How have gender roles changed in sex scenes in TV and film?

Whenever a sex scene has appeared on TV, it is stereotypically the man in control. However, as times change, more females appearing in sex scenes are being treated more like ‘humans’, where their feelings are actually considered! It raises the question, how have gender roles in sex scenes in TV and film over time?

A recent tweet by a viewer and admirer of the popular BBC romantic drama Normal People caused her to cry as Connell asked Marianne if she was okay and if it hurt before the first time, they were about to have sex.

Over time, when TV has been concerned with sexual scenes, it has always been a taboo subject to talk about. However, over the last 20 years, sex scenes in both TV and film have become ‘less prudish’ – according to the BBC – and they are becoming more of a common sight on our TV screens. Alongside this, the role of both the man and women in the bedroom has changed.

In the past, the predictable lead up to a sex scene would start with our main male and female character, perhaps in an intimate situation such as a dinner, or something as simple as just sitting or standing in a room. Then, things start to heat up a bit, it is either a flirty atmosphere, and either character starts to edge towards each other. Or on a completely different turn of events, there may be our male and female character in a heated argument, and they have a build-up of frustration towards each other.

Then – in both situations – as they edge closer towards each other, the heat continues to build up and again, each character catches a glimpse of each other, as they stare at each other for a few seconds. Next thing we know, they are kissing, then it is most likely the women is lifted up, her legs are straddled around the man as they kiss intensely and bam, its off to the bedroom they go.

Something that is very common in these past predictable sex scenes in TV is the man would always be the lead. It is the man that grabs the women to kiss him, it’s the man who lifts the women up on to him, it’s the man who takes her to the bedroom, it’s the man who lays her upon the bed, it’s the man, it’s the man, it’s the man…

Another thing with these sex scenes that were predominately led by men was it would always be assumed the women wanted to have sex as there was no question asked by the man in question if perhaps the women was alright with it or whether she was sure she definitely wanted to “do the deed”.

This is what the viewer of Normal People talks about. It is the fact that Connell asks Marianne if she is actually ok. Something as simple as this part of his dialogue brings in a whole new level into the approach of both the man and women’s role in sex scenes in TV. The great thing about Normal People when it came out in 2020 was how it was such a relatable TV show, especially for people our age. A time in our lives where we are discovering who we really are, and in particular in relationships and ‘what we really like’ with a partner.

By Connell asking this question to Marianne in this scene, he is considering her feelings and not letting his horny brain cloud his judgement. As mentioned above in the past predictable TV sex scenes, a women’s feelings may have not even been taken into question.

This may have been because sex scenes in TV were seen as a ‘misuse of power’, a thought held by Andrew Pulver in an article published on The Guardian earlier in January this year. Pulver talks about how Keira Knightley at the time refused to film any more sex scenes in films if they were to be directed by a man due to the male gaze. It is the male gaze that can clearly be seen as the dominant factor in the filming of sex scenes in both TV and films of the past.

If you are unaware of what the male gaze is, this is a feminist theory about depicting women and the world in the visual arts. It is all made from the masculine perspective, representing women as sexual objects in order to please the male viewers. So, this simply means all sex scenes of the past where the women’s feelings have not been considered and men have led the way is all down to the male gaze. The priority of the male viewership was only considered, and whatever they thought was most pleasing to the would then be shown on screen.

There are so many past examples of sex scenes in either TV or film that has been the man leading the way. For instance, in the 1981 film Endless Love, there is a scene in particular where David is desperate to be with his ex-girlfriend Jade once again, after a family drama. After seeing her again, as she is about to leave, he runs after her and puts her down to the bed, begging for her not to leave. After a few seconds of crying, they are kissing and well, we even though we are not shown, we can guess what happens next…

Once again, it was the man David who expressed his feelings, whereas the women in this situation, Jade simply cried, kissed David and so on… Sexual politics of the past in TV and film simply shows how it is the man who is the dominant force in these sexual scenes and the women simply follows like a sheep.

However, over time, sexual and gender politics has shifted, and we are finally getting to see women’s role in the bedroom as a more respected one, where they are not treated like sexual objects and feelings are considered. This is perhaps down to the fact we are now living in a post-#MeToo world, and to avoid criticism and protest, the gender roles in TV scenes such as sex scenes are becoming more balanced.

There is this media theory called the cultivation theory, so the more you consume the more you believe. So, when girls were watching this TV sex scenes, the more they watched then the more they were going to believe this is what their role in the bedroom was going to be like. They were being taught that first time was going to such a thrilling experience, one that cannot be explained. However, if you dig a little deeper, they were being taught to play the passive role in the bedroom and let the men lead them in their sexual awakening, and any future sexual journey.

Therefore, this shift was and is needed for the gender roles in TV sex scenes. Do we really want to teach our future female generations that their feelings should not be considered when they are about to lose their virginity? Or that they are bound to play this passive role, and whomever they are about to be with is to lead the way? No, I do not think we do.

This is why Normal People is such an important example for present and future generations to look to, in order to make sure that both parties in the ‘bedroom situation’ are equal.

With many things, it shows the differentiation in generational views and how societal perceptions has changed and how they are therefore influenced in our entertainment industry. Past views saw women as these sexual objects in TV, where they would dress in the shortest dresses, or have immaculate makeup so they could please the male viewers. As time has shifted, we now see so many influential female role models who have defied these odds and they are now coming across as some of the female heroines in our favourite TV shows, as well as having an equal part to play in the bedroom.

The shift in sexual and gender politics in some of our favourite TV is needing to be considerate of both men and women. In this digitally-led world and society we live in; it is almost certain TV and film will continue to grow and continue to be as successful as it always has been.

This change for gender roles in sex scenes in TV and film is needed if we want to teach our future generations the moral rights of life when it comes to sex and relationships.

By Katie Green

Feature image: Vulture

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