American Culture

Suck factor: the glory of violence, the horror of sexuality

by mentalswitch

There are three mainstays in today’s Hollywood:  sex, violence and special effects.

Special effects in movies, when well done, are fun.  They help us escape from our lives to enjoy tales of superheroes, mutants or alternate realities.  We travel to faraway or mythical lands and see dragons, dwarfs and trolls, tree-creatures battling orcs, wizards and sorcerers battling.  Oh yeah, and stuff blowing up.  (Thank you Michael Bay)  None of this really exists, of course, but that’s part of what makes it a good escape for the viewer.

It’s kind of hard to imagine a major blockbuster that doesn’t involve some form of death, shock, torture, shooting or explosion.  War movies can bring perhaps the most accuracy to this genre and this is especially true of those that don’t sugar coat it.  Saving Private Ryan was very graphic but not in an over-the-top, gratuitous way.  It brought home the realities of war.  Most action movies, however, take violence to a completely unrealistic level.

Yes, there are gangs in real life, and there is some level of underworld in our major cities. But our movies would lead you to the conclusion that every street corner is a drug marketplace, every precinct is infested by corrupt cops, in every alley lurks an assassin, every bar is a spontaneous kung fu fight waiting to happen and every nightclub is a potential gang warfare site.  Around every corner a secret agent lays in wait for another secret agent. Domestic abuse is rampant and a serial killer lurks in your closet waiting to decapitate you.  Some zombie wants to eat your brains.

The real world does offer some of these adventures (the supernatural notwithstanding) but, again, the point of the story is to provide an escape for the viewer.  One thing to remember, though: violence always has a victim. Very few chainsaw murders are consensual.

Sex in the movies is also plentiful. It’s in our ads and our magazines, it’s on TV, it’s everywhere.  But there are rules. Flash a single breast or hint at a risque sex scene and your movie gets an R rating.  Show anything more and you’re stuck with an X rating – if you get a rating at all.  Movies with gratuitous nudity get R ratings, while others flirt with “the line” and get away with a PG13. In general, the idea is to offer various levels of nudity and sexuality for the sake of appealing to various levels of horny viewers (mostly men) and to make a buck in the process. It’s easy to view this brand of escapism as more positive than violence, mayhem and death.

Then there are more artistically inclined movies, usually independent, that ask us to think about real life.  In these stories, people who don’t have Hollywood-perfect bodies might get together and do the things that normal people do.  Some breastfeed in public.  Some have non-erotic showers.  Some change clothes.  Some kiss.  Some have sex.  They might show some skin but almost every human is nude at least once a day, right? Skin happens.

If these stories are told effectively we will relate to the characters as they tap into experiences that we all share.  They show reality, or some plausible fictionalized version of it.  Sometimes there are heated arguments and even violence, but they spare us the fx. No blood spatter analysis, nobody shot at point blank range, no body parts flying at us in 3D.

With this in mind, let’s think about the Moral Majority and its neo-puritan descendants.  Which movies seem to catch their attention?  What is it that gets under their skin and ruffles their feathers?

Yes, this is a rhetorical question.

While I respect the rights of people to choose what they see, let’s consider some numbers. Last year, depending on your source, between 15k and 20k Americans were murdered.  This adds up to about six people in 100,000.  Each of these murders, by definition, put an unnatural end to someone’s life.  Friends and family mourned, and in many cases incurred physical and emotional burdens that they will never shed.  The suck factor for homicide is 100%.

Last year approximately a quarter billion Americans had consensual sex.  (Okay, I’m making this statistic up but it can’t be far off.)  If the number is close, this comes to about 70,000 people in 100,000.  Each of these instances (by definition) involved two (or more) people coming together and enjoying the company of another for a time.  Whereas being a murder victim is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, many of these people will choose to have repeat episodes with the same person.  In general, then, it’s safe to assert that most of these victims of consensual sex leave better than they arrived.  The suck factor for sex is not zero but it’s a lot closer to zero than it is to 100%. (Obviously I emphasize “consensual” for a reason – non-consensual sex, sex with a victim, is not sex – it’s violence.)

Isn’t this odd?  Movies portray violence on an exaggerated, unrealistic scale. Violence has a very high suck factor. And nobody bats an eye.  Other movies depict natural sexuality (or maybe unrealistic, but harmless sexuality). And sex is an act that almost every adult in the country takes part in on a semi-regular basis (or they’d like to). The suck factor is very small. And this is what gets conservative panties in a bunch.

So to sum up: in art it’s fine to kill, maim and destroy but it’s not okay to portray a satisfying natural encounter or to take a picture of said encounter.

When you think about it, this bizarre dynamic extends well beyond the arts.  The Right has no problem advocating and rushing into real wars, wars that leave a lot of innocents dead along with the baddies we’re supposedly liberating them from. But sensuality, in all cases outside of married Christian sex, is considered bad (and even that isn’t to be depicted or talked about).  A major irony here is that when we consider all of the political sex scandals from the past few years Republicans seem to comprise a large majority of the perpetrators.  They profess to frown upon nudity, upon cleavage, upon homosexuality, upon sensuality of any type.  But behind closed doors this is exactly what everyone seems to seek.  Even some of the loudest proponents of the Defense of Marriage Act have been caught in hypocritical, compromising sexual situations.  Amusing, or perhaps tragic, is the fact that morality police like David Vitter and Larry Craig snuck behind the backs of their spouses for sexual fulfillment, betraying personal as well as public trusts.  Couples who simply acknowledge the realities if normal human sexuality, on the other hand, can explore their curiosities and desires with the full support, blessing and (optional) involvement of their life partners.

Damn, America has it backwards.

Europeans are a lot more comfortable with their bodies than Americans.  Their magazines feature topless women and there are far more topless beaches.  They have movies with unabashed sexuality (you even find live sex acts in respectable theatre presentations).  We always seem to portray Brits as stuffy but in this respect it is us that are the stuffy ones.

I imagine that with most S&R readers I’m preaching to the choir, but I’ll say it anyway.  Sex is natural and it’s healthy to explore. It should be celebrated instead of demonized.

Disclosure: I take artistic pictures of people in edgy sensual circumstances and participate in activities that those offended by this article would certainly frown upon.  I am tired of having the reactionary moral positions of others thrust upon my art, my life and my friends when all of those participating are benefiting from their involvement.  I really don’t mean to sound like a hippie when I say this but…. Make love, not war!

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