Sex, Love and Videotape

On movie sex and movie love...

Tag: Feminism

Colette

YEAR: 2018
DIRECTOR: Wash Westmoreland
KEY ACTORS: Keira Knightley, Dominic West
CERTIFICATE: 15
IMDB SCORE: 6.7
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 87%

SEX SCORE: 4/5
✔️ This movie is rewatchable. It’s beautiful and funny and interesting, and I definitely want to watch it again!
✔️ It’s easily sex positive. There are feminist issues, certainly, but all the characters have a level of sexual freedom and acceptance of each other’s needs that is admirable and not always present in relationships, even today.
✔️ It also has no problem passing the Bechdel Test. Colette and Missy talk a lot about subjects that don’t involve men, as do Colette and the other women she meets in the Paris salon scene, who are handily introduced to her when she meets them!
✔️ I would also fuck the cast without much hesitation. I have carried a torch for Dominic West since The Wire, which even a dodgy goatee and a dodgier personality can’t entirely extinguish, but Keira Knightley is the star. Colette is witty and intelligent, and Knightley gives her a spark that is frankly irresistible!
❌ But narrowly missing a 5/5 score, it didn’t inspire fantasies. Hot as they may look, I’m not gay so the lesbian love scenes didn’t inspire me beyond wanting hot sex in general, and the dress up scenes with Dominic West were definitely on the creepy end of the hot-or-not scale…

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

STREAMING: Netflix, Amazon Prime (rent £1.99, buy £6.99), YouTube (from £3.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

Poster for Colette, showing a determined looking Keira Knightley wearing a great hat!

Today’s movie was one that I hadn’t seen before this week, and I watched it in the most wonderfully indulgent style – sat on an enormous, ridiculously comfy sofa, surrounded by cheesy deliciousness, wine and good friends. It was perfect! And I was so happy to watch it with these particular friends as Exposing 40 and Haiku are such interesting people to talk to about, well, almost anything, but especially about marriage and different types of relationships – pertinent topics when watching Colette.

Colette tells the true story of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Knightley), a young woman from the French countryside who marries a celebrity of sorts from Paris. Her husband, Henry Gauthier-Villars (West), better known by his nom-de-plume, Willy, is a vibrant member of the Parisian salon scene and is famous for writing stories and reviews…very few of which he actually writes, delegating that part to his ‘factory.’ When Willy’s extravagant lifestyle and infidelities catch up with him, he persuades Colette to write stories for him to increase his output and, therefore, his income. To Willy’s surprise, Colette’s novels about a young girl called Claudine’s sexual and romantic adventures become wildly successful, creating a social phenomenon, but Colette receives none of the credit. They were written by Willy after all. Frustrated and held back by Willy, Colette rebels, learns to become a mime and leaves Willy for Missy, a genderqueer Marquis who shows Colette that women don’t need to be wives or feminine to be accepted by society.

Image from Colette showing Colette writing

The true story of Colette and the issue of marital plagiarism is such an interesting one. The real woman was clearly a genius – a future Nobel prize nominee and author of many best-selling novels after divorcing Willy – but Willy was not wrong when he claimed that novels written by women are less successful as they were deemed to be harder to publish and harder to sell. It’s why Mary Ann Evans wrote as George Eliot rather than her own name in the 1800s and why, even in the 20th century, JK Rowling chose to publish under her initials rather than her obviously feminine real name. And by the time Colette wrote the famous Claudine novels, ‘Willy’ was a brand, as he claimed. His use of ghost-writers was well known within the industry and ‘Willy’ was already rumoured to be more than just that one man. Why risk their main source of income by rocking the boat and confirming what was already suspected anyway?

But, to me, these are simply excuses. And misogynist ones at that! Once the brand was established and once the character, Claudine, had built a diehard fan base, why couldn’t they come clean? In a society where women had so few opportunities to succeed creatively, why couldn’t they take that risk now? Except that, of course, revealing who had actually written his greatest works would discredit Willy. Without her novels, he would be unsuccessful and broke. He would have nothing.

And the power was all on his side and he had no desire to change that. Unless Willy himself gave credit to Colette, who would believe her? Although he does end up asking for them to be destroyed, just in case, Willy is able to look at Colette’s handwritten stories within his infrequent notes in the margin and claim that this is proof of their collaboration. Watching this with Haiku, she was reminded of a similar story from the 1970s where Margaret Keane’s husband took credit for her distinctive big eyed paintings so convincingly that a judge asked them both to paint for him under observation to prove who was the real artist. Marriage laws tend to side with the husband, essentially giving him ownership of his wife and, by default, her creative results. Which is frustrating, to say the least, and I am so pleased that Colette managed to successfully publish under her own name later in life.

Image from Colette showing Willy as the toast of the Paris salon

But while the headline plot from Colette is the trouble that she had getting credit for her writing, I was much more interested in the romantic plot and the dynamics of their marriage. Because, until Colette’s fight for professional acknowledgement drove the final nail into the coffin of their relationship, they seemed to have found a balance that sort of worked for them. They had an uneven and not entirely satisfactory open relationship, sure, but a Time biography suggested that it was Willy who finally asked for a divorce and that Colette had been happy in their non-monogamous partnership. They clearly also married initially for love – Colette even jokes that she didn’t bring a dowry. The respect and admiration that they felt for each other was visible in how Knightley and West played the characters, with the Guardian review praising their performances for suggesting that ‘Colette and Willy did enjoy something like a real love affair, and that Colette was never simply a victim, nor Willy simply an exploiter.’ As with so much in life, it was much more complicated than that!

I do believe that they loved each other. I believed that they had a real partnership, not just a marriage of convenience or financial need. And they were sweet together! Willy referring to himself as a ‘pot-bellied stove’ when offering to warm her up in bed really made me smile and there seemed to be genuine companionship in much of their interactions and ease with each other. Having a 10-month old baby who seems to have been snotty for weeks now, there was definitely a note of familiarity in Colette noticing a stain on her dress as they arrived at a party, scratching it and joyfully declaring that it was just toothpaste, and I loved how Willy soon gave up trying to change how Colette dressed and let her wear what made her comfortable.

But despite this easy companionship and mutual respect, we still spent much of the film declaring what an awful husband Willy was! The problem comes because their relationship had such a clear gender imbalance. Willy is in charge; he is the man of the house and Colette is only able to do what she does because he allows it. Yes, he appeared to respect her but their public presence particularly did not demonstrate that Willy thought of them as equals. He would regularly order her around, demanding that they left parties when he wanted to leave, and would lock her up to ‘encourage’ her to write. And he can get away with anything he wants because that’s what men do. Once again, husbands owned their wives and could do what they wanted with them.

This also extended to Willy’s infidelities and sexual indiscretions. ‘Flirtation is what one does!’ he tells her. And later, he tells Colette that she needn’t feel threatened by him seeing a sex worker as ‘she’s no rival…it’s what gentlemen do.’ Willy benefits from the patriarchal society and doesn’t do anything to change it. And there was so much opportunity to be fairer!

Image from Colette showing Willy with Colette and another woman on his knees

As I briefly mentioned in the post on Up in the Air, I am in an open marriage myself but the arrangement that Willy and Colette have is a type of non-monogamous relationship that personally isn’t for me. Obviously, everyone’s experience is different but I’m not a fan of the One Penis Policy. This type of open relationship is not uncommon but I can’t view an agreement where the man can sleep with as many women as they want but the woman isn’t allowed to sleep with an equivalent number of men as anything other than misogynist. The woman can fuck other women, which is OK because the man gets to remain the man of the house? Because sex with women is of less value than sex with men? Because men only get jealous of other men, like they’re a new patriarch trying to disrupt the pack? Because fucking a penis infers a level of ownership that can’t be shared? Sorry, it’s not for me. And it destroys any chance that Willy had of being a progressive husband – even if he does happily let his wife fuck as many women as she wants.

And Colette is very aware of the inequality of their marriage. She asks about opening their marriage completely but Willy refuses. And, of course, this does create resentment. It does foster and maintain inequality. As Missy tells her, ‘it’s a long leash he keeps you on, but it is a leash.’

The inequality in their non-monogamous marriage is further exacerbated because Willy keeps secrets and has affairs. He doesn’t tell her who he’s fucking, which in my opinion still constitutes cheating even in an open relationship. Of course, Colette fights back against these slights, but not because she wanted him to stop; she just wanted him to keep her in the loop: ‘I want to be part of things. I don’t want to be a little wife at home.’ I completely understand this attitude. It’s not the open marriage that it’s the problem; it’s the lies. Like the One Penis Policy, they maintain a hierarchy and power dynamic that places Willy in charge and Colette as his inferior. Who wouldn’t fight back against that sort of arrangement?

Image from Colette showing Colette looking fabulous with a lady in her underwear in the background

Particularly as Colette is clearly a bisexual woman with a high sex drive, and I love how this was celebrated on screen. ‘The wild days have just begun,’ she announces when presented to Parisian society and Willy’s peers joke that he’ll have to settle down now that he’s married. She asks for sex and it is Willy who turns her down as he’s too tired; she goes after what and who she wants and is happy to make the first move; and, of course, Claudine’s adventures that make them so famous are Colette’s adventure, her school days and her memories. It is almost the ultimate expression of the patriarchy that Willy thought he could control her just because he married her!

Another aspect of this film that I really loved seeing presented so well was the handling of gender. I would be fascinated to know how this film might have looked if it had been released 10 or even just 5 years ago. Take Missy, for example – at one stage, Colette makes a very deliberate effort to correct Willy when he calls him ‘she,’ implying that Missy had changed his pronouns to a more masculine form of he/his. It was so seamlessly handled, without fuss or really much acknowledgement, that it could easily have been missed, proving to any doubters that changing pronouns is not a big deal and doesn’t need to be a major plot point. ‘Words are either masculine or feminine.’ Colette tells Willy, ‘There’s no word for Missy.’ And that’s all that needed to be said. After all, Missy’s gender isn’t why Colette falls for her, and the scandal surrounding their relationship stems from the fact that they are supposedly two women kissing on stage, rather than Missy’s gender flexibility.

Image from Colette showing Colette and Missy embracing on stage

But I was most pleased to see this small detail in the film as they didn’t need to include it. The real Missy, Mathilde de Morny, was notorious for dressing in men’s clothes at a time when this was scandalous enough, but there is no evidence to suggest she was trans. Rumour, yes, but no facts. So I liked that the writers chose to highlight this pronoun change as it must have been a deliberate choice, and one that might not have been made in the past.

Another deliberate choice that also made me happy when I heard it was Missy’s acknowledgement that it was his financial privilege and status that gave him the freedom to dress how he wanted and act as he did. Even though he created a scandal, his life wasn’t at risk; he was able to survive. When looking back at figures in history who have been trailblazers for sexuality or who have challenged accepted gender norms, it tends to be the stories of those with this kind of privilege that make history – to misuse a quote from the film, ‘it’s the hand that holds the pen that writes history’ – and it made the story of Colette and Missy so much more powerful that this was acknowledged.

