Spielberg’s Sexual Evolution

Sexuality is an aspect of human nature. It’s one of the few things that all people have in common. However, not everybody is ready to admit this much about themselves. Although Spielberg is a director who invests a great deal of himself into his craft, he is clearly one such person. There has always been a certain sexual shyness about Spielberg that has persisted over the years. Although it’s fair to say that Spielberg has had a great deal that he was worked through with many of his films, sexuality has never exactly been at the forefront. Nevertheless, sexuality is an important aspect of his film making. Whether it be sub-consciously, as in his earlier years, or on a conscious level, as in his more recent work, Spielberg and sexuality have been very much inter-related. In movies such as E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, The Color Purple, and Munich Spielberg has applied varying degrees of human sexuality to his characters to bring more life to these characters while working through his own stigmas regarding sexuality.
In Spielberg’s coming of age tale E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial many saw the potential for growth from Spielberg as a film maker. He had first burst onto the scene with Jaws which made audiences’ hearts leap into their throats and then 7 years later brings us E.T. which touched the hearts of film-goers everywhere. Although on the most basic level it is the story of a young boy who finds a young martian and the effect that this martian has on the boy’s life, his family’s, and what the martian itself learns, E.T. is hardly this simple. The film itself is very much a product of Spielberg’s own neuroses, the end result of a man-child riddled with insecurities. We see this in more obvious displays such as Elliott’s lack of a father figure, just as Spielberg’s own lack of a father figure in his youth as noted by Friedman in Citizen Spielberg. Spielberg becomes more self-referential in this film than in his previous works, adding a sort of nostalgia and longing for childhood innocence that makes this film so effective on both a cinematic and personal level. In a way, Spielberg uses this film to draw out some more noticeable parallels than he had done before. With E.T. he offers up a part of himself and cleverly disguises it as a science fiction film. However, as previously mentioned with the father figure issue, there are clearly some more adult themes at work here. One of the issues that I find interesting that is perhaps predominantly overlooked is the idea of sexuality. Mind you, this is a children’s movie so the concept of sexuality in E.T. is never spelled out nor is it prominently displayed, but sexuality is very much as aspect of Spielberg’s own history so there are, of course, some subtle references to it. One of the scenes that I find most interesting in its handling of sexuality is the scene in which Elliott frees the frogs from the dissection plates, causing mass hysteria to break out. In the midst of which, Elliott grabs the girl in the class that he likes and firmly kisses her. It’s a scene that, unfortunately, is often overlooked or even when noted, it is predominantly cited because of its excellent use of parallel editing. However, the scene really only takes place because of E.T.’s influence. By this stage in the movie, Elliott and E.T. have bonded in an unusual way. Elliott has begun to experience E.T.’s emotions and act them out in his own way. It is by no coincidence that Elliott is only able to complete this task after E.T. comes into his life. It is Spielberg’s roundabout way of saying that at this stage in Elliott’s life the concept of sexuality is something that is an underlying presence in his life, but it is still something that affects his adolescent mindset. Since Spielberg applies many characteristics of his own life to the life of Elliott, it is an admission of his own sexual innocence. Spielberg at the time was unmarried. His own personal fear of relationships is translated to Elliott in the film. Elliott’s fear of commitment is only overcome with the help of E.T. who is clearly a stand in for a father figure. Spielberg is once again, imagining what a father should do given the circumstances and applying the logic to his films in an attempt to rationalize his own personal fears. Another aspect of the scene that’s important to recognize is that not only does the courage to kiss the girl come from E.T. but the desire is really only realized through E.T. This explores another aspect of sexuality that is key to the adolescence of Elliott. There is this idea that sexuality lies dormant in him so when it is recognized and addressed through E.T.’s actions, to the audience it is almost seen as a foreign force that is forcing Elliott to act on these impulses. Of course any man or woman can tell you that sexuality is a fact of adolescence, particularly in young men, but the movie handles it in a manner that makes it seem as though it is not yet a part of Elliott’s being. The parallel editing of the scene makes it abundantly clear that Elliott’s actions are clearly affected by the drunken state that E.T. is in and by placing a heavy emphasis on the film that E.T. is watching on TV it makes it seem as if it is entirely E.T.’s doing. By doing so, this shifts the blame to E.T., suggesting that even in 1981 when the film was made, Spielberg was not yet ready to address himself as a sexual being. He would prefer to focus on an outside force that is supposedly shaping him into this sexual creature as opposed to recognizing it in himself. Spielberg in his early days of film making was obviously shy when addressing topics of a sexual nature in his films, but with this scene he remains at a safe distance from his own fears regarding sexuality by making them the subject of E.T.’s thoughts. Although sexuality really only comes into play in one scene, it is telling of Spielberg’s own personal attitudes in regards to sexuality at the time that the film was made and the attitude he held towards it even in his youth. In E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial sexuality is addressed in a manner that makes the concept seem foreign to Spielberg, particularly as a youth. However, as any man, woman, or child can tell you sexuality is a concept that is very much well and alive in the minds of even today’s youth. Spielberg finds an outside force to rationalize and allow him to work through his own issues dealing with basic human sexuality, a somewhat escapist tactic that Spielberg, for the most part, continues to employ until The Color Purple re-invents Spielber’s handling of sexuality in cinema.
