Nudity is not dead: things can be a bit naughtier in Hollywood

Nudity is not dead: things can be a bit naughtier in Hollywood
Nudity is not dead: things can be a bit naughtier in Hollywood

Film lovers who like their viewing material spicy have been getting their money’s worth more often lately. As with Challengers by Luca Guadagnino, in cinemas since this week. Two comrades and later tennis rivals fall in love with Zendaya in that sweaty film. It produces a sultry summer ménage à trois, while there is not a single sex scene, let alone a flash of explicit nudity. Yet it makes your ears glow bright red – the suggestion can be that strong.

Things can be a bit bolder on the silver screen, as has become apparent more often in the past period. And it doesn’t always have to be as ambiguous as the banana that Josh O’Connor puts in Challengers provocatively sticks up in the air. It can even be a bit rancid, bordering on disgusting.

Just think about Saltburn, the baroque film that ended up directly on Amazon Prime. Barry Keoghan plays a low-born boy under the spell of a wealthy clan. We see him licking a bathtub, very horny, and writhing naked on a freshly filled grave. Proper is different, but the internet was buzzing with ecstasy. In the final scene he dances joyfully through the house in an Adam’s costume – his young man dances happily along.

Also in the rom-com Anyone but you there was no fear of bare buttocks or unabashed glances from below. In the Oscar winner Poor things Emma Stone, in turn, gave Emma Stone a good shout. Franz Rogowski and Ben Whishaw were still explicitly involved last summer Passages and also in All of us strangers the desire between Andrew Scott and Paul Mescal did not have to appear chastely smothered.

Blockbusters without sex

Sex sells, nudity is appreciated. However, over the past two decades, the (large) studios have been very wary of displaying spicy products uncovered. The numbers don’t lie, as a recent study showed The Economist had ordered. It compared the 250 titles that had sold the most tickets in 2000 with those from 2023. What turned out? That second batch had almost 40 percent fewer erotic scenes. When broken down by genre, action films turned out to be the big victims. This showed 70 percent less boisterous meandering, while in rom-coms there was a drop of just under 20 percent.

Even more striking is the number of blockbusters with no sexual content at all. In 2000, this was the case with 18 percent of those films, while in 2023 it was no less than 46 percent. That’s almost half. Has the film industry gone into prudish panic? By Body heat and Fatal attraction until Eyes wide shut: it used to be more naked.

Zendaya in ‘Challengers’. — © metro goldwyn mayer pictures

This is not surprising when you look at the most successful franchise of the past fifteen years: Marvel’s famous superhero universe. There is virtually no sex involved, let alone steamy passion. It is no different in the world of DC Comics. Sex may sell, but ironically it was commercial interests that ruined the film studios behind those franchises. That has everything to do with the rating system for films in the US.

This divides films into five categories, ranging from “for all audiences” (G) to “for adults only” (NC-17). The popular label is PG-13, which means that some scenes may be inappropriate for children under the age of thirteen.

In short: if a film is not too violent, young people from that age onwards are allowed to enter the theater without their parents. In order to reach the widest possible audience, studios began to trend in the 2000s to always aim for a PG-13 rating. The commercial success of films only promised to increase. The stricter R-rating (which required the accompaniment of a parent or guardian) could seriously hit a film’s ticket sales. It’s no secret that scenes often ended up in the trash to avoid an R-rating.

Barry Keoghan dances in Adam's costume in 'Saltburn'.

Barry Keoghan dances in Adam’s costume in ‘Saltburn’. — © rr

This is why (often gratuitous) nudity, which was not so unusual in the 80s and 90s in action films, comedies and other blockbusters, became increasingly scarce on the silver screen from the 2000s onwards. The potential that studios saw in China as a sales market during the same period only strengthened that impulse. After all, the censor does not laugh at nudity and sex there.


Is MeToo involved? It only gained momentum later, in the autumn of 2017, when Harvey Weinstein fell. Although the MeToo movement has contributed to the fact that actresses are less often asked to just throw away their clothes (or are expected to do so without objection). In this sense, the handling of sex and nudity on the silver screen is more thoughtful today.

You can also see this in the way filmmakers now dare to spice up their films again. Nudity for the sake of nudity is less common, sex is no longer just an ingredient, but has a role in the film. In Challengers that whole tension is part of the game that Guadagnino plays with the viewer.

And what about the (stricter) rating that a film is in danger of incurring? In the US, Amazon is the distributor Challengers brings into the halls. A cinema release still gives a film the greatest publicity, even if the number of theaters is limited due to an R rating, as with Challengers the case is. The film won’t be there for long anyway. The platform beckons – ready to add extra allure to their offering and attract new subscribers. In 2024, the success of a film can no longer be measured solely – or necessarily – at the box office. Daring filmmakers with a disregard for censorship no longer have to fear being left behind.

Tags: Nudity dead bit naughtier Hollywood


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