Image from Colette, showing Missy in a dinner jacket

So what and who is Colette? The Guardian felt that it was an ‘empowering and entertaining tale of a woman finding her own voice in a society in flux;’ the Telegraph described her as an ‘ahead-of-her-time queer icon with a complex attitude to her own femininity.’

For me, it is a story of progress and is almost a prolonged coming of age movie. Who says we are fully formed once leave home or fall in love, as traditional coming of age films would suggest? Colette needed Willy to find herself; she needed his encouragement to write in the first place, his sexing up of her writing to help her find her style, his freedom and (admittedly salacious) encouragement to fuck around with the women in Paris to discover what she wanted. ‘You’re the only woman I could ever love,’ he tells her. ‘And you’re at your most brilliant with me.’ Their marriage was a disaster, but it was the catalyst that Gaby, the young country girl Sidonie-Gabrielle, needed to become Colette, the pioneer and trendsetter. Colette is a ‘nuanced tale of outgrowing: not just a childish and bullying spouse, but an age of acquiescence.’ Yes, she was scandalous but she helped to change how women are perceived and what they were allowed to do – creatively and personally.

After all, ‘since when has scandal been a bad thing?’

Next week – Pride and Prejudice

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.

Dracula

YEAR: 1992
DIRECTOR: Francis Ford Coppola
KEY ACTORS: Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, Keanu Reeves, Anthony Hopkins, Sadie Frost
CERTIFICATE: 18
IMDB SCORE: 7.4
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 73%

SEX SCORE: 1/5
✔️ This passes the Bechdel Test as Lucy and Mina talk about other topics than men…but really not often!
❌ But it’s not rewatchable. It’s too ridiculous and I don’t get it.
❌ I don’t want to fuck the cast – I love Keanu Reeves but his accent is too terrible and Gary Oldman, well, just no.
❌ And it’s not sex positive. In fact, its incredibly sex negative, particularly regarding women. Independent women with a free sexual spirit are punished – and deserve it!
❌ There’s also nothing to fantasise about. The idea of a man who has waited across time for you may be an old fashioned romantic ideal, but it felt really non-consensual here and unwanted.

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

STREAMING: NowTV, Sky Cinema subscription, Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £4.99), YouTube (from £2.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

[Content warning: this includes discussions of abusive relationships and non-consent]

Poster for Dracula, showing a screaming gargoyle of Dracula’s face

I was 15 at the turn of the century, which meant that I was absolutely the perfect age for Buffy the Vampire Slayer! I was 12 for the first season and avidly watched it every year so I was 17/18 by the time of the fifth and sixth seasons. I mention these seasons specifically because these were the ones where I fell in love with Spike and developed some pretty strong feelings about Buffy and Spike’s violent sexual energy. He was so so hot. The ultimate bad boy, an angry and dangerous man with a leather jacket and bleached hair, who loved that damaged girl. Angel was always a bit meh in comparison – was I too young for him or was Angel just too much of a nice guy? Spike was everything.

I mention this because this early supernatural crush means that I’ve never doubted that vampires are hot! They fulfil a very particular fantasy that plagues many women of a ‘damaged, morally questionable young man who nevertheless can serve as her protector while she reforms him.’ I describe yearning for this kind of love with this kind of partner as a plague because it’s really not healthy – vampire stories are just brightly painted supernatural versions of those damaging relationships where we are drawn to the drama of a dangerous lover, kid ourselves that our love will fix them and stop them treating us like crap, but instead run the risk of falling into potentially abusive patterns. These lovers may not be vampires, but they can still drain you if everything that keeps you alive.

I’ve written before about the abusive control used by Fifty ShadesChristian Grey and his character was inspired by a vampire, Edward Cullen in Twilight. Even Spike is not really a better role model either – his behaviour in the early series is hardly something I’d want to use as a model for my own relationships and later, when he is reformed and his love means that he does recover his soul, he just becomes the exception that we all cling to when really we’re just experiencing the rule.

Because vampires are hot, but also (because?) they are dangerous. Not because they drink blood and kill; the idea of a vampire is dangerous because of what it says about female sexual agency. And, no surprise, it’s not a good message.

But I’m getting ahead of myself! I chose 1992’s Dracula (or Bram Stoker’s Dracula to give it its full name) because it is renowned for being overtly sexual and erotic. I’d seen it years ago and, honestly, I’d thought it was too ridiculous for words, but after hearing a podcaster gush about how hot it was and how attractive Gary Oldman is, I thought I ought to give it another try.

Image from Dracula showing young Dracula dressed as a dandy, wearing a top hat and round purple glasses

Dracula is very faithful to Bram Stoker’s novel, even maintaining the epistolary style with letters and diary entries marking time. It begins in 1492, telling the story of a young, heartbroken count (Oldman) whose bride has just killed herself. In his grief, he calls on demonic forces to avenge her and curses himself forever. Jump forward 400 years and Jonathan Harker (Reeves), a lawyer from London, is sent to Transylvania where he meets a creepy old man who traps him in his mysterious castle, leaving him at the mercy of his three horny wives who fuck and feed on him. Meanwhile, Dracula travels to London to find Mina (Ryder), Harker’s fiancée who Dracula believes is the reincarnation of his bride. Once in London, and looking more like his younger self, he wreaks havoc, killing a young woman, Lucy (Frost), and turning her to a vampire for no apparent reason, kidnapping Mina and prompting a chase across Europe where he is eventually killed.

From a film buff perspective, Coppola made some really interesting choices for the cinematography, deciding to use only traditional practical effects and utilising actual magic tricks in some places. It’s no surprise that among its Oscars win for costume and make-up was one for sound effects. These techniques give the film a very real but knowingly dated feel that I quite liked. It feels appropriate for 1897, a time when cinema was first beginning.

Sadly, from a feminist perspective, I stop agreeing with Coppola’s creative choices. I’m sorry for those who rate this film as I really did not like it! It’s so over the top that it’s essentially a caricature and is only a hair’s breadth away from actual farce. Disconnected shadows mimicking strangling Harker and Dracula admitting that he doesn’t drink [dramatic pause] wine feel straight out of Leslie Nielsen’s spoof movie, Dracula: Dead and Loving It.

Image from Dracula showing Oldman in full elderly vampire make up, bouffant white hair and long fingers with his hands dramatically over his face

But my main concern with his exaggerated style comes when looking at the sexual content. Because Coppola chose to make his Dracula a dramatic romance, rather than a horror, and ‘his accent on romance has dissipated Dracula’s single overwhelming force: evil.’ Are we supposed to sympathise with Dracula? Understand his plight? His horrific and frankly abusive actions in the novel or other retellings were more palatable somehow when he was clearly the enemy but he envisioned here as a tragic hero.

Problems with this characterisation arise because I can completely ignore everything supernatural about him, and Dracula is still fucking creepy. ‘Many women are flattered when a man says he has been waiting all of his life for them.’ Roger Ebert claims, ‘But if he has been waiting four centuries?’ It’s creepy! It’s manipulative and creepy and patriarchal and I don’t get it. How is this romantic? Maybe Dracula is a horror movie after all!

Except there are no jump scares, no tension or dread. At its core, this is much for of an erotic film. For example, Harker becoming a meal for the vampire brides is definitely an orgy – three beautiful women, including Monica Belluci, are topless and writhing all over him, kissing his neck, tearing off his clothes and biting his wrists and neck. There are long, lingering shots of licking tongues and at one point, I’m almost certain they’re feeding off his cock – shots of belts being removed are followed by a vamp woman kissing down his stomach, at which point Harker jumps up screaming. Is he screaming because someone has bitten his cock, or because he is being sexually assaulted?

Image from Dracula showing Reeves on the bed with three vampire women kissing him

Dracula himself also feeds in a very sexual way. When feeding on Lucy, he either is in the form of a wolf, mounting her like he’s fucking her – a ‘literal sexual predator’ – or he appears as a mist, covering her writhing body as she struggles and moans beneath him, sounding more and more orgasmic as her transformation progresses. Oh, and her tits are out too. Even Mina, straight-laced and conservatively dressed Mina, becomes more naked as Dracula’s hold over her increases. She becomes more wild, more bedraggled, which of course needs gaping clothes.

Image from Dracula showing Dracula in his wolf form mounting a scantily clad Frost

Now, my issue isn’t really with the nudity – although it does feel gratuitous and there’s not enough male nudity in response. In fact, so gratuitous is the nudity that Roger Ebert describes it as ‘an orgy of visual decadence, in which what people do is not nearly as degraded as how they look while they do it.’ But I mainly take issue with this choice as at only serves to exaggerate the already concerning sexist tones that are implicit in the Dracula story, creating an ‘overt, intentionally discomfiting’ sexual atmosphere.

As I alluded to above, the study of vampires has long been the story of female desire and how terrifying it is to men and the patriarchy. Talking to NBC, Anne Stiles, an assistant professor of English literature at Washington State University, described how obvious the ‘sexual undercurrents’ were in the original novel: ‘You have penetration, an exchange of bodily fluids. He has mesmeric powers. He is very seductive. It’s an easy, veiled way to write about sex without censorship.’

And the moral judgement associated with having sex and being sexual is made clear through the two female characters, Mina and Lucy. Mina is modest and chaste, wearing dresses with high necklines and holding out for marriage; Lucy has a more ‘aggressive sexuality,’ wearing more revealing clothes, dreaming about sex and flirting with her three suitors. The simple act of courting three suitors invokes judgement from Mina, and so the audience who are experiencing events through Mina’s words. Lucy is supposed to be shocking, indiscreet, even indecent, and so she is punished.

Image from Dracula showing Mina and Lucy, and their differing levels of exposure

In ‘Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers,’ Sady Doyle argues that Lucy’s transformation into a vampire symbolises the transformation from girl to woman, and Lucy’s sexual desires certainly become more explicit the closer she becomes to being a vampire. She is no longer flirting with faux-innocence and innuendo; Lucy is asking directly for what she wants and who she desires. So, obviously, she’s a monster now. She’s terrifying. The girl needed to be saved, the woman needs to be destroyed.

It’s also never explained why Dracula chose to transform Lucy into a vampire. He could have just fed on her – but again, it feels like an unnecessary risk when there are so many other random people in London who wouldn’t draw such attention. Unless you take Van Helsing’s (Hopkins) view that she was asking for it. Lucy was outrageous and sexual and flirty so she called Dracula to her; she deserved what happened to her. Oh, rape culture, so good to know that it still existed in 1992 (and 1897 for that matter!).

Professor Abraham Van Helsing: Hear me out, young man. Lucy is not a random victim, attacked by mere accident, you understand? No. She is a willing recruit, a breathless follower, a wanton follower. I dare say, a devoted disciple. She is the Devil’s concubine!

Except that Lucy never expressed a wish for Dracula or for the darkness or the Devil. She was just flirty with a high sex drive and the privilege of enough independence to choose how she wanted to live her life and who she wanted to marry, which is terrifying to the patriarchy.

