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Symbols and Images for Sex, Love and Romance

By Pamela Jaye Smith

Film, TV, games, YouTube, graphic novels, manga, comic books, murals… it's all visual art and depends on engaging the eyes in order to engage the hearts and minds of your audience, as well as their loyalty and their purchasing power. In this article, we'll look at a specific type of story, theme, subplot, scene, incident, attitude, and inference – those involving sex, love, and/or romance. The conscious use of specific symbols, imagery, colors, and shapes can heighten the impact and influence of your ideas, characters, and story.

In order to better use this cinematic tool, we'll first briefly explore some of the ways symbols and imagery have been used to express sex, love, and romance throughout the history of communication. Then we'll look at examples in various media of ways to express or imply sex, love, and romance. The more you know what works, the more confident you can be to re-use it, but with your own unique, personal interpretation and spin. 

Along with lightning and tsunamis, sex and love are some of nature's most powerful, overwhelming, and radically transformative effects. Love, lust, affection, power plays, reproduction, surrender, ecstasy, commerce, degradation, consolation, the mercy boff, persuasion, deception, betrayal, the death of love… the entire gamut of human experience can be reflected in sex. Add love and romance and you have yearning, delight, and poetic inspiration. For the lucky ones, sex-love-romance can become transformative and enlightening.

As poetry expresses in a few words the numinous potency of our awareness of life, so too can symbolic illustrations of sex, love, and romance be turned into powerful poetry.

The creation myths of many cultures begin with sex, typically a father sky and mother earth, though sometimes it's a solitary act, such as the Milky Way being the result of a deity's self-pleasuring. Sex, love, and romance are a regular part of many deities' existence, among themselves and with mere mortals. Sometimes the immortal sex partners aren't human at all; Greek king-god Zeus surely holds a record for shape-shifting for his romantic trysts: a bull, a swan, a shower of gold, etc.

The Hindu temple of Kuharajo is replete with carvings of various gymnastic sexual positions. Some say it's a just a visual manual for lovemaking; mystics say it's a wiring diagram for enlightenment, e.g. put this chakra point over that one, connect these three…

Doomed Norse and Celtic lovers Siegfried and Brunhilda and Tristan and Isolde are often shown languishing with limbs entwined, fully clothed but obviously enraptured and felled by passion, indicated by the poses and the looks as well as the symbols used, be they rings of fire, sailing ships, cliffs for hurling one's self from, or swords and armor set aside in the heat of passion.

Fairy tales often have sexual innuendoes hidden throughout, be they magic kisses that awaken the sleeper (Sleeping Beauty), rings of fire or glass coffins surrounding a maiden (Brunhilda and Snow White), tall towers and long hair (Rapunzel), tempting apples, and anatomically suggestive glass slippers (Cinderella).

Bernini's white marble statue of Saint Theresa of Avilla surely depicts romantic if not downright sexual ecstasy. The arrow held by the Cupid-Eros angel who is standing over her and lifting part of her garment can certainly be read as phallic. The scene is taken from her writings, describing a spiritually transcendent experience. The connection between sexual and spiritual communion and illumination is deeply embedded in many mystical traditions, be it the spring mating of stand-ins for the gods, Krishna dancing with the Gopi cow-girls, or Christ and his bride, the Church.

Though in some cultures women and sometimes men as well are almost completely covered head-to-toe, in others near-naked is everyday attire. Thus clothing can say worlds about a person's and a culture's attitudes towards sex and romance. It can also hide attitudes and actions, be it sexy outfits beneath a burka or garter belts under a pin-stripe suit.

Depending on the time and culture, same-sex love often has to rely on secret signals, symbols, and codes. Be it a style of clothing, a mannerism, a phrase, these codes open doors to an otherwise forbidden realm.

As our media becomes more global, it behooves us to be aware of the differences – and similarities - between cultures so we can communicate more effectively.

Cultural mores have influenced what gets shown in media since humans began drawing on cave walls. Classical Greco-Roman art is resplendent with nudes. Middle Ages Greek and Italian art featured buttoned-up pious church-goers. In Victorian England piano legs were considered too sexy for viewing, much less real women's ankles. Less than a hundred years later Britain led the fashion world with mini-skirts. Time isn't the only divider of what's appropriate; witness the severe clothing restrictions in many strict religious cultures, even when surrounded by anything-goes modernism. In the 1960s and ‘70s, American films were often shot two ways, the European version being more sexually explicit.

