While reading Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, I came across a most thought-provoking passage on Bollywood, which applies to Hollywood as well. On pg. 348, Mehta writes (emphasis mine):
Gangsters and whores all over the world have always been fascinated by the movies and vice versa; the movies are fundamentally transgressive. They are our eye into the forbidden. Most people will never see a human being murder another human being, except on screen. Most people will never see a human being have sex with any other human being, except on screen. Cinema is an outlaw medium, our flashlight into the darkest part of ourselves. For the criminals and prostitutes who live these outlaw lives, the movies are close to realistic; they are for [the prostitute] and the hit man… what a Cheever story might be for a businessman living in Westchester: a sympathetic depiction, only slightly exaggerated, of his work and life.
Upon some reflection, I realized I too have never actually witnessed death, let alone a murder. Even more shockingly, I realized I’ve never seen other people have sex, except for on film. This realization got me thinking: why do we hide such vital aspects of our social life, while simultaneously celebrating such acts so gratuitously on film?
The answer to why we so obsessively depict these acts in art may very well be because we hide them so fanatically in our daily lives. Art allows us to tell stories and make socio-political critiques that would be considered impolite if done in a more straightforward manner. While taking a class on film-criticism in college, I remember realizing that insofar as Hollywood allows artists to depict uncomfortable, private movements for public consumption and discussion, pornography then is the natural outcome of Hollywood’s censorship of sex acts. I remember watching Some Like it Hot, and thinking about how much more realistic Hollywood would be if hardcore pornography were spliced into every movie that showed everything leading up to and following the sex, but which used cinematic technique to avoid depicting the act itself.
Recognizing that film fills crucial gaps in our social narratives, however, doesn’t answer the question of why we hide these things in the first place. Of course, it’s not hard to imagine why murderers typically hide their murders. Even when the murder is government sanctioned, however, and widely accepted as beneficial (like those committed by the anti-Fascist coalition in WWII), the actual killers typically have a hard time reflecting on what they’ve done. My grandfather, who received a Purple Heart for his involvement in the Allied liberation of France, seemed to find it significantly more difficult to talk about the Germans he killed than the times they had almost killed him. In Hollywood, actual on-screen depictions of death typically serve to motivate the viewer to hate the killers. If the director wishes the audience to sympathize with the killers, the deaths will likely occur off-screen.
Sex, on the other hand, is near universally loved, and unlike murder is an act that almost everyone will engage in at some point. So why is everybody so keen on hiding their sexuality from everybody else to the point where we even find it hard to discuss, or even depict on film? Eschewing the usual Freudian analysis, or culturally specific notions of Catholic guilt and Protestant shame, I turn to Jared Diamond’s discussion on the domestication of animals in Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (pg. 169-70).
We humans don’t like to have sex under the watchful eyes of others; some potentially valuable animal species don’t like to, either. That’s what derailed attempts to domesticate cheetahs, the swiftest of all land animals, despite our strong motivations to do so for thousands of years… In the wild, several cheetah brothers chase a female for several days, and that rough courtship over large distances seems to be required to get the female to ovulate or become sexually receptive. Cheetahs usually refuse to carry out that elaborate courtship ritual inside a cage.
Perhaps humans, as a species, just happen to not like having sex in public, the same way we just happen to enjoy specific combinations of sugar, fat, and salt, or enjoy chasing balls. If we happened to be more like dogs, the world might be a very different place. As it were, we each go about our sexual business in private, then use movies to help us publicly debate and critique this vital aspect of our lives (or merely to fulfill our curiosity as to what everyone else is up to, without having to reveal anything about ourselves).