The other aspect of the vampire sexual cannon that Coppola maxes out here is the idea of the dominant vampire and helpless victim. Whether using mind tricks or just their animal magnetism, the vampire’s victims feel compelled to follow, compelled to wander out into the night and into the arms of their attacker. This, again, gets my feminist hackles rising as it’s intended to rob women of their own sexual agency. ‘It’s the idea that women can’t be blamed for desire,’ can’t be blamed for falling under the spell of a more powerful man who is ‘virtually unassailable in terms of power, and generally intellectually superior due to the centuries of wisdom he has accumulated.’ Women can’t be blamed but they can be still be punished, because giving in to their desire is accepting the demonic influence of sex. It’s not our fault, we’re too weak and inferior to cope with such strong emotions. Urgh…

An image from Dracula, showing Mina drinking blood from Dracula’s chest

But even beyond this, the use of mind control has huge implications when considering whether Mina in particular consents to what Dracula does to her. It’s pretty clear that Jonathan doesn’t and I’m highly suspicious of Lucy’s ability to give informed consent, although I guess she could be so horny that she follows a random wolf-like stranger into the garden on the promise of sex, but I don’t believe Mina fell in love with Dracula in any kind of normal way. He forces himself upon her, he stalks and manipulates her, she feels his presence everywhere. When she finally capitulates, does she love him? Or is she under his spell?

The final feature of Coppola’s Dracula that makes me angry is the explicit connection that Coppola makes between being a vampire and AIDS. 1992 was a difficult time in the history of HIV and AIDS. The AIDS epidemic had been spreading throughout the 1980s and by the early 90s, the virus was known and the method of transmission was known, which meant that the stigma associated with HIV was also in full swing. AIDS was a disease that predominantly killed gay men, intravenous drug users, and other groups of people who were vulnerable and marginalised. Treatment options at this time were limited at best. Being diagnosed with HIV was synonymous with developing AIDS as there was no way to prevent the progression of disease. Sufferers became increasingly unwell, becoming thinner and weaker, almost as if some unseen force was sucking their life away until they died.

And it’s all about blood. Blood and penetration, and sexual indiscretion. ‘Does Dracula have AIDS?’ asked a panel of AIDS experts, in an early example of clickbait; ‘I’m not living in the dark anymore’ stated an AIDS leaflet from Illinois that used Dracula as its figurehead and warned against going ‘batty’ over someone. As the AIDS crisis escalated, it was suggested that Dracula could be ‘more terrifying as a political metaphor for the spread of contaminated blood.

Coppola makes sure the connection is forced home by including clips of microscope images of blood cells when Dracula is feeding and talking about infected blood – vampirism is a blood-borne illness, he seems to be insisting, passed on by these hyper-sexual dominating monsters who prey on those who are weaker or infect those with a rampant and uncontrolled sexual desire who willingly taste his blood. ‘Love and blood equals…oo-er, death’ mocks a review in the Independent, such is the clumsy, overloaded nature of the analogy. To which I say, fuck you. Even in 1992, we knew better than this. Fuck you for perpetuating stigma by suggesting a link between AIDS and evil, fuck you for belittling the suffering of AIDS victims by insinuating blame or weakness. Just fuck you.

Actually fuck you to this entire film.

I cannot believe that 1992 was so long ago that these exaggerated patriarchal depictions of female sexuality or clumsy metaphors for the dangers of sex were acceptable. Is it satire? Is it farce? Frankly, I hope it is – otherwise it’s just offensive.

Sorry. This one isn’t for me…

Next week: The Rocky Horror Picture Show

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.

Halloween

YEAR: 1978
DIRECTOR: John Carpenter
KEY ACTORS: Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasence
CERTIFICATE: 18
IMDB SCORE: 7.8
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 96%

SEX SCORE: 2/5
✔️ Halloween is rewatchable – I’d not seen it before but I will watch it again
✔️ It does pass the Bechdel test as Laurie and her named friends talk about babysitting and school, but most conversations do end up about men.
❌ But this film is not sex positive – it was the big hit movie that spawned the idea that sex means death, which isn’t really a message I’d want to promote!
❌ And it didn’t inspire fantasies – there’s too much murder to be appealing!
❌ The cast isn’t fuckable either. Jamie Lee Curtis looks incredible with amazing 1970s Farrah Fawcett hair, but I didn’t want to fuck her. Which, in a way, is lucky for her as it’s her virginity that saves her!

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

STREAMING: NowTV, Sky Cinema subscription, Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £4.49). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

[Content warning: a brief mention of possible trauma and insufficient mental health treatment]

The Halloween poster, showing a fist and a knife made to look like the face of a jack-o-lantern and the tagline ‘the night He came home’

I came to horror films late in life. As I mentioned in my Practical Magic review, that movie terrified me so much that I avoided all horror films for years and years afterwards, but I have been trying to catch up. As a wannabe movie buff, I do want to see all the important ones but somehow I’d not seen Halloween until this week. And that was a definite lapse as this film is hugely important. It wasn’t only the most successful independent movie ever when it was made but it is also the movie that launched an entire genre – the slasher movie.

Now slasher movies almost feel wrong for this blog – I’m supposed to be writing about movies that promoted sexual fantasies or changed the direction of my sex life, which slasher movies did not, but they are definitely about sex – and not in a good way – so I couldn’t ignore them.

Halloween was the first significant slasher movie. It contains so many movie tropes that the whole thing almost feels like a cliche, except that this was the first time they’d been seen. It was the first use of the creeping Steadicam footage to show the perspective of the attacker, disorientating the viewer and allowing paranoia to grow; the first masked murderer who cannot be killed; one of the earliest films to connect risk with having sex and, of course, one of the earliest Final Girls. At the time of its release, these ideas were so new that they were shocking and terrifying. Roger Ebert described it as a ‘visceral experience,’ warning viewers not to attend if they didn’t want to be scared. And it still works. It’s lost some of its power through repetition and poor imitation, but it’s still fucking creepy!

Halloween tells the story of Michael Myers, a boy who brutally murdered his sister when he was six years old (while dressed as a clown! Why is it always clowns?!) and ends up locked away in a secure psychiatric unit. Jump forward 15 years and Myers has escaped. He returns to his home town and, dressed in a boiler suit and creepy blank William Shatner mask, begins a killing spree, murdering several young women who were working as babysitters before finally being stopped by Laurie (Lee Curtis), the bookish, virginal final girl. Of course, Myers’s body vanishes, opening the door for a whole series of sequels…

Image from Halloween showing Laurie holding a knife

Considering Psycho is one of the few horror movies I’ve seen and enjoyed, I loved how much Halloween was influenced by Alfred Hitchcock, and it has so many links to that horror masterpiece that it almost feels like a fan tribute! The psychiatrist is named Sam Loomis (Pleasance), as was Marion Crane’s boyfriend; the stabbing scene at the beginning reminded me so much of the infamous shower stabbing scene from Psycho with flashing knives, fleshy stabbing sounds, but no visible penetration; and Jamie Lee Curtis is Janet Leigh’s daughter, and Janet Leigh played Marion Crane in Psycho! Considering Psycho remains the scariest movie I’ve ever seen, it’s not a bad source of inspiration.

Image from Halloween showing Laurie sat by a door with Mike Myers sitting up in the background

Before I dive into the sexual politics, I can’t go on without mentioning that Dr Loomis is a terrible, terrible psychiatrist! He’s clearly absolutely terrified of his patient and uses incredibly damaging language to describe Myers, calling him ‘the Evil’ and insisting that he ‘isn’t a man.’ I find his language choices so difficult because there’s no suggestion at this stage that Myers is supernatural in any way. There’s no possession by the devil, no evil spirit or hint that Myers is anything other than a ‘psycho.’ The film just seems to suggest that he’s unwell and his illness is what is causing him to murder.

I’ve written before about my deep concerns with connecting mental ill health with ‘evil’ behaviour and the stigma that this perpetuates, but viewing Myers as unwell rather than evil also has the effect of significantly changing how the plot is viewed. My brief rotation in psychiatry as a medical student taught me that there are very few mental health disorders that affect children and this knowledge means I almost feel sorry for Myers. What kind of fucked up childhood leads a six year old to murder their sister? What has he seen and what might have been done to him to make him act that way? And after that, what kind of mental health treatment did he receive under Loomis’s care? Myers’s illness is clearly beyond Loomis’s expertise to treat and yet there’s no evidence that he sought help or a second opinion. He just locked him up: ‘I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up, because I realised that what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply…evil.’

Gif from Halloween showing a young Mike Myers wearing a clown costume and holding a knife, having his mask pulled off

Maybe they did intend Myers to be a supernatural being, and his immortality despite being killed repeatedly in the later films does provide evidence for this, but the way he is presented here in the original make him look more like a traumatised child who grew up to become a traumatised man who acts out in the only way he knows. He’s been let down by an incompetent doctor who is deeply afraid of him and who lets his fear prevent him from treating Myers objectively. And that’s really sad.

But, dangerous as this outdated view of psychiatry may be, this is a sex and relationships movie blog and there is a shit ton of sexual politics to talk about too!

Because Halloween created the rules of the slasher film, a place where ‘sex becomes death becomes sex, where a knife is never just a knife’ and women must suffer. I’m once again quoting from Sady Doyle’s ‘Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers’ in her analysis of the sexual themes in slasher movies. She describes how, according to the patriarchal construct, girls are pure and perfect and innocent and must be protected, but women are damaged and tainted and dangerous and should be feared or destroyed. And, of course, as virgins we remain girls, ‘whole, sealed, and unbloodied…until a man comes along to break [us] open.’ Urgh…

It is all down to penetration – both the patriarchy in general and the entire sexual philosophy of slasher movies put forward by Doyle: ‘Men penetrate, women are penetrated; men are predators, women are prey; men desire and pursue sex, women flee or become victims of men’s desire.’ Which is why there’s so much stabbing! Sadly I can’t find the source now but I read something that claimed none of the villains in slasher films use projectile weapons – no guns or bombs, just knives and hands – because their killing needs to be intimate, needs to be penetrating. It’s sex; dangerous sex that destroys the one being penetrated because that’s what losing your virginity means: ‘penetration is seen as a means of conquering and humiliating the penetrated; to open your body is to bleed, suffer, and die.’ Again, urgh…

Logically, within this construct, those who have already lost their virginity are already damaged, already humiliated, and so deserve to be killed. And that’s exactly what happens – almost all of the murders in Halloween occur after the character has had sex or exposed themselves in some way. In fact, the only people who survive are virgins – Laurie and the children, plus Loomis himself who one review described as asexual. All those other girls who use their babysitting jobs as opportunities to have sex without adults present are ruthlessly slaughtered. In the slasher world, sex is dangerous!