In Apocalypse Now, when Captain Willard and the boat crew reach a U.S. military base preparing for a visit by Playboy Bunnies, the waterside stage is decorated with upright missiles (phallic symbols) and banks of lights in half-circles (breast symbols). As opposed to that rocking, raunchy sexual sequence, in Apocalypse Now Redux when Captain Willard makes love with the French plantation woman the tone is genteel, romantic, and yearning, filled with classical music, fine furnishings, billowing fabric, and soft lighting. Both sequences are about putting body parts together but the feel is radically different because of the visuals and pacing.

In the Realm of Senses and Last Tango in Paris are both erotically charged films that are quite explicit without being X-rated. They're excellent examples of creating the cloistering, consuming nature of sexual obsession by increasingly narrowing the confines of the lovers' world.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day has many varieties of love, lust, and sexual manipulation going on, all expressed in different ways with different types of clothes, food, and actions. Love, Actually is an excellent example of love and sex in many varieties. In the main love triangle, the husband gives his secretary and potential fling a heart necklace and gives his wife a music CD, easily symbolizing his differing attitudes towards them.

Two very effective pieces of media that can send people into swoons of desire are Richard Wagner's Liebestot (love-death) from his opera Tristan and Isolde and Maurice Ravel's orchestral piece Bolero, which became the theme song for the 1979 movie about erotic desire, 10. Both pieces use sustained tension and specific pacing to create the mood. Listen to this music for excellent patterns of how to pace your sentences, your camera moves, your editing cuts.

Attitudes about sex are cyclic. For differing use of symbols, images, and codes to indicate same-sex love and how attitudes change over time, watch Maurice, the wrestling scene in Women in Love, Brideshead Revisited, In and Out, and the director's cut of Lawrence of Arabia. In the 1920s and '30s, violets symbolized lesbian love and the gender preference of women wearing men's attire was highly suspect. In the 1930s, the City of Paris supposedly forbade Marlene Dietrich to appear in public in slacks; or perhaps it was just a studio publicity stunt. For various treatments of that type of sex and love watch the progression of the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle in the mid 1990s TV series, Xena: Warrior Princess versus The L Word series, Boys on the Side, Bound, and The Hunger.

Here are some specific symbols that easily announce Sex, Love, and Romance.

Underwear - in various stages of presence or absence. Clark Gable and Marlon Brando made undershirts really sexy. Madonna made underwear outerwear. Context matters: underwear twirling on the ceiling fan says something quite different from underwear neatly folded in a drawer. Different styles of underwear say different kinds of sex and love: in Fatal Attraction, the good wife wore modest white cotton panties, the dangerous lover wore scanty lace lingerie, if any at all.

Fire – Just listen to Johnny Cash and June Carter's song "Ring of Fire" for some hot inspiration about this image. Deepa Mehta's film Fire has excellent examples of the different types of loving and sexual connections centered around different types of fire. Mythic Norse hero Siegfried must pass through a ring of fire to claim the warrior princess Brunhilda by waking her with a kiss. But first he thoughtfully removes her armor…right…

Water – water always-always-always denotes the emotions, be it calm pools, stormy seas, steam, ice, pouring rain, or the parched lack of water. In Howard's End, Helena Bonham Carter meets a young man on a rainy day when he gets soaked following her home to retrieve his umbrella. Later, when he's married, they go rowing on a stream, start kissing and rocking the boat, and obviously end up having sex as evidenced by the baby born nine months later. Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas sit together in a bathtub after first making love in The English Patient. A rain-drenched kiss in Streets of Fire brings former lovers Diane Lane and Michael Pare back together, for awhile. The first romantic kiss in Australia happens during the first rainstorm of the monsoon season. The sheen of perspiration is often a cue for sexual exertion. And certainly check out the famous surf-kiss scene in From Here to Eternity; when the film came out in 1953, that scene was quite a scandal.

Air – In times and cultures where showing physical contact between a couple is forbidden, the camera often swings out a window to the open sky to indicate wider horizons, limitless possibilities, and freedom from old ways. Showing the sun coming up through the same window in the same room says they've been in bed together all night, even if they aren't both still in the room. The balloons in Up are colorful, tender symbols of the old man's love for both his adored, departed wife and their mutual sense of adventure.

