Steven Spielberg's vast film catalog rarely deals with sex.
The only reason any of us are here right now is sex. Sure, people may exist because of two-for-one Long Island Iced Tea specials, but it still took sex to get them here. Sex is a fundamental part of human life. While it's commonly shied away from in mainstream American media, it has been embraced across the world as a powerful way to convey emotion on screen.
We've seen sex depict love, lust, anger, jealousy, and passion. And we've seen a wide array of directors use sex scenes as crucial moments in characters' emotional arcs.
But what about one of the best (if not the best) directors working in Hollywood?
Why has Steven Spielberg, the master of emotional filmmaking, not used more sex scenes in his work? And what kind of themes have arisen in the times he's dared to use sex on screen?
Today I aim to tackle the idea of sex within Steven Spielberg's oeuvre and discuss how his uses of sex in his films have implicit reasoning and importance behind them.
Let's dig deeper.
Let's discuss sex in Steven Spielberg movies
Sex is one of those things in American cinema that always makes headlines. It can overshadow a movie, define a director's career, and takes a lot of work to get tonally right. When it comes to Spielberg, sex is rarely on display on the screen. We have allusions to it within stories, and there are times when the camera pans away, but I think the idea that Spielberg makes sexually neutered films is a false one.
The truth is, Spielberg approaches sex the same way he approaches emotion, as a defining characteristic of humanity. If you look at the course of his career, the times he's chosen to depict sex, or sexual people, are very deliberate. There are no accidents.
I want to check out a few examples to dig further.
Sex for fun
Movies like the Indiana Jones trilogy and Catch Me if You Can have protagonists sold as hot men. Dr. Jones has students writing on their eyeballs to get into his tweed pants, and Frank Abagnale doesn't do too poorly in that department either.
Both will flirt to get what they want, with Frank's signature move being a missing necklace he uses to woo women behind the counter, whereas Indiana is a more traditional heartbreaker, falling in with women he lost in the past, women who will betray him, or just the woman of the moment.
The key here is that sex fits the tone of these movies. While never explicit, sex is seen as part of the adventure and part of the con. When a relationship gets too real or too emotional, sex can get in the way. Like when Frank gets engaged. Or when Indiana finds out it led to a son with Marion.
I'd say that most Spielberg movies hint at sex but never fully address it. Even the recent Ready Player One spins us past a planet where sex is all over the screen, but the narrator decides not to mention it at all. In something like Jurassic Park, we see heavy flirting. We hear blue jokes about dinosaur skirts, but sex is never addressed in the movie outside of furtive glances between Ellie, Malcolm, and even a stern Dr. Grant.
And for Jaws, Spielberg took the sex out of the script. Early drafts followed the book's subplot of Brody's wife cheating on him with Hooper. The only sex that remains in that movie is the skinny dipping in the beginning. And that's punishable by getting eaten. And for the man, a thinly veiled metaphor for impotence, as he passes out before he can even take his clothes off.
Still, there's no actual on-screen sex in these movies.
Sex as part of growing up
When it comes to Spielberg, the term that gets associated with him the most is "wonderment." Well, as you grow up, sex becomes part of that wonderment. Though in Spielberg's coming-of-age films, it's shown in very different ways.
In a movie like E.T., sex is not really understood by Elliott. He's not sure why his dad would have run off with another woman besides his mother. He calls his brother "penis breath" without fully understanding why it makes his mother laugh. And he's also blissfully unaware that the girl sitting behind him in science class has a crush on him.
In fact, the only person aware of sex in the movie appears to be E.T., and he's not really sure what it is. When he watches The Quiet Man and sees John Wayne kiss Maureen O'Hara, it makes him feel a certain way. A feeling that's transferred to Elliot... as he kisses the girl in science class.
What about the inverse in AI: Artificial Intelligence?
This is a strange example, but I think it's interesting to see how Spielberg treats sex within something trying to mimic humanity. Of course, for David, he's a boy who never adapts to the actual ways of the human world. Devoid of the one extra step to make him feel human, David is a little boy maturing without sex.
His counterpart, a robot named Gigolo Joe, is all about sex. When we meet him, he's easing a woman into engaging in intercourse. Perhaps Spielberg's most explicit seduction scene, it's almost ironic to see him staging and scripting something that's supposed to feel almost human.
The world of this movie shows sex as a service, something we can use the robots for without guilt. But these abuses at the Flesh Fair are also played for the audience to feel empathy. While robots cannot feel pain or sorrow for being cheaply used, we still see this through our preconceived notions of sex as something private. Since there is only manufactured innocence here, it makes us feel dirty.
This morally grey look at sex was a big step for Spielberg. Let's look at some stuff that came before it that might have led him here.
Sex with consequences
Sex is so tricky to show in cinema. You want to use it in ways that can advance the story, character, and emotion. The first time I saw Spielberg use it canonically in his filmography was in The Color Purple, though sex serves as a way to abuse women.
While the movie opens with idyllic scenes of beautiful countryside, we are quickly introduced to a broken family rife with sexual abuse and sexual abusers. Rather than shy away from these topics as he had done in his previous work, he leans into them as central themes of the movie.
In fact, film writer Calhoun Kersten said of The Color Purple, "Spielberg seems to convey his attitude towards sexuality as an antagonistic one. He suggests that sexuality is always an act of power, that one person always dominates over another. While in the film men dominate over women, in Spielberg’s own life, this may not necessarily be true. With his father abandoning the family while he was still young, leaving only his mother, Spielberg himself, and his younger sisters, the all-female environment of his home life seems to have contributed to his confused sexual attitudes. However, it is perhaps because of his own mother that Spielberg has a predilection towards strong women which is illustrated in this film."
