Whenever there seems to be a sexually themed movie or TV show there most always is a vocal crowd of people that inevitably start proclaiming it pornography. This is an issue that seemingly gets brought up time and time again. Each time it gets brought up by someone it’s almost always used incorrectly. You’d think with pornography’s ever growing exposure in the main stream world that people would begin to tell the difference by now. Of course the confusion that lies between what is pornography and artistic expression is simple; pornography is all about sexual intercourse. Naturally whenever someone sees “graphic” sex exposed on a movie or TV show, their mind comes to conclusion that what they are is pornographic; when, simply that’s not the case. Movies like “Shame”, “The Wolf of Wall Street”, “Nymphomaniac”, and “Fifty Shades of Grey” have all been label by someone in the media as pornographic. In the TV world some viewers of “Game of Thrones” skip the quote on quote “pornographic” parts (to then watch the graphic violence that ensues). I’m not here to tell you what you should or should not be comfortable with, yet there is a big difference between what is pornographic and what is artistic expression in the film industry.
To understand the difference you have to understand what pornography is by its own definition. Pornography is, ” movies, pictures, magazines, etc., that show or describe naked people or sex in a very open and direct way in order to cause sexual excitement”, (merriam-webster). By that very definition, it’s not just the act of putting nudity on screen or showing sex that makes something pornographic. Instead It’s having nudity or sexual content in a manner that is for the sole purpose of getting sexual excitement from the viewer. If that’s the main goal or purpose then what you’re viewing is pornographic. Usually it’s pretty easy to tell if you’re watching something like that (pretty much all you have to look at what channel or website you’re on; I’m pretty sure that pornhub isn’t showing the “English Patient” on their servers).
So, once you reach movies like “Shame” or “Nymphomaniac” or even the recent “Fifty Shades of Grey” where is the difference that lies between art and pornography? Movies, like the ones listed above, are not made with the sole purpose of causing sexual excitement, it’s to tell a story about sexual themes. If the viewer feels sexually excited during a sex scene then that’s a latent or secondary effect. . All three of these movies deal with sex as a big theme. Also sex is not an exclusive topic to pornography, the same way superheroes are not exclusive to comic books. All people go through life dealing with sexuality in some way, shape or form, so why wouldn’t characters in a story? It’s not an outrageous thought that characters, even in a fictional realm, must deal with sex just like we do as human beings (however graphic the sexual content ends up being.)
“Nymphomaniac” out of all the movies I listed is most graphic when it comes to showing and exploring sexuality (even more so in the director’s cut). It is an Odyssey of sexually exploration and does show penetration on screen. Some people like to draw the line between porn and film at the penetration mark. Yet, even that doesn’t make it pornographic. A movie can show penetration like “Nymphomaniac” or even “Enter the Void” and not be pornography because (we go back to the same definition) the primary purposes of these scenes are not for sexual excitement, it’s for the themes, characters , and story development.
Of course there are long pornographic films (like “Pirates”) that many people would point out they have a story to them, so doesn’t that debunk my whole story and character development argument? Having a story doesn’t make you instantly not a porno, it’s what the story purpose? So we already circle back around to the definition that I keep coming back to time and time again. A porn movie’s story exist to get to the next sex scene to give the viewer sexual excitement.
The story of “Shame” is not to get to the next sex scene so the viewer can get off on it. But instead, to show how Michael Fassbender’s character’s addiction to sex is driving him to the edge, and effecting the ones he loves. If you watch “Shame” (rated NC-17 for some explicit sexual content) there is a lot of graphic sex scenes in it and the story full of sex. But, it’s not so you can get excited about sex; it’s a very dark and tragic story about how a man destroys himself through sex. Let’s even look at “Fifty Shades of Grey” (the movie). Yes the movie isn’t very good, but that doesn’t make it porn (as many claim). The story is about a women who is repressed sexually and gets herself involved in an abusive relationship where she attempts to explore her sexuality while in this new relationship. Yeah, the movie isn’t very good but that’s doesn’t make a porno either.
There is a debate to be had whether pornography is an art form in of itself (which of course is entirely different discussion). Under the context of this editorial, there is a separation of pornography and the motion picture industry as an artistic art form (both do also use filmmaking as a means to push their “arts”, so there is some common ground here). There will always be trashy entertainment like “Friday the 13th” with a sex scene with no purpose other than to set up a death (which in some ways is a Biblical attribute placed on the horror genre). But, there will always be thoughtful films that will explore sexuality in an artistic way; like Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” or Steven Shainberg’s “Secretary”. Sometimes these films will show sexuality in “graphic” ways but that doesn’t make it pornography, that is something else entirely.