The Color Purple was a landmark project for Spielberg on many fronts. In it he tackles many firsts for himself as a director, taking on the issues of gender, race and sexuality, which since his last film seems to have become a major issue for him in a very real way. The Color Purple is an impressive film for Spielberg in the sense that it shows a departure from his perpetual man-boy state that we see in films like E.T. as he directly ties gender and sexuality, two of his biggest issues never before blatantly addressed in film, together in The Color Purple. Spielberg himself recognizes this as a new film for him as he discusses with Glenn Collins in the collection Steven Spielberg Interviews he states “The biggest risk, for me, is doing a film about people for the first time in my career– and failing.” (1) . It shows that he is more willing to openly expose aspects of his life in an effort to improve himself as a director by placing himself outside his comfort zone. While E.T. had received praise commercially and had been nominated for several Oscars there’s no denying that it was still very much a film that, even by Spielberg’s standards, could be considered safe. In the end, the boy may lose E.T., but he is no longer needed as Elliott has become a man. His daddy issues are resolved, the day is saved and the film closes with suggestions of happily ever after. What followed with The Color Purple is a far cry from the idea of manhood gained in E.T. The Color Purple is different for many reasons, but predominantly the focus is no longer on what it means it to be a man, Spielberg seems to have evolved past this idea. Instead the film focuses on what it means to be a woman in a male world. He seems to suggest that in this world dominated by tough love, women cannot afford to be the delicate beings that our modern society suggests they be now. These women were hardened by the world around them and in a bold statement for Spielberg, a man who seems terrified of women, he suggests that women are perhaps stronger than their male counterparts. However, he makes it perfectly clear that the strongest of these women are not objects of desire. He even goes so far as to say that men want their women to be submissive, as history also dictates, in order to be perceived as “real” and “attractive” women, a topic that Friedman explores with his analysis of Spielberg’s minority films in Citizen Spielberg (2). Nevertheless, sexuality and gender first took to the screen for Spielberg with The Color Purple, although this is not necessarily done so in a positive light. This suggests that his fear of sexuality and of women in general is still alive and well, but Spielberg has opted to take a new approach in the depiction of his fears. Rather than shy away from these topics as he had done in his previous work, he assaults you with it after teasing you with his traditional idyllic scenes. The contrast between the opening scene of Nettie and Celie playing in the field and the graphic depiction of Celie’s giving birth is intentionally jarring and even borders on frightening as Celie screams in pain. Spielberg hints to his audience from the very beginning that they are not in store for a typical blockbuster which is expected of him by now, but that he is a changed man. with this film, Spielberg challenged himself to something other than, what he called, “a Spielberg movie” (1). However, as horrifying as the scene may be, Spielberg films the scene, which becomes an important part of the film’s character development and subsequently, its conclusion as well. Spielberg begins this film as if he’s got something to prove, whether it’s to his audience or to himself remains unclear, but regardless this scene suggests his capability for growth as he continues to work on confronting his fears and using his films to establish his own identity. In previous films The scene is barely over when it takes on horrific meaning as Celie prays to God to give her a sign, the audience discovers that Celie has had two children by her father. She says that her father said it was time for her to do something her mother wouldn’t. Not only does Spielberg, within the first 10 minutes of the film, tell you that a fourteen year old just had her children taken away from her by her own father, but her father was the one that impregnated her in the first place. Spielberg overwhelms you with sexuality, but he also makes the distinction that sexuality, in this scene, is considered an act of power and a cruel act at that. Through this scene and the subsequent scenes dealing with sexuality in this film, 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 hone life seems to have contributed in 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. However, by the end of the film, these women are strong, they are not necessarily capable of being strong throughout the entire film without having the impact of society both black and white, crushing them. One example of a woman who tries to be strong but is punished for doing so is Sofia. In the scene where the woman asks her if she’d like to come clean her house and Sofia responds in a less than favorable manner and she is jailed. After that scene, Sofia is never quite the same. However, Celie, at least in the beginning,is very aware of what she must do to survive in a man’s world. Spielberg illustrates this beautifully with