Which leads on to the Final Girl, the chaste virgin who survives – another one of the horror movie Rules that Halloween popularised. First described by Carol Clover in ‘Men, Women and Chainsaws,’ the Final Girl is often boyish and manages to resist penetration, both sexual and homicidal, by rising ‘above all the sexual humiliation’ to outwit the killer. Laurie is the archetypal Final Girl. She’s a good girl, running errands for her father, actually looking after the child she’s babysitting rather than sneaking off to have sex, and is doing so well at school that she can’t get a date as ‘guys think [she’s] too smart.’

But I liked that she wasn’t evangelical in her virginity – she doesn’t act like she knows she’s morally superior and she doesn’t judge her friends for their behaviour. It almost feels like she’s only a virgin for want of opportunity rather than choice.

Image from Halloween showing Laurie

Despite being the original, Laurie doesn’t quite fit all the requirements of the Final Girl as she falls victim to another sexist stereotype – she needs to be rescued by a man. It is Loomis who stops Myers, Loomis who fires the gun. Laurie is perhaps more accurately the final survivor as all she really does is scream. And, wow, she can scream! I’m really not surprised that Jamie Lee Curtis inspired so many more Final Girls in the future.

Everything about Halloween was among the best in its class, so it’s not surprising that it launched such a flood of similar morality tales that by 1981 ‘over 60% of American releases were of the stalk’n’slash genre.’ And they were hugely popular, especially and most surprisingly with young women. It seems that by the end of the 1970s, the teenage target audience had swung back from the free love of the 1960s to form a ‘deeply conservative audience who liked nothing more than to see their own kind viciously punished for supposed social transgressions.’ According to the New York Times, John Carpenter has consistently denied that he was ‘trying to punish the promiscuous,’ despite the significant evidence to the contrary, but this theme definitely becomes more explicit in later slasher movies, especially the Friday the 13th franchise. And, of course, 1996’s Scream made sure that the rules Carpenter created couldn’t be misunderstood: ‘There are certain RULES that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie. For instance, number one: you can never have sex…BIG NO NO! BIG NO NO! Sex equals death, okay?’

So why are these puritanical movies so popular?

Sady Doyle in ‘Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers’ has a theory about why women in particular enjoy slasher movies – they ‘are a release [from rape culture], in part because they give a name and face to the problem…giving us monsters to fear and heroines to root for.’ When women already fear walking alone at night because of hidden and unknown threats, having a real villain to scream at and, importantly, to defeat is hugely validating. And so we keep going back for more – to scream in safety because the horror is on screen and not actually following us home.

Image from Halloween showing masked Michael Myers bursting into a wardrobe

And Halloween is scary. It’s the patriarchy distilled into it’s simplest form – men wielding sex like a literal weapon and punishing women who seek sex outside of marriage or for their own pleasure – and that is fucking terrifying…

Next week: Bram Stoker’s Dracula

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.

Jennifer’s Body

YEAR: 2009
DIRECTOR: Karyn Kusama
KEY ACTORS: Megan Fox, Amanda Seyfried
CERTIFICATE: 15
IMDB SCORE: 5.2
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 44%

SEX SCORE: 4/5
✔️ Are the cast fuckable? It’s Megan Fox as a hot cheerleader. Of course, the cast is fuckable! She’s deliberately sexy but it works!
✔️ And it passes the Bechdel Test – Needy and Jennifer talk about a demonic ritual if nothing else!
✔️ I’ve only watched it once but I really enjoyed it and would watch it again so, yes, rewatchable!
❌ But it didn’t inspire fantasies. The sex is, well, inexperienced and I have no desire to literally eat men…
✔️ It is sex positive, however. Both main characters have sex – the hot one and the nerdy one – and nothing bad happens to them because they’ve had sex! It also showed realistic first/early sexual experiences with obvious condom use that wasn’t really played for laughs, beyond the simple intrinsic hilarity of comfortable, consenting sex!

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

STREAMING: Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £4.49), YouTube (from £3.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

[Content warning: this review contains discussions of trauma, sexual assault and rape]

Jennifer’s Body poster, showing Megan Fox in a short cheerleader skirt sat in front of a blackboard that says ‘Hell yes!’

I’m starting to think I need to change the subtitle of this blog – it is a blog exploring movie sex and movie love but it is increasingly becoming a blog where I rant about the patriarchy and feminism. Because I’m starting to realise quite how much movies reflect the attitudes of the time that they were made, and because they are produced in an undeniably male dominated industry, they seem to act as magnifiers for all the niggling problems that grate against women. And horror movies and their obsession with sex and women make it even worse!

So here we are again – week two of my Halloween specials, and I’m writing about another film that was critically panned when it was released and yet hindsight has revealed a film that is not only good but was significantly ahead of its time. It’s just that it wasn’t made for men or for the male gaze (regardless of what the marketing may suggest) and so was completely misunderstood.

Jennifer’s Body tells the story of two teenagers who had been friends since they were children – Jennifer is hot and mean; Needy (I don’t know why she’s called that if not as an over obvious label) is bookish and quiet, but they’re friends. They go to see a band in a dive bar and the venue burns down in mysterious circumstances. In the chaos, Jennifer gets a lift with the band, supposedly for safety but actually because they had picked her out for a violent demonic ritual. Unfortunately for them, Jennifer isn’t a virgin as they’d expected so the ritual backfires, turning her into a demon succubus who feeds on other teenage boys. After she kills Needy’s boyfriend, Needy fights back, killing Jennifer and ending up in a secure mental health facility.

Image from Jennifer's Body showing Jennifer and Chip, dressed for the prom and in a dirty pool. Jennifer has blood all around her mouth after taking a bite from Chip’s neck

Doing my research for this film actually made me really angry – there was just too much sexism! Together, it had a cumulative effect of not only infuriating me but also damaging the careers of some very talented women. Jennifer’s Body was written by Diablo Cody, straight after she won the Academy Award for writing Juno; and it stars Megan Fox in her first role after Transformers. It should have been an escalating point for both of their careers but it wasn’t. It’s critical failure meant that Cody moved to writing for TV until 2018’s Tully and Megan Fox hasn’t yet done anything really impactful (Sorry to Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles fans!).

What upset me most was that they were both affected by different but equally cliched patriarchal bullshit and neither did anything that would have been more than a blip in a male colleague’s career. Cody made a poorly received film, sure, but she was subsequently brought down by the fact that women aren’t allowed to fail. Our actions not only speak for all women and our failures risk closing doors for other women in our industry, but we are certainly not allowed second chances. As Anne Cohen wrote for Refinery29 last year, there was a disquieting tone to the reviews – ‘as if by this one critical failure, Cody had signed her own Hollywood death warrant.’ And it proved to be true.

Megan Fox’s story is more troubling but no less typical. After publicly criticising the work environment on the sets of the Transformers films, she was fired by Michael Bay who also published a letter from some of his film crew that ripped her to pieces in an unnecessarily personal and vitriolic fashion. Should she have criticised Bay so publicly? Probably not. But did she deserve such an obvious and sadly successful attempt to blacklist and discredit her? Absolutely not! Calling her ‘everything from “dumb-as-a-rock” to “Ms. Sourpants” and “Ms. Princess” to “trailer trash…posing like a pornstar”’ is not an objective and fair appraisal; it’s mean and cruel and reeks of that attitude shared by angry men who have been slighted by a woman who they feel is beneath them.

Which, sadly but not unexpectedly, brings us around to the #MeToo movement. Frederick Blichert writing for Vice expresses hope that ‘a poor-faith campaign to frame an actress as difficult may meet some resistance today’ after the methods Harvey Weinstein used to blacklist women who displeased him have been revealed and themselves discredited. But it’s not just the treatment of Megan Fox that hasn’t aged well now – Jennifer’s Body as a whole is a movie that should be looked at completely differently now we are in a post-#MeToo world.

An image from Jennifer's Body showing Jennifer in a prom dress, covered in blood, floating above a dirty pool

Because the entire plot revolves around the question of what happened to Jennifer in that van with the band. Except we don’t really need to ask what happened; the implications are clear. Just as in Practical Magic, the supernatural is used as a metaphor or substitute for emotions or experiences that are too powerful or difficult to explain – rather than being assaulted or raped by the band, Jennifer is ritually sacrificed. She then processes her trauma by acting out a ‘cathartic fantasy…using her victimised, violated body to wreak bloody vengeance on the patriarchy.’ In a dark, twisted way, it’s kind of empowering! These men have used her body for their own gain and yet it is her sexuality that allows her to take revenge, using that body to ‘entrap and feed on those who once objectified her.’ Jennifer really is a feminist revenge hero!

And there are two particularly interesting aspects of her revenge that I wanted to mention. Firstly, her actual attackers almost get away with it, and they definitely benefit from the ritual, enjoying huge success until Needy wreaks her own bloody revenge. Instead, it is the people around Jennifer who suffer. Considering how rarely abusers and rapists are convicted, this feels right somehow. And despite occurring in a supernatural movie, it feels real. Constance Grady at Vox felt that this reads as a ‘dark bit of satire’ now when we consider how many men have had abusive behaviour revealed during #MeToo but whose career has not suffered long term. Trauma and abuse cause a lot of collateral damage around the people who have been abused, but too often there is devastatingly little impact on the abuser. In fact, many recent reviews mention the election of Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court and how it sent a message to teenage girls that ‘whatever their male peers do to them in their youth doesn’t really matter.’ That’s not supernatural; that is real.

But more interestingly and more importantly, Jennifer’s Body is a slasher film that doesn’t punish its female characters for having sex. Spoilers for next week’s post on Halloween: this is not common in horror films! Characters losing their virginity is usually the same as signing a death warrant, but Jennifer is saved by her sexual experience…in a dark, twisted way. If she were a virgin, she would have died when she was sacrificed but her sexuality gave her the power to fight back. And once again, that’s kind of empowering. No wonder the patriarchy and all those male critics didn’t enjoy this film!

But they’d be almost forgiven for expecting Jennifer’s Body to be a ‘normal’ horror film with sexy hot girls getting naked and being killed, because that’s exactly how it was marketed. And I’m afraid that I was one of the many, many people who were put off by the aggressively sexual promotion – I’m wary of slasher films as I don’t like jump scares and I didn’t need to see another overly sexualised film where another naked girl is killed, so I didn’t bother.

Promo image from Jennifer's Body showing Megan Fox in a cheerleader outfit, lying down

It has been suggested that the marketing choices were deliberate and were supposed to draw in a male audience: ‘Come for the scene of Jennifer and Needy making out, get hit in the face with an hour and forty-seven minutes of female storytelling. How do you like that, boys?’ It feels like the much trailed kiss between Jennifer and Needy was only there to appeal to this demographic as it doesn’t quite fit with my interpretation of the rest of the film and felt unnecessary. Megan Fox is hot and is ‘on display for men to pay to look at’ but she’s knowingly hot, knowingly sexy. She’s exaggerating and playing up to the cheerleader stereotype so that her ugliness (in massive inverted commas as she’s still gorgeous) when she’s hungry is more pronounced. She even jokes about looking normal when she’s supposed to look rough. But there seemed no reason for the kiss, except to exaggerate Jennifer’s sexual predator status…and to appeal to the male gaze.

