Sex, Love and Videotape

On movie sex and movie love...

Month: June 2019

When Harry Met Sally…

YEAR: 1989
DIRECTOR: Rob Reiner
WRITER: Nora Ephron
KEY ACTORS: Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan, Carrie Fisher
CERTIFICATE: 15
IMDB SCORE: 7.6/10
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 90%

SEX SCORE: 3/5

✔️ Passes Bechdel test…just! Although most conversations between the named women are about men and dating, Sally and Marie talk about wedding dresses at one point and there are conversations at the wedding that don’t include men!
✔️ Rewatchable and still wonderful – despite my criticisms!
✔️ Inspired romantic fantasies more than sexual fantasies, and not always in a good way as it certainly encouraged me to see and believe possible futures with hot friends when I shouldn’t…
But I don’t want to fuck them – they’re all much too neurotic for me!!
And it’s not really sex positive. Sex is something men do with people they don’t like and where women must fake enjoyment in search of love..

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: Netflix, YouTube (from £7.99), Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £7.99), iTunes (rent £3.49, buy £8.99)

The poster for When Harry Met Sally with Ryan and Crystal looking at each other in Central Park

So it seems that my plan to start a blog looking critically at the sex content in movies was not as original as I thought – not only have I discovered a podcast on exactly this theme but also two days before I published my first review, my favourite sex educators and podcasters, Meg-John and Justin, released a special episode of their brilliant podcast that followed roughly the same idea. They watched When Harry Met Sally and recorded their live commentary, discussing the key themes within the relationships on screen, and I would definitely recommend listening to their thoughts as you watch the movie.

I was particularly pleased that they’d chosen this film to start as I’d always thought of When Harry Met Sally as a film about love but this rewatch has shown me that it’s much more a film about sex – and I have learned so much about sex and relationships from Meg-John and Justin that having their input definitely helped me see nuance that I might have otherwise missed.

Talking of favourite podcasts, I was also reminded of an old episode of the Allusionist that I was listening to recently that blew my mind a little. It claimed that dictionaries should be descriptive rather than prescriptive and describe current word usage rather than what might be considered the correct use, exemplified by the new definition of ‘literally’ to add emphasis. This crucial difference sprung to mind when watching this film – did Nora Ephron describe attitudes as she saw them in 1980s or did she create them?

Because this film is full of what would now be considered cliches about how men and women interact – women want love, men want sex; women are desperate to find The One amongst an ever shrinking pool of available men. And the main point of Ephron’s film is, of course, that men and women can’t be friends because they are too different. They approach sex and love too differently to relate to each other – as Harry puts it, ‘the sex part always gets in the way.’

But is that still true now? Was it even true then? Aside from being ridiculously heteronormative, it seems too simple, too stereotypical, and yet those are the stereotypes that exist in this film and are the same ones that we still have to fight against now. Women still bemoan how their age is reducing their attractiveness while men become more valuable, and friendships between opposite sexes are still often viewed with suspicion. So did the film describe how we already were or did it help create these divisions?

Now, I must emphasise that I do love this film and could happily watch it every day, but I also feel that it is starting to look dated and parts of it are certainly at odds with current attitudes. For example, this is another film where, on rewatching now, the male protagonist proves to be a bit of a creep! I have always struggled to like Harry and, while I can see why they’re friends, I now equally struggle to see him and Sally being happy long term. They’re just too different! She’s blonde, light and breezy while he has a dark side. They are optimist and pessimist, innocent and sexual, controlled and emotional, and as much as I enjoy this film, I just don’t think Harry is the nice person he’s supposed to be and it makes it difficult to like him.

I may be accused of making generalisations here but I think a lot of people know a guy like Harry and a lot of women know to be wary of him. He talks about sex even though he barely knows you, he lets you know whether or not he’d want to fuck you even though you’ve just met and now have to spend a long car ride alone together, he doesn’t listen when you say no and still sits next to you on a plane anyway or buys you a drink when you don’t want one. He feels that lying to or subtly manipulating the people he’s dating is just part of the game – ‘I don’t have to lie because I’m trying to get her into bed. I can just be myself.’ He mocks and negs you, making you feel grateful for every compliment. He’s funny but often at someone’s expense and he’s astonished when people don’t like him or when partners leave him.

Harry in a book store, pretending to read but staring somewhere else

Harry and Sally’s inevitable sex scene is both the culmination of the plot and the key moment in my understanding Harry’s character, because the fact that they had sex shouldn’t have been inevitable and it certainly shouldn’t have happened when it did. After controlling her emotions for so long, Sally’s breakdown at the news of Joe’s marriage does demonstrate how close a friendship she has with Harry as he is able to support her and actively listen to her, not ridiculing her for her hyperbole and just being there for her. But this means that he should have understood how vulnerable she is and he should have stopped the escalation to sex. As Meg-John questioned, was their friendship ruined afterwards because they had sex or because they had sex in a poorly consensual way? Harry knows that Sally hasn’t had sex since Joe, he knows that she doesn’t see sex as casually as him and yet he doesn’t stop. Even though he questions how she values sex – ‘I’m not saying it didn’t mean anything. I’m just saying why does it have to mean everything!’ – he knows how she feels about it. He is able to see clearly, he has the power; he took advantage of her.

Harry and Sally in bed together. She looks happy, he looks horrified

So Sally’s distress afterwards is understandable – to put it mostly bluntly, she’s been violated by her friend – and Harry’s persistent demanding of her attention to try and fix his mistake is practically harassment. Again, Meg-John and Justin’s view here was really interesting – why do they need to fix their relationship by doubling down on their mistake? They both agreed that the sex didn’t feel right so why do they want to fundamentally change their relationship to a more sexual one? Perhaps Harry should have apologised and given Sally time to allow their friendship to recover instead. As Meg-John so succinctly put it, you can’t just show up and say I love you and make everything alright. In reality, can we expect the same fairytale ending?

