Getting Intimate: An Analysis of the Sexual Revolution’s Impact on American Cinema

Paper by Amelia Kazmierczak.

In the U.S., sex has always been a source of controversy. Although erotic cinema has its origins with the invention of film in the late 19th century, censorship methods quickly arose to prevent the creation of content considered to be lewd or immoral. However, prior to 1930, there was no officially enforced guidance for the kind of content that could be depicted in films. Since the introduction of the Production Code in 1930, how sex is treated on screen has been in a constant state of flux, with periods of intense censorship and conservatism followed by periods of sexual openness. The “sexual revolution” era of American history, which arose in the 1960s and carried into the 70s, coincided with the strongest period of growth in depictions and discussions of sexuality on screen. From the mid-1960s into the 1970s, the United States entered a period of social progress that was reflected through the changing depictions of sexuality in film. Movies such as The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy conceptualized new perceptions of gender, sexuality, and social relationships that echoed the values of the emerging LGBT, feminist, and sexual liberation movements and heralded a contrast to the preceding area of Production Code sexual conservatism in cinema. However, the progressiveness of sexuality in cinema tapered off towards the tail-end of the 1970s as social revolution in mainstream cinema trailed off in favor of massive audience appeal. The period from the mid-60s to 70s therefore represents the peak of sexuality in cinema, where representation of sex on screen had the greatest social and political weight.

Has the U.S. today become more conservative in regard to sex than in the past? The origins of sexual content in American cinema begin early: in the first few decades of the 20th century, during what is known as the “pre-code” era, sex is actually discussed much more openly and significantly than in the decades that would follow. Though local censorship boards existed across states, there was no national system for regulation until the creation of the Motion Picture Production Code in 1930 (Jon Lewis 113). The code introduced various guidelines for on-screen content in order to prevent the exhibition of indecent, obscene, or immoral material. However, the Code was not even enforced until 1934, with mounting pressures to clean up Hollywood’s salacious image finally leading studios to begin regulating content. The Production Code would last, with varying degrees of efficacy, until 1968: a landmark year for the emerging sexual revolution. In the post sexual-revolution era, erotic cinema abounded: from hardcore pornography films gaining mainstream popularity (Deep Throat, 1972), to steamy romantic dramas (9 1⁄2 Weeks, 1986), to sensual erotic thrillers (Basic Instinct, 1992). Then there was the romantic comedy boom in the 1990s and early 2000s, but even then, the actual sex on screen was becoming less explicit. By the 2010s, graphic content in movies began to veer much more in the direction of violence, rather than sex. The era from the mid 1960s to the 1970s represented the period in which sex in cinema was employed to its most revolutionary effect.

The Production Code banned the vast majority of sexual content from films, but going into the 1960s, there grew an increasing demand for more explicit cinema. This was due in no small part to the success in the U.S. of films from foreign markets. In 1967, just one year before the abandonment of the Production Code, all four of the top-performing films in the U.S. box office were produced overseas (Lewis 243). The most significant of these films would be Blow- Up (1966), a film produced in the United Kingdom by Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni.The arthouse mystery thriller, which takes place within England’s mod subculture, contains scenes of drug use, explicit sex, and visible female nudity. The success of Blow-Up, internationally and in the U.S., would prompt MPAA president Jack Valenti to develop a new classification system that would allow Hollywood cinema to compete with foreign films, which at that time had the “unfair advantage” of “comparatively lax regimes of content regulation” (Lewis 243). In order to allow U.S. films to compete with the popularity of imported cinema, changes had to be made to the regulation of content.

