I am not writing about a meeting of designers, manufacturers or sellers of women’s upper undergarments, but about the convention, common in American film and television productions, that a woman wears a bra while having sex.
In a recent article in the Los Angeles Times about the migration of major film actresses to television series, Mary McNamara wrote that “Holly Hunter is taking a fairly ridiculous concept – ‘Touched by an Angel’ meets ‘NYPD Blues’ – and turning ‘Saving Grace’ into a captivating character study.”
I never got a chance to be captivated. I watched only the first episode and saw only the ridiculousness, not only of the concept but of the execution as well. I found one saving grace in Saving Grace: the fact that when, at the beginning of the episode, Holly Hunter was shown in bed with a man, she was not wearing a bra.
The bra convention has become so established that exceptions to it are noteworthy. It is especially striking in series that flaunt their sexual frankness, such as Six Feet Under and Desperate Housewives. What these two series, in particular, have in common is that they were created by gay men (Alan Ball and Marc Cherry, respectively), and at one time I formed the hypothesis that perhaps gay men simply don’t know the importance of bare breasts, and the process that leads to them, for horny straight men (since to my knowledge there is nothing comparable in gay sex), or the fact that (in my experience, at least) most women, except those with oversized breasts, feel more comfortable without a bra.
Now, I’m not talking about necessarily showing bare breasts on the screen, which is common enough in European productions (and also occurred, curiously enough, in a Hollywood film about gay sex – Brokeback Mountain, directed by the straight [to my knowledge] Ang Lee). All it takes for verisimilitude is what we saw of Holly Hunter: bare shoulders in bed and, out of bed, a nude view of her (or her body double’s) body.
Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote on the paper’s blog: “In movies, if two people are really hot for each other, they jump into bed and, overcome by passion, they . . . leave their clothes half on. To be specific, the woman leaves her shirt or bra on. Now, am I missing something? Has any man in the history of the world ever been so hot for a woman that he’s not interested in seeing her NAKED? Probably not, and yet you see this in movie after movie. As a reader recently pointed out, this just happened in ‘Knocked Up.’” And in his weekly column, where he directly responds to readers’ columns, he wrote: “It has become a weird movie convention that first-time lovers become so hot for each other that they jump into bed without removing their clothes. This is Hollywood-style sex, where a man can get so attracted to a woman that he loses all interest in seeing her naked. (Huh?) Anyway, if someday this ever happens, somewhere in the known universe, Hollywood can take credit for starting the trend.”
Mick La Salle is a first-rate film historian, and if he gives no indication of knowing how or when the convention got started, then I certainly don’t. And of course I also don’t know if it was gay producers or directors who instigated it. I don’t remember seeing it in the post-code films of the seventies, when sexual frankness returned to Hollywood in the form of R-rated films. I have come across the rumor that certain actresses demand a higher salary for showing their breasts, and that this was why Kate Beckinsale wore a bra in Laurel Canyon not only when in bed with her husband (so that this was, presumably, not even first-time sex) but also when participating in an otherwise skinny-dipping pool party. (In this respect Kate Beckinsale is at the opposite end from her fellow Englishwoman Greta Scacchi, whose appearance in Robert Altman’s The Player was remarkable for her breasts not being shown). But, once again, I’m not talking about showing breasts, only indicating that a bra is not being worn.