Swinging – the playground kind (but interesting that acknowledged, mutual extramarital affairs are called "swinging"). Girls on swings feature in many classical works of art, as well as in The Thin Red Line. The up and down gliding of swinging easily equates to sex, as the giddiness and breathtaking sense of weightlessness equates to falling in love.

Sensual food – from bubbly champagne to caviar and oysters to the blatant fig-eating scene in Women in Love, culinary references can say delicious indulgence on many levels. Lolita's lollipop oozes nymphet seduction. Ice cubes were never the same after 9 1/2 Weeks. Chocolate contains oxytocin, the feel-good-bonding hormone, so a babe reclining on a sofa eating bon-bons and petting a perfumed Pekinese is probably up to more than just relaxing. The effects of chocolate sustained the entire film Chocolat and if you ever mention food in film most people chime in with the eating scene from Tom Jones.

Disheveled hair and clothes – particularly when contrasted to a formerly neat appearance. The popularity of the bed-head look is doubtless its implication of having just risen from a sexual spree.

So when do you use these various symbols and images? 

  • To show a deepening intimacy and/or commitment between characters. 
  • To show a sexual and/or sensual connection.
  • To show the yearning for some kind of connection.
  • To show out of control emotions, or emotions too much under control.
  • To indicate the crossing of a no-going-back line.
  • To show danger, devastation, destruction via sexual threat or actual assault. 
  • To parallel the breaking of an individual's or people's spirit – rape is a weapon of war.

Certainly in prose, the more explicit the descriptions the less "literary" the piece. This is also true in screenplays. A sex scene for a porno film will be written quite differently than one for an Oscar-bound drama. Okay, maybe they wouldn't even write a script for the porno film… but good writers can heat up a scene without ever using a specific body-part word. Use sense-words such as feasting, tasting, engulfing, consuming, breathless, heart-racing, pulsing, etc. After all, your goal in a reading script is to stir the emotions of that development executive, actor, or producer such that they want to participate in bringing your story to life and putting it on the screen.

Select just one or two symbols or images and stick with those for internal consistency. Too many verbal and visual innuendoes and it borders on comedy or porn.

When taking those words off the page and into a camera, you'll want to be symbolic rather than explicit, as in actual pornography or the likes of Grand Theft Auto. To do that, keep in mind what creates sexual and romantic tension – yearning. Move in closer to the "target," be it a pair of luscious lips, a hand, a lock of hair, but stop just short of contact. Sustain that visual pause to raise the tension before completing contact. Or do not visibly make contact at all, depending on the style and plot of your story.

To indicate sex about to happen, let the characters move down out of frame, or turn the lens away from the characters. Or send then towards a bedroom like Rhett carrying Scarlet up that grand staircase in Gone with the Wind.

Down With Love is replete with sexual symbolism and spoofs on same, as is Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. Both use the placement of props, camera angles, and intercutting to make visual sexual jokes.

Sexual charge and tension are created by friction, literally as well as imaginatively. If you think of a seduction scene like a piece of music, you'll want it to begin tentatively, then move to slow and languid caresses, then increase the pace of actions-cuts-angles to a crescendo, a pause, and then a relaxation. Listen to the musical pieces suggested above for ideas on pacing.

Some other examples of symbols and imagery effectively used in media include Gustav Klimt’s painting, The Kiss, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (the Spencer Tracy-Ingrid Bergman version), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Atonement, In Harm's Way, Secretary, Mrs. Brown, Kama Sutra, and Raise the Red Lantern.

Remember that not only are the eyes the windows of the soul, they are also the lenses to the soul, through which your consciously created media can project your stories, your ideas, your ideals, and your entertainment.

EXERCISES:

What are your five favorite scenes that use symbols or imagery to indicate sex, love, or romance?

Take one of those scenes and rewrite it using one of the symbols mentioned in this article.

Select one of the symbols mentioned above and see how many incidences you can find of it in one week: in movies, on TV, YouTube videos, magazines, billboards, books, etc.

Article excerpted from Pamela Jaye Smith’s new book, SYMBOLS.IMAGES.CODES – The Secret Language of Meaning in Media.

Meet the Author: Pamela Jaye Smith

PAMELA JAYE SMITH is a mythologist, author, international consultant & speaker, and award-winning producer-director with over 30 years in the media industry. She is the author of Beyond the Hero’s Journey, Inner Drives, The Power of the Dark Side, Show Me the Love, and Symbols.Images.Codes.

Pamela has 8 years formal...