Despite my concerns about Harry, however, Ephron does write about women in a much more positive and inspiring way. In her book about 80s movies, Hadley Freedman notes that the women have strong careers that are equal to their male counterparts – Sally even has same job as Harry’s friend Jess, both working as journalists for New York magazine. This is just not how professional women are now depicted in movies. They’re either bitches that need a man to put them in their place or work in safe, female friendly professions such as bakery, florists or fashion. The women in When Harry Met Sally are smart and capable, but it’s hardly even relevant. It’s just how it is and that’s kind of wonderful.

And although it is used as another way for Harry to mock her, Sally’s specific ordering habits do suggest a level of self-awareness that is admirable and, if I’m honest, somewhat enviable. It took me a really long time to know what I want and even longer to be able to ask for it, and I still sometimes struggle, but Sally is able to ask confidently for very complex meal orders right from the start. ‘I just want it the way I want it,’ she says and I would hope that this also translates to knowing what she wants sexually too! (This was another insight from Meg-John and Justin that makes a lot of sense!)

But I suspect that this was an accidental element of sex positivity as the female characters are generally shown as wanting love, rather than sex. Harry is able to have sex with people he doesn’t even like while Sally waits for someone she loves. The women are just so desperate to find The One – Marie, played by the wonderful and much missed Carrie Fisher, carries her Rolodex with potential dates on index cards with her and whips it out as soon as Sally announces that she’s single again, making jokes about literally finding someone before they all die. As a 34 year old women, I thought it was interesting choice to make the characters over 30 when the main action takes place. It adds a definite note of desperation to their search as their biological clocks keep ticking while the list of potential partners gets smaller and smaller. Is that why Harry and Sally are happy to risk having a sexual connection that isn’t perfect as they don’t think they have time to find better? Or do they just not see how they could stay such good friends if they’re not lovers?

Harry and Sally, smiling at each other at a party

There is a sense that Great Love means sacrificing great sex and Ephron uses Casablanca, a movie I might write about soon, as an analogy. Should Isla have stayed with Rick, claimed to be the best sex that she’s ever had, or gone with Victor, her steady and safe love? Young Sally chooses Victor, much to Harry’s disgust – ‘You’ve obviously never had great sex’ – but older Sally understands Rick’s appeal. Of course, Isla does choose Victor, perhaps just as Sally chooses Harry.

The loss of sex is longer term relationships is also almost stated as a fact without any critical judgement or contradiction. Initially Sally doesn’t want marriage or kids so that she and Joe can fly off to Rome at the drop of a hat or have sex on kitchen floor. She wants to keep all of the hot sex and freedom, even if she admits that she doesn’t utilise it, until her desire for a family trumps those needs. I risk being called hopelessly optimistic and as a new mother of a 6-month old I’d rather you didn’t contradict my hopes, but why can’t we have both? Surely it’s not too much to hope that we can fit our wish for a family into a relationship that otherwise satisfies us? Yes, spontaneous holidays may be a thing of the past but there are other ways to scratch that itch!

OK so I’m running out of space and oh my gosh, there is so much more that I could write about this film! Why are the men only able to talk intimately when they’re doing masculine activities, like playing baseball? Isn’t it clever that the film is set in such beautiful locations and yet the characters never notice them, just as they don’t notice the possibilities of love with each other? And because I can’t ignore the fake orgasm scene entirely, why do we always equate orgasms with good sex? Harry’s partners may have had great sex, even if they didn’t come!

So after all this, can men and women be friends?

It’s an area where my opinion has definitely changed over the past few years. I think I knew about When Harry Met Sally long before I actually saw the movie, so much so that I can’t actually remember when I first saw it, because my parents had a similar love story and were also friends for years before falling in love. As I wrote in my sex blog in 2015, this gave me a pretty skewed opinion on friendships between men and women because I always believed that everlasting love was a possibility. I argued that the sex part does get in the way and that friendships were always unbalanced, even if that was never acted on or acknowledged.

But I can see now that it’s actually a really messed up way to approach friendships! I fear it may be why I had so many unrequited loves in my twenties – they wanted friendship, I wanted more and, deep down, expected more and couldn’t see how weird that was. I do blame When Harry Met Sally for perpetuating this myth and giving hope to dreamers like me.

Because although it may be possible to fall in love with your best friend, it is much more valuable to understand that romantic relationships aren’t necessarily the top of the hierarchy. Deep, intimate but not sexual friendships can exist and can be wonderful. Feeling a strong emotional connection to someone doesn’t mean that they have to be a sexual partner, just as thinking they’re hot and wanting to fuck them doesn’t mean that they have to become a great love to stay in our lives. Changing relationship boundaries doesn’t need to ruin a friendship if it’s consensual and communication is open and equal. One person doesn’t have to be everything all the time.

We can have it all; we just have to be willing to ask for it and accept that some relationships have limitations. Or am I still being an optimistic dreamer?

‘You’re right, you’re right. I know you’re right.’

Next week: What Women Want

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only. Gifs from Giphy.com.

