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Screening Sex

Screening Sex

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by Linda Williams

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For many years, kisses were the only sexual acts to be seen in mainstream American movies. Then, in the 1960s and 1970s, American cinema “grew up” in response to the sexual revolution, and movie audiences came to expect more knowledge about what happened between the sheets. In Screening Sex, the renowned film scholar Linda Williams investigates how sex


For many years, kisses were the only sexual acts to be seen in mainstream American movies. Then, in the 1960s and 1970s, American cinema “grew up” in response to the sexual revolution, and movie audiences came to expect more knowledge about what happened between the sheets. In Screening Sex, the renowned film scholar Linda Williams investigates how sex acts have been represented on screen for more than a century and, just as important, how we have watched and experienced those representations. Whether examining the arch artistry of Last Tango in Paris, the on-screen orgasms of Jane Fonda, or the anal sex of two cowboys in Brokeback Mountain, Williams illuminates the forms of pleasure and vicarious knowledge derived from screening sex.

Combining stories of her own coming of age as a moviegoer with film history, cultural history, and readings of significant films, Williams presents a fascinating history of the on-screen kiss, a look at the shift from adolescent kisses to more grown-up displays of sex, and a comparison of the “tasteful” Hollywood sexual interlude with sexuality as represented in sexploitation, Blaxploitation, and avant-garde films. She considers Last Tango in Paris and Deep Throat, two 1972 films unapologetically all about sex; In the Realm of the Senses, the only work of 1970s international cinema that combined hard-core sex with erotic art; and the sexual provocations of the mainstream movies Blue Velvet and Brokeback Mountain. She describes art films since the 1990s, in which the sex is aggressive, loveless, or alienated. Finally, Williams reflects on the experience of screening sex on small screens at home rather than on large screens in public. By understanding screening sex as both revelation and concealment, Williams has written the definitive study of sex at the movies.

Linda Williams is Professor of Film Studies and Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley. Her books include Porn Studies, also published by Duke University Press; Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O. J. Simpson; Viewing Positions: Ways of Seeing Film; and Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible.”

A John Hope Franklin Center Book


424 pages
129 illustrations
6x9 trim size
ISBN 0-8223-0-8223-4285-5
paper, $24.95
ISBN 0-8223-0-8223-4263-4
library cloth edition, $89.95
ISBN 978-0-8223-4285-4
paper, $24.95
ISBN 978-0-8223-4263-2
library cloth edition, $89.95

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal

Sex on screen reflects society's trends, mores, and attitudes and, over time, has become as sophisticated as film technology itself. Here, Williams (film studies & rhetoric, Univ. of California, Berkeley) traces the evolution of sex on film-from chaste to boldly erotic-beginning with The Kiss in 1896 and moving on to such recent hits as Brokeback Mountain. There's an impressive amount of research here, and Williams casts a wide net to draw examples from mainstream fare such as Casablanca and The Graduate, controversial titles such as Last Tango in Paris and Blue Velvet, foreign art films, and varied selections within the hard-core sector. She provides a close, critical analysis of the plot, treatment, symbolism, and technical approach of individual films in terms of their sexual content, discussing these elements in relation to contemporary culture and offering thoughtful commentary about the various components of the audience experience. This is an informed and thoroughly frank study of an expansive array of sexual themes on film, with numerous explicit film stills and graphic narratives tightly woven into the scholarly text. For academic film libraries and advanced film studies collections.
—Carol J. Binkowski

From the Publisher

Screening Sex is a truly remarkable follow-up to Linda Williams’s groundbreaking book Hard Core. It reaffirms her place as the leading feminist scholar of the history and theory of on-screen sex. Not that it was ever in doubt.”— Jane Gaines, author of Fire and Desire: Mixed Race Movies in the Silent Era

“Linda Williams is a terrific storyteller about sex, and, as she tracks the growth of her own cinematically mediated sexual consciousness, we go to the movies with her, imagining as though for the first time new encounters with explicitness, new sexual knowledge, and new spectatorial sensations.”—Lauren Berlant, author of The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture

“With Screening Sex, Linda Williams establishes herself as not only the preeminent scholar of cinematic eroticism, but also the most significant voice in cinema studies of her generation.”— Eric Schaefer, author of “Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!” A History of Exploitation Films, 1919–1958

Product Details

Duke University Press Books
Publication date:
a John Hope Franklin Center Book
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Screening Sex



Copyright © 2008 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4285-4

Chapter One

of kisses and ellipses

The Long Adolescence of American Movies (1896-1963)

