Chick Flicks & Movie Dates
Women talking about sex in a movie? It's gotta be the end of the world. What happens when viewers start talking about sex at home, in restaurants, in shopping malls? What if they go home and have sex? When will the media take responsibility for the smut they're bringing into our living rooms and theaters? It seems utterly nutty that Live Nude Girls is considered controversial. Of course, even the film's title seems designed to attract the attention of The Bob Police -- Dole and Dornan, who would never actually watch something suffused with such moral corruption. But just imagining their leering condemnation, their grinning outrage if they brought this film to their bully pulpit, can't help but inspire a fit of the giggles. If, say, it becomes part of an ideological debate over whether movies should depict women having raunchy conversations, we'll know the world has gone entirely mad. But then again, stranger things are happening -- recently on -- Crossfire, Dornan smacked his lips while mentioning Showgirls. Just in case it gets that far, many women will testify that we do talk about sex in real life. We do have raunchy conversations. We do make fun of men, we do express ambivalence over the goody-two-shoes lives we're supposed to lead, we do confess attractions which are illicit or outside our current relationships. We do all these things. We complete our real-life narratives by saying things like, "And we had great, gonzo, gung-ho sex." Usually we're discreet enough, but we do like to conceive of ourselves as taking an active role in our own sex lives. We tend to use phrases which emphasize the mutuality of sex: "We had sex," rather than "Then he had his way with me." That's the way women talk to each other when we have found some pretext to ditch our guys temporarily. The important thing is to ditch the guys. These sorts of conversations don't happen when there are men around, needing attention and squirming when we drop an innocuous reference, like "Midol" or "PMS." Fortunately, men don't have the equivalent kind of conversations around us. Every once in a while, we all need to seek comfort from our particular gender camp. Then we can get back together feeling refreshed and in good humor, having taken a load of hilarious complaints off our chests. And we haven't ruined the racket -- the pretense that everything in the Battle of the Sexes demilitarized zone is absolutely fabulous, hunky-dory, top of the world. Guys have got to know from the "Who, me?" gleam in our eyes that we haven't been talking toe nail polish the whole time. We've been reminiscing about the relative sexual merits of our various lovers, from "the five second wonder" to the "six-million dollar man." We've been cackling over the foibles of our current love interests. We've been scheming about marketing a flash-card system for boyfriends who are less than forthcoming with compliments. We've been commiserating about guys who can't commit to anything but their own terror of commitment. We've given up trying to figure out why guys act the way they do. Mostly, we've been laughing our heads off. We've also been talking about the larger context: the world, the government, the media, our jobs, our parents. We've been shaking our heads in disgust at how the local news shows turned Linda Sobek's disappearance into some drawn out TV snuff film. We've been discussing O.J. Simpson and Clarence Thomas in the same breath. We've compared notes on self-defense classes and therapists. We've been talking about Nate Holden, Bob Packwood, Mel Reynolds, and men we know who've crossed the line. We've reveled in Princess Diana's savvy. We've praised the first female starship captain Star Trek. We've wondered at the relatively little coverage afforded the U.N. Women's Conference. We've laughed ourselves into tears conjecturing about the ban on penises in American cinema. We've bemoaned the sexism in our workplaces. We've rolled our eyes over the upcoming elections. We've scratched our heads over Demi Moore. Then we've divvied up the tab, tipped our eavesdropping waiter or bartender, and gone home to answering machines and litter boxes, feeling somehow saner, if not altogether safer. Women typically find it easier to discuss such issues among themselves, knowing that they won't have to develop a complicated semiological argument to illustrate what they perceive as the subtext of political and social events. From a recent example, women interpret the news broadcasts running slo-mo footage of Linda Sobek bouncing in her Raiderette costume, as creating an erotic atmosphere around murder, and by our twisted societal code, implicating her in her victimization. Almost every woman will assert that a victim of rape, sexual harassment, or murder is being set up -- by the media, by the system -- she'll be seen as either a model of virtue or someone who deserved or encouraged it. Try saying that to a man, and unless you're particularly lucky, his eyes will glaze over faster than you can say, "Nicole Brown Simpson." Tell it to a woman, and chances are she'll say, "Don't I know." The conversations in Live Nude Girls never really become "politically subversive" -- the characters pretty much stick to sex, disgruntlement, fantasies, masturbation: the sorts of topics most appropriate to a margarita-soaked, consciousness-raising meeting. While it's more outspoken on these topics than other recent all-female ensemble films (Moonlight and Valentino, How to Make an American Quilt, Now and Then, the upcoming Waiting to Exhale), it shares with them the recognition that women speak more candidly about the things that affect their lives when they are safely out from under the watchful eyes of men. However, just as one soon tires of women who can only discuss their lives in relationship to men, the lack of broader insight brought to such "women group" pictures reflects only our most insipid, girlish moments -- and little of the larger understanding into which we have grown. The female characters in these flawed films seem to exist in a Valentine's Day vacuum: all they ever talk about is love and its attendant glories, woes, and disappointments. In typical girltalk, that subject would necessarily be foremost, but would not be the whole shebang. Where's the rest of the conversation? What else do these women think? What else do they do? Given the potency and potential of any group of women -- with ability to scare the bejeezus out of any head of state -- it's always disappointing that there's not more in these films. Can't they talk about love and organize a union? Can't they giggle over men while they investigate corruption? The safe space they've created for this limited dialogue is supposedly sacred enough to justify the whole film. To be honest, it's a wonder that men don't run, screaming, from the theater when dragged to some of these films. How can they stand it? All those women larger than life up on the screen, talking about men as if they were something you choose or discard like a sweater, the women in the audience nodding in agreement, the other men in the theater furtively glancing around, wondering if they're the only ones who can't tell Dermot Mulroney from Dylan McDermott -- feeling bashed and banished and inconsequential. Their dates are secretly smiling, the men know: this is her revenge for Crimson Tide and Assassins. In women's films, the men on screen aren't toting guns but cheating on their women, who gather together to share their misery and ogle the local house painter. And what's worse, the women on screen don't change the topic as they would in real life if men intruded on their scene. It must be quite a shock to the system. On the other hand, there may be a few men who actually enjoy this window into female relationships, and applaud themselves for their open-minded forbearance. In the old days, it wouldn't have been quite such a challenge for men to find a safe place for themselves while watching women's films, nor were the films so exclusively about women relating to each other -- but those old films perpetuated a fantasy about the true nature of sexual politics. There was a time when cinema wasn't so segregated as it is today: there were relatively more female co-stars in mainstream cinema and male co-stars in female-oriented storylines. Most of the time, men and women watching these films would not feel left out or ganged up on. In the pursuit of oversimplified demographics, however, things have changed. Now, instead of Cary Grant or George Brent exchanging quips with the female leads, sex object Jon Bon Jovi is merely on display through a window. Doesn't exactly make women stampede to the theater either. Nevertheless, that there is available counter-programming to the glut of buddy movies and gangster movies and so forth -- films frequently by women, in which women talk with women about things with which women in the audience can identify -- seems a civil enough concession to our buying power on the part of the free-market system. Rather than jeering such product as divisive or exclusive, or running from the theater screaming, it might be beneficial for men and women to discuss our varying reactions to these films. Maybe then we can start to teach each other how we perceive the world from differing lenses. Then, hopefully, we can report some significant developments during our next retreat to our respective gender camps. And if women decide to watch women on screen talk about sex like we do in real life, or if we'd rather dish it up with a liberal dollop of social commentary ourselves, then let's see The Bob Police try and stop us.