Cruel Intentions

YEAR: 1999
DIRECTOR: Roger Kumble
KEY ACTORS: Ryan Philippe, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Reece Witherspoon, Selma Blair
CERTIFICATE: 15
IMDB SCORE: 6.8/10
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 54%

SEX SCORE: 4/5

✔️ Rewatchable – it’s a film that I would stop to watch if it was on TV even if it was already an hour in!
✔️ Definitely want to fuck the cast! Sebastian and Kathryn would definitely be on a list of dream movie threesomes, although that is a long list…
✔️ Yes to fantasies – mainly romantic ones as a teenager when I still believed that bad boys could be fixed by love, but they weren’t all that clean!
✔️ Bechdel test easily passed – lots of named female characters and lots of talk of school and reputation so no trouble with this one.
But is it sex positive?! I’d say no – the villains are sexual and are saved by love. The good are chaste and innocent, and risk being destroyed by sex. Not such great messages… It’s also very homophobic!

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: Netflix, YouTube (from £7.99), Amazon Prime (cost to be updated), Rakuten TV (from £2.49)

The Cruel Intentions poster, showing conspiratorial faces from Ryan Philippe and Sarah Michelle Gellar as they look down on an innocent looking Reece Witherspoon

If ever I wanted proof that how I first experience a cultural phenomenon changes its lasting impact on me, I need look no further than my first viewing of Cruel Intentions. It was 2000 and I was in year 10. Our classroom was in a separate block designed for language lessons and, in a move that confirms my own privileged upbringing, the language teachers rarely locked the cabinet that contained the video player. So, when someone brought in a VHS copy of Cruel Intentions, we all watched it, and news spread around the block. Soon the classroom was full of fifteen year old girls, sharing chairs and perched on tables as we avidly watched what was by far the sexiest thing I had ever seen.

Not far into the film, our German teacher wandered into the room, pottering in the cupboards at the back and getting out reading materials for the afternoon’s class. You could have heard a pin drop. I don’t think my year group has ever sat so still and so quiet, hoping beyond hope that she wouldn’t notice what we were watching.

This was at the moment of the film where Kathryn and Sebastian are setting out the terms of their wager. No one in the room had seen the movie before so we didn’t know the precise danger waiting just around the corner. Sebastian has agreed that, if he loses and isn’t able to seduce righteous virgin Annette, he’ll give Kathryn his car. And if he wins?

‘I’ll fuck your brains out.’

‘Oh!’ gasps our German teacher, ‘What films you girls watch!’

And she was gone!

Honestly, I struggle to remember another time when almost, almost, being caught doing something naughty felt so fucking good! The adrenaline, the sex on screen, the rush of relief and astonishment that we’d got away with it…it was quite an awakening. And that was before Sarah Michelle Gellar and Selma Blair kiss and before Ryan Philippe gets his arse out and before that iconic scene when Reece Witherspoon is going up that escalator and Philippe appears at the top, all while Counting Crows ‘Colorblind’ is playing, and she says ‘I’m impressed’ and he says ‘Well, I’m in love!’ and my teenage heart exploded.

Of course, my memory must be playing tricks with me. Our lunch break was less than the length of the film and so we can’t have watched it all, and although it’s possible that that same level of sexual tension was maintained over a few days, it feels unlikely. Instead, I can only assume that it’s just this film; it’s hot and always will be and, according to a piece in the Telegraph earlier this year, I wasn’t the only one who felt this way – it seduced a generation!

Describing it as a ‘sexy cinematic firebomb, one dressed up in a blood-red bustier and dripping in quasi-incestuous dirty talk,’ Adam White suggests that this movie, and its subsequent recent comeback with a TV sequel and musical heading to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year, taps into ‘our generational thirst for schadenfreude.’ After a soft and sunny 90s filled with dewy-eyed romantic comedies, we were ready for something harder. Something more cynical. And sadly, the future in store for that generation – the much maligned millennials – has proven that it was good to be prepared. Or did this film and how much we enjoyed it, pave the way for today’s call out culture? Both Sebastian’s pattern of only destroying hypocrites and the revelation of Kathryn’s real character in the finale echo our current glee in ‘knocking undesirables off a pedestal of unearned privilege’ and discovering the seedy truth behind anyone claiming to be good.

Philippe and Gellar dresses in black with dark glasses, holding a letter

But cynical extrapolations aside, this film certainly had a huge effect on me as it was just soaked in sex and, importantly for me, sex for my age and generation. Cruel Intentions retold Les Liaisons Dangereuses for a modern audience, with Kathryn Merteuil (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and her step-brother Sebastian Valmont (Ryan Philippe) plotting to destroy the reputation of virginal Annette Hargrove (Reece Witherspoon) by manipulating her into having sex before the new term at school starts.

Somehow the film managed to feel relevant to my life despite the huge gulf between the wealth and sexual experience of the characters and mine. Annette’s struggles with her virginity when faced with love was relatable, Cecile’s naivety clashing with her obvious sexuality was an exaggeration of my own turmoil, and the ongoing, all pervasive obsession with reputation was certainly understandable. The fear at being the person at school that everyone was talking about was almost as strong as the fear of being the one nobody talked about.

But in thinking about this film, I have struggled to decide if it’s sex positive or not, if it was a good example for my teenager self – and my difficulty is mainly due to the identification of heroes and villains. The moral arc of the film clearly defines Kathryn as a villain but the fact that she owns her sexuality and sexual needs feels more sex positive than Annette’s pledge to wait for marriage, eventually downgraded to waiting for love but which is still problematic. Although Kathryn’s manipulation and selfish scheming are undoubtedly (deliciously) evil, it could be argued that if she were allowed to be as sexual as she wanted without damaging her reputation, all of these plots would be unnecessary. As she says, ‘God forbid I exude confidence and enjoy sex!’ and yet as she is dumped for ‘innocent little twots’ who are a more superficially attractive type of women, she has to lie to maintain her chaste and moral reputation. Is this sex positive? I don’t think so!