the sex scene between Mister and Celie. Throughout the entire scene, Mister is barely visible except for his rhythmic thrusts as he awkwardly mounts Celie. Meanwhile, Celie is as far removed from the situation as possible. She’s looking around at the room, explaining in her mind her thoughts and feelings. At one moment she even looks over at a picture on the bedside table and begins to comment about the attractiveness of the woman in the photo. She makes it known to the audience that underneath Mister right now, is the last place she wants to be, but rather than go on and on about how awful the experience is or how she’s feeling oppressed, she removes herself from it as a sort of defense from the inevitable situation that is taking place. While Celie’s talk of her father was clearly rape, sexual intercourse with Mister isn’t made out to seem like it is rape. At times it seems that she suggests that it’s the same feeling of helplessness, but she recognizes that in order to co-exist in this life with Mister, she has no choice. By the end of the movie, she is given the opportunity and the strength to say no more, which she does, leaving Mister and the emptiness of their sexual existence together. Spielberg handles the sexual nature between the two almost in the same way that celie handles the actual sex. While in the beginning, Celie is giving birth to her father’s children, we never see the actual sexual act take place. here, later in the film, Spielberg musters up the courage to show an actual sex scene, but keeps it one-sided and removed. This hints at the fact that SPielberg’s issues with sexuality are being worked through, but hang-ups in regards to the actual physicality of sex still exist, hence his negative portrayal of sex in The Color Purple. It is not until two decades later with Munich that Spielberg seems to approach sexuality as a cathartic process rather than an oppressive one.
Munich is the first suggestion that Spielberg has evolved into a healthy, happy sexual being. It represents his first foray into sexuality as a healing process rather than a hidden shame or a scarring process as he had done with E.T. and The Color Purple. In an interview Spielberg is quoted as having said that with this film he hopes to say to the World “This is who I am. This is what I believe in” (1). This is prideful approach to film making is just one of the many changes as we see his attitude towards sexuality shift even during the course of the movie. Early in the movie we see Avner and his wife right after having had sex. The look of joy and passion on their faces is unmistakable as they joke about when a woman is pregnant when do the husband and wife stop having sex. This is an interesting portrayal because, for such a heavy film, this is one of the most light hearted parts. It suggests that Spielberg may still be somewhat uncomfortable with the idea of sex, but he is open to the idea of joking about it in an attempt to give the audiences a break from the tragedy of the film. Another thing that is interesting about this aspect of the film is that this is the first time that the man and the woman are equal in sexuality. In The Color Purple, which is the first true sex scene that Spielberg directed, the male tends to dominate the situation. Spielberg’s characters’ find a way to subjugate the female through the act of sexual intercourse, whereas in the first post-sex scene in Munich Spielberg allows the viewers to see a sense of equality in this husband and wife. The two seem to have shared the happy experience rather than portraying it as a one-sided act as he did in The Color Purple. However, it also should not escape the viewer’s attention that after the two stop their post-coital kissing, the camera shows the entirety of the scene as man and wife lie next to one another in bed. The two are obviously scantily clad, but the only exposure that the woman’s body receives is her pregnant stomach whereas Avner’s body is completely exposed. This implies two things about Spielberg’s new attitude towards sex that he shows in this movie. First and foremost, it seems to be saying that although things have changed and sex is being addressed in a different light than in his other films, not every thing has changed. There is still this little boy fear of the female body that lives inside Spielberg. This would explain why he only exposes Daphna’s stomach as opposed to her buttocks as he does with Avner. The other idea that the scene conveys is Spielberg’s personal attitudes towards sex. It shows Avner as a more exposed being than Daphna because Spielberg can relate to Avner’s vulnerability after the act. This suggests Spielberg’s fear of not only the opposite sex, but of his own sex. In Avner, we see a lot of Spielberg’s own insecurities come to life. This is, of course, a tried and true method of Spielberg, but there has always been a distinction that Spielberg has made. There has always been a series of topics that Spielberg has been ready to explore since becoming a film maker, but his attitude towards his own sexuality is something that, although cleverly veiled in some of his films, has never been made as explicit as he did in Munich. However, during the course of making Munich, Spielberg had some growing up to do which explains the very different attitude towards sex in the end of the film. In the film’s climactic scene, Spielberg