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A Brief History on the Visual Language of Sex in Cinema

A Brief History on the Visual Language of Sex in Cinema

A Brief History of the Visual Language of Sex in Cinema | Afrocritik

Films like Scores to Settle and Highway to the Grave were pretty much erotic thrillers which banked on the sex appeal of bombshell actors like Omotola Jalade-Ekehinde and Regina Askia…

By Victory Hayzard Solum

Most recently, the 2024 Meji Alabi directorial debut feature, Water & Garri, was released to some unflattering critical reception. Its story about a fashion designer who returns to the city of her birth for a proper confrontation with the source of her traumas and grief was panned for being humdrum and poorly fleshed out. What was undeniable, however, was the film’s visual appeal as it came from the masterful hands of Alabi who has had a long experience in the music video industry; an industry which prides itself on marrying precise visuals to tone, lyrics, and thematic ideas. 

The breadth of Alabi’s visual inventiveness can be felt most especially in scenes of a more sensual nature, particularly a midday dream where the very motions of sex and sexuality resemble the visual language and editing of RnB music videos of the ’90s and early 2000s. This cannot be ignored as a recent and most imaginative attempt to expand the palette via which sex may be depicted in Nollywood films. 

However, this freedom to experiment visually with sex was not always free of criticism. Not in Nollywood. And certainly not in the history of cinema.

They get ready to kiss, begin to kiss, and kiss and kiss and kiss in a way that brings down the house every time.” 

So said the promotional for William Heise’s The Kiss. The year was 1896, and Edison Studios, the first film studio in the United States, had just adapted the final scene of the stage musical, The Widow Jones, to screen. What it was, in fact, was a silent film of about eighteen seconds, featuring nothing but the actors, May Irwin and John Rice, kissing, in what is now sometimes referred to as the first sex scene in cinema history. And, perhaps, just as anticipated, it did bring the house down. Legend tells of the Roman Catholic Church calling instantly for the censorship of the film and calls for police action at venues where it was shown. Reviews went as far as calling the spectacle beastly and disgusting. But the lid had already come off Pandora’s box, and in little time, more movies featured kissing.

Sex and portrayals of sex have had a long controversial history with cinema. This is, of course, due to the act’s hallowed status in many of the world’s cultures; a status which would rather much have sex spoken of in hushed tones, if at all, in a treatment not much different from taboo. Cinema, however, has its roots in artistic expression which, flowing from humanity’s deepest impulses, is forever chafing against the strictures and boundaries of conventional society. 

The artistic preoccupation with the delights and dangers of sex goes back millennia, with one of the oldest examples being the Ain Sakhri Figurine, a sculpture uncovered around Bethlehem in 1933, dating back some 11,000 years. The emergence of sex in Cinema could only therefore have been an inevitability; a question of when, which, all things considered, proved to be not so long, after all.

The attempts to curtail the influx of sexual content in motion pictures as a symptom of moral decadence have been myriad and persistent. In Hollywood, one of these attempts included the establishment of the Hays Code, a prefigure of today’s rating system. Its 1927 list featured prohibitions against wrongs like profanity, suggestive nudity, white slavery, interracial sex, ridicule of the clergy, and cautioned against depictions of excessive kissing lasting more than three seconds, depictions of men and women sleeping together in the same bed, murder, and rape. A formalisation of the Hays Code— hinged on support from the Catholic Church and other religious groups— meant that films lacking the Hays Code Seal of Approval were prohibited from release at American theatres, with the production studios liable for a fine.

Typically, what this meant was that filmmakers simply found more creative ways of including sex in their films. Short of making sexually explicit films but marketing them in the disguise of educational material as was done with films like The Birth of a Baby (1938), more mainstream films chose the route of suggestion and titillation, with shower scenes becoming more and more necessary. Elia Kazan’s 1951 film, A Streetcar Named Desire, for instance, included a morning-after scene of Kim Hunter lying in bed in a simulation of post-coital bliss. Other times, the films chose a more metaphorical route, with the most famous possibly being the shot of a train entering a tunnel at the end of Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest in 1959. Of course, things were not to remain in stasis for very long.

