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Who’s really to blame for Hollywood’s nude and sex scenes?

Who’s really to blame for Hollywood’s nude and sex scenes?

During her appearance on the Armchair Expert podcast, actress Salma Hayek opened up about a traumatic experience on the set of her breakout film, Desperado. After Hayek went through six auditions and a screen test, securing her role as the female lead, the studio added something that wasn’t included in the original script—a sex scene:

I had a really, really hard time with that. . . . I started to sob: “I don’t know that I can do it, I don’t know that I can do it. . . .” I was not letting go of the towel, and they would try to make me laugh and things, and take it off for two seconds, and then [making crying noise] I started crying again. But we got through it.

People looking and taking photos of the iconic Hollywood sign in California | Reuters/ Carlo Allegri

Hayek is not the first movie star to face sexual coercion. In the entertainment industry, the pressure placed on actors — and women in particular — to undress or sexually act out for the camera is tragically commonplace. In the wake of Harvey Weinstein’s downfall, actor abuse has come into sharper focus, but the problem is far from solved.

The blame game

When evaluating a situation like Salma Hayek’s, it’s easy to simplify matters so as to lay the blame at the actress’ feet: “Well, she shouldn’t have done that.” The reality, however, is more complex, and Scripture can help us better discern this complexity. Consider the following stories:

  • In response to Judah’s willful neglect of her widowhood, Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute and tricks him into getting her pregnant. When the truth of the whole situation comes to light, Judah confesses his wrongdoing in the matter, saying, “[Tamar] has been more righteous than I” (see Genesis 38).
  • Esther chooses to obey King Xerxes’ command to sleep with him rather than refuse and risk retribution (see Esther 2:12-14). For whatever reason, the Biblical narrative never comments on Esther’s failure to take a stand for sexual purity.
  • When the Pharisees present Jesus with a woman caught in adultery (see John 8), Jesus refuses to play along in their charade (after all, they didn’t bring the adulterous man as well). Instead, Jesus confronts the manipulative religious leaders before even addressing the woman and her actions.

Each of these situations shows men abusing their positions of authority and using women as pawns. And in each situation, God, through Holy Scripture, refuses to simply point the finger of blame first — or solely — at the women involved.

Coming back to Salma Hayek’s situation in Desperado: ignoring the blatantly coercive actions of those in control gives the appearance, if not the reality, of victim blaming. We can fault actresses all day long for caving in to pressure. They are, after all, moral agents just like the rest of us, culpable for their actions. Nevertheless, we fail to mirror our Savior’s heart for undeserving sinners when we refuse to even acknowledge the amount of coercion some actresses receive.

The ugly, the bad, and the good

We could lay the blame at the feet of the film’s producers. The studio executives who threaten and bully and intimidate share a hefty portion of the guilt. It is their position of authority and influence, leveraged against those under them, that has created what TIME Magazine has called “a tradition of objectifying female characters.”

And yet, merely blaming studio executives is still simplistic. Megalomaniacs like Harvey Weinstein are easy targets, but the obvious bad guys aren’t the only ones playing the role of bad guy. Sometimes even the good guys wear black hats (so to speak).

In the case of Desperado, Hayek shares how director Robert Rodriguez and his then-wife, Elizabeth Avellán, “were amazing” and “so magnificent” in how they didn’t rush her during the bed scene. But as two of the four producers on the film, Rodriguez and Avellán could have used their positions with even greater efficacy, fighting against the inclusion of the sex scene in the first place (which they apparently did not).

Even Antonio Banderas, whom Hayek says “was an absolute gentleman and super nice,” contributed to the problem. He treated the gratuitous sex scene as no big deal, which only exacerbated Hayek’s anxiety: “[F]or him, it was like nothing, and that scared me…and I was so embarrassed that I was crying.”

Furthermore, says Hayek, Banderas “was like, ‘Oh, my God, you are making me feel terrible.’” So here is a woman distraught over the situation she’s been forced into, and her scene partner layers on the guilt (inadvertently, to be sure) by proclaiming how uncomfortable her discomfort is making him.

Suppliers and demanders

At this point, it might be tempting to proclaim a blanket condemnation on all “depraved entertainers” and leave it at that. But there’s one more guilty party whose involvement warrants examination. This participant, while less obvious, is no less culpable. It is the collective entity of the viewing audience. In other words, it’s moviegoers like you and me.

Films and shows with problematic content exist because of supply and demand. The entertainment industry is a money-making machine, and it gives us what we ask for. We demand and it supplies.

“Demand” may sound like an unfair description, especially for those of us who decry hypersexualized entertainment. But here’s the reality: when we financially support a piece of pop culture that objectifies its actors, we are perpetuating the very thing we say we deplore. We may fast forward through the sex scene, or close our eyes during the nudity, or use a filtering service to avoid the objectionable content, but we are failing to recognize our role as consumers. From an economic standpoint, there is no functional difference between begrudging patronage and willing patronage. Both actions communicate to Hollywood what we consider acceptable fare.

In the hard-hitting words of Christian film critic Steven D. Greydanus,

You can justify your lack of empathy, or even sympathy, for women working anywhere in the world by shrugging and saying “They shouldn’t be rolling around [in the mud] with pigs.” . . . Incidentally. If you watch movies or TV? You are creating the demand for “mud.” Yes, women have a choice, but so do you, and if you’re paying for it, and you are in one way or another, then you don’t get to shrug your shoulders about what goes on in that world as if it had nothing to do with you.

“More like this, please”

According to the parable of the Good Samaritan, actresses like Salma Hayek are our neighbors. Even if we don’t personally know them. Even if we simply pass by them on the other side of the movie screen. Even if we only pay them indirectly to entertain us.

But they are our neighbors. And we are called, not to condemn them like self-righteous Pharisees, but to love them in word, thought, and deed. And those deeds involve the tickets we buy, the media we purchase, and the shows we stream.

There’s a saying worth remembering: “Hit movies will only ever tell studios one thing: ‘More like this, please.’”

“More like this, please.” Is that what we want the creators of sexualized entertainment to hear from us?

Cap Stewart is the author of the curriculum Personal Purity Isn’t Enough: The Long-Forgotten Secret to Making Scriptural Entertainment Choices. As a cultural commentator, he has contributed to Cultural Engagement: A Crash Course in Contemporary Issues (Zondervan Academic, 2019), among other print and online publications. He has been blogging at capstewart.com since 2006.

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