Image from Jennifer's Body showing Jennifer and Needy at school. Jennifer has no make up on and looks relatively plain

But if that was the tactic, it seriously backfired! Critics and horny viewers didn’t get it. It wasn’t sexy enough to be hot, wasn’t funny enough to be humorous, wasn’t scary enough to be horror, and wasn’t trashy enough to be trash!

Watching it now, I can’t believe that no one realised at the time that it was satire – hilarious, cutting, subversive satire that turned all those movie tropes in on themselves. And it is not a fantasy for men! Roger Ebert describes it as Twilight for boys, with Megan Fox in the Robert Pattinson role, except that I recall Pattinson was shirtless’ as if straight boys want ‘demonic cheerleaders’ in the same way straight girls want vampires. The more I read about how badly the film was received initially, the more I wanted to scream ‘it wasn’t made for you!’

Because Jennifer’s Body is about being a teenage girl. It’s about how cruel we can be to each other and how we cling to toxic friendships way beyond their natural life because so much else is changing. Jennifer was an arsehole to Needy long before she became a demon. In fact, her possession didn’t really change her personality that much – just her focus. But it took that kind of dramatic crisis to end their friendship. There were no demonic possessions at my school but, wow, there was drama! We really hurt each other and were mean and screamed at each other. And we’d run home and cry at how much someone had changed and how we couldn’t believe the way they were acting, and then we’d make up the next day and start again. Being a teenager sucks!

Image from Jennifer's Body showing Jennifer and Needy in front of their school lockers. Jennifer is pulling a strand of Needy’s hair

And Jennifer’s Body is about how there is no perfect victim – something that is too often forgotten. Jennifer was a bitch and went to that bar intending on hooking up with the band, but that definitely doesn’t mean that she deserved what happened to her. As was so eloquently put in that Refinery29 article, ‘Jennifer may be a mean girl possessed by a demon, and her murderous rampage sets her up as someone who needs to be stopped, but she’s also a victim. She’s a beautiful girl with low self-esteem whose been taught that her entire self-worth is wrapped up in her looks and sex appeal. Wouldn’t you want revenge for that?’

Megan Fox got in. She knew exactly what she was doing, vamping up her sex appeal and exaggerating her plastic and bouncy character, as it made her vulnerability during her attack more shocking. She did it so well that I actually felt quite sorry for her when Needy finally killed her. And she knew how important it was to be that imperfect victim, that real person who does bad things but still did not deserve her fate: ‘If I was to have a message, it would be to be a different kind of role model to girls….It’s O.K. to be different from how you’re supposed to be.’ Fox told The View and quoted in the New York Times. ‘I worry that’s totally lost.’

And it was totally lost. ‘2009 just wasn’t ready for this movie’ Vox claimed, and I am so pleased that it is finally receiving the recognition it deserves, appearing on lists of top horror movies directed by women and being reclaimed as a ‘forgotten feminist classic.’

It’s just a shame it’s taken so long for these women’s voices to be heard…

Next week: Halloween

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.

Practical Magic

YEAR: 1998
DIRECTOR: Griffin Dunne
KEY ACTORS: Sandra Bullock, Nicole Kidman
CERTIFICATE: 12
IMDB SCORE: 6.3
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 21%

SEX SCORE: 4/5
✔️ It is indeed rewatchable, but it took me a long time to get there!
✔️ With so few significant male roles, I’d worry if this failed the Bechdel Test but luckily it passes with ease!
✔️ Considering this film has a predominantly female cast, and I’m quite underwhelmed by the men on screen, and I’m straight, this perhaps shouldn’t get a mark from me but even I can’t deny that the cast are fuckable. 1990s were a successful time for them both and arguably their hotness peak so yes, fuckable!
✔️ I almost didn’t give it a mark for inspiring fantasies but I couldn’t ignore that kiss. Sally and her husband’s kiss to Faith Hill’s famous song, This Kiss, is everything.
❌ But despite much soul searching as I love the feminism of this film, I can’t give it a mark for sex positivity. ‘Since when is being a slut a crime in this family?’ Gillian asks but she does suffer. She is the more promiscuous sister who is shown to party with millions of friends and makes jokes about locking up husbands on her return, and she ends up in an abusive relationship. She suffers for her sexuality, and it saddens me that this is the case because it is otherwise a hugely positive and feminist movie.

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

STREAMING: Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £7.99), YouTube (from £3.98). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

[Content warning: this review discusses bereavement, abusive relationships, effects of trauma]

Practical Magic poster showing Bullock and Kidman looking out of the poster above a cluster of lit candles

I remember when I first watched Practical Magic. I was fourteen and at a sleepover. We’d put aside our usual action films and chosen a selection of horror movies from Blockbuster instead, in aide of Halloween. This was the first film that we watched and it terrified us (me) so much that we couldn’t watch anymore and had to return to Die Hard again to recover. Witches, possession, reincarnation; it was too much. This used to be my benchmark for years – I couldn’t watch Practical Magic and that was only a 12! How could I watch any real horror film?

And I didn’t watch it again for years. Until last year, in fact, when all of the 20th anniversary articles made me realise that it may have just been too much for a fourteen year old and I should try it again. Honestly, it is even more terrifying now but in a completely different way, and I loved it. I loved it!

Practical Magic is a film about the Owens family, a matriarchal line of powerful witches who live under a powerful curse – any man who falls in love with an Owens woman dies young. Gillian (Kidman) and Sally (Bullock) are sisters whose father dies because of the curse and whose mother then dies of a broken heart. They move in with their spinster aunts who are more open with their witchcraft, providing curses and love potions to needy villagers. Despite being so afraid and trying everything to avoid love, Sally does get married and has two daughters, before her husband is killed. Gillian, choosing pleasure, runs away and falls for a dark enigmatic man, Jimmy, who ends up abusing her. While trying to escape, Sally and Gillian accidentally kill him, raise him from the dead, and then kill him again. Jimmy ends up haunting them, possessing Gillian and it takes an entire coven of women to rescue her. (This summary is much too simplistic – go watch it!)

Gillian dancing next to a pool surrounded by admiring men

Practical Magic terrified me so much more watching it as an adult because it is essentially a story about how dangerous love can be – dangerous if you fall for the right guy as he could die and leave you heartbroken, and dangerous if you fall for the wrong guy as he could abuse and hurt you. Love is pain and despite the message that it is possible to survive, there is so much hurt in this movie that it terrified me.

I am in a hugely fortunate position as I have never been in an abusive relationship so I cannot personally relate to Gillian’s experience and I have not been significantly bereaved so I don’t know Sally’s pain, but I could imagine it; I could feel it. I was sobbing within the first 25 minutes of the film as Sally wailed that ‘he died because I loved him too much.’ That’s the fear. That’s the big one. I definitely have an optimistic outlook but it is based on a knowledge, or even perhaps a morbid expectation, that it could all come crashing down at any time. In the back of my mind, meeting and marrying the man of my dreams only means that I’ll be even more destroyed should he die; a potential pain that I would never experience if I were alone. It sometimes seems the only way to balance out the extreme joy and happiness I have experienced, so Sally’s bereavement because of her love projected my ultimate fear onto the big screen.

Of the two sisters, I am definitely Sally. Gillian ran headlong into love, wanting to feel so much that it was worth any pain, but Sally was more realistic and tries to avoid the risk. She even uses logic to wish for a man so perfect that he couldn’t exist because ‘if he doesn’t exist, I’ll never die of a broken heart.’ Cold logic, it’s the best way to proceed!

Sally looking into a candle flame

Magic is used so powerfully in this film to signify unavoidable emotional experiences. Sally tried and tried to avoid falling in love but she couldn’t. Yes, she was pushed towards her husband by an incantation from her aunts but once she’d open her heart to it, their love was real. Devastatingly, that’s why her husband was killed. In the film, it’s magic; in real life, is the force behind love any less powerful?

This use of magic as a metaphor for emotion is even more powerful if Gillian’s possession is viewed as a metaphor for trauma. She has fought to leave an abusive and harmful relationship but she cannot escape, even when her abuser is dead. She is literally haunted by her relationship, literally haunted by her past. And when Jimmy possesses her, she acts and speaks and feels in ways that aren’t how she would usually behave – they’re remnants of Jimmy, they’re her trauma made real. She’s exhausted by it; she’s almost destroyed by it. And she needs her people to save her. She needs her family and sister and community to help her break free, long after she has physically left her relationship. And, as Refuge discussed with Stylist magazine last year, ‘it hammers home the point that “leaving an abusive partner can be very dangerous…Women are at the greatest risk of homicide at the point of separation or after leaving a violent partner.”’ It’s exaggerated, it’s magical and supernatural, but it feels so real.

Gillian and Sally performing a resurrection spell on dead Jimmy

Practical Magic handles the issue of Gillian’s abuse with a lightness that could be misinterpreted as disinterest, but I think actually creates a much more realistic story. Buzzfeed felt that this is why critics didn’t like it when it was first released, and I think it’s 21% Rotten Tomatoes rating might be the lowest I’ve posted yet: ‘Many of them didn’t understand the tone of a film that smirked and made jokes and leaned into love even as it took on a story about abuse and the hurt that comes from it.’ But women have a long history of laughing off abusive behaviour from partners, both to minimise it to themselves and to others, and to protect themselves from recrimination. Gillian jokes that she drugs Jimmy so she could get some sleep at night but we all understand that this strongly hints that he doesn’t accept her refusal or believes in consent and suggests that he has also sexually abused her. Her quiet ‘he’s strong. So much stronger than me’ at Sally’s concerning questioning broke my heart. But the film doesn’t overdo it. We know what’s happening and it’s enough to see the effects. It’s even perhaps more powerful for that – we believe her without seeing.

Gillian looking resignedly forward, trying to brush off Jimmy’s attention as he tries to kiss her neck

Despite these difficult and heartbreaking themes, Practical Magic ends up being a really life-affirming and heartwarming film – and not because Sally gets a happy ever after. That plot line with her too-perfect-to-be-real police officer is almost an annoying distraction, although Buzzfeed’s review did correctly note that it’s the light and dark next to each other that enhance both: ‘The movie acknowledges that abuse and trauma are things that happen. But it puts a love story side by side with that hurt, a reminder that life does go on even after it tries to tear you apart.

But, for me, the true happy ending is between the women themselves and between the witches and the community. As Aunt Frances, played by the fabulous Stockard Channing, states, ‘we need a full coven.’ Gillian is saved by her bond with Sally but it took everyone to put her in a position to do that. And that includes the community that shunned them. I loved this idea that finally ‘coming out,’ as one character dubs it, is what brings them together. Distrust and division are perpetuated with secrecy and insincerity, and although there was definitely a risk in revealing themselves, it is a great feminist message that women don’t need to fight or fear each other and are much more powerful together.

