Why is Hollywood so afraid of oral sex?

Shia  LaBeouf and Evan Rachel Wood in a scene from Charlie Countryman.

Shia LaBeouf and Evan Rachel Wood in a scene from Charlie Countryman.

Evan Rachel Wood is as mad as hell and she’s not going to take it anymore. Specifically, she’s furious at the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America, the US’ ratings board) for demanding a scene in the upcoming Charlie Countryman, in which Shia LaBeouf’s title character goes down on Wood’s, be removed from the final edit lest the film suffer an NC-17 rating (which replaced the “X” certificate, and is generally considered to be a kiss of death for a film’s commercial prospects as many cinemas won’t screen NC-17 films).

On Twitter, Wood lashed out at the MPAA’s “censorship” in a blistering screed: “The scene where the two main characters make 'love' was altered because someone felt that seeing a man give a woman oral sex made people 'uncomfortable' but the scenes in which people are murdered by having their heads blown off remained intact and unaltered. This is a symptom of a society that wants to shame women and put them down for enjoying sex, especially when (gasp) the man isn't getting off as well!”

Scott’s open letter (of sorts) isn’t the first of its kind; Ryan Gosling famously spoke out against Blue Valentine’s being slapped with an NC-17, which he and producer Harvey Weinstein suspected was due to a scene in which Gosling’s character goes down on Michelle Williams’. 

Ryan Gosling spoke out about the representation of female sexuality after Blue Valentine was slapped with an  NC-17 rating.

Ryan Gosling spoke out about the representation of female sexuality after Blue Valentine was slapped with an NC-17 rating.

“You have to question a cinematic culture which preaches artistic expression, and yet would support a decision that is clearly a product of a patriarchy-dominant society, which tries to control how women are depicted on screen,” he wrote in a statement at the time. “The MPAA is okay supporting scenes that portray women in scenarios of sexual torture and violence for entertainment purposes, but they are trying to force us to look away from a scene that shows a woman in a sexual scenario, which is both complicit and complex. It's misogynistic in nature to try and control a woman's sexual presentation of self.”

It’s difficult to shake the notion that there is a shadowy patriarchal force at play, at least when you consider the relative dearth of scenes featuring male-on-female cunnilingus compared to woman-on-woman (Blue Is The Warmest Colour, The Kids Are Alright and Black Swan being the most recent high profile examples).

When I tried to recall even semi-recent notable scenes of (for all intents and purposes) heterosexual cunnilingus - outside of porn, obscure erotica or those films that blur the edges between the mainstream and underground, such as 9 Songs or Shortbus - I didn’t exactly come up with an embarrassment of riches.

Evan Rachel Wood lashed out at Hollywood's attitude toward male on female oral sex.

Evan Rachel Wood lashed out at Hollywood's attitude toward male on female oral sex. Photo: Getty

There’s the aforementioned, Steve McQueen’s Shame and Ridley Scott’s The Counsellor, a handful of ‘90s efforts, and before long you’re looking at classics like Don’t Look Now’s notorious 1973 roll in the hay (long rumoured to be unsimulated) between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie.

(Mr. Skin subscribers everywhere, this is your cue to roll in and reel off a comprehensive stocktake of every single muff-diving scene ever in order to disprove this entire article.)

As Ben Beaumont-Thomas notes in The Guardian, the act is “conspicuous by its absence” beyond the realms of exploitation and B-movies, “and even more so when you consider the ubiquity of the blowjob. This is arguably the trickle-down (again, sorry) effect of an industry dominated by men who still find women strange, even disgusting.”

That the MPAA apparently considers films featuring cunnilingus to be worthy of harsher classification or a complete re-edit yet apparently doesn’t flinch at increasingly sexualised violence is certainly concerning. Especially when you consider the MPAA’s history of moralising via The Hays Code.

Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch - a film jammed with rape allusions and lingering butt shots during scenes of indiscriminate violence - only won a PG-13 rating after excising a sex scene between Emily Browning and Jon Hamm’s characters. Of the cut, Browning remarked, “[The MPAA] got Zack to edit the scene and make it look less like she's into it. Zack said he edited it down to the point where it looked like he was taking advantage of her. That's the only way he could get a PG-13 [rating] and he said, 'I don't want to send that message.'"

