Two unlikely trends seem to be criss-crossing each other in the movies, intersecting at crotch level. On the one hand, according to critic Wesley Morris at The Boston Globe, mainstream movies have gotten a lot more squeamish about sex. (Lots of talk, sure, but little action.) On the other hand, according to critic Leonard Maltin at IndieWire, mainstream films have gotten a lot less squeamish about potty humor. (Exhibits A–F: This summer's poop-obsessed R-rated comedies.)
How is it that movies have all but closed the door to the bedroom but opened wide the door to the bathroom? Why are they so comfortable about one but not the other? And are these inverse trends a sign of maturity or immaturity?
Morris argues that even current movies that are ostensibly about sex, like 'Friends With Benefits,' are not especially sexy, and that, for all their characters' dabbling in sexually uninhibited behavior, the films always endorse vanilla monogamy by the end. He even remembers a time, about 20 years ago, when it was common to see A-list actors in steamy sex scenes. That's pretty unlikely today. (Although, when Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal did it last fall in 'Love and Other Drugs,' audiences stayed away.)
What's behind the decline? Morris traces it to the 1989 release of 'When Harry Met Sally,' the smart, influential romantic comedy that replaced real orgasms (or at least movie-real) with elaborately faked ones in delis, and real (or movie-real) sex with witty banter about sex. It's true that Nora Ephron's screenplay is the model for most romantic comedies made since, but the cause-and-effect scenario is a little more complex.
The truth is, movie sex hasn't been on a strictly downward trend over the last 20 years; rather, it's gone in cycles, with frequent ups and downs. Remember, 1989 also coincides with early peak awareness of the AIDS epidemic. If movies were skittish about sex in the late '80s, it's because the culture at large was, too. The archetypal sex-themed movie of the period is 'Fatal Attraction,' which suggested that having sex outside of marriage could get you and your family killed. Rut like a rabbit, and your bunny gets boiled. There was also 1989's 'Sex, Lies and Videotape,' a movie that seemed to offer sexual candor but was really just a lot of talking about sex (and talking about talking about sex). Fear of actual sexual intimacy wasn't just the movie's method but also its subject.
And yet, a year after 'Harry' and 'Videotape,' moviemakers pushing for more sexual frankness got the ratings board to add the NC-17 rating, christened in 1990 with the brazenly sexual 'Henry & June.' But the pendulum quickly swung back; aside from 'Showgirls,' mainstream studios have shied away from NC-17 explicitness, and that 1995 movie's flop only proved to Hollywood that too much sex was bad for business.
Sometimes, the pendulum swings back and forth within the same movie. Our culture is deeply ambivalent about sex, offering it as an omnipresent commodity while puritanically wagging its finger about it. That ambivalence shows up in even the more risqué romantic comedies (like 'The 40-Year-Old Virgin' or 'Knocked Up'), pandering with sex jokes and even occasional nudity that suggest license while ultimately coming down in favor of strictly marital sex (or at least committed, boyfriend-girlfriend sex). The movies get to have it both ways, offering the vicarious thrill of violating taboos and the reassurance that standard moral codes still apply.
With poop humor, however, morality is irrelevant. Social stigmas and taboos persist, but they're not about the ethics of defecation. They do, however, make pooping something we're all still embarrassed about, which is why potty humor is so effective.
Like Morris, Maltin traces where it all went wrong back to a certain movie, in this case, 1974's 'Blazing Saddles.' The notorious baked-bean scene exists strictly for shock value, but also to illustrate a truth (about the flatulence that results from the cowboy diet) that had been carefully scrubbed out of movies until then.
Since then, the movies have pushed for even greater frankness about bodily waste, even though there's no sense that the culture at large is any less embarrassed about it than it ever was. Nonetheless, just in the last year, we've started (just for example) to take the screen depiction of baby poop to new levels. Last fall, Katherine Heigl unwittingly walked around with baby poop on her face for a gag in 'Life As We Know It.' And last weekend, in 'The Change-Up,' audiences were encouraged to laugh when an infant shot a stream of poop into Jason Bateman's mouth.
Maltin distinguishes between toilet-humor gags that exist just for shock value and those that further character or plot development. But all poop jokes exist for shock value, even the ones that are key to the story. That's why they're funny, and the persistence of social taboos against potty humor ensure that the gags will continue to be funny, and that filmmakers will continue to push the envelope, even while the edginess of sexual content goes up and down in accordance with our culture's conflicted attitudes toward sex.
In other words, not everyone has tried unorthodox sexual behavior, or knows how they feel about it, but everyone has had diarrhea. And held their nose. So Hollywood's confusion over how candid to be about what we do with our nether regions is only likely to continue.
Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.
Photos courtesy of Universal Pictures and Screen Gems.