takes a gamble on his audience and his own filmmaking abilities in setting the film’s finale during a sex scene. There is a certain poetic justice about the conclusion of this film as Avner and effectively Spielberg himself are forced to confront what happened that night at the Munich Olympics. However, it is also Spielberg’s own way of coming to terms with sexuality. He is abandoning his post as an entertainer and using film in a more obvious attempt to heal his own emotional scars than he has done with some of his previous work. Avner is working through his own emotional scars as well, serving as a stand-in for Spielberg’s own attitude about the massacre (3). Still, as Avner makes love to his wife for the first time in 7 months, Spielberg can no longer afford to shield himself by making jokes as he films, what is debatable as, one of the most vulnerable scenes that Spielberg has produced. However, what the scene means to Spielberg and what it means to Avner are two different matters. Although it is a cathartic process for both, with this scene Spielberg is coming to terms with his maturation in handling sexuality as well as the events, Avner’s focus is on the events that took place, how they’ve changed him, and what that means for his family. Avner lies in bed next to Daphna, a vacant look gracing his face. In an effort to bring him back to her, Daphna begins to touch her husband affectionately, almost as if bidding him to come back to her. As Avner begins to allow himself to feel her touch and the two begin to love, Avner is completely unable to look his own wife in the eyes as they make love. This is almost indicative of Spielberg’s state in this scene, able to gesticulate the act of making love, but unable to watch the two together. His shyness with sexuality still remains, even in this scene, but also because there is a certain sensitivity required of this scene that dominates this scene. Spielberg shies away from the sexual action of the scene to make the recreation of the killings all the more jarring. This is achieved beautifully through the editing of the film, juxtaposing the act of love-making with the direct actions of hatred that led Avner to this place in his life. As the two continue to make love, the shifts between Avner’s reality and his inner torment become increasingly rare. The imagery of pain and suffering overwhelms him. Just when it seems that he can take no more, Spielberg returns Avner to his current setting with his wife. Still, Avner is unable to look at his wife. He is only able to stare straight ahead, tears in his eyes. In an incredibly act of compassion, Daphna places her hands over his eyes. It’s as if she’s trying to shield him from himself. This illustrates Spielberg’s capacity to express love as he has done in his films from the very beginning, often ending with a hug and an “All’s well that ends well” attitude. However, only in Munich does Spielberg begin to equate love and sex in his filmmaking. It almost seems as if this is done to justify his sex scene, but when Avner looks down at his wife, she quietly whispers “I love you” as he falls into her arms. Spielberg returns once again to Avner’s emotional vulnerability and in turn, his own vulneravility, which is the topic of Maureen Clare Murphy’s article “”Munich: Spielberg’s Thrilling Crisis Of Conscience”. However, this time obviously more pronounced than the previous time. This represents a more subtle change in the character than his obvious mental and moral torment. Another interesting aspect of this film is Daphna’s face as Avner breaks down. She looks as if she too has had this horrible experience that she can’t quite shake. Although in all reality it is more than likely a response to seeing her husband in this emotional state, in a way, this act allows Daphna to feel the pain that Avner is experiencing. Spielberg,for the first time, shows sex as an experience that brings people together. He acknowledges that sex isn’t just a meaningless act that Hollywood employs to get people to see movies, but that it is actually a very real, tangible emotional experience. It shows a change in himself by showing audiences this completely raw scene. It is clearly Avner and Daphna at a vulnerable point in their lives, but by portraying sex in an entirely new light for himself, it also has a definite vulnerability for Spielberg.
Spielberg’s work on E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, The Color Purple, and Munich show a clear evolution as he matures in his dealing with sexuality in his films. Though E.T. works on a much more sub-conscious level, the presence of sexuality, especially in an adolescent male’s mind, reveals a great deal about Elliott and E.T.’s relationship as well as the relationship between Spielberg and his characters. Although The Color Purple presents sexuality in a negative light, it is certainly more present as Spielberg finds a way to incorporate his own views of sexuality into his films. Finally, in Munich we see Spielberg accept sex as a normal and healthy part of an adult relationship and reveal a little bit about Spielberg’s sexual vulnerability. The three films, seemingly unrelated, clearly chart the path of Spielberg’s sexual evolution throughout his work, providing insight into both Spielberg’s mind and his personal life.

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