“Here is a part that blows the whole door of femininity wide open and says this is a new way you can look at the modern woman,” said Rosamund Pike. The British actress was describing her Amy Elliott-Dunne, the protagonist—or antagonist, for the sake of spoiler-free ambiguity—of David Fincher’s crafty mind-fuck of a film, Gone Girl.
One of the ways Fincher and his screenwriter Gillian Flynn accomplished this feat of “femininity” was to give Amy agency. She isn’t a shrill shell of a woman yearning for male validation, a backwards archetype that’s force-fed to cinemagoers with all the subtlety of a Gitmo guard; rather, she is anything but. Another was to corrupt what feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey famously referred to as the “male gaze,” wherein women serve as passive “erotic spectacle” to accommodate active “male desire” on film. So, the first time Amy and her future husband Nick, played by Ben Affleck, make love, it’s he who has his massive noggin buried between her legs performing cunnilingus. The camera slowly pans over to Amy’s face as she writhes in ecstasy.
In the past, a scene like that—depicting a woman well on her way to achieving orgasm—would have earned the film a big, ugly NC-17 rating from the relentless prudes at the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), a shadowy trade organization that’s long deemed any degree of corporal violence as far more acceptable than female sexual pleasure, and has done more to shame male-to-female oral sex than Michael Douglas. But recently, the MPAA has loosened the stick in its collective ass and allowed women to go there whilst maintaining an R rating. Last year’s The Counselor, directed by another longtime champion of female protagonists, Ridley Scott, opened with a scene of swingin’ dick Michael Fassbender giving mouth service to Penelope Cruz. And later this year, Reese Witherspoon plays a badass hiker who receives head from a male stranger in Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild.
These new developments are all the more positive when you take into account the dark history of the MPAA and oral sex.
Just last year, actress Evan Rachel Wood unleashed a Twitter rant against the MPAA for reportedly demanding that a sex scene in Charlie Countryman between Wood and her co-star, Shia LaBeouf, be trimmed down for the film to achieve an R rating. The part that so disturbed the censors involved LaBeouf performing oral sex on Wood’s character.
She had a point. Back in 2010, censors initially slapped the domestic saga Blue Valentine with an NC-17 rating for an extended scene in which a young husband, played by Ryan Gosling, performs oral sex on his wife (Michelle Williams). The rating seemed extra hypocritical in light of the fact that the R-rated Black Swan, which was released earlier that year, featured a scene with Mila Kunis giving oral to Natalie Portman. The MPAA was, it seems, saying that a woman receiving pleasure from another woman was OK, but if it’s a woman receiving pleasure from a man, thus reversing the “gaze,” then that’s a no-no.
“There’s plenty of oral sex scenes in a lot of movies, where it’s a man receiving it from a woman—and they’re R-rated. Ours is reversed and somehow it’s perceived as pornographic,” Gosling rightfully complained. “Black Swan has an oral scene between two women and that’s an R rating, but ours is between a husband and his wife and that’s NC-17?”
Filmmaker Wayne Kramer wrote an eye-opening op-ed for Variety in 2003 detailing his bizarre experience petitioning an MPAA tribunal for an R rating after they gave his film The Cooler an NC-17, which is the kiss of death for a film since precious few theaters will then distribute it.
“My film got slammed with an NC-17 for a scene of ‘suggested’ oral sex,” wrote Kramer. “The scene starts with a close-up on Maria Bello’s face as she experiences an orgasm and cuts to a wide shot of Bill Macy rising up from between Maria’s legs, offering up the briefest glimpse of Maria’s pubic hair. We don’t see between her legs and we don’t see Bill servicing her in that shot either. It doesn’t matter that we’re witnessing two characters in love, involved in a committed relationship, expressing an act that’s as common in human sexual interaction as eating lunch or brushing one’s teeth.”
He concluded, “I think [the MPAA is] uncomfortable with realistic depictions of sexuality—the rawness of watching a woman achieve an orgasm by focusing on her face was much too real for them.”
There’s also the case of Kimberly Peirce’s Oscar-winning 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry. The MPAA demanded several cuts from the film in order to bring its NC-17 rating down to an R—one of which was a scene where Chloe Sevigny’s character is brought to orgasm via oral sex courtesy of Brandon Teena, a transgender man played by Hilary Swank. Peirce later called the experience of dealing with the MPAA “devastating.”
“The MPAA indicated that one orgasm went on too long,” said Peirce. “Who’s ever hurt by female pleasure, I argued.”
Even Robert Downey Jr. wasn’t exempt from the wrath of the MPAA. Granted, he wasn’t the global icon that he is today, but back in 1998, the ratings board demanded that a scene be trimmed from James Toback’s black comedy Two Girls and a Guy in which Downey goes down on Heather Graham—with both actors remaining fully clothed. They gave the film an NC-17, and Toback was dragged through an arduous appeals process, showing the board ten different cuts of the film before they caved.
“It didn’t just disturb them,” Toback said of the oral sex scene. “It freaked them out totally.”
So, to see one of the world’s biggest movie stars in Ben Affleck servicing a woman in one of the most hotly anticipated films of the fall seems like a step in the right direction, but there’s still a long ways to go when it comes to the narrow-mindedness of the MPAA. And don’t even get me started on their homophobia.