audiences to critique and understand them. Many schools in the UK lack comprehensive sex and relationships education, leaving many young people to rely on their media consumption to inform them instead. As such, if film, television, and digital media continues to exclude the types of conversations raised above and pursues the perpetuation of problematic sexual assumptions then the corresponding collective conversations around sex will also fall into the same trap. 

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