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In France, certain critics of traditional French cinema noted the continuity of themes, styles, and ideas in the films of directors like Hitchcock, Orson Welles, and their countryman, Jean Renoir. They lauded the ingenuity with which indie classics like 1953’s Little Fugitive were made. Soon, they began to champion the case of the director as the author or “auteur” of a film, infusing it with his own vision and idiosyncrasies. In his 1948 manifesto, “The Birth of New Avant-Garde: The Camera-Stylo“, Alexandre Astruc argues for cinema as a new mode of expression on as equal a level as a novel or a painting. He calls it “a form in which and by which an artist can express his thoughts, however abstract they may be, or translate his obsessions exactly as he does in the contemporary essay or novel.”

The movement borne of these ideas became known as the French New Wave Cinema, and with its emphasis on the auteur theory would go on to influence world cinema. What this meant was that by 1960 when the Hitchcock film, Psycho, featured a man together in bed with a woman wearing a bra in its opening scene, mainstream cinema was well along on the journey of recording the truer impulses of the artists involved, however tame, moralistic, brutal, bohemian, or racy they proved to be.

By the 90s (and with the advent of Nigerian cinema, or what is now popularly referred to as Nollywood), mainstream cinema already had a template for what a sex scene ought to look like. Generally, this featured non-diegetic music, two characters who were all most definitely heterosexual, shot indoors, in low light, soft focus, and in slow motion, with the woman in various ecstatic contortions, including the almost complementary shots of her breasts.

The ’90s was the era of the erotic thriller. Whether it was the novelist going on murder sprees inspired by her books, the anxious doctor waking up to the urges of the city he once thought familiar, or billionaires offering millions for a night with another’s beloved wife, the film industry was brimming with stories of a salacious kind, and Nollywood was not too long in catching up.

Chika Onukwufor’s Glamour Girls (1994) was a two-part movie which, set in the world of mistresses, cougars, and call girls, sought to highlight the inventiveness, desperation, and coldblooded ruthlessness of society women in pursuit of financial freedom. A sensational premise in itself, the movie stunned audiences to no end with stories of Nigerian sex workers in faraway lands submitting themselves to depravities like bestiality in exchange for money. Of particular notoriety, however, would be the scene which featured Zack Orji cavorting with Eucharia Anunobi in a bathtub, leaving few suspicions as to her actual state of undress.

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Films like Scores to Settle and Highway to the Grave were pretty much erotic thrillers which banked on the sex appeal of bombshell actors like Omotola Jalade-Ekehinde and Regina Askia, albeit situated in the indigenous metaphysics of the Nigerian people. Few of such movies, however, ever approached the dare of Glamour Girls.

The staple Nollywood sex scene looked something like this: a pair stood opposite each other, sometimes kissing; the camera panned away in wait for falling clothes; then a cut to the partners moaning and groaning under the sheets. However unimaginative this may appear to the contemporary audience, it did seem to serve for the better part of nearly two decades.

With sex came sex symbols, and Nollywood was replete with stars like Omotola, Genevieve Nnaji, Mercy Johnson, Tonto Dikeh, Ramsey Nouah, Jim Iyke, Chidi Mokeme, and several others gracing magazine covers and dominating lists of Sexiest Actors from top publications. Nigeria’s biggest burst of cinematic eroticism, however, would come not from Nollywood, but from her West African neighbour, Ghana.

In the late 2000s, while Nollywood was still very much invested in movies about campus cultism, internet fraud, and other such vices, the country saw a sudden influx of erotic thrillers from Ghana, which featured stars like Majid Michel, John Dumelo, Jackie Appiah, Yvonne Nelson, Van Vicker, Martha Ankomah, and Prince David Osei. From titles like Heart of Men (reissued in Nigeria as Forbidden Fruit) to Love and Sex, Big Girls, and Hot Fork, these were movies that made no pretence of their intent to titillate, pasting on mid-level plots of suspense and intrigue.

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With all these indulgences, a concern comes up in criticisms of cinema, and art in general, with regards to its treatment of women as objects existing solely for their utility in the attainment of some masculine design. In terms of plot, this manifests itself in the existence of female characters who are never realised in themselves, except in their capacity as love interests, mothers, objects of lust, or sufferers of particular hurts so as to drive the character development of male characters. Visually, this finds an outlet in the hypersexualisation of female characters in the service of masculine interests. This is conceptualised in the theory of “The Male Gaze” coined by Laura Mulvey.