1967 represented a year of booming Art Cinema influence on the U.S. movie industry. With the success of films like Blow-Up, Hollywood directors looked increasingly towards a new style of cinema with greater stylistic sensibility and more provocative content. A significant film to represent these changes would be Mike Nichols’ The Graduate, a coming-of-age comedy- drama grappling with themes of sexuality and inter-generational conflict. With the New Hollywood cinema that emerged in the sixties, films increasingly began to criticize the institutions that governed American life, no doubt influenced by the arising counter-culture and activist movements dominating the cultural conversation of the 1960s. The movie focuses on the relationship between a young man fresh out of college and his relationship with an older female neighbor. In addition to the inherently taboo nature of the relationship between a young man and a much older woman, The Graduate stuns with its critique of the American family system. Mrs. Robinson, who quietly laments over the course of the film how unexpected pregnancy lead her away from her dreams and into an unfulfilling life as a housewife, “emerges as the most complex, even tragic figure in the film” (Jonathan Krishner 47). The character of Mrs. Robinson reflects the ensuing conversation of the sixties and seventies about the role of women, especially regarding family and sexuality, that became increasingly vocalized by the rising feminist movement. She reflects a newly granted complexity for female characters: one who is openly disillusioned with the expected path for women, and who seeks out greater autonomy through taboo. She is a woman whose “dreams and high hopes—whatever they might have been—were cut short by an unwanted pregnancy, a loveless marriage, and ambivalent motherhood,” a reality that rang true for many American woman but which had to that point rarely been acknowledged (Krishner 48). In The Graduate, the taboo subject of sexuality becomes a vessel for cultural criticism.
In 1968, the Production Code, which was already floundering as filmmakers inspired by art cinema increasingly defied its regulations and moviegoers increasingly gravitated to more explicit films, was officially abandoned. It was replaced by the Motion Picture Code and Rating Administration, shortened to the term MPAA rating. The new system would classify films into one of five ratings based on age: G, for general audiences, P, for parental discretion, and R for restricted, and X for adult audiences only (these ratings would evolve in the decades to come). With that, the MPAA became “[n]o longer a cleaning house but a clearing house,” and films would now enjoy far greater leeway to explore adult themes such as sex, nudity, violence, and drug use (Doherty 15). The pressure to make all films palpable to all audiences had been lifted, and the door was opened to greater exploration in cinema with far less risk of censorship. Unlike the Production Code, the MPAA rating system was a guideline rather than a set of rules, and no longer requiring a seal of approval for appropriate content, American filmmakers “lit out together into new territory… a second Golden Age of Hollywood cinema” (Doherty 15). The dissolution of the Production Code inspired the Hollywood industry to produce films that under the previous guidelines could not have been made possible.

Released the same year the MPAA rating system officially replaced the old Production Code, Midnight Cowboy would go on to become the first “X-rated” film to win Best Picture at the academy awards. Its win is groundbreaking not only because it demonstrated that exploration of adult content in movies could open a new frontier of powerful filmmaking, but because the explicit content of the film is not strictly heterosexual. Barry Keith writes that “Midnight Cowboy is an excellent example of how the transition to the new ratings system was a highly experimental period in Hollywood filmmaking as new limits to both violence and sexual representation were tested and set” (Keith 238). In the film, a hyper-masculinized self- proclaimed cowboy from Texas travels to New York hoping to make it as a hustler for unsatisfied older women. Midnight Cowboy first presents a critique of the kind of masculinity that dominated American cinema prior to the New Age of Hollywood, a time of Westerns and stoic heroes, where the protagonist idolizes but is repeatedly crushed by the male standard. It is also “unambiguously a love story between the two men” as the character of Jim Buck falls into a pseudo-domestic relationship with the ailing scam artist Ratso who takes him in after his aspirations to be a gigolo repeatedly fail (Krishner 124). For the first time since pre-code Hollywood, audiences could see on screen uncondemned sexual and romantic relationships between people of the same gender. The content of the film reflected the voice of the LGBT rights movement that was emerging with greater force in the U.S. at the time, released only a month before the Stonewall Riots that would mark a turning point for LGBT history (Keith 235). Midnight Cowboy is a hallmark of progressive cinema for its criticism of American masculinity, its representation of homosexuality, and its acknowledgement of female sexual desire outside the binds of marriage. Awarded for its significance, Midnight Cowboy would exemplify the NewHollywood Cinema character of pushing the boundaries for the kind of content that had ever before been seen on film.

The “X” rating also took on a new meaning as hardcore pornography shifted increasingly into the mainstream. The ensuing trend of “porno-chic” was in sharp contrast to the revolutionary employment of sexual content that distinguished New Hollywood Cinema. Newly liberated by the leeway of the MPAA ratings, popular porn films argued that “sex on-screen need not be taken so seriously” (Lewis 297). The same draw that enabled films such as Midnight Cowboy to flourish—sexual content finally being permissible for complete display and discussion on screen—also allowed films such as Deep Throat (1972) and The Devil in Miss Jones (1973) to become box-office hits. In the same spirit with which New Hollywood filmmakers were inspired by the end of the Code to push the boundaries of movie content, hardcore pornography earned a newly amplified voice. From the 1960s to the 1970s, sexual content in movies developed at an exponential rate. The sexual revolution gave a platform to previously repressed voices such as those of women and of the LGBT community, but it also allowed male and heterosexual-focused pornographic content to reach new heights of mainstream popularity. With sexuality at the forefront of the cultural conversation, popular pornography reflected an inevitable extension of the “broad social trends (such as the much- discussed sexual revolution)” of its time (Lewis 297). However, not too long after the porno-chic explosion, hardcore movies were effectively banned from U.S. theatres even while the MPAA continued to allow exploration of adult content in Hollywood films (Lewis 297). Sexuality in cinema had officially reached its peak.