Sarah Michelle Gellar understood this complex division and recognised the importance of playing this role, inhabiting this sexuality and depicting this type of women. It was her decision to dye her hair a dark brunette, creating a definite split from her blonde, innocent previous roles – most famously Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It would require a whole other long, long essay to unpick the depiction of female sexuality in BVS (and the podcast Buffering the Vampire Slayer does a very good job of this) but I think it’s pretty telling that when Buffy loses her virginity to the man she loves, he loses his soul and becomes the Big Bad of the season. Buffy creator Joss Whedon certainly didn’t understand Kathryn, referring to the film as ‘porny,’ to which Gellar responded that Cruel Intentions was her ‘best work to date.’ Talking to Premiere, she said that ‘brushing it off by calling it ‘a porny’ is unbelievably hurtful to me. He owes me flowers. And that’s on the record.’

Gellar looking hot in her underwear on her bed, trying to seduce Philippe

Because Kathryn is hot. She’s hot and she’s powerful and she’s a seductress and, as much as I’d wanted to end up fucking Sebastian, I secretly but definitely wanted to be her more than I wanted to be the other female characters. I was so jealous of her acceptance and joy to in her sexuality. I was jealous of her confidence and ability to just be sexy. Just as Laura San Giacomo taught me what it was to be sexy in the 80s, Kathryn showed me how to be sexy in my own generation.

A black and white image of Gellar lying back against Philippe

And I believed her that sex was something that everyone was doing, just that ‘no one talks about it.’ Being at an all girls school with staggeringly few male friends, I could completely believe that there was another world just around the corner where All The Sex was happening and I’d have loved it if someone had introduced me to it, as Sebastian does for Cecile.

For me, Cecile’s character is the only one that doesn’t stand up to a rewatch now. She’s too child-like, too naive, and my now adult eyes cringe at her sexualisation. Of course, as a teenager I saw myself in her – at the start of the film, she is definitely a child, wearing T-shirts with big animal prints and doing headstands to impress her crush, but by the end she is an adult, asking for what she wants sexually and owning her fate, and I wanted that arc so much. Kathryn and Sebastian’s aim may have been to destroy her reputation but Cecile’s face at the end as she hands out copies of Sebastian’s journal to her peers suggests that it’s not done her any harm at all in their eyes.

Blair, wearing a koala T-shirt, sat next to Christine Baranski

The importance of maintaining the ‘right’ reputation is, after all, the whole point of the film – Kathryn as a saint, Sebastian as a whore, Greg the gay footballer as a macho straight jock, Annette as a good girl. All of them go out of their way to ensure these reputations aren’t damaged, Sebastian even leaving Annette after Kathryn mocks how much dating the headteacher’s daughter would stop him being seen as a bad boy who fucks around. But this is perhaps the only way that I could take a sex positive view on this film because sex doesn’t actually destroy anyone. It allows Cecile to grow up, it shows Annette that losing her virginity isn’t that big a deal. Even Sebastian learns that sex doesn’t always need to be a weapon. Yes, Kathryn ends the film in tears but it feels more like the lies and manipulation are her undoing.

But despite this, I cannot conclude that Cruel Intentions is sex positive film because of the homophobia. Being gay is definitely a potential source of humiliation and, although Joshua Jackson’s character Blaine was probably the queerest mainstream character I had seen on screen by that point in my life, he’s not a good person and it’s more than a little appalling that he was the queerest mainstream character that I had seen by the age of 15! Roger Ebert found the dismissal of homosexuality to be at odds with the characterisation of these sexual young adults, feeling that ‘kids as sophisticated as those in this story would be less homophobic.’ I, however, feel that it fits perfectly with the sex negative undertones. If having sex full stop could damage reputations, it’s sadly hardly surprising that gay sex is worse.

This movie also introduced me to the connection between sex and power, and who is seen as powerful, although I am less keen on the implication that women can only maintain this power by withholding sex from men – Kathryn is able to use her sexuality as a weapon, wielding her power over Sebastian because she knows how much he wants her, and Annette has a similar amount of power over him, initially because her virginity seen as a challenge and later through love and a wish to avoid disappointing and hurting her.

Of all of them, Sebastian’s character arc is one that I can see much more clearly as an adult. As a teenager, I lusted after his bad-boy-turned-good-by-love sexiness, a very dangerous rom com trope, but I missed the nuance. My now more experienced observation can see pick-up artistry in his moves, initiating touch early, negging, and creating false closeness through manipulating circumstances so they meet often and appear to share interests. He really is a creep! He’s the ultimate fuckboy and not the cold-hearted but misunderstood lothario that I thought he was.

Philippe whispering In Witherspoon’s ear

Teenage me wholeheartedly believed that Sebastian could be ‘fixed’ by love and that he would have been happy with Annette forever. I now know that that’s a lie, sold to us by the romance industry. Kathryn’s bleaker view of his boredom is more accurate and Sebastian’s death was arguably the only good ending for his character. The type of seventeen year old boy who drives a vintage sports car and has a leather-bound scrapbook of his sexual conquests is not likely to stay faithful to his high school love forever, even if he believes it himself. People do change if they want to, but it doesn’t happen overnight.

Maybe that’s why this film seduced my generation so fully. Like reading Catcher in the Rye, you have to watch it as a teenager otherwise the characters all look unbelievable. But if you’re the right age when you see it, it’s overwhelming and seducing and hearing those opening bars of Bittersweet Symphony will unleash a wave of nostalgia for a time when finding Ryan Philippe waiting at the top of an escalator was all I ever wanted.

