Sex Does Not Always Sell

by Melissa Silverstein on December 1, 2009

in Sexism,Statistics

The message we always hear is sex sells, especially at the movies.  A new report Sex Doesn’t Sell — Nor Impress by Anemone Cerridwen and Dean Keith Simonton refutes that claim.  The report studied 914 mainstream Hollywood films(and their box office domestically and overseas, critical appraisal and awards)  from 2001-2005, and found that in contrast to most of the Hollywood thinking “sex and nudity do not, on the average, boost box office performance, earn critical acclaim, or win major awards.”  The study was recently published in the Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts journal.

Well, that sure throws a wrench into the conventional wisdom which has been that sex, sexuality and nudity are vital for box office success.  Yet, according to Simonton preconceived notions are hard to break even with data:

…I was struck by how hard it is to overcome preconceptions about the box-office consequences of highly graphic sexual content…

It seems that this whole thing was started by the righteous anger of a woman, the co-author Anemone Cerridwen who, when taking acting classes felt that the type of roles women she had to play made her very uncomfortable.  (Guess it’s a good thing she became a researcher and left the acting to others.)  But still, she wanted to know what the story was, why women’s roles are so sexualized, and spent many years crunching numbers.

Here’s her analysis (h/t to Katherine Monk CanWest News Service)

When I first saw the averages, I was really surprised, and mad, too. I felt like I’d been had…I realize that many people think it’s harmless, but I see it as sexual harassment of talent…It also is often just plain sexist, holding up women (and leading men) as objects to be consumed rather than people.”

I think it reflects and reinforces sexism in society, in general. Even if the performer genuinely doesn’t mind having to do this stuff as a condition of employment, it creates a hostile environment for the rest of us: other women on camera, behind the camera, in acting classes, plus women, in general.

It would be smart if the researchers got their material to Hollywood producers.  But then I bet lots of them don’t really care.  It will take a lot more than a report from an American Psychological Society journal to convince them the tits and ass don’t help box office grosses.

Bare Breasts Don’t Beget Boffo Box Office (Miller-McCune)

Sex doesn’t sell in mainstream cinema, study says
(CanWest News Service)

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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Ci December 1, 2009 at 11:28 AM

“Sex does not always sell.” I read this right after being genuinely surprised (and delighted) to see that Meryl Streep is on the cover of the new issue of Vanity Fair. Fully dressed, no less. So, I guess there may be some truth to this statement.

Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist December 1, 2009 at 12:02 PM

This is a very, very important post. Thanks, Melissa, for writing about this.

Anemone December 1, 2009 at 1:50 PM

Thank you for covering this.

Karen December 1, 2009 at 2:16 PM

Good info!

j.osborn December 1, 2009 at 2:33 PM

“It also is often just plain sexist, holding up women (and leading men) as objects to be consumed rather than people.”

Then how does the author explains the sucess of twilight which does exactly that?.

I think there is something big that they are forgetting, you dont have to show people fully naked or in explicit sexually activity to be objetified.
Therefore their entire premise is faulty, sex does sells. But like everything if is too much or too explicit is a no-no.

j.osborn December 1, 2009 at 2:43 PM

Also i forgot, are they accounting the fact that the more sex the include the more restrictive they rating they get?.

Like a film that gets NC-17 is ever gonna make a lot of money. Artistic and independent films are the only ones that really include graphic sex scenes this days.

Ami December 1, 2009 at 2:43 PM

It may simply be that sex sells to a different demographic (one often soft after in ridiculous amounts in hollywood) and that strong writing and solid acting garners different audiences possibly leveling the playing field and what’s left are the undecideds who are harder to predict?

Anemone December 1, 2009 at 5:55 PM

@j.osborn: Yes, we took MPAA rating into effect.

C.K. December 1, 2009 at 7:50 PM

Very interesting, thanks! I’m going to link to this too.

Allison December 1, 2009 at 8:00 PM

The thing about nudity in movies that bothers me is the double standard. Hollywood has an unwritten rule that ALL actresses must, at some point in their careers, take off their clothes in front of the cameras. In fact, says Hollywood, stripping down will help actresses advance their careers. If an actress doesn’t want to take off all her clothes, she’s deemed an oddity and even a “prude.”

Women are objectified to sell movies to one demographic in particular–young men. Then you have websites like Mr. Skin that further reduce women to T&A (hey, why actually bother seeing the movie if you can just go online and see actresses butts and boobs in the comfort of your own home?).

Meanwhile, male actors don’t necessarily have to do nudity. Or if they do, it’s almost never sexy and just there for laughs. And there still is a taboo against male nudity. Remember how everyone freaked out over Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen? How many male critics mentioned his “junk” in their reviews? Which is funny, since Billy Crudup wasn’t really naked (it was a CG body double) and the nudity actually was necessary to his character to show his detachment from humanity. Yet, Rebecca Rominj was blue and naked in all three X-Men movies and nobody makes a big deal (even though the character’s not naked in the comics).

Erica K December 1, 2009 at 9:31 PM

2009 example of this: Jennifer’s Body (and I wish that had done well for the sake of Diablo Cody and other female writers who will be affected by what are seen to be her successes/failures)

Chris December 2, 2009 at 4:55 AM

In an age where Meryl Streep(60), who crucially refused to be objectified when she started out in movies, and Sandra Bullock(45), whose never exactly been THAT kind of sex symbol, are currently the biggest female box office draws Hollywood, or certain execs, have to wake up to the decades long fact that overly sexualising actressess won’t make them huge stars.

From Raquel Welch to Bo Derek to Sharon Stone to Demi Moore to Halle Berry to Megan Fox etc sex appeal on unsubtle display isn’t enough to sustain consistent box office.

Faye December 2, 2009 at 12:13 PM

Sex doesn’t sell like it used to because now we can get it for free without leaving the comfort of our homes. Turn on your computer and you can see nudity, full on sex, and all sorts of things that would make an escort blush.

Kate December 3, 2009 at 11:05 PM

That’s really interesting! Too bad Hollywood won’t give a shit: the male writers, producers and directors will continue to force female actors to strip down because THEY want to see it, and they have all the power.

Anemone December 4, 2009 at 1:03 PM

Women writers/directors/producers include just as much sexualized content in films as men do. It may not be as sleazy, but it’s still there. Sexism has a lot to do with the absence of *other* roles for women, but this is about more than sexism.

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