Dear movie theater audiences: Stop laughing at gay sex scenes

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Frenesy Film Company/Courtesy

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I was was sitting in the theater not too long ago watching “Call Me By Your Name” for the second time, struck yet again by the palpable sensuality evoked through the push and pull of the film’s two leads, portrayed by Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer.

Yet soon, I found myself taken out of the experience as the couple seated next to me began giggling at the subtle, tender moments that I loved so much in the first viewing. It immediately reminded me of an almost parallel experience I had watching “Moonlight” last year, when I heard a spattering of giggles in the theater audience during the intimate scene on the beach.

Learning that others had had similar experiences watching “Moonlight” was even more disheartening. The beach scene is not funny — it’s the moment we see teenage Chiron (Ashton Sanders) face his sexuality and open himself up to another person. The audience’s laughter during such an important moment begs the question of whether it was uncomfortable with a display of intimacy between two men being shown on screen. For all the progress people claim to have made towards LGBTQ+ rights and queer media representation, it seems that society is still not comfortable actually watching queer sex scenes.

As “Call Me By Your Name” is generating awards buzz this season, similar to the accolades given to “Moonlight” at about this time last year, queer storylines have become a topic of introspection again. It’s important to note that, while both movies feature intimate moments between two men, neither has an explicit sex scene.

If these are the movies that critics hype up to the public each Oscar season, is there an underlying bias in the industry against explicit sex scenes with same-sex partners on screen? Much of this discussion involves the exclusion of critically acclaimed French film “BPM (Beats per Minute),” which has multiple explicit sex scenes, from many of this year’s awards — as opposed to “Call Me By Your Name,” which implies sex rather than showing it on screen and has been nominated for multiple Academy Awards. It’s too early to conclude that only less explicit queer movies can gain awards traction, but what does seem certain is that there is a general level of discomfort in both audiences and news outlets regarding love, romance and sex in queer storylines.

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A24/Courtesy

There’s a shock value the media loves to attach to sex scenes, which is reflected in how we talk about movies and how we talk about sex scenes in movies. The peach scene in “Call Me By Your Name” has become quite notorious — try to find any interview that fails to bring it up without a wink or tease embedded — yet the scene is really about emotional vulnerability. It’s something that Chalamet, who plays Elio in the film, has to repeatedly bring up — that while yes, the scene is a bit “funny in context,” it really serves to evoke the idea that “love is boundaryless.” Rather than the graphic spectacle the media portrays it as, the scene is one that is integral to the development of the characters and brings them closer together.

This culture behind creating a spectacle out of sexual scenes is certainly not restricted to scenes in LGBTQ+ movies. Charlie Kaufman’s most recent film “Anomalisa,” released in 2015, featured a stop-motion sex scene that quickly branded the film for many as the “puppet sex” movie. And indeed, in my personal experience, a few of the friends I watched the film with couldn’t get over the fact that the scene showed puppets having sex, despite the actual scene not being crude or showy. The film features the main character Michael (David Thewlis) finally finding an intimate moment in the midst of his loneliness with love interest Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in a moment that’s all at once sweet, sentimental and awkward.

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Incentive Filmed Entertainment/Courtesy

It’s a shame that we reduce these scenes — and entire films — to something to whisper and giggle at, ignoring any and every other important aspect, which is only perpetuated by the MPAA rating system’s treatment of sex as well. With a system in which the not terribly explicit 2010 film “Blue Valentine” is initially slapped with the NC-17 “kiss of death,” while various forms of egregious violence are deemed more permissible, we’re essentially taught to view sex in this negative light. The MPAA and its strict treatment of sex, which has come into a bit of criticism in recent years, fosters the attitude that sex is something forbidden and something to be ashamed of, to the extent that when it’s not treated with this sort of forbidden fascination, it’s uncomfortable for many.

Through a culture that sends implicit messages that create an atmosphere of shame and taboo around sex, we’re in a position from which watching the bombastic and extravagant “Fifty Shades of Grey” or the idealized sex scenes in any action movie feels more natural than watching more realistically shot sex scenes. I, too, was in a theater laughing along to the absurdity that was “Fifty Shades of Grey.” But giving this same treatment to films such as “Call Me By Your Name” and “Moonlight,” modern landmarks in recognition of LGBTQ+ cinema, laughing at the most vulnerable and evocative moments, is demeaning. In these moments, we need to question that discomfort and process the ideas and emotions the film is conveying instead of dismissing what we don’t understand with a laugh.

Contact Lynn Zhou at [email protected].

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