And that’s it! That’s all I have to say about Cruel Intentions, except for that one scene…

I don’t know that I like it… As much as even my Kinsey 1 straightness really wanted to be taught to kiss by Sarah Michelle Gellar, the male gaze is too strong and has difficult implications. ‘Haven’t you ever practiced on one of your girlfriends?’ fits into the same tired trope as female friends having pillow fights in sexy underwear – unrealistic and unnecessarily sexualising women even when they’re alone.

So Cruel Intentions is not sex positive, it’s pretty homophonic and definitely filmed for a male gaze…but I still fucking love it! It’s hot and it’s one of the personal and generational catalysts for sexual awakening, and it’s just such a great story!

Next week: When Harry Met Sally…

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only. Gifs from Giphy.com

Magic Mike XXL

YEAR: 2015
DIRECTOR: Gregory Jacobs
KEY ACTORS: Channing Tatum, Joe Manganiello, Andie MacDowell, Jada Pinkett-Smith
CERTIFICATE: 15
IMDB SCORE: 5.6/10
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 65%

SEX SCORE: 4/5

✔️ So, so rewatchable – over and over again…
✔️ Easily passes the Bechdel test – I read one comment that suggested this was deliberate but that feels like progress rather than criticism!
✔️ Sex and pleasure positive – the whole film is about how to please women and I’m sold!
✔️ Wow, the cast are ridiculously fuckable – watch the film and tell me I’m wrong.
No ongoing fantasies – it’s only really when caught up in the film’s literal magic that I find it hot as that level of muscle isn’t normally my thing, but what a testament to the film that it works so well at the time!

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: YouTube (from £3.99), Amazon Prime (rent £3.49 or buy £7.99), iTunes (rent £3.49, buy £7.99), Rakuten TV (from £3.49)

Magic Mike XXL poster with topless Channing Tatum dancing

There are two types of films that stick in my mind forever: those when the film itself is memorable, and those when the film watching experience is unforgettable. I could reel off a huge list of fabulous movies that I love with every viewing but I have many fewer when it was the watching itself that was special. A Frozen singalong in the perfect Anna costume. Moulin Rouge in corsets for Secret Cinema when Baz Luhrmann himself was at the showing. Participating in a standing ovation for Alan Rickman at a Summer Screen showing of Die Hard. Terminator 2 in the early hours of the morning of an overnight Arnold Schwarzenegger marathon at the Prince Charles Cinema…and Magic Mike XXL on a Friday night at the Ritzy in Brixton.

It wasn’t a special showing or even a special day but it was, without doubt, the most joyful experience I have ever had at the cinema. It was an absolutely packed screening and, damn, we had fun! Whooping and cheering, shrieking in delight and literally howling with laughter. It was hysterical and built higher and higher as the film went on until it reached an almost fever pitch where I was kind of amazed that there wasn’t dancing in the aisles. And it somehow wasn’t sleazy or objectifying; it was just so joyful.

And that’s kind of what I imagine these male strip shows are like. Or at least what Channing Tatum would like us to imagine they’re like and, having never been, I am happy to believe the illusion. Fun, bold, ever so slightly hysterical but completely shameless and in on the joke!

A gif of Joe Manganiello squeezing a water bottle so it squirts like he’s coming

Now, there is a pretty strong argument that I should be discussing the first Magic Mike film instead of its XXL sequel. The 2012 Steven Soderbergh directed movie is certainly the better film. It has a grittier plot, a message to deliver about the reality of stripping that it doesn’t sugar coat, and it is kind of seedy and hopeless. Also, it has Matthew McConaughey in it…

But I love XXL so much more!

Whereas the original was a serious story that happened to include some dancing, XXL is a series of dancing set pieces held together by the flimsiest of plots. The boys are back in town and want one last hurrah before they move on from stripping. There’s a stripper convention that they’re due to attend and they want to, well, go out with a bang so take a road trip of sorts to the convention. And that’s the whole plot!

Perhaps unlike the original, it’s a film that was absolutely made with its audience in mind. It was made for me and all of those other people who were laughing and whooping in that cinema screening. Long, lingering shots of hard, sculpted male bodies dresses as firemen, soldiers and all the stripper stereotypes that you can ask for, watched by women of diverse body types, ages and colours who look like real women. Also, it has Donald Glover in it…

Donald Glover wearing a jacket and hat but shirtless underneath, holding a microphone

This film could be used as an example of the female gaze, allowing the female characters to be viewed ‘as they really are and not the voyeuristic spectacle that the male gaze makes them out to be,’ to quote from Wikipedia, and instead turns its voyeuristic lens towards the men. In a similar way to the unrealistic body images of women seen so often in the media, the guy’s bodies are so perfect that they are almost caricatures but they are caricatures that are there to please the women. And so it’s a film that makes me feel welcome and included. It really cares about what women want!

‘These girls have to deal with men in their lives who every day, they don’t listen to them. They don’t ask them what they want. All we got to do is ask them what they want and when they tell you, it’s a beautiful thing, man.’

The strength of this female gaze is why I’m never that surprised when men don’t get it in the same way – the male Guardian reviewer gave it only 2 stars in a scathing review that claims it needs a ‘narrative sleight of hand’ to make the film ‘romantic and fun’ rather than demeaning. In contrast, the Telegraph loved it, describing it as the ‘either the gayest straight film ever made, or the straightest gay one. And it doesn’t care either way.’ In short, it’s simply not a film that was made for straight men!

It is kind of extraordinary but Magic Mike XXL manages to be a feminist bro buddy comedy, and that just makes me so happy. The guys are supportive of each other, they have great chemistry, they’re having almost as much fun as I am watching it and not one single minute is at the expense of women. It would be so easy to mock the ‘hen party’ crowd that come to see these strippers (and see the movie) but it chooses not to do that and so becomes something wonderful!

