Monday, January 14, 2013

Bidirectional History

A social historian, observing trends in the public treatment of sex from 1960 to 1980 and projecting those trends into the future, could be forgiven for thinking that society would soon shed its remaining behavioral restrictions and reservations on our way to base animal behavior, for good or ill.

As Elusive Wapiti comments in my last post, however, what actually happened is a little more complicated. While it is true that many measures of sexual morality have continued their decline, they have also broken down along class lines. After a fling with divorce and teen sex in the '70s, the upper middle class has largely abandoned it.

Consider as well the treatment of sex in movies. There is little today's viewer of even "R" rated movies will miss out on, sexually speaking, but our imaginary historian, considering the early careers of Eva Ionesco and Brooke Shields, would have supposed that these media depictions would have involved ever younger teens, and even children.

And yet, by the rollout of Beverly Hills 90210, a show with no shortage of sexual themes, Hollywood had turned to using adults even in their mid to late twenties to play high school students. I understand this trend has continued, although I don't really know. (I've never seen an episode of Degrassi, for instance.)

The limited reversal of sexual trends after 1980 can be chalked up to our society's recurring moral panics about children, but I can't help but wonder if the social affects are double-edged. Television and movie audiences encouraged to regard "teen" sex as normal and healthy by watching physically mature 20-somethings are being sold a lie; if rather they were shown actual, still-developing teens, the audiences would likely be more conflicted about the message, if not entirely put off. And in fact, whatever their viewing habits, the upper middle class knows better anyway; it is the working class that has fell victim to the lie.

Is the tide turning once more? This Guardian article provides some useful history and quotes experts on all sides, but can't quite make up its mind whether adult-child sex is abuse or just another orientation.

Parenthetically, it is noteworthy that Brooke Shields, while still very attractive at 47, has not had the movie career I would have predicted from her Calvin Klein and Blue Lagoon popularity in the early 80s. She still acts, apparently, but not in anything I can remember seeing.


månesteiner said...

I'll sidestep the more important topic of sexual morality in society. However, on the minor point...

"Parenthetically, it is noteworthy that Brooke Shields, while still very attractive at 47, has not had the movie career I would have predicted from her Calvin Klein and Blue Lagoon popularity in the early 80s."

Brooke Shields made a huge splash in the 1980's. I remember watching "The Blue Lagoon" on the big screen when it first came out and I couldn't stop talking about her for a week. Although she was gourgeous and charismatic it turned out she just didn't have the gift of acting for the camera. Therefore, a film here or there, but no movie career.

Anonymous said...

I may be the only person who remembers her sitcom (fondly, even).

Anonymous said...

Television producers have good reasons for using young adult actors to play teenaged characters. There's even a name for the practice, "Dawson Casting," after the show Dawson's Creek.

Actors who are under 18 are subject to strict hours-of-work limits, which often complicate filming schedules and drive up costs. Another reason, maybe the bigger reason, is that a show's producers intend/hope for it to remain on the air for several years, and teenagers' physical appearances tend to change a lot over that time frame. If a show is supposed to portray 16-year-olds, and casts actors of that age when it begins its run, five seasons later the now 21-year-old actors may look very different from their younger, first-season selves even though they're supposed to be the same age. If the producers instead cast 20-year-olds in the first season, even if they may look a bit old for high school students their appearances won't change nearly as much over five years.


Dr. Φ said...

Was Brooke Shields ever cast in a movie in which she was woefully oit of her depth? I went the 90'ssitcom with no TV and totally missed the sitcom.

Good point about changes in appearance, and sometimes not for the better. Rupert Gint got to be pretty scary as Ron by the time Harry Potter was over.

Lionel said...

Maggie Grace in the Taken series - she's 29 but the character appears to be a teenager. She was sold into sex slavery in the first one.

Just found your blog and am enjoying reading the back articles.

Dr. Φ said...

To illustrate how rare age-appropriate casting is for young people in sexual-themed roles today, consider an (almost) counter-example: Dominique Swain was 17 when Adrian Lyne's Lolita was released. But even here we see the evolving standards: Sue Lyon was only 14 when she played Lolita for Stanley Kubrick. Having said that, Kubrick's movie purged Lyon's and James Mason's interaction of anything remotely sexual; Lyne did not, although body doubles were occasionally called in. (In the Nabokov's novel, Lolita was aged 12; my inference is that Lyne made her age 14, as did Kubrick.)