Anything and Everything

My Virgin Ears: Sound Designing the Sex Scene

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With the second cinematic instalment of the 50 Shades series, and since Valentine’s Day is upon us, I thought we should talk about sex. Sex is all over our screens, be it computer, movie theatre, or your television. The sound design of these scenes contributes to the ideological framing of the bodies on screen, and particularly to that of the virginal female. There are two films that feature “loss of virginity” scenes which stand out in my mind: Sam Taylor-Johnson’s 50 Shades of Grey and Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac Vol. I. Considering the impact of these two contrasting “loss of virginity” scenes beyond the visual and focusing on the sound, we can observe the sonic binaries constructed for a female’s first sexual encounter.

As a sidebar, and for the sake of clarity, I’ll define what I mean by “mainstream.” A “mainstream,” film has an MPAA rating of R or lower, was widely released in commercial movie theatres, and was marketed toward a broad audience. Are we on the same page? Marvellous.

First, I must note the importance of a body’s visual positioning in the sex scene. The amount of nudity and actions in which the naked body engages directly impact a film’s MPAA rating and the marketing, contributing to my definition of  “mainstream.” When synchronised sound was introduced regularly into film production in the 1920s and 30s, conscious decisions had to be made regarding the treatment of unscripted sounds emitted by the human body, especially pertaining to scenes containing physical intimacy. To that end, screen-sound scholar Liz Giuffre observes in her article “Making “a Mall Movie about a Man with a 13-inch Penis”: Popular Music Representations of Pornographic Intention.” that:

“Images…are considered much less ambiguous than sound.  A moan or a sigh may indicate any number of emotions and expressions which [sic] are relatively easy to simulate sonically, whereas the sight of ejaculation [for example] is almost impossible to mistake for anything else nor is it easily simulated.”

But here Giuffre neglects to explore sound’s affective power. The emphasised verisimilitude that comes when pairing images of sex acts with realistic sound effects may cause the spectator to engage with the film in a…well, you might get yourself banned from the theatre. However, the mainstream sex scene tends to redirect the viewer’s attention toward less overt forms of carnal communication by use of audio and visual metaphor. Disconnecting the visual from the realistic sounds of intercourse allows the option of interacting on an emotional level, rather than a physiological one.

Watch any Hollywood sex scene today; rerecording mixers on mainstream films traditionally deliver final soundtracks in which the sounds of the body are attenuated in the mix, privileging instead an underscore (in 50 Shades we are treated to the dulcet vocals of pop sensation Sia). On the other hand, films outside the Hollywood mainstream are not restricted by the conventions of such aural censorship.

Reiterating by opposition the lack of space in Hollywood cinema for the “wet and sticky” sounds of more realistic sounds of sex, both “De-Virginizing” scenes in Nymphomaniac and 50 Shades take up what it means for a female to “lose it” in their vastly differing approaches to sound design. Despite the similar subject matter, the sound in 50 Shades of Grey when Anastasia loses her virginity upholds the dominant conception of what a girl’s initiation into sexuality should be like. Standing in extreme opposition, the scene in which Joe has sex for the first time in Nymphomaniac overturns the predictability of Hollywood sex narratives.

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The first sex scene (though not the first sexual encounter) between Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) occurs immediately after Christian discovers that Anastasia is “still a virgin.”  He leads her by the hand to the bedroom and when asked what he is doing, he answers that he is “rectifying the situation.” The message is clear: Anastasia’s virginity is an obstacle to be overcome.

In a case of obscene irony, the song “Salted Wound” by Sia plays over a montage of Christian tenderly undressing a compliant Anastasia. While we can hear the sound his lips make as he kisses her thigh, the score remains primary in the mix and defines the atmosphere of the scene. As more of Anastasia’s clothes come off, the sounds of Christian’s kisses and caresses become less and less apparent, masked by the underscore, and the visuals are confined to bodily reactions to assumed off-screen stimuli. An example of the “reaction sequence” is a close up of Christian reaching into Anastasia’s underwear, and then the hard cut to a shot of her toes curling and the sound of her gasping. Here, the music takes on a dual role: it acts as a metaphor for sex, as well as provides character development lacking in the script. Anastasia and Christian’s relationship is based in their intangible sexual chemistry– a quality screenwriters may have difficulty translating into words, lest they ring false. Including underscore remedies this. In 3 minutes, Sia’s ethereal tone establishes a dreamlike atmosphere and communicates the emotional states of both characters with lyrics such as “Don’t let love get in the way” and “feel the fear and do it anyway.” It is the lack of realism then, or rather, the “sonic airbrushing,” which makes this sex scene and others like it typical Hollywood fare. The pop score works as that airbrush, concealing the realistic sounds of intercourse while communicating the emotional meaning of the scene.

Anastasia is the primary focus of the scene both sonically and visually. We, the voyeuristic audience, bear witness to her evolution from “virgin who hasn’t done anything” to fully sexualized woman. She spends the three-minute scene seemingly on the edge of constant orgasm– gasping and moaning prettily while Christian takes charge. In this scenario Anastasia is the embodiment of the cinematic female ideal: pure, but sexual, submissive and compliant, yet not subject to awkward mannerisms and meaningless small talk (that happens in Nymphomaniac). Rather, the sounds emanating from Christian and Anastasia’s bodies are non-verbal (those noises made by breathing and kissing), but even those quickly diminish and the verbocentric tradition of mainstream cinema is upheld in the song lyrics and scripted dialogue on either side of Christian and Anastasia’s congress.