Although the tendency is to think of social progress as a linear incline, the history of sexual content in media suggests that the topic remains as controversial today as in previous eras. One could argue that a decline in sexual content in media is a net positive, and that sexual liberation is not a necessary priority for social progress. However, the true reason for a decline in sexual content in American cinema following the aftermath of the sexual revolution is likely profit. Beginning with the blockbusters of the 1970s and carrying through to the industry changes of the 1980s, Hollywood became increasingly focused on making high-budget movies that guarantee massive revenue. Films that are not R-rated are far more profitable, as they have a much broader appeal and permit higher audience attendance which includes children, families, and youth under 17. Statistics for all films shown in North American from 1995 to 2022 show that films with a PG-13 rating made up 48% of the market share. Out of 10,800 films given one of the five MPAA ratings (G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17), around 51% were rated R—and yet R- rated films accounted for only 26% of the total box office (“MPAA”). Studios may feel more inclined to create movies that have more accessible ratings in order to maximize box office numbers.

But, in many ways, movies that are made to turn as large of a profit as possible rather than as an artistic endeavor are symptomatic of a profound gap in culture. In 1968, Midnight Cowboy made nearly $45 million in box office sales on a budget of $3.6 million (“Midnight”). Conversely, Marvel’s The Eternals made a worldwide box office of around $400 million on an estimated $200 million budget (“Eternals”). Though the latter film technically made more money, it only made two times its production budget, while Midnight Cowboy made over twelve times its production budget, even despite the severe limitations imposed by an X rating. There is evidence that controversial films made on small budgets can still be hugely successful, yet the current Hollywood industry is dominated by a “bigger is better” mentality. The increased globalism of film could also be the culprit: Ross Douthat writes in The New York Times how perhaps “[t]he blockbuster industry has been bad for all kinds of adult movies, because it’s assumed that superhero fight scenes travel better internationally than more complex and culturally specific plots.” As American cinema adapts to perform better in international markets, it risks abandoning the socially conscious and culturally critical plots that allowed films such as The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy to make such a profound impact.

So what is next for the representation of sex in Hollywood? If the U.S. film industry continues to prioritize profit, there is unlikely to be a future for explicitly sexual or erotic cinema because of its potential to alientate audiences through restrictive MPAA ratings, and also because adult content in movies no longer carries the same weight it did in the 1960s and 1970s. Possibly, the prevalence and accessibility of hardcore pornography has replaced the draw that would bring in audiences for a movie heavy in sexual content. Where Blow-Up may have attracted massive crowds for its portrayal of nudity and sexuality that was at the time unprecedented in American movie theatres, no longer does the promise of seeing such content on screen have the same effect. Similarly, films that contain themes of sexual liberation as related to the feminist and LGBT rights movements may not have the same impact as the content has stopped being universally considered transgressive or revolutionary. In short, sexuality in cinema is highly likely to make a return because it is no longer boundary-breaking or profitable. In many ways the Hollywood of today represents a return to Production Code-era Hollywood, where the goal of movies is above all to be uncontroversial, family friendly, universally appealing, and highly profitable. Congruently, viewers who seek depictions of sexuality on the silver screen must search for it in independent and international markets. One potential source of optimism is the rising ubiquity of streaming services. Movies released for online streaming do not face the pressure to perform box office numbers, and this could be an avenue for audiences to rediscover sexuality in cinema from the comfort of their own homes.

Works Cited

Blow-Up. Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, performances by David Hemmings and Vanessa
Redgrave. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Productions, 1966.
Doherty, Thomas. “SEX, VIOLENCE, AND ADULT THEMES: The MPAA and the Birth of
the Film Ratings System.” Cinéaste, vol. 42, no. 4, 2017, pp. 10–15, Accessed 8 Apr. 2022.
Douthat, Ross. “What the 2020s Need: Sex and Romance at the Movies.” The New York Times,
20 Mar. 2021,
movies.html. Accessed 27 Apr. 2022.
“Eternals (2021) – Financial Information.” The Numbers, Nash Information Services, LLC., (2021)?msclkid=516ba570c6ca11ecaa59fde888e2b3f5#tab=summary. Accessed 27 Apr. 2022.
Grant, Barry Keith. American Cinema of the 1960s : Themes and Variations. Rutgers University Press, 2008.
The Graduate. Directed by Mike Nichols, performances by Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft. Embassy Pictures and United Artists, 1967.
Kirshner, Jonathan. Hollywood’s Last Golden Age : Politics, Society, and the Seventies Film in America. Cornell University Press, 2012.
Lewis, Jon. American Film: A History. Second edition., W. W. Norton & Company, 2019. Midnight Cowboy. Directed by John Schlesinger, performaces by Dustin Hoffman and John
Voight. United Artists, 1969.
“Midnight Cowboy (1969) – Financial Information.” The Numbers, Nash Information Services, LLC., Accessed 27 Apr. 2022.
“MPAA Ratings Movie Breakdown 1995-2022.” The Numbers, Nash Information Services, LLC., ratings?msclkid=5a42d64dc6c711ec93306fe5a8ae854c. Accessed 27 Apr. 2022.

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