Discover more from This Week in The 90s
'No Ordinary Love', Indecent Proposal, and Sexy Date Movies [June 20, 1993]
Plus: Pet Shop Boys, East 17, and Liz Phair
Hey, Time Traveller! 👋 Welcome back to June 20, 1993!
📰 A good week for nerds as Fermat’s Last Theorem is solved.📽️ Stallone does Die Hard on a mountain in Cliffhanger.📺 In the States, Don Cornelius presents his final Soul Train after 22 years.
🎶 In the UK Top 40, Number One is ‘Dreams’ by Gabrielle, and Number 17 is…
Sade, ’No Ordinary Love’
Sade’s ‘No Ordinary Love’ has already appeared in this newsletter—in fact, it was Number 19 in our Best Singles of 1992 list.
But it’s back in the charts again, thanks to its appearance in the year’s buzziest movie, Indecent Proposal, a film that dares to ask the question: would you have sex with Robert Redford for $1,000,000?
(Most people said, “yes, but I’d have to pay in instalments”.)
Indecent Proposal, like 1992’s Basic Instinct, was part of a wave of adult-oriented dramas with strong sexual themes, all of which were box office smashes. It’s hard to imagine these movies existing today, and not just because movies are all superheroes now.
Today’s movies simply don’t include a lot of sex. Only 1.2% of mainstream movies in the 2010s contained sex scenes, which is the lowest percentage since the end of the highly restrictive Hays Code. Compare that to the horny 80s, where almost 2% of films included sex.
Why did on-screen sex peak in the early 90s? To answer that, we need to go way back to the 1850s.
I gave you all the love I got
“Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three…
Between the end of the "Chatterley" ban
And the Beatles' first LP.”
— Philip Larkin
Every generation likes to think they invented sex (and pornography), but that’s obviously not true. Human beings have always produced graphic depictions of sex in whatever media is available, including songs, poems, drawings, paintings, sculptures, carvings, and massive chalk carvings visible from space.
The Victorians were no exception, but they invented something the world had never seen before: mass-produced media, which could be used for sexual material. Suddenly, there was a booming commercial market for erotic fiction and explicit daguerreotypes [NSFW], and the UK government faced growing calls for regulation.
The UK passed the 1857 Obscene Publications Act, which became the model for similar laws across the world. This act created the modern concept of “pornography” without giving any objective definition of what counts as obscene sexual material. As a result, we’ve had 150 years where the legal definition of pornography is essentially “I know it when I see it.”
This confusion has always been a problem for mainstream media companies, who generally try to stay within the law while also providing the racy thrills that audiences craved. Artists and publishers began searching for the boundary between what was acceptable and what was pornographic—and then started pushing at that boundary.
Cinema emerged in 1895 and almost immediately ran into its first obscenity scandal. Catholic leaders in New York denounced Thomas Edison’s cinema company, which was exhibiting an 18-second film called The Kiss, featuring two (fully-clothed) people pecking each other on the lips.
Audiences loved The Kiss. It’s one of cinema’s first blockbusters.
Hollywood kept challenging public morals until the 1930s, when lawmakers decided that they’d seen one too many “Jean Harlow naked in a shower” scenes and issued an ultimatum: censor yourselves, or we’ll do it for you. Hollywood adopted the restrictive Hays code, which had these guidelines on “scenes of passion”:
a. They should not be introduced when not essential to the plot.
b. Excessive and lustful kissing, lustful embraces, suggestive postures and gestures, are not to be shown.
c. In general, passion should so be treated that these scenes do not stimulate the lower and baser element.
Film censorship in the United States is not controlled by the government. It’s actually a voluntary system, overseen by a Hollywood-backed organization called the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). The MPAA doesn’t have any legal power, so they can’t stop anyone from making, say, Debbie Does Dallas. However, most distributors will only handle MPAA-certified movies, so you must follow the rules if you want to show your film in multiplexes.
In the late 60s, the MPAA adopted a rating system to give filmmakers more leeway (and to keep up with European cinema, which was now full of dicks and boobs). The new rating system included two categories for films with adult-oriented material:
R, under-17s must be accompanied by a parent or guardian
X, over 17s only
That’s when something funny happened.
The MPAA still had limits, so they didn’t certify actual pornography. X ratings mostly applied to explicit dramas like Last Tango In Paris, A Clockwork Orange or Midnight Cowboy (the latter being the only X-rated film to win Best Picture.)