I think that's an interesting and personal way to look at sex in this movie. While it is a barrier to some people's advancement, the core of the story is women overcoming these travesties to have better lives.
Juxtapose that against Schindler's List, where sex is a defining characteristic of the two leads.
For Oskar Schindler, he's a womanizer who is constantly falling into bed with the easiest women he can find. That's not something his wife appreciates. Schindler makes business decisions based on the most beautiful secretary, and when he cannot decide, he picks them all. We see actual sex scenes in this movie, something unprecedented for Spielberg at the time. But they are tied to Schindler's character arc.
In fact, when it comes to saving a young woman's parents from a concentration camp, she knows to put on makeup to go see Schindler.
But sex is also part of Schindler's redemption. When he chooses to save the persecuted Jewish characters, he pushes aside his past behavior (for the most part) and promises loyalty to his wife. Still, when life gets hard, sex is also where he falters. He uses his reputation as a friend of the Jews to try to seduce a housekeeper in a wine cellar. That interaction winds up causing him pain, as he eventually sees how his use of sex and alcohol has desensitized him to the very human plight in front of him.
On the other hand, we have Nazi Amon Goeth. Goeth is as much of a womanizer as Schindler. But for Goeth, sex is more shameful when he feels lust for a Jewish woman. We know that he favors his housekeeper more than the others, that he actually sees her as a woman, but this conflict leads to her eventual demise. Schindler and Goeth have dueling desires in this movie. The more human Schindler becomes, the more Goeth is lost.
But Goeth can see and understand Schindler through their connection over women. When it's Schindler's birthday, and he kisses a Jewish woman and gets in trouble for it, it's Goeth who is the first person to assure the SS that the girl was so beautiful it didn't "matter."
This complicated look at sexuality represents Spielberg's growth as a filmmaker. He's someone who sees human desire as part of a defining characteristic of adults. But he's also someone who, like in The Color Purple, sees the danger and damage unchecked sexual desire can have within a person.
But it's not the only time he used sex to mark a character's journey.
Sex that tells a story
The most obvious use of sex in a Spielberg movie comes within his 2005 film, Munich. This is the story of an Israeli spy working to get revenge for the terrorist acts at the 1972 Olympics. The movie features the only instance of the "Spielberg face" in a sex scene, taking all the joy and wonderment and instead, rooting it in tragedy and PTSD.
When it came time to make Munich, Spielberg was quoted as saying, “This is who I am. This is what I believe in,” about the movie. Therefore we have to examine the sex shown in this film in the same light.
Early in the movie, we see Avner and his wife right after having had sex. They're incredibly happy and have a lot of chemistry. The big reveal here is that Avner's wife is pregnant, and we get the sense that this couple enjoys displaying their affection physically.
This is a beautiful scene full of heart, love, and intimacy.
But the movie is ultimately about tragedy and terrorism. And the sex between Avner and his wife, Daphna, becomes the tangible response to what Avner is forced to do thought the film. As he kills more and more, he does not feel better. He begins to lose his humanity and therefore begins to lose the best part of sex, the connection. Instead, he becomes much more animalistic about the act.
Still, this movie asks the question, "How much violence is enough?"
If loving sex is the opposite of violence, then how can a man like Avner transition through both feelings? He's a Mossad agent, he knows his job, and yet, his job begins to cost him his family, the family that sex and love created.
This loss of innocence is mirrored in his colleagues. We see Avner deny a woman at the bar, only to find out she went upstairs with his friend and slit his throat. Sex can kill you, and sex is a good way for the enemy to take advantage of you.
Aside from the danger, sex is used to show Avner's pain.
The film's climax contains one of the most beautiful and creatively edited sex scenes in the history of cinema. And it's from Spielberg. Avner confronts what happened at the Munich Olympics in his head, as he and his wife have sweaty, passionate sex. The images of terrorism are cut into the images of sex, giving us a complicated dance that forces the audience to reconcile our feelings.
Here we see Spielberg confronting emotional scars with sexuality. And making us do the same. In this act, Avner is completely unable to look his own wife in the eyes as the imagery of pain and suffering overwhelms him.
And then, almost out of nowhere, we get a definitive statement on what I think Spielberg thinks of sex, as Daphna places her hands over Avner's eyes—shielding him from the pain and comforting him (and the audience) when we needed it most.
This act of kindness breaks Avner from the horror and brings him back into the room, as she whispers "I love you,” and he falls into her arms.
For me, this is Spielberg telling us about the personal connection of sex. How intimacy and humanity are the keys. We are voyeurs, looking at the ultimate expression of love. It's the most mature expression of sex within his films. Not fun like Indy and Marion, not because it's what people do, not a job like it was for Gigolo Joe, and not as a fatal flaw and weakness like it was for Oskar Schindler...
Sex here is what grounds Avner in goodness. Sex is what brings his mission back to love and heals him. It's Spielberg telling us that the only way to combat terror is love.
That might sound like hokey Spielberg's sentimentalism, but it's genius the way he hides it in such a steamy and painful scene.
And it's the culmination of how he's handled sex over the course of his career.
Summing up sex in Spielberg movies
If you mark Spielberg's career as someone who is constantly learning from film to film, then I think you can see Spielberg and sex evolve. His films have matured in their themes, in the ways he looks at humanity, and the marks his characters leave. From the chaste look at sex and love in something like E.T. to the lust and anger portrayed in Munich, I think we've seen him come to grips with sex's role in the human experience.
It will be interesting to see where his career and film choices go from here. Not just from his legacy's standpoint, but from what he wants to talk about and if sex plays a role.
Regardless, it's interesting to diagram the role it's played in his work so far, and theorize what kind of role it might play in the future.
Let me know what you think in the comments.