Which, of course, brings me on to the fact that they’re witches. As my first Halloween themed post in a feminist movie blog, it had to be witches!

Gif of Gillian and Sally dresses as witches

Witches are the ultimate feminist hero and embody everything that the patriarchy fears: ‘Witches, sluts, and feminists are the trifecta of terror for the patriarchy…[they] embody the potential for self-directed feminine power, and sexual and intellectual freedom’ historian Kristin J Sollee explained to The Guardian in 2017 to promote her book on this subject. Most witch traditions seem to stem from groups of women who didn’t need men, who defied the patriarchy and so must be evil and untrustworthy. Only someone in league with the devil could survive without a man! Buffering the Vampire Slayer, my favourite Buffy podcast, tells the story of the Alewives – women who brewed ale and were financially independent because of this. They were important members of the community, didn’t need men to survive…and traditionally made the ale in large cauldrons while wearing pointed black hats, suggesting they were an early source of the idea of witches. And, even more terrifying to the patriarchy, these groups of women can’t be controlled, which in some countries is still ‘enough to sentence her to death.’ And so they can be blamed for anything, for everything.

Practical Magic presents an interesting perspective on the story of witches as they sit on the border between horror and fantasy. Some witches are evil and terrifying and come from darkness – crones, hags etc – whereas some witches are good and fluffy and light – Sabrina, Wizadora etc – but Sally and Gillian are neither and both. They’re friendly and sunny with the ‘thickest, most lush movie hair’ yet seen and grow herbs to make lotions, and yet are capable of murder and reincarnation and both know deep, deep darkness. I mentioned Sady Doyle’s book ‘Dead Blondes and Bad Motherslast week and she writes about how witches have always lived ‘on the razor’s edge between benevolence and malevolence, horror and fairytale,’ which is why they are so terrifying – they are unknowable. Are they helping or harming? Are they good or bad?

Except, of course, that there is one eternal truth of witches: ‘they kill men who harm women.’

Next week: Jennifer’s Body

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

Dirty Dancing

YEAR: 1987
DIRECTOR: Emile Ardolino
KEY ACTORS: Patrick Swayze, Jennifer Grey, Cynthia Rhodes
CERTIFICATE: 12
IMDB SCORE: 7.0
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 71%

SEX SCORE: 5/5
✔️Definitely rewatchable – the soundtrack alone would tempt me to watch it again before even considering the dancing!
✔️ And yes, I’d want to fuck Patrick Swayze at his peak. Didn’t we all?
✔️ For a film made in the 80s when rape and misogyny were often amusing plot points, this is such a sex positive film! It supports easy access to abortion, and the coming of age through holiday romance, hot hot sex and dance. It would rank higher than a lot of more modern movies; it’s extraordinary.
✔️ Just as Up in the Air is an archetypal hotel fuck movie, this is the holiday romance movie to inspire all holiday romances. Of course I wanted the hottest guy on holiday to notice me and want me and fuck me in secret and then publicly announce his love for me. It’s the dream of a teenage girl who never thought she’d be noticed but it’s still a great dream… Oh, and I always always always want to dance like I’m being fucked. It’s everything.
✔️AND it passes the Bechdel Test! Only the second 5/5 film yet!!

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

STREAMING: Netflix, Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £5.99), YouTube (from £2.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

Dirty Dancing poster showing Swayze and Grey in the starting position for their dance

I don’t remember when I first saw Dirty Dancing; I genuinely don’t remember a time when I hadn’t watched this film. But I do remember watching it in my early teens and realising what it was really about.

It wasn’t just a film about learning to dance and having a holiday romance. It wasn’t just a film for girls or teenagers or something that should be dismissed (famously by prominent male critics) like so much romcom and chick lit. It is a fucking gritty film for women about women’s pleasure and women’s issues – abortion and privilege and class – that just happens to be wrapped up in a lovely dancing plot with a cracking soundtrack. This is a frivolous, hilarious, cheesy film but it is such a Good Film and rightfully deserving of its 5/5 score – only the second one I’ve given. It’s a feminist masterpiece!

Dirty Dancing follows the Houseman family through their summer holiday at a resort in America. The youngest daughter, Frances, is always called Baby (Jennifer Grey) and, because she’s in the right place at the right time, becomes aware that one of the dancers, Penny (Cynthia Rhodes), is in trouble – Penny needs an abortion and has neither the time or the money to get one. Baby uses her privilege to get her the money from her father, who trusts her without question, before she is taught to dance by Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze) so she can cover for Penny while she sees the doctor. Sadly, the ‘doctor’ turns out to be nothing more than a back-alley quack with the equivalent of a coat hanger, and Baby once again turns to her father for help as he’s a doctor. Of course Baby and Johnny then fall in love. Of course Mr Houseman is horrified that Baby is mixed up in all of this mess. Of course it has a happy ending with a rousing dance number that will never fail to bring a smile to your face.

Penny, Baby and Johnny dancing in formation

Oh, I have so much to say about this film!

For a start, it’s so fucking hot! And I mean that from the perspective of an innocent young teenager and from that of a horny woman in her 30s. I have spent my entire life wanting to dance like the staff dance at the beginning in their secret club. It is literally and figuratively hot; steamy, red, gyrating, dirty, close, sweaty, dishevelled, talented. Fuck. It’s probably the closest thing to sex that I’ve seen on screen that isn’t actually sex, and it’s certainly hotter than most movie sex! And it’s so fucking performative, it’s an exhibitionist’s dream. They’re all dancing like they’re fucking and they’re doing it in front of each other. Unff. I think about this scene whenever I dance with someone new. I think of this scene whenever I press myself up against my partner when dancing. I think of this scene and I imagine that I’m that sexy just because I’m dancing!

And it’s not just the dancing that’s hot – Baby and Johnny are so good together. They’re clearly having so much fun and they are so into each other. They’re affectionate, they’re considerate and they look good. I also love the teacher-pupil dynamic between them with the dance lessons. Hot. It’s just hot. They were a relationship model of sorts for me growing up – I wanted to laugh like that with my partners, I wanted to be that proud of them and that comfortable with them. And it is such an empowering image of female sexuality. Perhaps knowing what it would cost him if he were to make a misstep, Johnny lets Baby lead and the camera follows her hands across his body and in every gratuitously topless shot, revelling in the female gaze. To find all that in a holiday romance is almost too much!

Swayze, topless, standing behind a Grey who is laughing hysterically

I’ve not seen Dirty Dancing 2, mainly as I cannot imagine lightning striking twice, but I know it doesn’t follow Johnny and Baby’s future. Swayze has a role as a dance instructor but he’s not named – I assume he’s Johnny but I don’t know why they wouldn’t name him if he was! Anyway, I often wonder what would have happened to the two of them after the events of the original film. When I was younger, I never doubted their happy ending, but would they have stayed together? Could they have overcome their class differences and heavily implied religious differences and made it work? Their love seemed too great to just be over, but now I can’t imagine it working out any other way. ‘I’ll never be sorry’ Johnny tells Baby, and that somehow made it all OK that they’d likely go their separate ways now the season was over. Heartbreaking, and likely a love story that would weigh heavily over all of their future relationships, but OK. I don’t know that they’d have made each other happy long term.

Of the various nuances that I missed in my early viewings, the class differences wasn’t one of them. The already existing customer/service divide is exacerbated because the Housemans seem to be special guests of the management. Are they rich? Or high status? Or just friends of the Kellermans? Such is her privilege that Baby doesn’t notice the difference. ‘I envy you,’ she tells Penny when she hears that Penny has been dancing professionally since she was 16. Baby sees only the romance of life on the stage but I dread to think what hoops Penny needed to jump through to succeed.

Johnny and Penny dancing

Johnny is also very aware of the divide between him and Baby. He knows that despite being Baby’s teacher and superior at the holiday camp, that isn’t their future. She plans on volunteering to join the Peace Corps; he is soon to start a manual labour job. He knows that he could never financially support Baby in the manner to which she is accustomed, never compete with her intellectually. It’s frankly quite adorable how grateful he is when she acknowledges him to her parents, and I realise how patronising that sounds. As the film progresses, the extent of Baby’s privilege becomes more and more obvious – the revelation of her affair with Johnny causes disappointment in her father’s eyes but isn’t likely to affect her future. Johnny is fired and is unlikely to be re-employed next year.

But the class divide isn’t just played out through Baby and Johnny. The waiters are instructed to romance the guests’ daughters, ‘even the dogs,’ but the entertainment staff are only for dancing. The class divide here is too great; that would be an embarrassment to the wealthy families. Except this works in reverse with the bored wives – they’re not looking for a future for themselves so instead throw themselves at the hired help! And it’s difficult to say no. This was an early lesson for me in coerced consent – Johnny can’t really afford to say no to these rich women, both through immediate tips and because he needs to keep his job. ‘They’re using me!’ he tells Baby, and the power differential here is obvious.

This is just one example of what I find so extraordinary about Dirty Dancing – it casually covers subjects that remain topical and pertinent today, and manages to do so in a way that is real and sympathetic. As described in an opinion piece in the Guardian written in 2017, it lightly and almost casually portrays ‘the kind of issues that today’s Hollywood would handle with Christopher Nolan-esque gravity or sidestep altogether for fear of criticism,’ such as abortion and sexual assault. As it quite correctly concludes, this film would never be made today!

And it remains astonishing that it was made at all. This is a notable exception among 80s teen movies to show sexual assault as wrong rather than an amusing plot point – Molly Ringwald being casually fingered without her consent in The Breakfast Club, Anthony Michael Hall sleeping with a drunk girl who doesn’t know who he is in Sixteen Candles; the 80s were a difficult time for women and I fear that this freedom to feel up unsuspecting women is what boomers are talking about when they moan about how the world is not like it used to be.

But Dirty Dancing takes a dim view of that kind of behaviour. As much as this movie has a villain, it is Robbie – the cocky waiter who is the father of Penny’s baby but won’t help her. He’s also shown to sexually assault Baby’s sister and sleep with other guests, which is ironic as he accuses Penny of sleeping around. Particularly viewed with post-#MeToo sensibilities, his entire attitude is pretty revolting. He wants Dr Houseman’s support and recommendation before starting a career in medicine so dates his daughter (!), tries to force her to go further with him that she wants (!!), and then presumes that Dr Houseman will side with him and understand when he admits to his role in Penny’s pregnancy (!!!). ‘Some people count and some people don’t,’ he tells Baby when she confronts him about Penny, effectively summing up the whole film!

And perhaps Robbie isn’t that wrong to believe that Dr Houseman shares his views on who is worth attention. Baby calls her father out on the hypocrisy of his actions compared to the more magnanimous ideals of providing help and support to everyone that he taught her, declaring that ‘you meant people like you.’

But the most important and most radical plot line involves the representation of abortion. The film’s writer, Eleanor Bergstein, talking to Hadley Freeman for her book on 80s movies ‘Life Movies Pretty Fast,’ said that she had intended to present social messages in a ‘pleasurable way so that the moral lesson would sneak up on people,’ and she definitely succeeds!

