Sexy movies are a hard sell to Gen Z. Can Poor Things change that?

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While speaking with reporters about his film Poor Things earlier this fall, director Yorgos Lanthimos took a moment to address the spicy elephant in the room.

“Why is there no sex in movies anymore?” the Greek filmmaker wondered. He was being somewhat facetious — his latest feature stars Emma Stone as a dead Victorian woman who, after being brought back to life by a mad scientist, sets forth on her journey toward sexual liberation. 

The story is funny, the nudity is plentiful — and per Stone, who was also a producer on the film — the sex scenes serve the story “in such an important way.”

Lanthimos’ film — and his qualms — come just as a recent study from UCLA found that a good chunk of Gen Z just doesn’t really want to see sex in TV and movies anymore.

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Day 69:02Emma Stone’s latest movie Poor Things is a ‘steampunk gender-flipped Frankenstein’ story with a feminist bent — but should you watch it?

Poor Things has one of the weirder and darker movie premises of the year: a Victorian-era mad scientist brings a dead woman back to life and replaces her brain with that of her unborn child. The result is a madcap coming-of-age tale that flips patriarchal stereotypes on their heads. Jane Crowther, editor-in-chief of Total Film delivers her verdict on whether you should watch it.

Of young people surveyed between the ages of 13 to 24, 47.5 per cent think sex isn’t needed for plot development in TV shows and movies. (Pause here for collective gasp.)

Meanwhile, movie critics and filmmakers are increasingly bemoaning that mainstream film has become sexless — or at the very least, prudish in its portrayal of sex.

A 2019 report in Playboy used IMDB data to conclude that the 2010s saw the fewest sex scenes on screen since the 1960s. It should be noted that the Hays Code era — a period of Hollywood censorship that forbade the depiction of sex in cinema, along with other taboos — lasted from 1934 until 1968.

Critics and filmmakers shared their theories as to why the younger generation might be rejecting sexy cinema and why depicting sex on screen is important.

The Weeknd and Lily-Rose Depp in a scene from HBO’s The Idol. Culture critic Gabrielle Drolet says shows like Euphoria and The Idol have featured many sex scenes that are ‘so gratuitous and grotesque, almost, and unnecessary.’ (Eddy Chen/HBO)

‘Gratuitous and grotesque’ sex scenes

Gabrielle Drolet, a culture writer and cartoonist in Montreal who is in her mid-twenties, said it’s “so common to see sex depicted in a way that feels really frivolous.”

“I’m thinking of shows like Euphoria, or to name another Sam Levinson show, The Idol, where there were so many sex scenes [that] were so gratuitous and grotesque, almost, and unnecessary.”

But she noted that dismissing all sex scenes would mean that “we’re missing out on a pretty big part of the human experience and how people experience their relationships.”

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It seems like there are fewer steamy scenes on screen these days. While that might be a plus if you’re watching TV with your grandma, it begs the question: what do we lose when sex scenes aren’t as mainstream? Culture writers Rad Simonpillai and Angela Watercutter dive into the debate around intimacy onscreen. Plus, Jeopardy! and Canada Reads champion Mattea Roach shares their love for Kate Beaton’s Ducks.

Drolet was surprised to see the strong reaction provoked by a sex scene in Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster Oppenheimer this summer.

The scene set the internet aflame (or rather, gave it a cold shower), as some viewers mocked it for showing the nuclear physicist rather morbidly reciting to his lover the line from Hindu scripture’s the Gita that he later became associated with: Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.

“It’s really common to see violent scenes,” said Drolet. “But as soon as sex comes up, that becomes a really big complicated issue, whereas we’re so desensitized to everything else.”

Several movies released this year that were sold to audiences based on their raunchiness or sensuality seemed to lack sex appeal in their execution.

Take the Jennifer Lawrence flick No Hard Feelings, a sex comedy that didn’t feature much sex, or the recent TV adaptation of Fatal Attraction, which updated its gender politics for a modern audience but fell short of its steamy, sweaty forebearer in the sex scene department.

Still frame from the film Fitting In. Emily Hampshire and Maddie Ziegler stand in a doorway.
From left, Emily Hampshire and Maddie Ziegler are seen in Fitting In, an upcoming film by Canadian director Molly McGlynn about a teenage girl diagnosed with a reproductive disorder that turns her life — and sex life — upside down. (TIFF)

Canadian director Molly McGlynn’s upcoming film Fitting In, about a teenage girl diagnosed with a reproductive disorder that turns her life — and sex life — upside down, said she wanted to explore the emotion of sex in her movie, not the mechanics.

“The intersection of what I’m seeing in culture about what being a woman is and how sexuality relates to that is really kind of interesting,” she told CBC News, noting the range between a film like Poor Things, which celebrates a sexually liberated woman, in contrast to the Barbie movie, in which the protagonist doesn’t have or desire sex at all.

McGlynn wondered whether young people are less interested in sex on screen overall, or if they’re tired of seeing “gratuitous sex” and nudity, especially as societal expectations around marriage and children evolve.

“It does make sense to me that the focus has maybe shifted to relationships because [younger generations] have, I think thankfully, been able to question whether a romantic or sexual relationship is the be-all-end-all that we have been sold.”

Barbiecore is having a moment, and it's not just the movie
From left, Simu Liu, Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling in a scene from Barbie. McGlynn noted the range between a film like Poor Things, which celebrates a sexually liberated woman, in contrast to the Barbie movie, where the protagonist doesn’t have or desire sex at all. (Barbie Movie)

Youth crave more storylines about friendships

While Gen Z might be less interested in media portrayals of sex, the UCLA study found that among those surveyed, just over half wanted to see more storylines about friendships and platonic relationships in media.

“When you think about how often romantic relationships are layered into our narratives, sometimes that can feel maybe a little bit extraneous, when what you’re searching for is connection [that] is platonic,” said Stacy Lee Kong, the Toronto-based editor of pop culture newsletter Friday Things.

“We talk about it as like this puritan idea of ‘The youth are so conservative. The youth don’t like sex,’ ” said Kong, noting that the pandemic limited the number of “third spaces,” a term used to describe locations outside of home, school or work where people can socialize freely.  

“They don’t have that, and so they’re looking for that from their pop culture,” she explained.

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