But more importantly, most importantly, it’s hot. It’s over the top and unrealistic and staged, but fuck it’s HOT!

A dancer standing in the middle of a crowd of appreciative women with his arms outstretched, looking towards the ceiling

And it surprises me that I find it so hot – perfectly sculpted bodies don’t usually do it for me and the simulated sex should be excruciatingly cringeworthy but it isn’t. It’s engrossing and overwhelming and I love it! The intensity of their gaze, the frenetic energy of their dancing, the heavy beat of the music and dark yet flattering lighting; it’s an unexpectedly powerful mix. I find myself wanting to be the girls on the stage, wanting to be under their thrusting hips and being thrown over their muscular shoulders.

A gif of Channing Tatum and another dancer high fiving over the shoulders of two girls on their laps

It is just the magic of the show though that creates this feeling. Despite how much it turns me on to watch them on screen, I know that the reality would be disappointing and I would likely hate it. I’ve only once seen a male stripper for a friend’s birthday back at university and it was all just a bit seedy, as was so accurately portrayed in the first Magic Mike film. The baby oil smothering his skin was greasy and tacky, those hip thrusting movements were too exaggerated and the hysterical laughter from us all watching had an edge of embarrassment. The stripper was definitely not of the same quality as Mike and his crew but it was all too aggressively close to let me feel comfortable.

Which is where Magic Mike XXL manages to find exactly the perfect spot – it really is magic. The comedy and bromance makes the male entertainers seem real and human, the respect they show towards women and the integrity with which the female characters are presented creates a safe and comfortable place to watch and enjoy the spectacle, and, wow, Channing Tatum is a talented dancer. And it’s just so funny!

Don’t believe me? I challenge you to watch this and not smile!

Next week: Cruel Intentions

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All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only. Gifs were taken from a Buzzfeed article.

Fifty Shades of Grey

YEAR: 2015
DIRECTOR: Sam Taylor-Johnson
KEY ACTORS: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan
CERTIFICATE: 18
IMDB SCORE: 4.1/10
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 25%

SEX SCORE: 1/5

✔️ Passes the Bechdel test – if you can believe it!
Definitely not sex positive – oh my gosh, the shame that is built into this plot! It is so clear that EL James is not a kinkster.
Unfuckable cast – Jamie Dornan is undoubtably hot but Christian is such a knob that I would never want to fuck him. Dakota Johnson’s Ana, maybe, but only if she leaves Christian and discovers her sexuality without his toxic influence.
No fantasies – see above.
Unwatchable – I’ll listen to the soundtrack. I don’t need to see this again and I’m not rushing to see the sequels.

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: YouTube (from £2.99), Amazon Prime (to rent £3.49 or buy £4.99), iTunes (rent £5.99, buy £7.99), Ratuken TV (from £7.99)

[Content warning: this post discusses abusive relationships and sexual assault.]

Ana is pressed against the left of the image with her arms above her head and Christian leaning over her to kiss her

I have a confession and don’t judge me too harshly for this one. I don’t hate the Fifty Shades novels. Yes, they’re appallingly written and yes, Christian and Anastasia’s relationship is abuse, not kink, but they’re easy to read and gripping and, more importantly, they were my gateway into erotica. I have to look fondly back on them for that if nothing else. Before reading these books, I clung to the sex scenes in mainstream novels and it took these trash stories to prompt me to look for something better. And, wow, did I find it!

Fifty Shades introduced me to erotica, which led me to sex bloggers and dirty Twitter where I meet my husband and made some really great friends, and which eventually led me here – writing about the filth in movies! But the (justified) disdain for the novels and the 2015 film from within the kink and BDSM community put me off ever seeing the movie and so I watched it for the first time for this blog. I was curious; surely it can’t be that bad?

So what did I like? The soundtrack is fucking hot! I danced to the Ellie Goulding track at my wedding for our first dance and it can only mean love to me now, and the slowed down Beyoncé ‘Crazy in Love’ has such a languid, lazy melody over that hard bass beat that it’s just sex. It’s sex in a song.

Other than that, it proved to be the hate watch that I was expecting. God, it’s awful! And worse, it is frankly dangerous.

In a way, I feel sorry for the actors and director etc as they had nothing to go on. The word vomit of complaints that I am about to unleash are largely against the source material. I really don’t think Jamie Dornan brought his A-game to act in this and his Christian Grey is as flat as the written character. Dakota Johnson manages to create a more interesting Anastasia than EL James could ever have imagined, but her best efforts didn’t stop it being rubbish! Even the wide vistas and beautifully crafted shots couldn’t rescue the film from the drivel that is its plot…

My issues with this film fall into three overlapping areas: the relationship is abusive, Christian does NOT understand kink, and this is not how BDSM (bondage, domination, submission, sadism and masochism) and D/s relationships are supposed to work!

Now that I know more about D/s (dominant and submissive) relationships and know people who live that lifestyle, there is no doubt that Christian is an emotionally abusive partner. For a start, insisting on non-disclosure agreements should be a massive red flag as it effectively isolates Ana from her friends and family, preventing her from talking to the people who should be advising her against him! He is extraordinarily jealous, framing his need to know where she is and who she’s with as being for her own safety in a classic gaslighting technique, and his tendency to appear when he’s not invited to control and manipulate events makes my skin crawl.

