In the beginning of the world – the world of movies, that is – sex and nudity was implied, not seen. We were given the big screen kiss and embrace, leaving us with an iconic image of romantic characters, the moment sending shivers down our spines, their words forever branded in our minds. In Gone With the Wind, Rhett tells Scarlett, “You should be kissed, and often.” As the ocean rolls up over the two lovers in From Here to Eternity, Karen whispers, “Nobody ever kissed me the way you do.” And who knew sharing a plate of spaghetti could be so romantic, Lady and the Tramp’s first kiss was so memorable, no words were needed.
For moviegoers the scenery has changed greatly. In the first years of moving pictures in the late 19th century, censorship was born. Carmencita (1894) was forbidden because when she twirled and danced, her legs and undergarments were revealed. One of the earliest risqué films to be censored was Fatima’s Coochie-Coochie Dance (1896), where a grid of white lines was placed over her gyrating body. And our first on-screen kiss was between a Victorian couple with a close-up of the two cuddling, followed by a short peck on the lips. It was denounced as shocking and pornographic at the time. Oh, what would they think of it now?
As the decades rolled by, television was added to the mix. In the 40s, Tweety Bird was forced to wear feathers — a plucked bird just looked a little too naked. With the 50s came rock ‘n’ roll and Elvis’ famed TV appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show (actually his third but first to be censored) that showed him only from the waist up. But the studio audience made it clear that the Gyratin’ King was at his best that night. The hippy generation arrived in the 60s, touting free love, but Mary Ann, Gidget and Jeannie were still barred from showing their navels on television. And the poor TV toilet had a terrible time getting any screen time, not until 1971 when Archie Bunker became the first flusher on the tube, heard but not seen on All in the Family.
A far cry from this historical-type of censorship, the industry today still falls under decency guidelines and is seemingly going backward rather than forward as action takes over sex. For the big screen, explicit sex is no longer a selling commodity. With the current rating system in place, to get a NC-17 rating is certain death to a studio’s bottom line. An R rating isn’t as troublesome, but still limits the overall marketing drive that would include television and cable networks. Merchandise tie-ins with fast-food chains, beverage companies, or toy manufacturers will lose studios millions of dollars in free advertising.
Then there is the Walmart consideration. Yes, Walmart video sales account for a huge portion of home-video sales for the studios and that makes them sit up and take notice. Such buying power effectively makes the studios sanitize their films of sexual content. Walmart has a decency policy that delegates sexually related nudity to the adult sections of the store, which reduces sales. Buyers would prefer to order the in-flight entertainment version of DVDs, and know that nudity and sexually explicit scenes have been removed.
The other big money maker for studios is broadcast television which the FCC regulates (but not cable). In order to license a movie to a broadcast network, a studio must cut out all nudity and anything else that may not meet decency standards. That makes it a triple-play eating into the all-important bottom line of the studios producing our big screen blockbusters.
Basic television is considered tame by comparison, but isn’t totally innocent of explicit content. Sometimes, it seems censorship and moral guidelines have evolved into a mixed, double-standard when it comes to what goes and what doesn’t. Modern comedies are in a “not show but tell” era; what sexual innuendo hasn’t squeaked by the morality police lately? And, come on, the long-time use of the bleeper doesn’t hide the meaning of certain words. Even as far back as NYPD Blue, network television has pushed the boundaries of what is considered acceptable, and many basic-cable shows like Nip/Tuck took sex to the edge with others quickly following suit. And perhaps the biggest double-standard of all, for television and movies alike, is that graphic violence and language seem to be okay, whereas sex and nudity isn’t.
It’s definitely an interesting world in which we live. Being a huge television and movie fan, I don’t care which way the wind blows. From the sweetest of old black and white films to the modern, action-packed adventure filled with the works, I like it all. There are enough choices and options today to suit any taste and any moral standards. Now, isn’t that what America is all about?