Movie kisses were the first sex acts I ever screened. Before I had my romantic first kiss, I already knew, from movies, that one needed to tilt the head a little to avoid bumping noses, but that if both kissers tilted the same way they would still bump noses, so a complex choreography of bodies had to be worked out in this simple act. I learned this from the big screen, where kisses were greatly magnified in the garish Technicolor kisses of Rock Hudson and Doris Day. But I also learned some things from the little black-and-white screen before which my mother and I sat watching TV movies on warm summer nights when I could stay up late. I remember myself at fourteen in 1960 sprawled on the rug directly under the television screen, my mother across the room in her big armchair, both of us riveted to a repertoire of Hollywood kisses performed by luminous stars.

To a barely kissed teenage girl, the extreme close-ups, swelling music, and mysterious fade-outs offered compelling promises of a grand communion to come. If I could not exactly touch, taste, and smell as the kissers themselves could do, I could sense, through sights and sounds that seemed to creep across my skin, penetrate my entire body, and generate my own sympathetic puckers, how it might feel to kiss and be kissed. I remember these kisses today through a haze of nostalgia, much like that displayed in the finale of Cinema Paradiso (dir. Giuseppe Tornatore, 1988) when the hero reviews the screen kisses and embraces of the films of his youth. This Oscar winner for best foreign film concluded with a grand montage of all the kisses and embraces that had once been snipped by censorious priests from movies shown in a provincial Italian village after the Second World War. Like the graying hero of that film, I too sit mesmerized in the present by the gift of the old-fashioned movie kiss. And like that hero I register the double sense of the verb, to screen, as both a projection that reveals and a censorship that elides.

Now that it is not only possible but almost obligatory for American movies to show the sex acts that follow them, kisses have lost some of their allure. They have become mere foreplay, one sex act among many. Though they still punctuate movies and remain dramatically significant as the inauguration of sexual contacts, they no longer carry the burden-or the enormous electrical charge-of being the whole of sex that can be seen. The movie kisses of the era before the 1960s sexual revolution were both more infantile and more adolescent than the kisses of today-infantile in their orality and adolescent in their way of being permanently poised on the brink of carnal knowledge.

This chapter begins with the cinema's first kiss: Thomas Edison's The Kiss, a silent fifteen-second film made in 1896. It ends with Andy Warhol's Kiss, a silent fifty-eight-minute answer to Edison from 1963. In between these two exemplars of screen kisses, I will address examples from the era of the Hollywood Production Code, as well as from the pre-Code era. My primary goal is to taxonomize the filmic mode of the screen's first sex act. What is its role as textual punctuation-as period, comma, question mark, and, most important, as the dot, dot, dot of ellipsis? What can we observe about the tension and excitement generated by these reciprocal acts of oral pleasure?

1896: The Forty-Two-Foot Kiss

In the late 1890s Thomas Edison had begun to film short sequences of action for exhibition in his newly developed Kinetoscope-a peephole device for screening short segments of moving images. A popular New York musical play, The Widow Jones, had included a kiss between the widow and her suitor. In April 1896 Edison brought the two stars of the play into his Black Maria studio and filmed just their kiss. The fifteen-second film has been variously called The Kiss and, after the stage actors who performed it, The May Irwin-John Rice Kiss, and simply The May Irwin Kiss (suggesting that women held greater importance than men as either kissers or kissees). It was filmed only two days before Edison had his first public projection of films, though it was not included in that first show. Charles Musser shows that the film's making was actually a publicity stunt for a newspaper, the New York World, which reported in a Sunday edition on the making of the film: "For the first time in the history of the world it is possible to see what a kiss looks like.... Such pictures were never before made. In the forty-two feet of kiss recorded by the kinetoscope every phase is shown with startling distinctness.... The real kiss is a revelation. The idea of a kinetoscopic kiss has unlimited possibilities."