Christian Grey, standing in a window looking out over Seattle

He also spends a stupid amount of money on things that she did not ask for, reducing her financial independence and ensuring she feels in his debt. I have driven some shit cars in my life but I would be absolutely furious if some random guy I was fucking sold it without asking me, even if he bought me a shiny new one and even if I was in love with him. Finally, although I could probably think of more, he takes control of her body by insisting she takes oral contraception, something renowned for causing side effects, and managing eating and alcohol intake by shaming her. Urgh…

I was especially horrified when Christian told her that her ‘body tells me something different’ when she tried to leave, claiming signs of arousal meant that he knew what she wanted better than her and, more worryingly, that her words were less important than his interpretation. Jesus, this is sexual assault! This is how rape defendants claim they weren’t doing anything wrong and it has been widely shown to be absolute bullshit. Perpetuating this myth is so so dangerous! No matter the somatic and bodily response, believe their words. No means no, for fucks sake!

Christian is facing Ana and holding her face in his hands

Of course, I shouldn’t be surprised that Christian doesn’t get this as his understanding of consent is laughably poor for someone who claims to be into kink. Although I’d say that his requests are too extreme to be practical, everything he asks for might be acceptable if Ana agreed, including the borderline non-consensual sex. Except. Except she did not agree to any of it. She never specifically says no but this is too much and they don’t know each other well enough for him to make assumptions in the absence of a yes. Christian is so insistent on his ridiculous contract but he does not allow her to seriously negotiate the terms and he definitely does not see how the control that he is incapable to releasing would affect her ability to consent.

In case it needs to be said, consent is situation specific, consent changes with circumstance, consent can be withdrawn at any time and consent is not valid if it is coerced. Also, I really think consent should be enthusiastic! Ana’s inexperience and naivety is practically her only character trait but this will definitely effect her ability to consent to a circumstance that she literally had to google to understand. Does he really think that she is capable of clearly seeing through the rose tinted blindness of her first love to make a decision like this when Christian is telling her it’s the only way they can be together?

‘What would I get out of this?’
‘Me’

His use of contracts is also really messed up! Some D/s couples do have contracts but I don’t know of any that are this strict or this all encompassing. Also, he’s asking her to agree to sexual practices that she’s never tried or heard of. She even asks what butt plugs are for crying out loud! If she’s never heard of butt plugs, how is she going to agree to fisting?!

All of this so far has made me very, very angry, and I could have ranted for much longer, but it’s the limitation and misrepresentation of kink and BDSM that just makes me sad. Sex is supposed to be fun! It’s supposed to be a exploration that they do together. And even if fun isn’t the emotion that you’re looking for, pleasure should at least play some part on it!

A view unto a mirror showing a top less Christian looking at Ana, who is walking away wearing his white shirt

Throughout the film, Christian doesn’t seem to be enjoying this kinky sex that he’s so insistent on. It appears more like a release – he’s so wound up that he has to let off steam to release the pressure and then he can go back to hating himself. It’s framed as a character flaw that is the result of childhood abuse and something about which to be ashamed. It’s also not clear what gives him pleasure – as Ana asks ‘Is this what you want? To see me like this?’ Does he get off on seeing her in pain, full stop, or in giving her the pain she wants? The first is psychopathic; the second is more recognisable within a consensual BDSM scene.

This is where Dakota Johnson is so good in her portrayal of Ana – she looks like she’s enjoying the spanking. She looks like she’s discovering a kink of her own and is gaining pleasure from what Christian wants. Except that he wants more straightaway. He isn’t willing to wait until she’s ready for more; he doesn’t train her or discover her tolerance to pain or explore together what will give them both what they need. God, he’s such a cunt!

Also, having met many people who identify as dominant, I’ve learned that one of the commonest misconceptions is that being a Dom gives them the right to be an arsehole! Although the submissive is more obviously in service of the Dom, the Dom is supposed to be looking out for their sub and taking care of them, even in Master/slave dynamics. Everything he demands is supposed to make the sub happy by giving. It’s why communication and proper consent are so vital! Otherwise, it’s just abuse.

Again, urgh…

The Fifty Shades series – books and movies – have been an entry point to kink and BDSM for so many people and, sadly, not everyone looks elsewhere to find out how to do it safely and properly. I hope I’ve communicated how this film is dangerous and I’d recommend reading real life stories or better written erotica to get a more accurate idea if how to be safe, how to explore and how to have fun! This GOTN post from 2014 when the film was first in the news is a good place to start (as is her blog in general), Kayla Lords writes beautifully about her D/s relationship, and Bibulous One’s blog gives a hotter and safer view of pain play and BDSM. I’d also recommend erotica anthologies edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel, such as the Best Women’s Erotica of the Year series. Let me know if you want more recommendations – there is SO much better writing available than Fifty Shades of fucking Grey!

Next week: Magic Mike XXL

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MovieStillsDB has a broken page for this film so images are free downloads from GetWallpapers and taken from old reviews. Images may be subject to copyright.

The Thomas Crown Affair

YEAR: 1999
DIRECTOR: John McTiernan
KEY ACTORS: Pierce Brosnan, Rene Russo
CERTIFICATE: 15
IMDB SCORE: 6.8/10
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 70%

SEX SCORE: 4/5
✔️ Fuckable cast – Brosnan is at his hottest and Russo is literally on fire
✔️ Sex positive themes – borderline case as Denis Leary’s sex negative ‘And you don’t care what that makes you?’ cop isn’t shouted down as much as I’d like, but they relish sex and pleasure so much that it has to pass
✔️ Definitely a source of fantasy material – I even wanted to fuck on marble stairs because of this film
✔️ Endlessly rewatchable
Fails the Bechdel test – the only two named female characters don’t say a word to each other, despite sharing scenes. Shame.

