Screening Sex by Linda Williams

[23 February 2009]

By Erik Hinton

Texts that address sexuality are generally overcome by their subject. Either writers can step lightly around the issue and bury their heads, or they can grandstand it in all its splendor and make sex some aberrant, genital-centric circus. “I Love Lucy” or “The Real World”: either way, sex suffers and is shuttled back behind closed doors. Either way, sex becomes unnatural. Linda Williams understands this tension, succeeding in Screening Sex in writing a tract on sexuality that is uncompromising without being outrageous, a text that embraces sexuality without making it a spectacle.

In the preface, Linda Williams writes, “Sex is rarely just repressed or liberated; it is just as often incited and stimulated and nowhere more so than by media.” Williams is a professor at UC Berkeley and, arguably, the founder of pornographic studies in academia. She goes on to argue that we must be aware that having and exposing sex may be tools of social oppression just as easily as prohibition and censorship. Later, when discussing the sensational sex of exploitation films of the ‘60s, Williams writes that by including only outrageous sex, such films, “make all sex acts seem dangerous, excessive, and, in their very convulsiveness, verging on violence.”

With such consideration, Williams continues in Screening Sex to chart the history of sex in cinema. From its awkward origins though its long period of prohibition by the censoring Hays Code and unto its modern exhibition, Williams writes the story of sex’s maturation in film. Side by side with anecdotes of her own sexual flourishing, Williams suffuses the history of cinematic sexuality with a remarkable humanity. Comparing her first awareness of sexuality to cinema’s self-awareness of sexuality, Williams writes, “the history of screening sex…is a dynamic of deferred knowledge that either comes too late or a shocking knowledge that comes too soon and upon which one…simply gapes.”

As cinematic sexuality matures, Williams evenly treats both popcorn flicks and pornography. Such an approach is incredibly rewarding. Williams illustrates the prurient undertones of seemingly benign golden-era Hollywood films while defending the social and cultural merit of Deep Throat. In doing so, she manages to erase much of the knee-jerk responses to her more graphic material. She manages to transcend status as some academic shock jock.

My only objection to the book is a somewhat toothless one. Screening Sex is replete with full page spreads of graphic sex in still shots from movies. Often, such displays are only moderately informative and I question how many of the photos were included to assert Williams’ pornography cred. As if to remind readers that, as a founder of pornographic studies, she is an arbiter of what is vulgar and what is academic. Furthermore, these made the book somewhat difficult to read in public places.

Ultimately what Williams achieves is admirable. Progressing from her groundbreaking work Hardcore, Williams’ temperate treatment of pornography next to classic cinema begins to do the work of assimilating the genre into the mainstream. Furthermore, it tills the soil of film, in general, to show how very sexual it can be, even without explicit sex. Screening Sex should prove not only a landmark in film studies, but that of sexuality as well.

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