But X ratings became cool and sexy, cinema’s equivalent of the Parental Advisory Explicit Content sticker on CDs. Porn makers started advertising their movies as X-rated, even though they were technically unrated, and XXX-rated, which didn’t even exist.
X became so synonymous with porn that cinemas refused to show X-rated features. The R-rating became the de facto ceiling for acceptable mainstream movies, and therefore the limit of what most people saw on screen.
Until the 80s.
I gave you more than I could give
Home video gave people access to all sorts of content, including hardcore porn and brutally graphic horror movies. The rise of Video Nasties caused Britain to convulse in one of its biggest moral panics since the Victorian era.
Hollywood got raunchier in an effort to keep up, while still trying to avoid getting the dreaded X rating. Often, this meant cutting out the most extreme material: Robocop required a dozen rounds of cuts to escape an X-rating, while British director Adrian Lyne had to remove some S&M material from 9½ Weeks.
Lyne’s next picture was a turning point. 1987’s Fatal Attraction was steamy and violent, but not graphic enough to warrant an X. It was also a gigantic hit, becoming the second-biggest film in the world that year after Three Men and a Baby.
Hollywood began churning out more movies in this genre, generally referred to as “erotic thrillers”. A better name for them might be Sexy Date Night Movies because their primary function was to make mainstream audiences a little scared and a little horny, without going into the realm of actual porn. They were glossy, big-budget dramas for adults—with a focus on sex.
Films like Body Heat, Presumed Innocent and Single White Female did big business in the years after Fatal Attraction before Basic Instinct took the genre to absurd new heights. Sex was a major theme, in other hit movies, like Thelma & Louise, which initially included a Brad Pitt/Geena Davis sex scene that, “if left uncut, would have shot the movie’s rating past R”. Pretty Woman is relatively chaste, but was rated R for a thematic focus on sex (specifically, having sex with Richard Gere for $3,000).
So, by the early 90s, there were lots of hit movies about sex. In 1993, Adrian Lyne created one of the biggest of them all: Indecent Proposal.
All that I've got to give
Quick recap of Indecent Proposal:
Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore are a loving-but-broke couple who lose their life savings at a blackjack table in Vegas. Suave billionaire Robert Redford spots Demi and decides he wants her, so he offers Woody a million dollars in exchange for sex with his wife.
So, it’s not just a prostitution fantasy like Pretty Woman—it’s also a cuckolding fantasy.
The film ignited controversy on both sides of the political divide. Republicans, still reeling from Bill Clinton’s shock victory, denounced it as yet more Hollywood depravity. Feminist groups were outraged about yet another sex-for-money movie and called for a boycott. Broadsheet columnists endlessly debated whether the movie was sexist?
Audiences couldn’t have cared less. Indecent Proposal became the sixth-highest grossing movie of 1993, just behind Mrs. Doubtfire.
Keep trying for you
Sexy Date Night Movies seemed to have a bright future… until they didn’t.
Indecent Proposal was one of the last blockbuster adult dramas themed around sex. After that, we got good films that flopped at the box office (The Last Seduction, To Die For) and bad films that also flopped at the box office (Sliver, Jade, Showgirls).
Hollywood seemed to give up on sex. R-rated movies increasingly tended to be action or horror flicks, with occasional raunchy comedies like American Pie. The top 50 movies of 1999 only included two films resembling Sexy Date Night Movies: Double Indemnity and The Thomas Crown Affair (the latter, coincidentally, made $69 million).
These days, the genre is extinct. 50 Shades of Grey attempted a mid-2010s revival to mixed results. Of the top 100 movies of 2022, the only thing resembling a Sexy Date Night Movie was the Harry Styles vehicle/car-crash Don’t Worry Darling, which made roughly as much money as Downton Abbey: A New Era.
Have people finally gotten bored of sex?
Of course not! Technology has obviously shifted the landscape, and the internet can provide whatever erotic entertainment in any format you desire, whether that’s video, audio, or fanfic where Barbie hooks up with Dracula.
The spirit of Sexy Date Night Movies still lives on in prestige TV. Right now, the world is convulsing in controversy caused by The Idol, a graphic psychosexual drama starring Lily-Rose Depp and The Weeknd. Everyone hates it, everyone thinks it’s morally corrupt, some people want it banned or boycotted.
