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.
One of my first crushes was on Jesus. I thought he was handsome and kind, but distracted and lonely; good in thought and deed, but the worst kind of hard-to-get imaginable. Jesus was probably a template for the guys I have fallen for since; those with overbearing dads and Messianic tendencies toward self-exile.
They can be somewhat intimate with many, though never fully intimate with one. Jesus had a hot body too, very rock-star skinny, and he was constantly half-naked. My dirty mind would wander under that loincloth, linger for a moment, then dissolve into a confused mist. I couldn't imagine what hung dormant underneath -- I just knew the Virgin Mary's unsexy outfit and super-calm demeanor did nothing to draw me into her boring camp.
My friends and I used to practice kissing on Jesus' life-sized statue in the cemetery across from the church. He was so often molested that you could see the pink-stained cement showing through the white-wash paint. When I tell non-Catholic friends about these dirty forays, they cringe in disbelief. But other Catholic girls understand because sex, for us, would never be a reality until blessed matrimony. Necking with Jesus at the age of ten was more about love than foreplay. It was benign and silly, not sexual and thrilling. And totally normal to us.
During this time, when thousands of priests stand accused of sexually abusing children and teenagers, I often think about these innocent interpretations of love. Recently, in the marbled Vatican halls, papal sycophants were heard tsk tsking The Amoral Americans. Their culture is soaked in sexual images. Americans place such huge premiums on sex. But it's the other way around.
The Catholic Church is soaked in sexual imagery: Catholic schools are named after the Holy Conception, Mary is never without her virginal moniker, everyone's on their knees, wine flows freely, and Jesus Christ is tongued and swallowed on a weekly basis. It's the Catholic Church that places a huge premium on sex, simply by banning it outside the confines of marriage.
American pop culture has often remarked on the church's twisted sexual hypocrisy. Lou Reed and Billy Joel extolled the virtues of Catholic girls, of adolescent flesh bursting out of plaid skirts and tight white shirts, and many of us lived up to the stereotype. We grew up to be sexual provocateurs, because in our religion, there's no half-way. Catholicism teaches that women are holy vessels to be worshiped and adored, or filthy temptresses to be fucked and avoided.
As girls, we knew that once we started down that sordid path, there was only one way to go: hell, which is in the general direction of down. Hence the fact that Catholic girls are infamously great at giving head. How else to preserve the sanctity of virginity? How else to explain Madonna's early appeal? Camille Paglia was the first to point out that Madonna used Catholic imagery to talk about sex; wearing those rosaries and crosses as thrillingly subversive accessories, she brought a pagan, backwards religion into the realm of shiny, pop culture.
Years after my crush on Jesus dissolved, along with my spiritual connection to Catholicism, our parish priest, Father J., left town in a cloud of sexual scandal. He allegedly molested some boys I knew, boys who'd never make these things up in the small, working-class town where I grew up. One boy, a neighbor, who was considered slower than his brothers and had endured years of taunts from kids like me, found solace as an altar boy. He was the first of six boys to come forward, claiming that Father J. molested them on a regular basis. Father J. was questioned by the church, released, then fled home to Malta before any formal investigation took place.
A.W. Richard Sipe, a former Catholic priest turned therapist, has spent four decades studying sexuality and abuse among Catholic priests. His numbers dovetail with other studies that claim nearly half of all priests are, or have been, sexually active. About a third are gay: half of them actively so. But with whom? Each other, and post-pubescent boys, it seems.
In the course of his research, Sipe administered psychological tests; he found that most Catholic priests have the average emotional and sexual maturity of a thirteen-year-old. Sipe claims priests mostly target sad, needy kids between eight and thirteen, because that's with whom they psychologically relate, and consequently spend much time. Some priests were abused themselves, so they repeat the cycle, but most simply never advance beyond adolescence because celibacy doesn't exactly foster sexual growth and maturity.
I now understand why I never wanted to be around priests all that much. The ones I've known, like Father J., were unintellectual, uninteresting and childlike. They hugged too much, smiled too easily, and nodded too readily, like black-clad, sacral Teletubbies. Their facial expressions floated between squinty, Robin Williams fakery and wide-armed, Michael Jackson creepiness.
And who can blame them: preaching celibacy and virginity until marriage is inherently infantilizing, a set of rules simple to understand but impossible to follow. The church must abolish celibacy so that priests can finally grow up. Let them fuck other consenting adults legally, because we now know they're hiding more beneath those holy robes than sacred, throbbing hearts.
What's being overlooked here is that celibacy is not an organic Christian tenant. Jesus did not preach celibacy, and there's no proof that he lived by it. Celibacy is a medieval concoction, an eleventh century papal land-grab, which prevented property from being passed down to a priest's son and has enjoyed a phony endurance for eight ignorant centuries. There is an irony here: Celibacy law may have made the Vatican rich, but victims of sexual abuse are now suing the Catholic Church for billions.
For guidance on how to handle the current crisis, the Vatican need only note how the Protestant, Anglican and Jewish faiths are coping with their respective sex scandals. Oh, right, they don't have any. Those religions, though endorsing piety, do not endlessly obsess about sex, nor do they ask their clergy to take an impossible vow like celibacy. Those religions probably attract healthy-minded, sexually mature adults who enjoy physical expression and release with consensual partners who are not children. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church will continue to attract the sexually confused, stunted and ashamed to its blessedly shrinking ranks.
I used to defend my affinity for Catholicism as a kitschy hangover from my youth, when memorizing prayers, songs and psalms was comforting and fun. It made me feel a little holy back when I needed to belong to anything other than my own screwy family. But today I find sex and shame to be sorry bedfellows. When a religion tells you that a little masturbation will guarantee you a spot in hell, you have to laugh. How can you tackle the more challenging aspects of Catholicism, such as celibacy and sexual orientation, when you're told a bit of diddling will result in eternal damnation?
Catholic shame nearly crippled me; I can only imagine it hits devout, homosexual teens even harder. They're in love with a church that clearly hates them. For them, celibacy must be a weird panacea: maybe they can pace, chant, and pray away their demented thoughts! Lord knows, I tried. Problem is, you're kneeling in front of a naked hottie, tortured, because of you and your rotten lust.
I've never wondered what type of person I might have become had I remained a virgin for my worthy husband. Nothing about that woman intrigues me, in all her pious obedience; a "good" girl who listens to her "wise" priest. But smart women walked away from the church long ago in droves, and it's too bad.
The church needs vital women now more than ever, to bust up the male propensity towards hierarchy and stoicism, which have contributed to the church's current perverted state. And frankly, Jesus never struck me as the type to live with hypocrisy or to live without passion, risk and worshipful babes.
Lisa Gabriele writes for Nerve.com, where this article originally appeared.