Should history be censored?
Technically it has been. The story of humanity has long been a filtered narrative told through the perspective of the few who have exerted power and repression on others. But what if we think about censorship in its modern meaning? Are there parts of history that are too scandalous to repeat?
Since 2015 the British Film Institute (BFI) has released several archived films and reels to the public through a project called Britain on Film. These are movies that most people would rarely be able to find or watch unless they were at a special screening or festival. One of their recent unveilings is their collection of erotica cinema that features movies going as back as 1896. While this has been met with some controversy, over whether it’s appropriate or not, in an interview with The Guardian the BFI curator Vic Pratt explained this is a way “to tell the story of illicit celluloid pleasure from the beginnings of film to the present day.”
We cannot tell the story of humanity without mentioning sex. In the same way, we cannot tell the history of the silver screen without mentioning the part erotica has played in its development. Throughout most of the early days of cinema, content that was deemed titillating was mostly illegal or difficult to acquire. However, if we look at the offerings, we’ll notice that what was considered racy at the turn of the twentieth century was a bland option by the forties and fifties, not even mentioning the Golden Age of Porn that came soon after.
The oldest film in the catalogue is a voyeuristic silent film titled A Victorian Lady in Her Boudoir. What’s interesting about seeing this woman take off her dress, corset, and socks, and then sitting in her chair, while wearing still her slip, is her expression. She’s not moving in a seductive manner; she’s not even giving a wink or a hey there. She’s looking as excited as I would when I get home at 4 AM and realize I don’t want to go to sleep in the clothes I rode the subway on. I guess that what made it sexy back then was the secretive perspective. The film is presented as if the viewer had found a corner inside the wardrobe, between the woman’s coats and handbags, and sat there waiting for the show to begin.
This point of view continued into the fifties; however, the film’s stars by then would actually flirt with the audience. They’d shimmy out of her skirts and giggle with the other women around them, as in the 1955 Beauty in Brief short film that is faux home movie of a bride-to-be showing of her wedding night outfits to her bridesmaids. Here the audience would get a little more skin; however, the actress’s placement and movement would avoid any full-on nudity being shown. It was more about suggestion and playful stripping.
What’s curious about this Peeping Tom persona, adopted by both the filmmaker and viewer, is that it tells something about that moment in time, as well as the role of women in society and media. It was okay to have this perspective if your environment considered that watching a naughty film made you the equivalent of the guy who actually did climb up the window to your neighbor’s window and waited under her bed to get a glimpse of her changing. It’s also not shocking to have women be seen as just bodies on screen, when “proper” films had them as walking mannequins who were only there to be attractive to the male characters.
During the sexual revolution of the sixties, erotic film left its constraints and some of its influence tipped into mainstream cinema. A clear example of this is when in 1966 Jane Birkin’s pubic hair was visible in the film Blowup. With the cat out of the bag, the porn industry left the back alleys and clandestine rooms and became the provider of films focused on arousing the public. Filmmakers such as George Harrison Marks, Arnold Miller, and Stanley Long set the tone for a new age of titillating content.
Laura Mulvey’s 1973 essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” has become the go-to text for decoding the role of women in film. The term male gaze, which implies that female characters on film are made with the purpose of being admired by their co-protagonists as well as by their male audience, revolutionized the way we perceive and make films. This is not to say that the female filmmakers prior to this were being sexist, but that they were constrained by the limits of what the public demanded and what Hollywood provided constantly. The feminist term for movies made by women about women, and to be enjoyed by women, would be called the female gaze.
What’s incredible about these films is that they were so out there; they knew they’d achieve relative success, because sex always sells. This provided them with the freedom to be progressive in ways the mainstream film would not be able to until decades later. The 1979 Girls and Boys Together is considered the first documented movie that includes a gay couple in a sexual situation. Whether you like erotica or feel that its an inherently sexist industry, you can’t deny its influence over culture. This is not unlike when during prohibition, members of the LGBT community could be open about their orientation at speakeasies, since everyone drinking in a backroom was already admitting to one sin or another.
Before anyone gets on a high horse regarding the place of erotica in the development of society, let’s go back to Mulvey’s essay: “Traditionally the woman displayed has functioned on two levels: as erotic object for the characters within the screen story, and as erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium, with a shifting tension between the looks on either side of the screen.” While we can discuss about how the current adult film industry is demeaning for women, we can’t point the finger there when the mainstream option continues to suffer from the same. We’re still seeing movies in the theaters were the female characters are there for the male’s entertainment only. But perhaps, it won’t be long before Hollywood catches up with whatever the porn industry is presenting today.
Not only was racy film considered clandestine, illustrations and comic books were too. Read the story of the fetish creations from the man who brought us Superman.
You can check out the entire collection titled The Pleasure Principle on BFI.