The entertainment industry has been rocked by the coming-to-light of systemic sexual misconduct, with the list of accused sexual harassers growing longer by the day: Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Matt Lauer, Garrison Keillor, Charlie Rose, James Franco, Aziz Ansari, and doubtless many more to come.
The illumination of these dark realities in Hollywood (among many other industries and cultural spheres, including the church), has led to a much-needed #MeToo conversation about cycles of abuse and cultures of misogyny and harassment. It has been a good and necessary thing, as the unveiling of hidden sin always is.
At this year’s Golden Globes ceremony, Hollywood stars wore black to mark the #MeToo moment, and several speeches called out discrimination and abuse. Many in attendance donned pins that read “Time’s Up,” referencing a new campaign launched this month to combat systemic sexual harassment in the workplace.
The “Time’s Up” name fits a larger narrative that suggests a reckoning has arrived and a new day has come. Indeed, a jarring October cover of Variety—Hollywood’s most important trade publication—featured Weinstein’s face with the headline “Game Over.”
“The conversation in Hollywood is pointing to a major shift,” Brent Lang and Elizabeth Wagmeister wrote in the Variety article. “The hope in the industry is that the alleged abhorrent behavior by Weinstein and the other perpetrators will trigger some genuine soul-searching across the entertainment business and beyond.”
But in what sense is the “game” of a sexualized Hollywood culture really over? And how wide-ranging will the “major shift” be?
Because while it is certainly a good thing that systemic harassment and predatory sexual behavior are being called out and exposed, the reality is Hollywood has always been one of the chief purveyors of sex as commodity and sexualized bodies as cheap goods for widespread consumption.
While it is certainly a good thing that systemic harassment and predatory sexual behavior are being called out and exposed, the reality is Hollywood has always been one of the chief purveyors of sex as commodity.
If it’s true that “you reap what you sow,” as one of Weinstein’s victims told Variety, then the entertainment industry at large must seriously consider how its prevailing views of sex have sown the seeds of the present sordid scandals.
Sex on Screen as Consumer Commodity
Hollywood has had a libertine approach to sex for most of its history. In the earliest days of the film industry, producers realized that sex on screen sells. Censors tried to rein in the sexual content of Hollywood’s output during the Production Code era in the 1930s–1950s, but especially since the 1960s the sexualization of Hollywood’s output has led to one taboo after another being broken.
The liberalizing of Hollywood’s approach to sex and nudity in the 1960s–’70s coincided, unsurprisingly, with the rapid growth of pornography production, which has since ballooned into a $15 billion industry in the United States. While the porn industry is overt in its positioning of sex—and the sexualized, dehumanized bodies of its actors—as consumer commodities, the approach of Hollywood in its films and TV shows is not vastly different.
The prevalence of sex and sexualized (often naked) bodies in today’s films and TV shows (including Golden Globe nominee Game of Thrones) is just one way Hollywood reveals its understanding of sex as a lust-driven consumer commodity. The very idea of sexual acts and sexualized bodies on a screen, for the gaze of the masses, presents sex in consumer terms—inviting third-party observers into a sexual intimacy that doesn’t belong to them but which feels like their prerogative to consume.
The very idea of sexual acts and sexualized bodies on a screen, for the gaze of the masses, presents sex in consumer terms—inviting third-party observers into a sexual intimacy that doesn’t belong to them but which feels like their prerogative to consume.
Nudity and depictions of sex aside, the dominant narrative and thematic positioning of sex in Hollywood narratives is that lust and sexual desire are not to be denied if there is consent. Anything goes if it feels true. Love is love. And while “consent as the only boundary” feels fair and freeing in Hollywood’s eyes, the reality is it only exacerbates the pornified culture that sadly sexualizes every person and every relational possibility.
Woeful Sexual Ethics of Two Recent Films
Consider two acclaimed 2017 films nominated for Golden Globes and will likely be nominated for Academy Awards: The Shape of Water and Call Me By Your Name. Both are well made and critically acclaimed, and both embody Hollywood’s libertine sexual ethics.
Guillermo del Toro won the Best Director Golden Globe for The Shape of Water, a Cold War-era sci-fi drama that has its charms but unfortunately pushes the “love is love” conception of sex in disturbing, perverse directions. The film’s heroine, Elisa (Sally Hawkins), is a mute janitor who befriends an amphibious beast (think Creature from the Black Lagoon) held captive in a secret government laboratory. But Elisa and the non-human creature soon become more than friends, and their romance is sexually consummated in an explicit scene of brazen, no-shame interspecies sex.
Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name has received immense praise and many awards in recent months. Like last year’s Oscar Best Picture winner Moonlight, the film is an artfully made, coming-of-age gay romance. It stars Timothée Chalamet as a 17-year-old boy who embarks on a summer romance with a 24-year-old man (Armie Hammer) in 1980s Italy. Though consensual, the man-boy sexual relationship has raised ethical concerns from both conservative and liberal media alike, with one outlet saying the film “seeks to mainstream pederasty . . . in a warm and fuzzy way.”
What’s especially sad about these films is that they would have been much more interesting had they explored the complexities of human connection and desire through the lens of sacrifice and restraint. Both films see themselves as radical, but they actually take the easy way out by perpetuating the “give in to your urges!” ethos of our over-sexualized, under-humanized age. Isn’t there more to human identity and connection than unrestrained sexuality? These films—among many others in Hollywood—would be more interesting if their characters accepted boundaries and limits and explored love through the lens of sacrificial compassion more than carnal inhibition.
Both films see themselves as radical, but they actually take the easy way out by perpetuating the ‘give in to your urges!’ ethos of our over-sexualized, under-humanized age.
This year’s excellent indie film Columbus provides one refreshing example of how this can be done. The film explores a friendship between a man (John Cho) and a woman (Haley Lu Richardson) that is intimate and humanizing but not sexualized. Far from prudish, the film is daring in how it respects its characters’ dignity—not by denying their physicality and sexuality, but by exploring their intellectual, emotional, and spiritual depths with tenderness and subtlety.
Playing with Fire
The irony of the Golden Globes ceremony is that even as sexual exploitation was roundly denounced on stage and a supposed new dawn of Hollywood’s moral conscience was heralded, films like The Shape of Water and Call Me By Your Name—and their respective depictions of bestiality and pederasty—were celebrated. Some presenters still wore revealing dresses with plunging necklines and see-through fabrics. There were advertisements for the latest installment in the Fifty Shades erotic romance franchise. The prevailing ethos of Hollywood was further perpetuated: sex is a commodity and a free-for-all beyond the sole boundary of consent.
But God did not create sex to be a free-for-all, and to the extent that individuals and societies reject this notion and insist on sexual freedom, we will be reaping many more Weinsteins (and worse) for years to come.
In his excellent book Marriage and the Mystery of the Gospel, Ray Ortlund says, “Sex is like fire. In the fireplace, it keeps us warm. Outside the fireplace, it burns the house down.”
Sex is like fire. In the fireplace, it keeps us warm. Outside the fireplace, it burns the house down.
Sex can be life-giving and pleasurable when it’s in its proper place: the fireplace of marriage. But when it’s not in its proper place, it is destructive. Every time.
For decades Hollywood has proliferated narratives and images of sex outside of the fireplace, and it’s no surprise that there are subsequent wildfires everywhere. In workplaces, in homes, on movie sets, and even in our own churches, we are getting burned because we’ve grown accustomed to the fire outside of the fireplace.
It’s not all Hollywood’s fault, of course. Christians have been too silent and complicit in areas where we too have played with the fire of sexuality outside the fireplace of God’s design. It’s easy to decry extremes like bestiality and pederasty, but what about the “outside the fireplace” sex that seem more innocuous, like sex between cohabiting couples or the occasional porn-watching in the privacy of one’s bedroom? And what about our permissive attitudes toward the sexual misconduct of our political and religious leaders? Too often Christians have been quick to blame the other side but slow to reckon with our own bad behavior.
Hollywood may not be able to muster the moral clarity and restraint it needs to truly institute a “major shift” away from the sex-as-commodity approach—the very approach that has given rise to #MeToo cultures of abuse. But if Hollywood can’t, Christians must.
Hollywood may not be able to muster the moral clarity and restraint it needs to truly institute a ‘major shift’ away from the sex-as-commodity approach—the very approach that has given rise to #MeToo cultures of abuse. But if Hollywood can’t, Christians must.
We must be clear and consistent that God’s design for sex is good and that anything outside of his design leads to harm. We must resist the matches, gasoline, and kindling that come at us from every mediated direction. We must recognize that playing with fire outside the fireplace may be pleasurable, but it always leaves us with scars.
Church as Trauma Center
There are burn victims everywhere, bearing the scars of #MeToo abuse, sexual guilt, identity confusion, and more. How should the church respond?
We should be sober about the real threats of playing with fire, careful to not be reckless pyros who make the problem worse. This means we should exercise a lot more discernment in the media we consume. As an avid moviegoer, these are words of caution I especially need to hear.
But defensive discernment is only half the solution; the church must also be a sort of trauma center for the burn victims of the sexual revolution. We’re called to avoid the wildfire, yes; but we’re not called to avoid those it burns. Rather, we’re called to love and serve them even in their brokenness (here is one great example). We’re called to invite them to embrace Christ with us, to heal and hope alongside us—all of us—who bear the scars of sexual sin.