But audiences are still watching in their millions. People are always going to be intrigued and entertained by sex.
Elsewhere in the charts
[Number 6 ↑] Chaka Demus & Pliers, ‘Tease Me’
We’re halfway through The Year Of Pop Reggae, and the breakout stars are finally here. Chaka Demus & Pliers scored three megahits in 1993, including ‘Twist & Shout’, which was almost Christmas Number One.
Their best single of the year was ‘Murder She Wrote’, which sadly didn’t make the Top 40 until its re-release in ‘94.
[Number 8 ↑] Lisa Stansfield, ‘In All The Right Places’
Another song from the Indecent Proposal soundtrack! Not a patch on Sade’s song though.
[Number 14 ↓] Pet Shop Boys, ‘Can You Forgive Her?’
Nothing sums up the Pet Shop Boys better than this: an innovative electroclash banger named after an Anthony Trollop novel.
‘Can You Forgive Her?” is the first single from Very, and a highlight in one of pop music’s strongest discographies.
[Number 16, New] East 17, ‘West End Girls’
Speaking of the Pet Shop Boys…
This week marks a crucial turning point in the War of the Boybands. East 17 started so brightly with ‘House Of Love’ and ‘Deep’, offering an energy and edge that made Gary Barlow look like a Tory-voting lounge singer.
But East 17 now seem to be running out of ideas. ‘West End Girls’ is an incredible song, but East 17 fail to make it their own in the same way that Take That conquered ‘Could It Be Magic’. It ends up sounding a bit like karaoke.
Next week (spoiler alert), ‘Pray’ will become the first of a dozen Number Ones for Take That. Meanwhile, ‘West End Girls’ will fail to crack the Top 10.
The war is over. All hail King Gary.
[Number 31, New] Teenage Fanclub, ‘Radio’
The Fannies are back after the glorious highs of their hit album, Bandwagonesque. Sadly, Thirteen didn’t live up to the hype, and they never really broke through to the next level.
Album of the Week
Liz Phair, Exile In Guyville
Listening to a woman sing such gutsy, ferocious, and overtly sexual songs, it’s tempting draw comparisons with PJ Harvey’s recent Rid Of Me.
But that is the essence of Guyville—a place where women are pitted against each other.
‘Goodbye to Guyville’ was originally a song by Phair’s buddies in Urge Overkill (RIP Blackie Onassis). Phair expanded Guyville into a concept to describe local music scenes that were defined by:
“…guy things - comic books with really disfigured, screwed-up people in them, this sort of like constant love of social aberration. This kind of guy mentality where men are men and women are learning."
Exile In Guyville is loosely structured as a song-by-song response to The Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street, and sometimes this connection is very apparent. Main Street opens with ‘Rocks Off’, where Jagger drawls about “making love last night/To a dancer friend of mine” and complains that he can “only get my rocks off/While I'm dreaming”.
Meanwhile, Guyville opens with Phair sneering at guys who “fall in bed too easily/With the beautiful girls who are shyly brave” and who have “long since passed understanding/Of what it takes to be satisfied”.
I haven’t done a track-by-track comparison of the albums, but it feels like Mick Jagger isn’t the only guy in Guyville. Many of the lyrics seem to be directed at different guys, from the lustful ‘Flower’ (with ends with the hilariously blunt line, “I’ll fuck you till your dick is blue”) to the eye-rolling of ‘Soap Star Joe’ (“He’s just a hero in a long line of heroes/Looking for something attractive to save”).
Exile In Guyville’s best-known track is ‘Fuck And Run’, an angry ballad about the deadening effects of casual sex that ends with Phair, quite unexpectedly, stating that she was abused as a child.
That final line is still devastating each time you hear it, but there’s also a lot to unpack in the repeated cry of “I want a boyfriend”. Girls are not supposed to say things like that in Guyville. Guyville Girls are Not Like Other Girls, they’re Cool Girls: easy-going, sexually available, and uninterested in commitment or emotions.
Equally, “I want a boyfriend” doesn’t support the image of Phair as a feminist icon. It’s a line that pisses everyone off, which makes it feel all the more honest.
And here is the real spirit of Exile In Guyville: tell the truth and damn the consequences. It’s the sound of someone speaking their mind and leaving you to take responsibility for your reaction. As scorchingly brilliant as both Exile On Main Street and Rid Of Me, but also entirely unique.
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