By marking cunnilingus scenes as “explicit” - which generally guarantees an NC-17 rating unless considerable editing takes place - the MPAA places them in the same group of ratings components as sexual violence and rape.

Wood’s and Gosling’s outcry might seem an overreaction were you not to consider the ways in which film and TV sets the tone (good or bad) of the cultural dialogue. By insisting that films either edit out scenes of man-on-woman cunnilingus lest they face restrictive classifications, which in turn ensures that fewer audiences see the act as just another part of “when a man and a woman love each other very much…”, what subconscious message is the MPAA sending to viewers? 

31 comments

  • AAhhh the USA
    Show a smart bomb blowing up a family on prime time live and all is ok
    Janet Jackson shows a nipple during the Super Bowl and the world is going to end
    Go figure.

    Commenter
    J Walker
    Date and time
    December 02, 2013, 9:13AM
    • J Walker

      That about sums it up.

      Commenter
      $keptic
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      December 02, 2013, 10:37AM
    • Hollywood might be afraid to show it but you can see plenty of it on our SBS. Just tune in any late night and it's all there in your face and funded by your hard earned tax dollars....

      Commenter
      jane
      Date and time
      December 02, 2013, 11:13AM
    • Agreed.....hypocrites

      Commenter
      shemp
      Location
      melb
      Date and time
      December 02, 2013, 11:59AM
    • pffft...'america'
      Seriously, who cares what they think.
      I want to see some articles where the author has an interest in something greater/wider then hollywood and their censors versions of morality.
      Hello...there's another 200 odd countries to obsess over.

      Commenter
      Padrino
      Location
      Ellivarray
      Date and time
      December 02, 2013, 12:51PM
    • It may be a cultural thing related to the backgrounds of the censors. In some cultures although widely practised, cunnilingus is counter intuitively regarded as a bit gay. I know this is true because "The Sopranos" told me.
      It's weird how realistic portrayals of crime, rape, torture and murder are ok but consensual sex between adults is still to be hidden.
      No wonder people in this country see bushwhacking backshooters like Ned Kelly as worthy of respect.

      Commenter
      Rormungous
      Date and time
      December 02, 2013, 4:21PM
  • Hollywood is not the only repository about cunnilingual coyness. Australia's own censorship laws restrict it. But there's plenty on internet porn if you want to see someone 'going the growl' as they used to say. Not sure if it would meet Ryan Gosling's definition of 'artistic expression' but strong sex scenes pull in the punters whether in mainstream movies or porn, don't they?

    Commenter
    beria
    Date and time
    December 02, 2013, 9:27AM
    • "It’s difficult to shake the notion that there is a shadowy patriarchal force at play ..."

      I'm surprised that this has only just occurred to you. The defense of 'artistic expression' has applied almost exclusively to female actresses who are compelled to 'artistically express themselves' getting naked, getting rooted, insulted, beaten, injured, constrained, assaulted and murdered by men in a sexualised way. Female artists will say it's 'challenging' and 'the most intense and profound role of my career, *gush*', male directors will say it's 'pushing boundaries', it's free artistic expression man'. Pushing boundaries my arse.This is nothing new. It's been going on for centuries. Male 'artist', female 'muse', preferably naked and sexualised to please the male gaze and bolster the male ego. True art would challenge this tired, sexist trope, not blandly perpetuate it ad nauseum.

      Commenter
      Kim
      Date and time
      December 02, 2013, 9:37AM
      • Isn't the shadowy patriarchal force at play here supposed to be those males who control hollywood and who are squeamish about cunnilingus on the screen? Supposedly, they like male on female more than all female action (a shaky conclusion, I reckon). There is actually a lot of all-female erotica in mainstream Hollywood movies. Whereas you recite the feminist mantra about censorship of erotica. I call that a tired trope.

        Commenter
        beria
        Date and time
        December 02, 2013, 12:34PM
    • Hi Ms Bastow,

      I can't speak for all, but I am fairly sure that I take my instruction in these matters from my partner, not from Hollywood (just as I would not take legal advice, IT advice, or archeological history advice from Hollywood).

      These are the same people who still pull out horrifically racist depictions of asian people on shows like "Two Broke Girls." It's as if the entire place was filled with caricatures of Ja'mie King.

      Relying on Hollywood for cultural sensitivity is just silly.

      Commenter
      WKCIA
      Date and time
      December 02, 2013, 9:40AM

      More comments

      Comments are now closed