Postwar Sexuality On Film

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World War II helped shift attitudes toward and portrayals of sexuality in the United States and western Europe. "Cheesecake" photography of women helped "remind GIs of what they were fighting for.'' Members of the armed forces were given explicit education (including films) about sexually transmitted diseases. Roles for women in the workforce expanded to include what had been traditionally considered masculine jobs. Wartime demands for personnel even led military and civilian leaders to tacitly overlook the existence of homosexuality in the ranks or in the workforce. With the end of the war, though, there was a concerted effort to bring society back to pre-war notions of sexuality. Social pressures were placed on women to return to the role of homemaker, for example, and homosexuality was once again deemed a mental illness and a criminal act. Yet the 1950s saw increasing challenges to these attempts. While a "baby boom'' erupted in the United States after the war, divorce rates also grew steadily. In 1953 Playboy magazine began publication. Dr. Alfred Kinsey's studies on male and female sexuality (1948, 1953) challenged longheld beliefs regarding the extent of premarital sex for women and the prevalence of homosexual activity among men. Fledgling homosexual rights groups began to form after the war as well in the United States.

Cinema was often caught up in the postwar struggles over sexuality. Many European filmmakers championed greater realism in their work after the war (often in reaction to the heavily propagandistic films during the war). As such, sexuality was treated more frankly—yet (often) not in an exploitative manner. The emphasis on realism often granted cinema greater critical regard, which various film industries were able to use to defend against censorship. The BBFC in the United Kingdom, for example, instituted the X certificate in 1951 as a method of allowing pictures to deal with more adult material instead of simply banning them. When a New York City exhibitor was arrested on obscenity charges for running the Italian film L'Amore (Ways of Love, 1948), the case went to the Supreme Court, which reversed its 1915 decision and declared that cinema was an art form protected by the Freedom of Speech clause in the Bill of Rights.

Hollywood studios were losing audiences in the 1950s, mostly to television, but also to foreign films that were often hyped as more sexually explicit ("shocking realism'' became something of a code-phrase for sex in film marketing). Many US audiences had associated European film as more adult for some time (the Czech film Extáze [Ecstasy], 1933, with a scene of Hedy Lamaar swimming nude, was released as an exploitation film in the US, for example). Yet the postwar years saw a major increase in foreign imports—including Et Dieu... crea la femme (And God Created Woman, 1957, France), Les amants (The Lovers, 1959, France), Belle du Jour (1966, France) and Jag ar nyfiken (I Am Curious, Yellow, 1968, Sweden)—that confronted resistance from various local and state censors for their forthright depictions of sexuality. The international attention given to French New Wave films such as A bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960) and Tirez sur le pianiste (Shoot the Piano Player, 1960) was due to a variety of factors, one being the free discussion of sexual matters (and occasional moments of topless females). British Angry Young Man films such as Room at the Top (1959) and This Sporting Life (1963) also included frank talk about sex, and Italian director Federico Fellini's examination of contemporary Italian society, La Dolce Vita (The Sweet Life, 1960), culminated in an orgy.

A number of US filmmakers desired more open discussion of social issues after World War II, including attitudes around sexuality. Pictures about interracial romance became more prevalent, for example, possibly reacting to the wave of Japanese war brides that GIs were bringing back to the States. (While laws against ''miscegenation'' began to be repealed in certain areas, it was not until 1967 that the Supreme Court swept away all of these statutes.) Unlike silent films that tended to picture such desires as threatening, films such as Pinky (1949), Broken Arrow (1950), and Sayonara (1957) were usually sympathetic—yet rarely allowed the interracial relationship to succeed. Other filmmakers began specifically challenging the authority of the Production Code Administration. Otto Preminger's The Moon Is Blue (1953) talked about premarital sex and even used the word "virgin." Denied a Seal of Approval, the film got even more publicity and became a box-office success. Combined with the new Freedom of Speech protection, the success of The Moon Is Blue heralded the slow demise of the Production Code. Mention of unwed pregnancies, prostitution, abortions, and teenage sex—along with pictures revealing more and more of the human body—began to proliferate in US cinema during the 1960s. Studios increasingly bent the rules by including more explicit sexual situations—from sex comedies starring Doris Day and Rock Hudson (Pillow Talk, 1959; Lover Come Back, 1961) to a screen version of the notorious novel Lolita (1962), about an older man's obsession with a teenage girl.

Hollywood filmmakers also began broaching the topic of homosexuality during these years. A number of early attempts were adaptations from recent hit plays, such as Tea and Sympathy (1956) or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958). Yet because the Code specifically forbade mention of ''sex perversion,'' the films were forced to launder any overt references to homosexuality. In response to industry pressures, the Production Code was revised in 1961, and one of the changes was allowing films to mention homosexuality. Homosexuals were no longer exclusively defined (or portrayed on screen) as ''gender deviant,'' but most Hollywood pictures on the topic made after the Code revision, such as The Children's Hour (1961) and Advise and Consent (1962) portrayed lesbians and gay men as pitiful creatures doomed to suffering and suicide. (In contrast, the British film Victim, 1961, confronted the treatment of homosexuals in a heteronormative culture.) Just as the British X certificate classified material as adult rather than censoring it, the Hollywood Production Code was finally scrapped in 1967 and was replaced with a Ratings System to classify what films were appropriate for what audiences. By the early 1970s, many countries (particularly in Europe) had moved to a classificatory system rather than a censorship board.

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