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: Netflix, YouTube (from £7.99), Amazon Prime (to rent £3.49 or buy £4.99), iTunes (buy £8.99)

The Thomas Crown Affair poster, showing Pierce Brosnan in profile in front of Rene Russo facing forward against an orange background

The remake of The Thomas Crown Affair came out in 1999 when I was fourteen. Some teenagers do discover their sexuality at a very young age but I was not that teenager. I was sixteen when I had my first kiss, eighteen when I had sex and nearly thirty before I had sex that I consistently enjoyed. A friend once described me as ‘a bookish strawberry blonde who liked chemistry, sailing and Alistair MacLean novels,’ which paints an uncannily accurate image of who I was!

I also loved James Bond. I loved James Bond with such a nerdy passion that it could easily have been my Mastermind specialist subject as I knew All The Facts. I had, however, never seen a Bond film at the cinema. Despite being technically old enough to see 12-rated Tomorrow Never Dies in 1997, my parents still felt I was too young and wouldn’t take me so I was literally gagging for the release of The World Is Not Enough in November 1999.

But before then, in August 1999, came The Thomas Crown Affair, a slick heist movie with current Bond star Pierce Brosnan in the eponymous title role and directed by Die Hard’s director John McTiernan no less. There was no way I was going to miss it! (And yes, I appreciate the irony that I wasn’t allowed to see TND when I was 12 and yet could see a 15-rated film at fourteen, but never mind…) So it was that fourteen year old sexually naive me went to the cinema to see what still ranks as the sexiest mainstream movie I have ever seen! Fuck me, this movie is hot!!

It was released before EL James ruined the reputation of the playboy millionaire and the whole movie had a frisson of deliciousness that dazzled me from the start. It has a mischievous and glamorous aura that made everything feel desirable and luxurious, and I was hooked. I wanted the clothes, the boats, the style. Everything!

Thomas Crown (Pierce Brosnan), the eponymous hero, is a bored millionaire who concocts the perfect art heist, stealing a Monet in broad daylight from the Metropolitan Museum in New York. So clever is his scheme that the NYPD are struggling to unravel it and it falls to Catherine Banning (Rene Russo), an insurance investigator, to kickstart the investigation. And, wow, the chase that ensues! Banning and Crown seduce each other in the most magnificent cat and mouse game, neither quite able to tell if the painting, the game or the person is the biggest attraction.

Watching them, I wanted to play that sort of game. Their verbal sparring is electric and, although I read some criticism of their chemistry, I believed it. It’s all part of their game so of course it’s a little contrived. They’re both too clever for their own good but it’s hot as hell to watch them play with each other!

I don’t really want to dwell on the original movie (as I didn’t really like it), except to say that my mother still claims that the chess game between Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway is one of the sexiest scenes ever filmed. I’m not so sure; for me, it is too contrived. Dunaway running her fingers suggestively over the chess pieces and close ups of fingers against lips may have been risqué in 1968 but now it feels like a sledgehammer!

It’s funny – the oxymoronic blatant subtlety of the 1968 version feels overdone but the rawness of the 1999 version hides nothing and yet is so hot and really works. Just the dance scene alone is enough to get my pulse racing! Never mind Dirty Dancing, Crown asking Banning if she wants to dance or if she wants to dance ensured that I always think of dancing as a potentially highly sexual act.

I mentioned in the sex, lies and videotape post that seeing that movie in the early 2000s was the beginning of the end of thinking that movie sex was in any way real but I had not yet come to this realisation when I saw this. And although time and experience have taught me that fucking on a marble floor and staircase probably isn’t as hot as it looks, their sex still turns me on; it’s still what I’d want. The laughter, the sweaty exhaustion, their chemistry and obvious comfort in their nakedness is just kind of wonderful. They look like they’re having fun and I think that’s what sex should be!

Brosnan dances with another woman with Russo tapping on her shoulder to cut in

This all also meant that Rene Russo became a kind of feminist hero for me, although for reasons that would shock Piers Morgan! She was 45 when the film was released, which seemed so old when I was fourteen, but I absolutely definitely wanted to be her when I grew up. Successful, intelligent, well-dressed, beautiful in a way that didn’t try to mask or minimise her age, and with the kind of sexual confidence that means she could turn up to a black and white ball in a see-through dress, no underwear and red scarf, and fucking get her man! She is just incredible. From her first appearance with hot tousled hair, big sunglasses and stockings, I was in love. Coming in the same year as Britney Spears apparently showing us what was sexy in her ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’ video, this alternate and much more appealing image of female sexuality was frankly revolutionary.

Rene Russo and Pierce Brosnan, leaning in towards each other to kiss. Both are topless with a towel wrapped around their necks

Until recently, that’s as far as my thoughts on this film went. Russo is fabulous, the sex is hot and the chase is electrifying! Except I now realise that it’s not that simple.

It was only when writing this post that it occurred to me that all they really had was the chase, and this probably wasn’t the romantic ideal that I thought it was. Although the film ends with the two of them flying off into the sunset, I don’t know how much faith I’d have that they are still together now, ten years later. [Edit: oh my gosh, 1999 was actually twenty years ago!!!] The seduction was everything! And they know it. Crown even calls Banning out on this, asking why none of her relationships lasted. Once the chase was won, did they have enough to hold onto? Each had to ask the other if it was just about the painting, each is presented as being too independent to settle down and the fact that he successfully uses jealousy to unsettle her suggests that she wouldn’t be happy in an open relationship. So without the energy of the chase, would they still be happy?

As is so often the case, it all comes down to trust. After everything they’ve done, to each other and to themselves, can they trust each other? As Faye Dunaway’s psychiatrist asks Crown, under what extraordinary circumstances would he allow that to happen?

Whatever their future, it doesn’t change how fucking sexy this film is or my enjoyment watching it. Hottest movie sex scene of all time – I challenge you to find better!

Next week: Fifty Shades of Grey!

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.