Since I first heard about it in fall 2011, I have been dying to see director Steve McQueen’s latest film, Shame. There has been a substantial amount of hype surrounding it, and a great deal of that focused the skill of the actors and the director. The film has received generally positive views, including four out of five stars from Roger Ebert. But let’s face it: Everyone who knows about it knows about Michael Fassbender’s penis. And that’s the real reason why this movie has garnered so much attention.
Shame is about sex addiction – not crude or humorous sex addiction as in the film version of Chuck Palahniuk’s Choke (which wasn’t very memorable). McQueen shows the audience the disquieting world of raw, hopeless sexual dependency. Considering the post-Samantha Jones society we live in, it’s important to recognize that sexual promiscuity has become a common part of life in both positive and negative ways. Shame deals with graphic sexuality in a visual way – promiscuous sex, masturbation and full frontal male nudity are all a part of this cinematic experience. But it also depicts the lifestyle that accompanies such an addiction through main character Brandon’s hollow existence. Sex here isn’t love making, it is carnal need. There is no romance, barely even pleasure – and certainly no notions of procreation or family. That’s how this honest portrayal earned itself an NC-17 rating, which is why I can only talk about it as opposed to watch it.
For those of you who don’t know, an NC-17 rating is a step beyond an R rating. The Motion Picture Association of America (or MPAA as it is more commonly referred to) is the group running the show. If they assign a film an NC-17 for violence or sexuality, it has almost no chance of box office success because it usually will not be shown in American theatres (and consequently Canadian theatres too). Many mainstream films had to be edited to gain an R rating just so they can be released. This includes recognizable titles like Boys Don’t Cry, American Pie and Kill Bill Volume 1. If you want to learn more I would recommend watching the documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated; it will tell you a lot more than I can.
The whole problem with the NC-17 rating is that a clandestine film board is limiting both the creative vision of directors and the accessibility of certain films based on sexual bias. Social conservatism guides this system. There is a notable prejudice against portrayals of masturbation, homosexuality, female sexuality and frequent sex. I find this both offensive and impractical. Sex, whether with a partner or with your hand is a natural and unavoidable part of life.
It is long past due that things like homosexuality and women’s pleasure were embraced as normative. An organization which essentially controls the film industry helps to perpetuate the ‘inappropriateness’ of sex is frustrating and problematic. It is reasons like this that sex still has the air of taboo, and men are baffled by the female orgasm (I swear the clitoris is not that difficult to locate). If a huge part of our culture isn’t sex friendly, how is the rest of society supposed to be? It’s not the 1950s anymore, and it’s time for the MPAA to acknowledge that.
The good news is that with films like Shame still finding success despite an NC-17, things have the potential to change. Steve Gilula, the president of Fox Searchlight (the company distributing Shame), believes “it is time for the rating to become usable in a serious manner”. For the moment I am deprived of the big screen experience of Fassbender’s penis, due to a system I don’t agree with. But with the growing advocacy for NC-17 films, I have high hopes that within the next decade or two we may very well have updated classifications.