As this review suggests, these "possibilities" are caught up in the new viewing machine's ability to deliver increments of knowledge about moving bodies that, not accidentally, happen to be in the form of the cinema's first sex act. The title of this long news feature is "The Anatomy of a Kiss," and the opportunity for an anatomization of the forty-two-foot sequence seems to have been paramount. As Musser notes, the kiss may or may not have been the actual highlight of the play (the final act in which it occurred has not been found), but when finally projected in early May of 1896, it immediately became the most popular of the many short films shown. Though it is possible to assume that a famous kiss in a play simply became a famous kiss in the new medium of projected film, it seems more likely that the existence of the film retroactively made the kiss important in all subsequent performances of the play. The forging of the possibilities of an emerging medium thus took place through the close-up anatomization of a sex act that existed in the play but that did not necessarily constitute its highlight. It is significant, therefore, that the new technology of projection onto a screen in a darkened theater distinguished itself especially through the particular act of the kiss. As in so many other examples of "new media"-print, lithography, photography, video, and now digital technologies-the excitement of new technologies of vision went hand in hand with the excitement around newly mediated revelations of sex.

The film consists of a single, chest-up shot of Rice on the left and Irwin on the right mouthing what seem to be a few lines of dialogue from the play. Touching cheeks, coming close to the position of a kiss, but continuing to speak out of the sides of their mouths, they abruptly pull apart and prepare for a theatrical smooch. Rice's preparation includes the familiar but now archaic gesture of lifting the mustache away from his lip-associated today with villains in melodramas (figure 3). He then cups his hands on the side of Irwin's cheeks, leans in, and plants a few pecks on the side of her firmly closed mouth. Irwin, for her part, leans up to meet him, but her hands, in contrast, remain at her side (figure 4). Toward the end, Rice's pecks briefly turn into little nibbles, and the film ends in medias kiss. Throughout the scene, owing to Rice's big mustache, we see more of Irwin's mouth and lips than of his.

A stage kiss if ever there was one, this kiss shares the former's divided attention: the partners must face one another to kiss and must face front to make the contact visible to the audience. Something of this divided attention persists in all movie representations of sex acts, torn as they are between the necessary close contact between bodies and the requirement to make that contact visible. Indeed, this early kiss introduces many of the features that will prove emblematic of subsequent screened sex acts, not just kisses: first and foremost is the close-up that makes the osculation visible; second comes the mouthed dialogue that precedes the sexual contact, in this case drawing our attention to the kissers' lips-we cannot know what this couple says, although it is likely that the conversation negotiates the terms of the kiss; third is the convention that the man initiates contact and the woman receives it, even though she may well have orchestrated it all along.

This kiss is also noteworthy because it is so radically severed from the rest of the play's action, becoming what critics of graphic sex and violence might call gratuitous-a sex act that is there just for sex's sake, with no other narrative or dramatic purpose. As we have already seen, these terms are often deployed, especially in legal arguments about obscenity, to identify the so-called prurient sex that supposedly does not belong on any screen. I will argue, however, that once a culture decides that sex matters-and the fame and popularity of The Kiss certainly formed part of such a decision-sex for sex's sake is never really gratuitous. Indeed, it becomes one of the important reasons for screening moving pictures.

Of course, there is nothing sexy to us today about the brief osculations of two plump, middle-aged actors mugging for the camera. We tend to laugh, and audiences in the day seemed to laugh. The Boston Herald wrote of the Vitascope program when it showed in Boston: "Of the 10 pictures included in yesterday's programmes ... there is no shadow of a doubt as to which created the most laughter. That kissing scene in the 'Widow Jones,' taken part in by May Irwin and John C. Rice, was reproduced in the screen, and the very evident delight of the actor and the undisguised pleasure of the actress were absolutely 'too funny' for anything."

What does it mean that The Kiss was "too funny"? Does it necessarily mean that it was also not shocking? Laughter can be an expression of genuine amusement, or it can be a nervous release covering over shock. In this case it may have been a little of both. The little nibbles that follow the primary smooch are comic in two ways. First, like a great many sex acts, they have a mechanical, repetitive quality in themselves. Second, shown over and over in the repeated loops that comprised the primary way of projecting early cinema, they are literal forms of mechanized repetition. Audiences could be amused or, as in the response articulated in the Chicago literary magazine the Chap Book, they could be offended: "Within a natural scale, such things [as kisses] are sufficiently bestial. Monstrously enlarged and shown repeatedly, they become positively disgusting." What, precisely, did this author, the young painter John Sloan, find so disgusting? Was it possibly the middle-aged plumpness of the widow herself, and the less-than-imposing figure of her suitor? None of the criticism of the stage play makes such a suggestion. Was it simply the unseemly intimacy of any kiss so "monstrously enlarged"? Clearly this kiss agitated in a way that the kiss appearing onstage, or as a small image in the Kinetoscope, had not.