Baby and Johnny messing around on the floor. She is crawling towards him as he plays air guitar

I love love love how intentional Bergstein was in using this film as a vehicle for a pro-abortion message. Her film was dismissed by men on all sides as it was a film for teen girls, and they apparently didn’t even notice the abortion plot until it was too late and money had been invested. It’s completely integral to the plot – nothing would happen without it. I suspect that’s one of the reasons why I haven’t yet heard a credible suggestion of remaking Dirty Dancing.

For me, it strikes exactly the right note with regard to discussions about abortion. Penny is not judged for needing an abortion; she’s portrayed sympathetically but her response to the predicament is understandable. No one ever suggests keeping the baby. Why would they? And yet her sensible and reasonable need for an abortion almost kills her as she is unable to get one safely and legally. She can’t go to the doctor even after she’s been butchered as what she’s done is illegal. Again taken from her conversation with Hadley Freeman, Bergstein is so ahead of her time with her intentions: ‘when I wrote the film, abortion – like feminism – was one of those issues that people thought just wasn’t relevant any more…But I thought Ros vs Wade was precarious…The film is set in 1963 but it came out in 1987 and I wanted young women seeing the film to understand that it wasn’t just that she went to Planned Parenthood and it went wrong.’

Wow.

Set in 1963, first came out in 1987 but upsettingly relevant today.

Rolling back our reproductive freedoms and limiting access to abortions doesn’t mean more babies; it means more people desperately resorting to ‘some butcher…with a folding table and a dirty knife.’ People will die. Without any doubt, people will die. And disproportionately people like Penny – people who can’t afford to see doctors with clean operating theatres and who are willing to risk ignoring the rules. Vulnerable people will die. And that is just not good enough!

It should also be noted that, importantly, Dirty Dancing does not suggest that sex should be avoided despite acknowledging these potentially tragic consequences. The plot around Penny’s abortion is what brings Baby and Johnny together; they have all this wonderful, hot, life-changing sex almost immediately after seeing what happened to Penny. The fault, it correctly implies, is not with the people having sex – it’s with the system that denies them access to safe abortion.

Baby and Johnny lying in each other’s arms

God, I love this film!

It’s not perfect. I don’t know why Baby does so much of the dancing in her underwear, except to unnecessarily perve on her body, which feels out of character with the rest of the film, and the ‘gu-gung’ heartbeat scene is nauseatingly cringeworthy. I also don’t know if it can be forgiven for the number of copycat weddings, parties, dance scenes etc that have tried and failed to recreate Johnny’s prance down the aisle at the end or the iconic lift scene.

(I can forgive this one)

And yet Dirty Dancing‘s importance cannot be underestimated – it’s a quiet yet ‘powerful morality tale.’ It shows the consequences of limitation of our reproductive freedom in an accessible way; it demonstrates how ‘youthful indulgence [and] daddy’s girl privileges can be harnessed to foster social unity’ – as the Guardian comments ‘Ivanka Trump take note!’ – and it demonstrates and condemns casual indifference to sexual assault. Big, important issues, all displayed for the mainstream to see.

All this, and it’s just so joyful. It’s wonderful. It’s the time of our lives!

Next week: Gone Girl

I have specifically chosen this film as it has an abortion theme because Smutathon 2019 is approaching! A charity smut writing challenge when an entire community of erotica and sex writers will be writing as much as we can for 12 hours on 28th September to raise money for the National Network of Abortion Funds, a charity that aims to reduce all barriers to accessing abortion in the USA – financial, logistical and legal.

Click the button below to read more about our challenge or click here to donate!

The Smutathon badge showing a woman’s legs in fishnet tights bending over a chair

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.

Easy A

YEAR: 2010
DIRECTOR: Will Gluck
KEY ACTORS: Emma Stone, Penn Badgley, Stanley Tucci, Patricia Clarkson
CERTIFICATE: 15
IMDB SCORE: 7.1
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 85%

SEX SCORE: 4.5/5
✔️ Easily passes the Bechdel test, particularly if you consider conversations about sexual reputation as separate from conversations about men and dating
✔️ Definitely rewatchable. In fact, I watch it approximately twice a year!
✔️ I do want to fuck the cast, yes. And by that I mean that I want to fuck Stanley Tucci.
❓ This film didn’t inspire any sexual fantasies…but Emma Stone in those corsets certainly inspired me to get off my arse and do more exercise! Wanting to look more like her was one of my main inspirations for starting running, for buying more fancy underwear, for buying corsets so I’m giving it a half mark!
✔️ And I am giving it a whole mark for sex positivity. There is a lot of shame directed towards sexual characters but the film goes out of its why to show why they are wrong. It also manages to find humour in varied sexuality choices and sexual situations without mocking or judging. It’s wonderful!

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

STREAMING: Netflix, Amazon Prime (free with subscription), YouTube (officially from £2.99, although there is a full length upload for free too). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

Poster for Easy A, showing Stone looking perplexed holding a sign saying ‘The rumour filled totally false account of how I ruined my flawless reputation’

I intended on reviewing Easy A at some point for this blog – it’s a cracking teen movie with great lessons about reputation, sex and rumour – but then I saw this tweet and realised that I not only needed to dance around to A Pocket Full of Sunshine immediately, because it is indeed a banger, but I also needed to watch Easy A again. Soon.

Easy A is the story of Olive Pendergast (Emma Stone) – a high school student who accidentally starts a rumour about losing her virginity, helps a bullied queer student to pass as straight by pretending to sleep with him, and ends up with more and more outcasts asking her to pretend they’ve hooked up in one way or another. Such is the power of the rumour mills that Olive’s new reputation soon causes her to become an outcast. Of course she’s had sex with everyone who says that she has! Of course she’s why another student gets an STI! And Olive decides to live up to her new reputation by dressing in corsets or tiny shorts, all emblazoned with a scarlet letter A.

Emma Stone walking through high school wearing jeans, sunglasses and a black corset labelled with a red A

I love this film. I love everything about it. I love the music, I love the costumes, I love Emma Stone, I love Stanley Tucci. I love that it is a teen movie that doesn’t underestimate teenagers. I love it so much that when a Sinful Sunday erotic photography prompt was simply ‘A,’ it was the perfect opportunity to both stitch a large red A to my corset and pose in sunglasses as Olive does, but also to buy the corset in the first place. Even now, in my thirties, I kind of want to be Olive Pendergast!

You see, I wasn’t cool at school. Even with hindsight removing all my insecurities, I wasn’t cool. I volunteered to supervise Duke of Edinburgh expeditions; I was one half of a two person yearbook committee; I drove a car that managed to be older than me but not old enough to be vintage or retro – it was just old. I was not cool. But neither is Olive. I mean, she’s awesome, but she’s not cool in the way students usually are in movies about high school. She’s not a jock or cheerleader. No one really knows her until the rumours start. But she is still awesome – smart, witty, gorgeous – and I really valued the remainder that being in the ‘cool’ group isn’t nearly everything!

Me, posing in a black corset with red A, sunglasses and pearls

These more superficial reasons aside, Easy A is a pretty great film! It’s self-aware, mocking John Hughes tropes and acknowledging its place in a long history of teen movies. It’s also intelligent and funny, and it does not patronise its target audience of young people, particularly young women.

I think it helps that it’s an update of a 19th century novel, The Scarlet Letter by Nathanial Hawthorne. It seems all of the best teen movies are versions of older masterpieces – Clueless from Jane Austen’s Emma, 10 Things I Hate About You from Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, Cruel Intentions from Les Liaisons Dangereuses and now this. I suspect that this is because it’s telling a real story. Too much media made for younger people underestimates their intelligence, and is less good because of it.

(There is, of course, the less generous argument that high school is the last time in modern society where we can spend all our time and energy focussed on romantic plotting and not having a date to the ball is the end of the world so it’s easy to transfer the themes of classic literature, but I prefer my reason!)

I’ve never read The Scarlet Letter (although I have now read the cliff notes in case they had anything interesting to add, which they did not) but the themes in the book are familiar ones – reputation, humiliation…misogyny. Whether in the nineteenth century or the present day, women with a visible sexuality are regularly shunned and cast aside. As seen in this film, men have never suffered the same and instead tend to benefit from having a highly charged sexual reputation – it’s why so many of the boys want to cash in on Olive’s reputation after all.

Stone facing the camera, holding a sign that says ‘not with a fizzle but with a bang’

It is interesting that no one ever doubts that these rumours about Olive are true. Actually, it’s not interesting – it’s the patriarchy. In a he-said-she-said world, would anyone believe her? As one of the needy boys taunted, ‘I don’t need your permission, you know!’ Olive went from being a nerdy nobody to reportedly fucking nearly everyone in school in a matter of weeks, and yet no one questions her ‘slutty alter ego.’ All it took was a rumour that she had had sex once to launch her into the spotlight.

‘That’s the beauty of being a girl in high-school: people hear you had sex once and BAM – you’re a bimbo.’

It reminded me just how hard it is to be a teenage girl! Our youth has been so sexualised that being seen as sexually active and attractive feels disproportionately important. We want to be cool, we want to be hot, we want to seen, we want to be sexual, and yet we risk gaining a reputation for being easy and promiscuous if we do. Olive’s friend Rhiannon exactly demonstrates this difficult and delicate balance – she is thrilled when it is revealed that her big tits are her identifying feature and calls Olive a ‘superslut like me’ on hearing she’s lost her virginity, and yet Rhiannon is the first to turn on Olive when the rumours start to get out of control, declaring her a ‘skank.’ In fact, the rumours essentially start with Rhiannon as she doesn’t believe it when Olive denies having sex, prompting her to just make something up.

And I know why Olive does it; why she lies and then doubles down on her lie by dressing in revealing clothes, dramatically labelling herself with the A from The Scarlet Letter to ensure no one misses her point. There is pleasure in notoriety, in being someone everyone knows and is talking about. Why do you think I joined the yearbook committee? I wanted everyone to know who I was! Admittedly, it may have been more fun and significantly less work if I’d chosen Olive’s way but I didn’t realise that until much later…!

‘How do you know I like to be thought of as a floosy?’
‘At least you’re being thought of.’

I realised watching Easy A again now that I’m looking at it differently since the birth of my daughter, but in ways that only say good things about the film. Because it is a film that I want her to see. It’s one that can teach her how to be the person I want her to be – confident, sure of herself – and it has certainly given me ideas on how to be a better parent for her.

Olive’s parents, Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson, are just fabulous in this film – they’re the icing on an already perfect film. And the real lesson that I’ve learned from them is that they trust Olive without question. Their daughter is going to school wearing underwear as outerwear but they trust her to take care of herself. They repeatedly check in and express their concerns without judging her, making sure she knows they are there for her, but they accept her words when she says she’s OK and wait for her to come to them when she needs their help. Which, of course, she does.