The scene climaxes in a wide shot from above of the two still mid-coitus, then camera pans upward toward the ceiling’s reflective surface, where it remains for a few seconds before cutting to a close up of Anastasia waking up the next morning. In that camera movement we are able to observe visually what we aurally experienced just moments before: a blurring of the sex act itself to maintain modesty.

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Starkly contrasting Anastasia’s first time is Joe’s in Lars Von Trier’s film. There are a variety of shifts in the male/female power dynamic, the first of which is presented through the authorial agency Joe’s exerts in her voice-overs. At first Joe is the picture of schoolgirl innocence, in pigtails and knee socks, particularly when she is standing near the rugged and dirty Jerome (Shia LeBeouf). Countering the visuals, and contrasting Anastasia Steel, Joe takes her sexuality into her own hands, as she matter-of-factly declares to Stellan Skaarsgard’s character: “it was imperative of me to get rid of my virginity.” Though she does confess to having “girlish romantic expectations,” Joe’s objectification of her partner Jerome through her fixation on his “good, strong, hands” and her matter-of-fact recounting (in voice-over) subvert Hollywood “first time” narrative. Her description of the sex is distinctly un-sexy, so as to be broken down into a mathematical equation:

“He shoved his cock inside me and humped me 3 times, then he turned me over like a sack of potatoes and he humped me 5 times in the ass.” As voice-over Joe speaks, numbers appear on screen over Joe and Jerome’s bodies, counting Jerome’s thrusts and providing a logical examination of the coupling, uncharacteristic of the usual, more romantic fare in popular media.

The lack of music in the scene is painfully apparent. There is no underscore (pop or otherwise) to act as an airbrush. We are provided with the sounds of Joe’s “deflowering” undiluted, and perhaps even slightly hyperbolized. We are able to aurally experience the moments when Jerome strokes his penis or lubes up his hand with saliva. We hear the sounds his gum makes in his mouth. In this scene, Joe’s moans are not so much pretty as they are expressions of the discomfort often felt when a female first has has intercourse.

Mainstream cinema puts forth a specific moral framework in scenes that feature sex, and that ideology becomes gendered in the case of scenes that featuring the loss of virginity. Through the practical application of sonic elements the scene is imbued with a moralistic commentary, resulting in presenting the sex act itself as negative or positive. If it is framed as a positive interaction, the music tends to swell – acting as a proxy orgasm – and conveniently it drowns out any “unseemly” sounds of bodies moving together. On the other hand, the use of hyperbolized body sounds or the inclusion of fantastical/unrealistic sound effects point toward the encounter’s dangerous quality.

Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan uses this type of sonic manipulation. The film features another Hollywood “first time,” albeit of a different sort: the first female homosexual encounter. Nina and Lily engage in oral sex while drunk and on drugs. Throughout the scene the sounds of animals are added to body movements: we hear the roar of a lion when Lily tosses Nina on the bed, and there is an accentuated slither as she licks Nina’s thigh. Attributing non-human sounds to human actions activates our awareness of the uncanny, framing the entire encounter in the negative and having a monstrous quality. When a body is separated from the traditional sounds we have come to associate with it, it creates a disconnect in the audience and reinforces the thought that something is terribly wrong with the situation. The ideological message being driven home is that this particular loss of virginity is not normal, and thus inherently monstrous.    Mainstream cinema’s method of containment when it comes to sex is to downplay the actual reality and instead choose an emotional one. This plays out socially in the policing of a film’s “acceptability” with the MPAA ratings system. When paired with the story of a female’s sexual awakening, this societal construction perpetuates the problematic myth of “female purity.” Sex is a method of discourse, which in Hollywood cinema must come with an ideological framework. The sexual encounters depicted are not allowed to stand on their own; they must com packaged with an ideology so that the sex is able to “speak” and contribute to the film’s cultural relevancy.

Films that buck the trend with moral ambiguity or unbiased depictions of sex acts tend to suffer at the hands of the censors and find themselves relegated to the less commercially viable categories of “indie film,” “art film,” and even pornography. By refusing to adhere to the strict moral boundaries on which we continue to base our social values, a sex scene, and more so the scene that features the loss of female virginity, becomes dangerous. Those boundaries exemplify Western culture’s anxiety surrounding the female body and virginity. It threatens to expose the hypocrisy by neither conforming to generic conventions of pornography, nor perpetuating the fantasy of a woman’s first time.

by Ashleigh Bowers


ashleighAshleigh is a 20-something grandpa from Durham, North Carolina. If you make it past her fortress of books you might find her chatting endlessly (to no one in particular) about the sonic characterisations of women in film. To that end, she is currently pursuing a dual masters in Cinema Studies and Sound Design from Savannah College of Art & Design. She knows every word to The Princess Bride, is a sucker for Centre Stage and Bring it On and consiers director Todd Haynes her queer spiritual soulmate. You can follow her music-making alter-ego Brett.Ashleigh on Soundcloud here, or read her irreverent tweets @13cupsofcoffee. 

 

 

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