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How to Make a Slut

HBO's "Hysterical Blindness" paints a convincingly pathetic portrait of two good-time girls.
 
 
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I wasn't a slut in high school, but if I had stuck around my small town after graduation, I would have become one. It doesn't take much in Belle River, a working-class town one hour outside of Detroit. A bit of coke in the guys' bathroom at your best friend's wedding, one giggly blowjob in the back of the rented limo, and the next time you'd stop into Edna's for a coffee, wankers you'd given handjobs to in tenth grade would be coughing "whore" into their napkins. You had to get out, or you'd end up like the girls in the new HBO movie "Hysterical Blindness," which airs throughout September.

As directed by Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding), Uma Thurman and Juliette Lewis are those kind of sluts. Thurman, who executive produced, plays Debby, a town catch at 20 who remains uncaught at almost 30. She has become a sad fixture at Ollie's, a bar in Bayonne, New Jersey. Like Lily Bart in Edith Wharton's House of Mirth, Debby has been so long in the same town, in the same company, that she has lost most of her innocence and youth (both finite, but necessary, qualities for Bayonne's brides-to-be to possess). She also loses her eyesight spontaneously whenever contemplating that reality. Although lesser actresses might resort to the same old tricks, Thurman portrays Debby sympathetically. As someone who's been cruelly picked over, she looks exhausted, and so tarty it's as though the costume designer took an Uma Thurman goddess suit, dipped it in a vat of sadness, rubbed it in Jersey disappointment, squeezed out excess desperation and zipped it back on.

Juliette Lewis is equally compelling as the trashy barfly Beth, Debby's best friend and single mother to a 10-year-old. Debby's and Beth's features have a patina of pathetic '80s authenticity: Wonky hair, amateurishly feathered, is anxious to defy gravity but fails miserably. Eyeliner bleeds in a slightly clownish, maniacal way. Rubber bracelets and unicorn charms feel talismanic, infused with tacky superstition, and serve as a reminder that the '80s were a rough time for yearbook photos.

It was also a peculiar decade for feminism, which seemed to be in complete ideological stagnation. Camille Paglia, Susan Faludi and Naomi Wolf had yet to become feminista media darlings. That's why Madonna, in all her sexual arrogance, was such a revelation; girls just wanted to have fun.

Although "Hysterical Blindness" is ostensibly a movie about friendship and hope, it also demonstrates how certain circumstances, particularly rampant in Reagan's America, gave birth to the modern slut: the gum-snapping Madonna wannabe with a heart of glass, not gold, someone never played by Molly Ringwald. In the auto town where I come from, to make a slut, you would take one part common beauty, add high-school popularity and a distracted mother, then remove the father suddenly and entirely. Fold in financial insecurity and a rudimentary public education. Top it off with a V8 engine, a latchkey and booze, and you get the Debbys and Beths, the sad good-time girls. They're so low on the class rung that their need for rescue oozes out of every pore and limp curl.

It's the same neediness Lily Bart tried desperately to conceal in turn-of-the-century New York. She knew that teetering on the brink of poverty, with marriage her only solution, made her a target for women in a similar jam, and for the few men with the resources to save her.

Watching Uma Thurman cling to her one-night stand for dear life, I'm reminded how far women haven't really come. Dark parts of us still believe in matrimonial rescue, which is why I couldn't help but root for Debby every time she traipses out of the bar with some "lucky" guy.

Much of "Hysterical Blindness" could have taken place in 2002, and in a way, it does. Occasionally "Sex and the City" allows us a fleeting glimpse into its characters' deepest fear: remaining single, or, more accurately, unloved by a man. But Nair's film goes further, showing how female friendship becomes precarious in competition.

In "Blindness," even the paired-off girls at Ollie's are anxious for Debby and Beth to meet and mate. The two of them are dangerous, not just because they've slept with the other women's fiances, but because nothing's stopping them from doing it again when the men become husbands bored with their wives. Debby and Beth's personal relationship is equally volatile. Their friendship often depends on their mutual failure to survive. Both must remain equally mired in self-pity and rejection for the other to feel empathy. Debby's resentment of Beth's daughter is constantly apparent; watching Beth's child and adult friend compete for her limited attention is one of the most heartbreaking and ruefully hilarious aspects of the film.

Perhaps the most important element in the formation of the modern slut is the town itself. Towns that breed sluts were generally blue-collar Meccas like Bayonne, New Jersey or Detroit, but trickle-down economics sent a lot of good jobs south, and some men went along with them. Women who had never been allowed to take advantage of better-paying work remained, their shabby Candies mired in their man's muddy tire tracks. Often, as in Beth's case, a snotty toddler was left straddling their waists. What sometimes followed was a mad dash for the altar with any leftover guy; those snotty toddlers grew up to be adolescent girls with far too many "uncles." Or in the case of Beth's daughter, Amber Autumn, they must finish the job of raising their own adolescent-minded mothers, who cursed them with ridiculous names lifted from bodice-ripper paperbacks.

Hysterical blindness, the film points out, is a mental condition that can occur in times of stress. Although too much is made of Debby's inability to "really see" herself -- a heavy-handed metaphor -- director Nair's use of light is more successful. Debby's mother's courtship with a gentle retiree is conducted in the mornings, with sun streaming through the kitchen window, making their affection for each other impossible to hide. Debby's flings are cloaked and dimly lit, her drunken fumblings almost too difficult for even the camera to watch. When she's about to reluctantly give a blowjob, the camera cuts to an angle from the next room.

These days, it is vogue to paint sexually rapacious women as powerful and in control of their bodies. Sex and the City's Samantha Jones is not "pathetic," we're led to believe; she just fucks like a guy. But perhaps she dodges the label because she is portrayed as having more money than the men she sucks off. Samantha has options and no small-town eyes upon her. But if you add poverty and a couple extra pounds, she'd be a different kind of pathetic altogether. Seeing the expression on Debby's face the morning after a one-night stand when she literally squeezes her eyes shut against the image made me sick with guilt for the times I judged girls like Debby in the women's restroom, brusquely washing my hands while they applied mascara next to me. Debby's life is no different than mine was. I grew up working class, raised by a single mother, both of us anxious for me not to repeat her mistakes. I went to that kind of bar, knew girls who hung out at the CanAm Tavern, the Riviera Bar, the Alexander Inn. Every summer break from university, when lining up to have a beer in an old haunt, I smugly noted that my options were expanding in inverse proportion to theirs.

A hundred years ago, a woman with no options was the worst kind of woman to be. Lily Bart committed suicide because she knew that a slut, unlike a whore, doesn't enjoy the sick luck of being paid by men who would probably fuck and leave her anyway. Back then, her New York City was a small town. Samantha Jones's New York City is not. But men still have all the power in places like Bayonne and Belle River. That's why I left. And although "Hysterical Blindness" is set 15 years ago, I would venture to guess that life in a town like Bayonne hasn't really changed at all.

Lisa Gabriele is a writer and TV producer. Her first novel, "Tempting Faith DiNapoli," was recently published by Simon and Schuster.