Siegfried Kracauer has noted that "huge images of small material phenomena" become in cinema "disclosures of new aspects of physical reality." Though Kracauer's preferred example of cinematic magnification is the famous close-up of Mae Marsh's twisting hands in the courtroom episode of the modern story of Intolerance (dir. D. W. Griffith, 1916), his description of these hands, "isolated from the rest of the body and greatly enlarged ... quivering with a life of their own," is even more applicable to screen kisses, which especially quiver with a sexual life of their own. Kisses, when stylized and elaborated by the Hollywood narrative cinema, would eventually become synecdoches for the whole sex act. Here, however, a kiss constitutes an unnarrativized attraction amounting to a revelation of the physical act to one critic, and a disgusting monstrosity to another.

In either case, what seems to be at stake is a visceral attraction or repulsion on the part of viewers. Fragmentation, repetition, and magnification make possible an anatomization that turns the kiss of The Widow Jones stage play into a culturally new combination of prurience and pedagogy. The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips has written that although conventions governing the giving and getting of kisses clearly exist in literature and life, "It is really only from films that we can learn what the contemporary conventions might be for kissing itself." This 1896 film constituted America's first such lesson. It is a quintessential example of what Tom Gunning has called the "cinema of attractions." The Lumière brothers' Arrival of a Train (1895)-the main attraction of the first public screening of a film in France-may be emblematic of a certain dynamism of the machine age, and Robert Paul's Rough Sea at Dover (1895), the British attraction at the first American public screening of projected films, may be emblematic of cinema's ability to capture the tumult of nature, but Edison's The Kiss is emblematic of a new kind of sexual voyeurism unleashed by moving pictures. Screening sex, learning how to do it through repeated and magnified anatomization, would henceforth become a major function of movies.

But there was another important kiss in early cinema, one that I want to take up here as a counterpoint to all the dazzlingly white, luminous, romantic kisses that would eventually be fabricated by Hollywood. Though it attracted considerably less commentary in its own day than Edison's The Kiss, Edwin S. Porter's What Happened in the Tunnel (1903) has recently garnered considerable discussion as an exhibition of the "miscegenation" that would eventually be officially forbidden in the Hollywood Production Code. What happened in the tunnel? A white woman and her African American maid sit side by side on a train. A white man sits behind the white woman who is reading. When she drops her handkerchief, he picks it up and uses the occasion to flirt, take her hand, and come close (figure 5). The screen suddenly goes black for a prolonged period (figure 6). When the darkness finally ends, and the train has presumably emerged from the tunnel, we see that the white man has leaned over into the space of the two women. But the maid and mistress have changed positions, and we find him kissing not the mistress, but the maid (figure 7). As soon as light illuminates this kiss, he pulls back in horror and tries to hide behind his newspaper as the maid and mistress laugh.

In contrast to the May Irwin-John Rice kiss, this one is not displayed in close-up and cannot therefore be "anatomized." If the Edison piece is kiss as revelation, screening as the projection of something to see, the Porter scenario is screening as mostly concealment of what could be given to see but is not. For this kiss is almost entirely screened out-as so many aspects of sex, and certainly most interracial aspects of it, would eventually be for many decades under the Hollywood Production Code.

What Happened in the Tunnel is also less likely to elicit contemporary amusement. Even if the supposed joke is on the man and between the two women, it is premised on a racial devaluation of the black woman and her lack of appeal to the kisser. The film theorist and historian Jane Gaines notes that the predominantly white audiences who paid to see this less-than-one-minute film did not really want to know what happened in the tunnel. They were not interested in the visible anatomy of this kiss, but in the social embarrassment of the man punished for taking liberties with a white woman by the presumed unpleasure of kissing a black one. What happened in the tunnel for the man was the presumably pleasurable touch and taste of a kiss that he thought was of white skin. This man does not discover his unpleasure until sight informs him that he should not have enjoyed the sexual contact in which he engaged. Only when his kiss becomes visible does he cease to enjoy it. What the kiss is to the black woman is harder to imagine.


Excerpted from Screening Sex by LINDA WILLIAMS Copyright © 2008 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Linda Williams is Professor of Film Studies and Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley. Her books include Porn Studies, also published by Duke University Press; Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O. J. Simpson; Viewing Positions: Ways of Seeing Film; and Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible.”

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Screening Sex 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
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jpalumbo More than 1 year ago
Linda Williams latest book makes me want to rent/buy a DVD or VHS of every film she discusses. These include Thomas Edison's The Kiss at the turn of the twentieth century to John Cameron Mithchell's Shortbus (2006).