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Making Sex Public: Cinema and the Liberal Social Body


During and after the 1960s, representations of sex proliferated on French and American screens and became increasingly explicit. By bringing sexual images into the public sphere of representation, cinema, in a literal sense, made images of sex more public. Cinema also began to figure forms of sexuality which were no longer associated strictly with domesticity nor limited to heterosexual relations between loving couples. This transformation in the relation between sex and publicity, I argue, brought a new political focus to sexuality and both occasioned and evidenced a broad cultural conjoining of sexual and political imaginaries. Making Sex Public explores the deeper significance of this transformation in the ways French and US visual culture imagined and represented sex, in a historical span beginning with the Brigitte Bardot vehicle Et Dieu créa... la femme [And God Created Woman] (France, Roger Vadim, 1956) and ending with Shortbus (US, John Cameron Mitchell, 2006).

Through readings of a generically diverse range of films that brought the body and its pleasures into view in important new ways, I develop three main arguments about this chapter in the history of sexual representation in the West. First, I show how cinema produced images of a pleasure now understood as a quantifiable property of an individual subject. In films which celebrated sex as both a private property and a public good, representations of sexuality converged with liberal concepts of freedom, equality, and autonomy, fashioning a newly sexualized version of the liberal subject. Second, I show how a countervailing discourse brought sex and the body into view as a site of radical contradiction in the liberal premise of equality. Feminist artists and film-makers developed new figures of bodily difference that rendered the body a site of political critique and even political impasse. Meanwhile, new figures of queerness alternately integrated queerness into a liberal imaginary or invested it as what could not be so integrated. Throughout these readings, I show how a fundamental tension characterized the way sex came into public view, between sex as emancipatory vs. sex as unfreedom, sex as individual property vs. sex as scene of relationality, sex as public good vs. sex as antisocial, sex as equality vs. sex as instrumentalization. Spanning these oppositions I argue, finally, that the elaborate cinematic discourse on sexuality that plays such a prominent role in post-`60s French and US cinema renders sex a problem not of the subject but of the social. In some cases, this "on scene" cinema perversely fulfills Michel Foucault's call for an experience of "bodies and pleasures" that would be liberated from a discourse of desire. Ultimately, however, I suggest that the untethering of sex from desire leads not to liberation but to an ethos of transparency that renders even pleasure a site of neoliberal rationalization.

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