Tucci looking concerned

In contrast to that, my mother once told me I looked like I was asking to be raped when I wore a bikini as a bra under a halter top and, even though I know she was trying to protect me, I haven’t forgotten. And actually, 15 years later, I’m not sure if I’ve forgiven either. I love my mother and we get on very well now but I don’t like to think about the number of conversations that were cut off before the words left my mouth after that because I was afraid of her judgement, and I don’t want that to be my relationship with my daughter.

I don’t think I have the free and easy style of Tucci and Clarkson to carry off their wit and joviality, but I hope I can be as open and approachable. And understanding! I just adore Rosemary’s (Clarkson) response to Olive’s confession about her reputation at school: ‘I had a similar situation when I was your age. I had a horrible reputation…Because I slept with a whole bunch of people. Mostly guys.’ Not just don’t worry, you’ll be fine but don’t worry, I understand – I’ve been through it and I believe that you’ll be fine. And I think that’s wonderful.

Olive: Can you not see that I’m a mess?
Rosemary: No, you’re not, Olive. You’re wonderful. And you’ll handle this the same way I did. With an incontrovertible sense of humour. But you’re much smarter than I am… so you’ll come out of this much better than I did.
Olive: Thank you, Mom.

Stone and Clarkson laughing together and sitting on a cat bonnet

This complete lack of judgement is why Easy A is definitely a sex positive film. Yes, it does depict judgement but it’s from characters who are also shown to be flawed – Marianne and her religious extremists, Lisa Kudrow’s truly awful guidance counsellor. The people that we’re supposed to like and root for are all sex positive. Sex isn’t the enemy or the destructive power; it’s the lies and misunderstandings and judgement that are clearly shown to be the problem.

Roger Ebert does note that, as is often the case in movies when jokes involve virginity, the protagonist‘s virginity ‘miraculously survives at the end‘ but I don’t think this undermines the sex positive message – Olive may not have had sex yet but the film ends with the message that whenever she wants to, whether soon or not, that’s OK.

Stone licking a spoon suggestively while looking at Marianne, the religious student

I also couldn’t write about the sex positivity of this film without mentioning Woodchuck Todd (Penn Badgley). He is just the perfect gentleman and provides a great example of how consent is both hot and doesn’t break the mood, or whatever other excuses people come up with. He asks if he can kiss Olive and then accepts her no without question. He also doesn’t seem to believe the rumour mill surrounding Olive, treating her exactly the same as always. He’s a good man and a good role model.

My final point about Easy A is a sort of throwback to my recent review of Zack and Miri make a porno. One of my main criticisms of that film was that it mocked vulnerable social groups and found humour in being offensive, which I really didn’t find funny. But I do find Easy A funny. It’s fucking hilarious! And that includes jokes about being gay and about being a stripper or sex worker. The jokes work for me because they don’t feel like they’re punching down, no one is inherently superior or portrayed as better, and within the whole positive non-judgemental tone of the film, jokes on these topics don’t even feel edgy. They’re simply funny!

Yup, Easy A is brilliant. I might have to watch this more frequently then twice a year…!

Next week: The Before trilogy…

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.

What women want

YEAR: 2001
DIRECTOR: Nancy Meyers
KEY ACTORS: Mel Gibson, Helen Hunt, Marisa Tomei
CERTIFICATE: 12
IMDB SCORE: 6.4/10
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 54%

SEX SCORE: 1/5
Not sex positive – I suspect this was supposed to be sex positive – or at least vaguely feminist – but it hasn’t aged well at all and the male gaze is too infuriating for it to count.
I don’t particularly want to watch this again – I fear that it will only age further…
It didn’t inspire any fantasies – it’s more of a romance than a sexual film, but it’s certainly not a romantic trope that I’d like to be involved in: misogynist undermines professional woman, almost destroying her career, and yet she falls in love with him anyway!?
I don’t want to fuck Mel Gibson. Helen Hunt, maybe, but not enough for a point…
✔️ Somehow this does pass the Bechdel test, but I’m giving the mark very begrudgingly – women talk to each other about something other than men but they rarely both have names and are almost always interrupted by men. Urgh.

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

STREAMING: YouTube (from £2.99), Amazon Prime (free with subscription)

[Content warning: this contains brief mentions of sexual assault and discusses potential non-consensual sex]

A poster for What Women Want showing Mel Gibson smiling forward with Helen Hunt looking passed him

I wish I could remember how What Women Want came across in 2001 when it was released. Eighteen years is a long time but this film feels like a million miles from current acceptability and it seems inconceivable that it was made this century, let alone that it became the second highest grossing romantic comedy of all time! When I added this film to my list, I wrote ‘#MeToo’ next to it as I feel this should be shown to anyone who doubts how difficult men can make life for women – professionally, socially, romantically, publicly. It’s essentially a public information video!

Because Mel Gibson’s Nick Marshall is awful. Was he seen as the hero he thinks he is back in 2001 or did we notice how fucking awful he is? Luckily it seems that reviews at the time were similarly appalled, with Salon stating the film ‘does nothing but condescend’ women and should be seen as ‘an intriguing if ugly little nugget of social history,’ but I was still shocked at how far it went. In the opening scene and subsequent long walk to his office, Nick is condescending, patronising and dismissive. He literally sexually assaults a women, ‘accidentally’ grabbing her breasts, he harasses another, and men are shown to be in awe of his prowess. Less than 15 minutes in and I already feel like I need a shower…

This really bothers me as I don’t think Nick was intended to be such a monumental twat and the Guardian review at the time even felt that ‘from the outset, it is made crystal clear that he is supposed to be lovable.’ He isn’t an evil figure who is shown the error of his ways; he’s a normal, pretty cool guy who becomes heroic – and gets the girl.

Mel Gibson holding items from a box including a bra

My dislike of this film can be summed up by a quote from Nick’s therapist: ‘If you know what women want, you can rule.’ Not help them, not make their lives easier, not act in a more empathetic and understanding fashion towards his equals; he could rule. Urgh, really?

The more I watched, the more I became convinced that the writers of this film don’t actually like women. They certainly aren’t doing us any favours once they ‘reveal’ what we’re thinking – it’s all stereotypes or weak attempts at humour. Women are shown to be constantly calorie counting, anxious or rude. They also seem to be either secret lesbians or attracted to Gibson’s character, further emphasising his value. Oh, and don’t forget that his secretaries have no thoughts at all. Hahahaha, how funny to belittle women in the work place. (This film made me really angry!)

It made me so angry because the depiction of professional women is exactly what we have spent decades trying to undo. It is the Patriarchy writ large, emphasising that women just aren’t as good as men professionally. In 2001. I may be accused of missing the joke…but the redemptive arc did nothing to fix this particular discrepancy.

Whether their thoughts demonstrated frustration or suppressed intelligence, the humour and plot devices serve to undermine the female characters rather than uplift them. Nick’s assistant silently screams in her thoughts about how over qualified she is to be getting him coffee, but he doesn’t promote her – he encourages her to move her boyfriend to the USA from Israel. He gives Judy Greer’s file clerk a better job only when she decides to kill herself. He never appears to change his general opinion of women in the work place, just gains more respect for a select few and gossips with a few more. The fact that he eventually realised how good Darcy is at her job remains the exception rather than his new rule.

Helen Hunt is holding a poster board and looking over at Mel Gibson

Before this realisation, Helen Hunt’s character, Darcy, is particularly poorly served and I hate that she is used to confirm all the awful stereotypes that professional women face. She is literally hired because she is a woman, not because she is the best candidate, and her ‘competition’ (Nick) is told this. What a way to undermine her before she starts! She is also described as a ‘bitch on wheels,’ a very lazy criticism of a professional woman, despite clearly being charming and empathetic once we meet her. I couldn’t help but worry that hearing her anxious and self-depreciating thoughts undermines her further, revealing her insecurities. Does it make her more real and a better role model to know how much she worries about being taken seriously? Or is it fuel to the misogynistic fire that claims women aren’t fit for such professional responsibilities?

A publicity shot of Helen Hunt

It is also such a cliche of gender inequality that men repeat exactly what their female colleagues have said and are given all the credit, and here Nick goes further by stealing their ideas before they’ve even said them out loud. I would have loved to have seen him hear a good idea and encourage the thinker to speak up more, using the fact that his voice will be heard to promote them like a proper ally, even if this had to happen after his epiphany. He literally never used his gift for anything but selfish pursuits.

This is never more clear than when he uses his psychic ability during sex, and using these abilities does raise questions about consent. In two situations, Nick hears thoughts that contradict what the women say out loud – Marisa Tomei’s character Lola thinks regret about turning him down and Darcy pleads in her head for him to ask her inside after a date. I ranted in the Fifty Shades post about how we have to trust the words spoken to us, not whatever clues may be drawn from body language, but does this apply to thoughts? Obviously it’s a hypothetical question but it is an interesting one. Do we ever think in our best interests? I know I let my thoughts and desires run free in directions that I’d never want in reality and would hate to think these are being used to discount my well considered spoken words. I’d go as far as to say that we have as much control over our thoughts as we do our bodily responses (i.e. not very much!) so I’m inclined to feel that Nick is unfairly manipulating the situation in his favour by using these women’s thoughts as an excuse to act. Is it consensual when he has this kind of power?

It feels particularly invasive for Lola as her overheard fears match exactly what happens, despite still desiring him in her thoughts. She turns him down initially as she’s worried about getting hurt, fears he uses to make himself seem like a more sensitive man, and then he forgets and discards her after they fuck, just as she knew he would! Yet she’s portrayed as a crazy girl. We shouldn’t be criticised for having ‘crazy’ thoughts – it’s our words and actions that count and Lola’s were ignored. She tried to protect herself and she was overruled.

This rant is getting away from me so I have just one more thing to say about hearing women’s thoughts during sex. Isn’t it interesting that when he listens and responds to what Lola wants, the sex is incredible. He is even declared a sex god! Can you think of better proof that women should speak up more and men should listen more?

I think it’s safe to say that this film has not aged well! But a recent article by the AV film club suggests that it feels so upsetting now as Nick’s redemption arc is too familiar to that of Mel Gibson himself following his own #MeToo disgrace. Gibson went from anti-Semitic drunk whose career appeared to be over after recordings of violent threats to his girlfriend were discovered to being welcomed back with open arms following his nomination for the Academy Award for best director in 2016 for Hacksaw Ridge. He is described as a ‘blueprint for “a #MeToo comeback,” which other publicly disgraced men can now follow.’ The bar for Nick’s redemption is hilariously low – he forgets his daughter’s prom but is a hero for being called to rescue her there, he costs Darcy her job but is a good man worthy of her love for admitting to lying and getting her job back – and it doesn’t seem like it’s enough. As with these men ‘recovering’ from accusations of sexual assault, their penance is rarely enough.

So what do women want? We just want to be heard.

Next week: Eyes Wide Shut

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.

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

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. Gifs were taken from a Buzzfeed article.