In her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema“, Mulvey lays the charge that there is nothing passive about looking in cinema, as it is an act of deriving pleasure somewhat tantamount to scopophilia. She states further, “In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role, women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong sexual connotations. Woman displayed as sexual object is the leitmotif of erotic spectacle in our society.”

In the attempt to address concerns like these, calls have been made for the writing of better realised female characters as well as better inclusiveness for female directors and others of more diverse origins to bring a balance in the ways of seeing. The Bechdel Test, for instance, exists to challenge the idea that female characters be rooted in some service to the design of male characters. Informally speaking, a film passes the Bechdel test if it has at least two female characters who talk to each other about issues other than a man. However, one possible offshoot of concerns like these is that sex scenes seem to be on the decline in the mainstream movies of world cinema.

In a 2024 study highlighted by The Economist, statistics were provided to show that sex scenes have seen a 40% decrease in cinema since the year 2000, even in film genres like action thrillers with a predominantly male audience. Also among the speculated reasons for this decline are shifts in cultural norms, globalisation, and the need to yield box office returns across national lines with varying sensibilities, the rise of streaming services, as well as the instant availability of adult content elsewhere.

It is worthy of note, however, that this waning of the sexual impulse is far from taking root in Nigerian cinema. Beginning right on the cusp of the 2010s, the phase now commonly referred to as “New Nollywood” has seen numerous shifts in the bid to bring the Nigerian film up to the production standards obtainable everywhere else in cinema. From new camera techniques to SFX and genre experiments, these attempts have been met with popular support and varying levels of success. This has also meant an adoption of as basic a level of the visual language employed in portrayals of sex, and in recent years have since seen a push in experimentation.

No longer is the Nollywood sex scene relegated indoors as evident in Adekunle Adejuyigbe’s 2018 thriller, The Delivery Boy. 2019 brought with it an assembly of characters with full rear nudity, such as in the Kenneth Gyang crime drama, Oloture. Kunle Afolayan‘s 2022 epic fantasy movie, Anikulapo, shook up the country with SFX ingenuity in prosthetic breasts. The 2023 crime thriller, Shanty Town, added the phrase “body double” to the popular lexicon with regards to filmmaking. And in a move guaranteed to satisfy the proddings of baseline proponents of the female gaze, the same year saw the depiction of a bathing man in full rear nudity, in CJ. Fiery Obasi‘s Mami Wata.

Mulvey, in her earlier referenced essay, speaks of the tendency for sexual visuals the distract from or “freeze the flow of action” in films catering to the male gaze. Perhaps this is nowhere more evident than in the 2022 thriller series, Blood Sisters, as directed by Biyi Bandele and Kenneth Gyang. There, one is inundated with multiple scenes of ravishment from a couple who seem to have no other form of communication, and in a way which never seems integral to the narrative on hand. Also noticeable is the multiplicity of naked bodies to gaze upon, which sparked some interesting conversation about spectacle and the politics of nudity. Perhaps the days of circumspection about matters of sex in Nigerian cinema are not so far off as one imagines.

As the push continues for more artistic renditions of the sexual impulse in Nigerian cinema, however, one wonders how long before we get something approaching the simple poetry similar to that in Bong Joon-ho’s 2019 dark comedy, Parasite. Not a sex scene in the strictest of senses, it however captures the quotidian delights and spontaneous urgency that sometimes attends the sexual act in real life, in a way that never disrupts, but rather carries the narrative on. Or perhaps, minimalism is not what’s required in a society with repressive social mores as ours. Perhaps what we need is someone matching the artistic exhibitionist zest of Lars von Trier exposing and prodding at our very pretensions towards sex. Whatever the case, when that day comes, as it is only ever a matter of time, one wishes the people the fortitude to realise that it is only art, that it exists in and of itself, and that it is at its purest precisely when it brings the house down.

Victory Hayzard Solum is a freelance writer with an irrepressible passion for the cinematic arts. Here he explores the sights, sounds, and magic of the shadow-making medium and their enrichment of the human experience. A longstanding ghostwriter, he may have authored the last bestselling novel you read.

Photo by Kurt Francois on Unsplash

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